Saturday, February 24, 2007

An important comparison

Robert points out this commentary on another study comparing relatively low-tax districts to relatively high-tax ones, this time within the U.S. alone. And once again, areas that prioritize low taxes over all else turn out to be worse off for the choice - in this case posting poorer health and education and greater juvenile delinquency than ones which recognize the value of investing in their citizens.

Not that it should come as a surprise that contrary to the usual conservative whine about government doing more harm than good, the benefits of action (and concurrent costs of inaction) strongly justify a significant government presence on a fair comparison. But sadly, that fact all too often gets lost in the current political debate in both the U.S. and Canada. And hopefully added recognition of the comparative costs and benefits will lead to more discussion of what government can do to help its citizens, and less as to how it can avoid doing anything.

Off target

The reported regulations which the Cons are expected to announce for oil sands production have received surprisingly little comment. But let's take a moment to look at just how weak they are:
New government rules limiting emissions of carbon-dioxide aren't likely to hurt Canadian oil-sands projects, according to Suncor Energy Inc., the world's second-largest producer of oil from the tar-like deposits.

The rules, which may be issued within a month, may require companies to reduce annual carbon emissions by 2 percent, Suncor spokesman John Rogers said today in a presentation at a conference in Whistler, British Columbia, that was broadcast on the Internet. Failure to meet the target might result in a penalty equivalent to about 25 Canadian cents (22 cents) per barrel, he said...

Suncor's understanding of the new rules is based on discussions with government officials, Rogers said without elaborating. The program will include per-barrel energy intensity targets, Rogers said at the conference organized by Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.
So just how toothless would that type of regime be, even leaving aside the inherent problems with intensity targets?

Consider first that one of Alberta's major producers has already been reducing emissions intensity by 1% per year over the past decade and a half. Which means that the required "reductions" are little different from a status-quo amount for the operators involved.

And even if the targets themselves were meaningful, the proposed penalty wouldn't be. After all, the current emissions in the oil sands are now in the range of 80 kg per barrel (which is linked to a 25 cent fine). Apparently in the Cons' view, when an oil sands operator is asked "would you rather reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 kg or buy a gumball from a mall dispensing machine?", the correct answer is "what flavour of gumball?".

Contrast that 25-cent-per-barrel penalty against the $1-per-barrel cost of reducing emissions in order to get Canada to its Kyoto targets - or $2.50 per barrel to entirely eliminate greenhouse gas pollution. It should be clear that the oil sands can remain highly profitable within a plan which meaningfully reduces emissions nationally - but it's equally clear that the Cons aren't interested in making that happen.

Of course, it's not too late for the regulatory regime to go in another direction - whether that's based on the leak being wrong, the Cons changing their minds, or the opposition parties teaming up to demand that the oil sands bear their fair share emission reductions. But if the Cons' "tough" plan really is structured with both meaningless initial targets and little cost to any violations, then there's every reason to think that Canada's current pace of emission increases will only continue.

On real gains

For those who haven't yet seen Erin's comparison of the respective growth of wages and inflation by province, you may be surprised as to which regions actually allowed workers to raise their standard of living in 2006. Hint: the province whose employers are paying large one-time bonuses in a desperate bid to try to attract workers isn't one of them.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Stopping the sellout

It's already been mentioned elsewhere, but it's worth highlighting the NDP's efforts to call attention to the ongoing U.S./Mexico integration process which both Lib and Con governments have so happily bought into:
The Harper government must pull out of further talks on continental integration with the United States and Mexico or risk our national sovereignty, says NDP Trade Critic Peter Julian (Burnaby-New Westminster). Julian commented in advance of the February 23 meeting to be held in Ottawa where American and Mexican officials will join Canadian cabinet ministers to push forward the so-called “Security and Prosperity Partnership” (SPP) agenda. Julian was joined by NDP Energy Critic, Dennis Bevington (Western Arctic).

Julian denounced the sellout of Canada.

“The previous Liberal government engaged Canada in a slow merger process with the United States and Stephen Harper is accelerating the agenda,” said Julian. “The NDP demands a full debate in Parliament on this issue. Everyday Canadians have the right to know what is being negotiated.”

Changes to some 300 policy and program areas are being promoted as benign “efficiency” measures. The ongoing extensive consultations in the SPP process will lead to an unacceptable level of regulatory harmonization with the surrender of Canadian energy, immigration, health care, food safety, and environmental policies and to complete military integration with the US...

“Canadians should know that the SPP process supports a North American Union (NAU). The NDP rejects the secretive process surrounding these ongoing discussions. Canadians will never support a political ideology which aims at turning North America into a fortress for corporate interests and neglects the interests of ordinary Canadians. Canadian sovereignty is not for sale to the highest bidder and the federal government has no authority to push for a NAU without a mandate from Canadians,” said Julian.
Predictably, the call has received little media attention. But the issue is one in desperate need of added public notice - and it's a huge plus to see the NDP lending its voice to the cause of preserving Canada's sovereignty.

