Saturday, March 17, 2007

Taken in

Shorter Peter Worthington: It was just last week that I joined the Ad Hoc Committee for Conrad Black. And they already sent me this nifty tinfoil hat!

Backward momentum

With the Cons desperate to claim to have done something on the environment beyond recycling the programs they cut last year, there can be little doubt that the G8 climate change summit was going to be spun as a success if it resulted in anything short of an axe-murdering spree. (Only then would the Cons have gone into "blame the Liberals" mode.) And a compliant media seems to have given the Cons the positive headlines they wanted without looking at the summit's actual results.

But on any reasonable assessment, the summit and its aftermath proved little aside from the Cons' continued rejection of anything resembling reality - and any momentum developed by the G8 is headed squarely in the wrong direction.

To see why this is true, we'll need to start with one of the less-than-surprising outcomes of the summit. Reuters notes that the U.S. is no more interested in joining into a global effort than ever (and indeed has slid backwards since the Clinton era when it at least signed Kyoto):
"On two issues, the United States were the only ones who spoke against consensus," German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel told reporters at the end of the two-day meeting, which he chaired on behalf of Germany's G8 presidency.

Gabriel said the U.S. remained opposed to a global carbon emissions trading scheme like the one used in the European Union and rejected the idea that industrialized nations should help achieve a "balance of interests" between developing countries' need for economic growth and environmental protection.

"We find this regrettable," Gabriel said, adding "I would have been disappointed if I'd expected something different."
Of course, the U.S.' reticence is nothing new. But what has changed since Harper took power is Canada's insistence on following along. And John Baird's message reflects the fact that no matter how unreasonable the U.S. remains, Canada will refuse to be involved in any global initiative which its southern neighbour doesn't also back:
Environment Minister John Baird, speaking from a meeting in Germany of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations, also said any extension of the Kyoto protocol beyond 2012 must include the United States and other big developing nations.

"We very clearly said that any future global deal must include the United States, China and India," he said in a conference call with reporters after meeting his G8 counterparts.
What Baird leaves out as usual is the fact that all three of those countries signed and/or ratified Kyoto as well. Which should say all one needs to know about whether the objection is a legitimate one, or simply the most convenient excuse available for the Cons to obstruct any further progress.

With Japan also apparently taking a similar position, the current summit seems to have utterly ignored the EU's efforts to push for collective action. Instead, today's news only confirmed that key participants including Canada are happy to see nothing done as long as the Bush administration remains in office - and are willing to give the next U.S. administration an effective veto over any future agreements by insisting on American involvement.

To anybody wanting to see long-term action against climate change, that result can only be seen as a negative one. And if the Cons are entirely satisfied with the outcome, that must in turn be as a result of a combination of