Update: Once again even when the integration process itself gets prominent coverage its critics are almost entirely ignored, the NDP receives zero mention by name in the CP's coverage of today's SPP meeting.

Update II: More from Alison.


Shorter Diane Francis:

My problem with environmental polls is that they don't include complete or balanced language about the choices involved. "Treehuggocommunislamosuzukifascist" is a word, isn't it?

Indecent disclosure

CanWest reports that the RCMP is looking to import to Canada one of the most egregious anti-privacy measures in the U.S. Patriot Act:
The federal privacy commissioner is squaring off against the RCMP for urging the government to adopt changes that would legally compel companies to give police personal information of employees and customers without their knowledge or consent - changes the office says would invade the privacy of Canadians.

The RCMP is also seeking changes to the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) that would prohibit banks, employers and other institutions from letting Canadians know the police is looking at their personal information without the RCMP's permission.

It's a situation that has raised serious alarm with Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart and some MPs who say the changes would be a critical invasion of privacy and create massive potential for abuse in terms of how personal information is collected by and given to the police...

Under the current law, companies may provide personal information without knowledge or consent if a government institution has demonstrated lawful authority to obtain it and suspects the information could relate to national security, the defence of Canada or the conduct of international affairs...

(T)he privacy commissioner warns loosening those restrictions will have serious implications for the privacy rights of Canadians and will create a situation where companies are forced to dig up information on their employees at the request of the police. "This means that basically the private sector is conscripted into being a branch of law enforcement," Stoddart said. "This is a fundamental change in the democracy. This is a very worrying change. In my opinion, this is a very privacy-invasive measure."
What the article doesn't note is that there's also already authority under PIPEDA for the private sector to disclose information reasonably related to law enforcement:
7(3) ...(A)n organization may disclose personal information without the knowledge or consent of the individual only if the disclosure is...

(h.2) made by an investigative body and the disclosure is reasonable for purposes related to investigating a breach of an agreement or a contravention of the laws of Canada or a province...
While it's tough to tell from the article precisely what change the RCMP is seeking, it appears that the main change sought is to make sure that an individual would never be informed of a disclosure which is stated to be for law enforcement purposes - as an organization would be punished for informing the individual, but would receive immunity for disclosure no matter how baseless a request was. And that would only ensure that there's no means of redress where personal information is requested or disclosed for illegitimate purposes.

If there's any good news, it's that the current Parliament doesn't seem particularly likely to go along with the RCMP's request for unrestricted, unmonitorable access to information about Canadians. And indeed, it's times like these that it's a relief to have the Libs in opposition rather than in government.

After all, while in power the Libs would seem far too likely to pass such legislation (much like the original ATA) with the Cons' support. But as long as the Libs are in opposition and taking a relatively critical eye to the merits of putting more power in the hands of the state, there should be reason for optimism that they'll join with the NDP (whose MP Pat Martin is already on record echoing the Privacy Commissioner's concerns about existing law) and the Bloc to make sure that government institutions aren't authorized to demand accountability-free access to the personal information of Canadians.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Failure to lead

The CP reports that the Libs' cynicism over Kyoto is nothing new, as the Chretien government didn't intend to try to meet the agreement's emission reduction targets when it signed on:
The previous Liberal government ratified the Kyoto Protocol knowing Canada wasn't ready to take the tough measures needed to address climate change and would likely miss the deadlines for reducing emissions, says a top adviser to former prime minister Jean Chretien.

Eddie Goldenberg says the Chretien government nevertheless signed and ratified the international pact because it was an "absolutely necessary" first step in galvanizing public opinion to meet the global warming challenge.

Goldenberg was a senior adviser to Chretien when the Liberal government signed onto Kyoto in 1998 and formally ratified it in 2002.

He said Thursday that public opinion at the time favoured ratification "in the abstract," despite strident opposition by some provinces, the business community and the Conservative party's predecessor, the Canadian Alliance. But he doubted Canadians were ready for the concrete measures the government would have had to take to meet the Kyoto targets.

"Nor was the government itself even ready at the time with what had to be done," he said in a speech to the Canadian Club of London, Ont., the text of which was provided to The Canadian Press.
What Goldenberg apparently chose not to discuss was the question of how Canadians in general could be seen as not yet willing to act when the Libs themselves had won a majority government promising far more ambitious emissions cuts a few years earlier - and when the pro-action parties in Parliament were never substantially outnumbered by the Alliance.

Rather than acting, the Libs effectively ignored the issue entirely until Kyoto. And thanks to Goldenberg, we now know that even then they signed on with no intention of actually meeting Canada's targets. Which can only undercut their own credibility in criticizing Harper's absurd "we support Kyoto but not its targets" stance - and offer yet more reason for suspicion about the Libs' supposed conversion.

(Edit: fixed label.)

On good government

Two former PMs weigh in on their view of the harmful disconnect between Canadian citizens and their government. Ex-PM #1:
There is, says (ex-PM #1), “conventional unwisdom” that government is no longer important to people's lives, that so much of what is happening is out of the control of governments...

(Ex-PM #1) believes that the Reform movement began an anti-politician sentiment that has carried on long after Reform became Alliance and, ultimately, a partner in the governing Conservatives.

“What we have had in Canada,” (ex-PM #1) believes, “is a whole political movement ... that came to office basically denigrating the whole political process...
Ex-PM #2:
There was a time, (ex-PM #2) adds, where the general “assumption was that government was good. Now, almost the opposite applies. If a government proposes something, that generates suspicion about it. That's not a generational factor; that's a broad phenomenon. It's societal.”...

All four ex-leaders worry about this increasing disconnect between government and governed.

“The culture has changed,” says (ex-PM #2). “And we grew up in a culture before the change.”

(Ex-PM #2) says the world has shifted from a general “assumption that government was good” to an assumption that all politicians are merely “opportunistic.” This, (ex-PM #2) says, “is a bad phenomenon.

“Clearly, the organization of government, of Parliament, leaves less and less latitude, less and less capacity to make much of a difference.”
Meanwhile, the government which supposedly follows in the lineage of these same two leaders plans to pursue a majority based on slashing the federal government's revenues, surrendering substantive policy development to the provinces to the extent it's allowed at all, and engaging in crude attacks on its competitors.

Which leads to this question: is public disengagement the cause of the current governing philosophy (which differs only in ideology from that of the previous Lib regime), or is it the other way around?

Just avoiding change

The Globe and Mail once again tries to pretend that Jim Flaherty is making any real progress on ATM fees with his strategy of threatening to continue talking. But the real story is that the banks are both secure that they'll be able to dictate the outcome, and aware that Flaherty's goal is merely a political victory rather than any real change:
“Providing an explanation is not enough,...” acknowledged one senior banker... “I suspect we're going to have to provide the Minister with a win, rather than just a reason.”

The executive said he was unsure what that “win” would be, but said the bank is currently working on possible solutions. Some of these could be outlined to Mr. Flaherty when he meets with bank CEOs in Toronto early next month.

“It won't eliminate the costs — it will reduce the costs,” said the senior banker. “We'll have to come up with creative ways to see how to really convey a change while minimizing our loss in revenue.”
Needless to say, the real problem shouldn't be limited to trying to give both the banks and Flaherty a perceived victory while changing as little as possible - a fact recognized and highlighted by the NDP.

But then, reading the article one would have no idea that anybody besides Flaherty in the political sphere besides Flaherty had even mentioned ATM fees...let alone that it's Flaherty who's sent signals that the government will refuse to use legislation to deal with the issue. And sadly, that effort to write any proposals for substantial change out of the picture entirely can only make it easier for the banks to "convey" whatever message is most favourable to them without actually changing the costs to Canadians.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

No surprises

PMS' attack on Navdeep Bains in particular and the Libs in general has generated as much immediate blog discussion as I can remember on any single political incident. But the most surprising part from my standpoint is just how many people seem shocked that PMS would entertain the notion of handling the issue as he has - rather than only being surprised that the true Harper is emerging before the Cons reach their precious majority.

A test of leadership

It's never been news that the Cons' announcements on climate change this year have been little more than the Libs' previous plans with "Canada's New" scribbled into the title. But the latest step to copy Dion's former strategy looks to be by far the most damaging when it comes to the chances of genuine progress being made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions:
Sources say the Conservative government is planning to let companies pay into a technology fund if they can't meet emissions-cutting targets under a proposed federal plan to curb greenhouse pollution...

Details of the fund are tightly guarded but indications are it will resemble a Liberal climate plan developed by Stephane Dion when he was environment minister.

Like the Liberal plan, the Harper government's strategy is expected to regulate industrial emissions using so-called intensity targets.
Let's start by taking a moment to shudder that the CP is so eager to label the Cons' plans as "tightly guarded" rather than "selectively leaked".

Moving on to the substance, the plan should be an obvious non-starter from the NDP's prespective. But if there was ever any doubt, it appears that the Cons are aiming to get their support elsewhere. And for all the prior incidents that have been blown out of proportion, the Libs' response will amount to probably the first major test of Stephane Dion's leadership.

The effect of the Cons throwing the Libs' prior programs back at them is to force Dion to choose between pushing for real environmental action (i.e. hard targets rather than "intensity" ones) or defending his own track record. And while there have been some positive signs that the Libs are moving past the assumption that they can't vote against anything put into place while they were in power, it'll presumably be much tougher for Dion to lead the charge against a program which is so closely linked to him personally.

Which isn't to say it can't be done. Indeed, the Libs can likely present a fairly strong message to the effect that a program which would have been enough to turn emissions around two years ago falls short of the mark in light of the Cons' complete neglect of the issue in 2006.

But there's a real risk that Dion will instead resort to rhetoric about the Cons stealing his ideas - and paint himself into a corner in being unable to oppose the Cons' plan as a result. And that could result in the environment fading back into the background with nothing more getting accomplished than what was already on the table before the Cons took power.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

A pitiful defence

Murray Dobbin tears into the B.C. provincial government's weak attempt to pretend that the TILMA won't have a massive effect on government action:
In his interview with (B.C. Minister for Economic Development Colin) Hansen, Michael Smyth raised the point that TILMA does not allow governments to violate the agreement just because they have good intentions -- like protecting the environment. The agreement says whatever governments do to pursue their objectives cannot be too restrictive to business...

Perhaps flustered by getting the first challenging question from a journalist he has had on TILMA, Hansen responded to Smyth by implying B.C. and Alberta could sort of stack the jury if they get a TILMA complaint they do not like.

He claimed that all B.C. and Alberta ever intended with TILMA was to make sure companies from both provinces got treated the same -- given a "level playing field." If someone tried to use TILMA to attack regulations that were "non-discriminatory," then B.C. and Alberta could choose panellists for the case who would rule against this kind of complaint.

Said Hansen: "We are going to make sure that those panellists actually understand the objectives of this agreement."

But defending governments only get to pick one of the members of a TILMA panel.

Private complainants also get to pick a panel member, and their choice is likely to be whoever on the list of potential panellists would be most sympathetic to their case.

In addition, governments are not permitted under these agreements to coach panellists about the outcomes they want.

If B.C. and Alberta intended only that TILMA prevent governments from favouring local companies, they should have said so in the agreement. Instead they have made legally binding commitments under TILMA not to maintain programs and regulations that restrict any investment, not to establish new regulations that do this, and not to do a whole raft of other things even when they are treating local and out-of-province companies exactly the same. So they are counting on dispute panels to ignore the actual words and meaning of the agreement when making their decisions.
It's truly remarkable that even before the TILMA takes effect, its defenders have been reduced to yet another attempt to pretend either that its text consists of everything other than what it actually says, or that the provinces are free to make up wink-wink-nudge-nudge side deals which will supersede the readily foreseeable problems with the agreement. And that complete disconnect between rhetoric and reality should serve as a stark warning to any other province considering whether to sign onto the agreement - or for that matter whether to take B.C.'s and Alberta's provincial governments seriously on any other issue.

Recorded votes

The vote on third reading of Bill C-31 (which revises the Canada Elections Act by, among other things, handing every voter's birthdate data to all Canadian political parties) took place last night. And despite warnings from the Privacy Commissioner, the NDP and others, the bill passed with the full support of the Cons, Libs and Bloc.

Which means that when people like these received unquestioned access to all the information they need to pull off systematic credit card fraud, or someone like this receives unfettered access to a list of potential victims who live alone, we'll know who decided that their own partisan interests were more important than the safety and security of Canadians at large.

On perceptions

CanWest reports on a new Ipsos Reid poll on Canadian party leaders. And with a wide range of factors in the mix, it appears that while Layton and Dion both have some work to do, Harper may be past the point of being able to change a significant set of negative perceptions:
The Ipsos Reid poll, conducted exclusively for CanWest News Service and Global National and released yesterday, reported 46% of respondents said Mr. Harper would make the best prime minister. Mr. Layton was second choice at 29%, while Mr. Dion trailed at 25%...

Mr. Harper and Mr. Dion were virtually tied when those surveyed were asked which leader is "sincerely committed to dealing with climate warming." Mr. Harper scored 30% and Mr. Dion scored 29%. Mr. Layton came out on top with 41% of the vote...

The only good news for the Liberal leader was the finding that 45% of those polled said they viewed Mr. Harper as someone with a "hidden agenda."...

A total of 51% of respondents saw Mr. Harper as "someone who will get things done," compared with 25% for Mr. Dion and 24% for Mr. Layton.

The Prime Minister trailed Mr. Layton on questions about his willingness to be open to the ideas of others, but he topped the pack at 40% on the question of which leader best knows when to compromise for the greater good.

Asked which leader came off as being "conceited and full of themselves," 47% chose Mr. Harper, 30% chose Mr. Dion and 23% chose Mr. Layton.

Mr. Harper and Mr. Dion were almost tied -- 40% and 38% respectively -- on whether they were leaders "who will say anything to get elected."
The numbers confirm the conventional wisdom that Dion has an awfully long way to go to build his own image in the eyes of voters. And it has to be particularly problematic that Dion has managed to couple some fairly high negative numbers with virtually no strong positive scores.

Conversely, Layton manages to earn high scores for environmental commitment and willingness to listen to others, while avoiding high rankings in any of the negative categories. Which suggests that the biggest task for Layton going forward seems to be to make sure the current perception of him spreads further, rather than a need to outright redefine the public's view of him.

So what about PMS? While the article seems eager to paint the numbers as a relatively unqualified success for Harper, it's far from clear that such a conclusion is justified. Granted, some of his positive-sounding numbers are again high, particularly on the "getting things done" question (where it has to be a disappointment for Layton to rank in third after making "getting results" a major campaign theme).

But this survey also fills in a few of Harper's negatives which were lacking from Strategic Counsel's poll. And PMS surely can't relish the possibility of going into a new election with voters seeing him as conceited, full of himself, willing to say anything to get elected but unwilling to listen to anyone, and still maintaining a hidden agenda - which seems from the numbers to already be a widely-held (not to mention all too justified) view.

In sum, it appears clear that even as his "best PM" numbers remain high, Harper has plenty of vulnerable areas for all other parties to exploit. And the more PMS confirms the existing problems with his leadership, the easier it'll become for the opposition parties to define him all the way out of office next time Canada goes to the polls.

(Edit: typo.)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Common goals

Just to toss in one more area for cooperation between the NDP and the Libs, at least one prominent Lib MP is indicating her support for the NDP's federal minimum wage bill:
An NDP motion to reinstate the federal minimum wage at $10 an hour ran into Conservative opposition Tuesday during debate on the creation of a national poverty strategy.

About 18,000 minimum-wage workers in the federal service would be affected by any change, which would also set a precedent for minimum wage increases at the provincial level.

The minimum wage plan was proposed in October by British Columbia MP Peggy Nash...

Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett brusquely rejected the argument that raising the minimum wage could harm the economy.

“I don’t think they get it,” the Toronto MP said. “I don’t think they get that $10 an hour is less than we give our seniors in OAS and GIS combined.”
Of course, Bennett's current position begs the question of why the Libs themselves scrapped the minimum wage over a decade ago. But if the rest of the Libs are onside with Bennett, then the Cons will find themselves siding with the Bloc (who are being rightly pilloried for their position) against workers across Canada for the moment - and there may be a real chance to get a federal minimum wage back in place following the next election.

(Edit: typo.)

Message not received

Kady O'Malley points out that for all the talk about PMS' ability to shape the direction of Canada's political debate for his party's benefit, the Cons couldn't have been much further from succeeding in their effort to turn last week into a showcase of their crime policies:
It was the sort of tightly-managed communications strategy that gave the Conservatives control of the agenda during the 2006 election. A campaign-style theme week would not only highlight the Tories' best efforts to make Canadians safer with law and order legislation; it would simultaneously expose the opposition, particularly the Liberals, as "soft on crime" for refusing to fast track the bills.

But as is so often the case with the best laid plans of minority governments, Justice Week went off the rails before it even made it to the floor of the House of Commons.

It began over the weekend, when The Globe and Mail ran a serendipitously timed investigative series on the judicial appointment process. Finding several failed Conservative candidates and other party faithful filling vacancies, the feature ominously raised the possibility that the government was also stacking the deck in favour of more conservative-minded candidates by adding police officers and victims rights advocates to the roster.

At the same time, what was supposed to be a pro forma debate over whether to renew two controversial provisions of the post-9/11 anti-terrorism laws introduced by the Chrétien government turned into a standoff that pitted the minority government against the combined opposition forces after the Liberals decided to oppose a three-year extension.

While several former senior Liberal ministers came out in favour of the law, Stéphane Dion remained implaceable. Fearing the inevitable result if the motion were to go to a final vote, the government abruptly pulled the motion from the agenda for the rest of the week.

All told, by the following Friday, not only had the government made little headway in moving the legislative ball down the field, but it was the Conservatives who were on the defensive.
Of course, there should be no doubt that the Cons will try to make political hay later on out of the failure of the opposition parties to play along.

But it's still worth noting that while the Cons may be making progress in their efforts to define Stephane Dion, their concurrent efforts to put a focus on their own lock-'em-up crime strategy resulted in nothing but abject failure. And if the Cons' successes can be limited to personality politics rather than substantive policy issues, that should go a long way toward minimizing the long-term damage of their stay in office.

On cooperation

Two excellent posts today suggest that now may be the time for added cooperation between the Libs and the NDP, both to get some policy results out of this Parliament and to weaken Harper's hand in the next one.

First, from Idealistic Pragmatist:
The Liberals and the NDP could decide right now to do what parties that can't get majorities on their own do in every other parliamentary democracy across the globe: signal to the voters that they would be interested in forming a coalition government after the next election. Not a minority government with one party "propping up" the other, but a genuine, stable government coalition...

A coalition government would also mean diversity within unity--a Canadian value if there ever was one. Both parties would keep their respective identities, party structures, constitutions, traditions. Both parties would have their caucuses--and their ideas--represented in a centre-left government borne of cooperation and compromise. And during the campaign, both parties would be able to campaign on the policies they really believed in, rather than strategically attempting to best position themselves to poach votes from each other...

Stephen Harper's worst nightmare is staring us right in the face, people. All we have to do is open our eyes.
But then, is anybody among the Libs interested in cooperating with the NDP? Thanks to Scott, at least one prominent Lib blogger falls into that category, as he implores the Libs to work with the NDP in at least a couple of key areas:
The Liberals should be either supporting the NDP’s/Layton’s private member’s alternative bill on the Environment (with some amendments to add short-term targets), or they should be coming out and stating that they would support the inclusion of those exact same policies in the Clean Air Act attempted amendments. Really, this Liberal reluctance to touch anything that is NDP is getting to be a liability...

Now we have Harper coming out with this “half-reform” of consulting Canadians on who to appoint to the Senate. I think its a political ploy designed to get votes, and I’m opposed to the notion of trying to open the Senate up to reform it, as that opens up a Constitutional can of worms. That being said, rather then merely reacting to it by either rejecting it out of hand or else supporting it, but with different conditions on term limits, Dion and the Liberals had (and still have) a golden opportunity to go out there and say to the Canadian electorate that real electoral reform should be taking place in the House.. and that it can be done without Constitutional talks.

An announcement that they would support looking at instituting a type of Proportional Representation for voting in the House would be a bold, decisive and innovative manoeuvrer (sic). I know that Dion has such a plan - because I remember that A BC’er In Toronto asked him about it, and he gave out what he thought would be a sensible voting reform to the House. I didnt agree with it because I felt it didnt go far enough.. but even announcing THAT would be a step in the right direction. That particular policy or idea of Dion's has never been pronounced publicly, and there is room out there for advocating that idea.
Interestingly, Scott's call for cooperation on the electoral reform front comes on the heels of yesterday's PR motion from NDP MP Catherine Bell - which received at least some positive response from Lib members. Which would seem to hint that at least some Libs are interested in working together with the NDP on the issue (albeit in a relatively limited format so far).

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the combination of sensible calls such as IP's and Scott's with some obvious potential for cooperation on the issues will lead to anything substantial - either in terms of current policy, or a longer-term coalition approach. But it's surely for the best that at least some voices are trying to push in that direction.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Decisive results

While most of the commentary on the latest Strategic Counsel poll has focused on the party numbers involved, it's worth taking a look at the leadership numbers as well - both to see what issues were apparently left out of the poll, and how the leaders compare to each other for the moment:
The poll finds that 53 per cent of voters find Mr. Harper to be the most decisive of the four main party leaders, with 20 per cent opting for the NDP's Jack Layton.

Mr. Dion is the choice of 19 per cent, while Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe is picked by 29 per cent in Quebec.

On the question of who has the best vision for the nation, 50 per cent pick Mr. Harper; 22 per cent Mr. Dion and 20 per cent Mr. Layton.

Finally, with 36 per cent, Mr. Harper tops the field of who Canadians believe would be the best PM, doubling Mr. Dion's score of 18 per cent. Mr. Layton is seen as the best PM by 16 per cent, while Mr. Duceppe pulls the support of 24 per cent in Quebec.

Mr. Gregg said that while Mr. Harper has soared, Mr. Dion has not been able to capitalize on the honeymoon period he received from the convention. Even on the question of charisma, where the Prime Minister has not traditionally done well, Mr. Dion comes out at the bottom, with 20 per cent opting for him, compared to 36 per cent for Mr. Layton and 35 per cent for Mr. Harper.
Compare the categories included in some of polling around election time to the ones mentioned in the article, and a few striking differences emerge.

First, the "overall impression" category for each leader doesn't appear to be mentioned - meaning that the number of Canadians with a strong negative view of Harper isn't captured by the poll.

Second, the questions asked about seem to be ones where Harper fares particularly well (frightening though that is in the "charisma" category). The article doesn't mention any question as to which leader is most trusted, which was the single leadership indicator included in Strategic Counsel's pre-election polling. Nor does it address competence, as SES tracked during the election campaign.

Instead, the new category of "decisiveness" seems to have come out of nowhere. And it's hard to imagine a single category better designed to show a notoriously secretive and stubborn PM in a positive light - which could easily have then spilled over into the other perceptions of Harper (particularly on the "vision" question).

That aside, there are still some problematic factors for both Dion and Layton in the poll. In particular, Layton's scores compared to Harper are starkly down from his numbers in SES' polls throughout the last federal election campaign, when his overall numbers were close to both of the other national leaders. And even with a huge edge in experience and a lack of the internal infighting now plaguing the Libs, Layton doesn't seem to have much of an edge on Dion for now either.

Meanwhile, Dion's ability to drop even below the final numbers of PMPM has to be worrisome for the Libs - particularly to the extent that it may suggest the Cons have been successful in defining his image. And as the old saying* goes, "when Stephen Harper doubles your rating for charisma, you'd might as well start conceding seats to the Greens."

*Note: This may not be an "old saying" in the sense of having been said before. But if not, it should be.

Update: Let's note that even on an apples-to-apples comparison using SES' criteria, Layton's numbers are still down from the 2006 campaign. Though hopefully the recent focus on policy will bring the numbers back up, particularly when compared to Dion's odd tactic of making opponents' attack ads his primary focus.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Monday, February 19, 2007

Lacking detail

The CP reports that for all the Cons' talk about thorough consultations on the environment, they haven't bothered to inform the provinces about anything but the total dollar figure surrounding their much-hyped funding announcement:
Provinces and territories say they are being kept in the dark about a $1.5 billion Eco-Trust and Clean Air Fund announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week that's supposed to be destined for their coffers.

Anne O'Hagan, a spokeswoman for Ontario Environment Minister Laurel Broten, said the province had not been consulted about the new climate and clean air fund, and has no idea how it will work.

She noted that the previous Liberal government in Ottawa pledged $538 million to help Ontario retire its coal-fired power plants, and the province has been trying in vain to determine whether that promise will be kept.

Joe Gillis, a spokesman for the Nova Scotia government, said it had no details about the Eco-Trust and was simply hoping for the best...

"We're really interested in finding out more details about the program, finding out what the federal government's expectations are in return for the funding," said Sherri-Dawn Annett, spokeswoman for Alberta Environment Department.
Needless to say, the conditions surrounding the funding are bound to be at least as important as the numbers involved. After all, excessively onerous terms would make it unlikely that the funding will actually be taken up for anything, while weak ones (which appear more likely given the Cons' apparent desire to offload responsibility for the issue) would almost guarantee that the money won't accomplish much.

But the Cons don't seem to think that the actual terms for the spending are worth either discussing with the provinces prior to making the funding announcement, or at least presenting publicly to enable provinces and voters alike to evaluate the program on its merits. And that can only hint at just how empty the announcement is - and how little interest the Cons really have in either real consultation or effective action on the environment.

Compare and contrast

Collective Blogging Tories on the possibility that the Air India inquiry might lose one means of gathering evidence if the opposition parties vote not to extend legislation allowing for investigative hearings:

Oh, the betrayal!
Oh, the sabotage!
Oh, the foolishness!
The opposition must oppose the inquiry altogether!
Collective Blogging Tories on the news that the Air India inquiry might shut down entirely due to the government's refusal to provide relevant evidence:
(crickets chirping)
Update: CC notes that the crickets are out in full force today.

(Edit: formatting.)

On needless disclosure

The federal Privacy Commissioner weighs in with her suggestion to limit the damage that could be done through systemic disclosure of voters' birthdates to political parties (as the Cons, Libs and Bloc want under Bill C-31):
The federal Privacy Commissioner is criticizing a bill that would provide the birthdate of electors to political parties, which could then use the information to send birthday cards or target their fundraising efforts to specific age groups.

In a letter to NDP MP Paul Dewar, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart said that Bill C-31 is designed to prevent electoral fraud, and that providing personal information to political parties is unnecessary.

"I fail to understand how the disclosure of birth information in this way would contribute to protecting or improving the integrity of the electoral process," Ms. Stoddart said in a letter sent last week.

"Providing date-of-birth information to politicians for the purpose of target marketing of constituents is neither a use consistent with protecting the integrity of the electoral system nor a use that a person would reasonably expect when registering to vote," she said.

Ms. Stoddart added that if preventing electoral fraud was truly the intent of Bill C-31, it would be preferable to use "the year of birth, as opposed to the date of birth." That way, privacy rights would be better protected, while officials on voting day would still be able to vet voters by having a sense of their age.
Stoddart's suggestion would undoubtedly help to mitigate some of the problems which would almost certainly arise under C-31. But at the same time, even a disclosure of a voter's year of birth alone would leave the door open both for targeted political marketing based on age, and for whatever other uses any political operative (or somewhat organized group of any kind) can find for a list of the ages of all voters within a riding.

Meanwhile, there's still no compelling reason for disclosing any part of a voter's birthdate. And the "preventing electoral fraud" argument looks particularly threadbare when the same bill goes to such great lengths to require each voter to provide personal ID.

Unfortunately, it looks like the NDP remains the only party willing to put the privacy and safety of voters ahead of increased party power - meaning that the bill will all too likely become law in the near future. And unfortunately, it'll be Canadian voters who bear the consequences once the risks materialize.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Dangerous gains

It has to be one of the surest signs of a dubious government when an improved financial position seems to result in more potential dangers than benefits. And that seems to be entirely the case on the federal scene in light of the Globe and Mail's report that the federal surplus may be billions more than anticipated:
There's a good chance Ottawa will reap more tax revenue than forecast this year, meaning the Harper government may be able to gamble on having an extra $2-billion or so to spend on tax cuts in the 2007 budget, a senior economist predicts.

This is significant because it demonstrates how the Conservatives might find the means to cut taxes in Budget 2007 and still deliver on hefty promises to enrich spending for provinces on equalization, postsecondary education and infrastructure.

It's possible the budget surplus Ottawa's running this fiscal year has swollen by $1.8-billion to $2.8-billion above last November's forecast, economist Don Drummond says...

But Mr. Drummond, chief economist for Toronto-Dominion Bank, says the Tories may be able to count on this extra cash showing up again in next year's revenue if they decide this is part of a trend rather than a blip. This would allow them extra fiscal room for Budget 2007, a fiscal plan the Tories are expected to deliver March 20, long before the final size of this year's surplus is known.

He cautions that uncertainties remain, including the degree of slowdown in the Canadian economy and the tax revenue performance in the last third of this fiscal year, as well as year-end adjustments that could buffet results.
In other words, there's a distinct possibility that the Cons are looking for reasons to misread a temporary boost in revenue as a long-term phenomenon in order to justify another set of random tax cuts. Which would ensure that the money wouldn't be used on other priorities - and pose a real risk of pushing Canada back into the red within a matter of years, without any significant investment to show for the impending losses.

In contrast, the better course of action from a managerial perspective would be to use one-time revenues on one-time expenditures. But given that the Cons have shown that they're looking for excuses to systematically hack away at government even when there's no need to do so, the odds of such a move seem remote at best. About the only realistic upside would be if the Cons choose to use the money to pay down the debt...but it seems far too unlikely that PMS would see even that as the most politically beneficial option, compared to slashing taxes and letting some future government clean up the mess.

Of course, there's always the prospect of the opposition parties deciding not to vote for a budget which seems to misread Canada's fiscal situation. But then the prospect of increased revenue giveaways could also raise the perceived political costs of voting the budget down.

In sum, there's almost nothing but short-term political upside for the Cons if they choose to go against better judgment by pretending that temporary revenue increases will last forever. And unfortunately, it will be Canada as a whole which bears the long-term costs if that position wins out.

On credentials

While Canoe reports on the difficulties facing immigrants seeking Canadian recognition of their credentials, the NDP highlights its own plan to facilitate the transition for Canada's newest immigrants:
NDP Leader Jack Layton says the federal government needs to do more to recognize the foreign credentials of immigrants who come to Canada in search of a better life.

He says the NDP is putting forward a seven-step plan that would make it easier for immigrants to get foreign degrees and designations recognized.

The plan calls for the immediate creation of a credentials recognition agency, the establishment of uniform recognition practices across the country, websites to publicize accreditation processes and more mentorship and training programs...

The 2006 federal budget allocated $18 million to consult on the creation of a foreign credentials recognition program, but the NDP says that the Tory government has yet to take any action.
It would seem that the goal of ensuring that the talents of new Canadians are put to good use would be about as non-partisan an issue as could possibly exist. And indeed, the issue may well be one where a sufficient amount of public attention will lead to action which nobody would see fit to oppose.

Which in turn may only make it all the more embarrassing that neither the Libs nor the Cons have dealt with the problem effectively in their recent stays in government. But hopefully the spur from Layton will lead to some needed action in the near future. And with any luck, it'll also point out to voters that the parties who claim to be the only options for government have all too frequently failed to make even minimally effective use of their power to ease the transition for new Canadians.

(Edit: filled in first paragraph.)

On building strategies

The Libs were forced last week to acknowledge their failed attempts to poach current and former NDP MPs in order to meet their female-candidate targets. But while the Libs were working the backrooms, another of the NDP's most prominent figures made some noises about attracting centre-left support from the ground up:
Uniting Canada's left-of-centre political parties has leapt from being a suitable subject for idle chat over cups of fair-trade coffee to a matter for serious discussion by a pillar of the New Democratic Party. Lorne Calvert, Saskatchewan's NDP premier, a guarded politician hardly given to rash speculation, sketched the case for bringing New Democrats and Liberals together in a wide-ranging conversation with Maclean's editors and writers. Asked about the strength of the NDP brand nationally, Calvert volunteered that Canadian politics might be evolving toward something closer to the two-party U.S. model. "If that is the case, where is the natural party to bring together the centre and left-of-centre?" he said. "I think an argument certainly can be made that the New Democrats may be the natural place for that coalescing to happen."

Calvert did not propose formal steps for bringing together New Democrats and Liberals under a single banner. "I don't know if I'm here to propose merger," he said. Still, he noted that the uniting of the right, when Stephen Harper orchestrated the marriage of the old Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties, changed Canadian politics. And the premier made the case that the NDP need not be viewed as a junior partner in any future move to join forces with the Liberals. He praised Jack Layton, the party's federal leader, for broadening the NDP's base. "So there may be an opportunity," Calvert said, "for the New Democratic Party to capture some of that which is left-of-centre and build on it."
Now, I disagree strongly with Calvert's apparent view that Canada's current direction is, or should be, toward a U.S.-style two-party model. And indeed the current weakness of the U.S. Dems (even while holding congressional majorities) should serve as a cautionary signal rather than a model to be emulated by any of Canada's opposition parties.

That said, though, it's noteworthy that prominent Dippers - first Jamey Heath and now Calvert - are publicly making the case for a grassroots move toward the NDP as a governing alternative. And with Dion clearly having trouble winning the support of either his party or voters at large, the door may soon be open for the NDP to emerge as the leading force keeping PMS at bay.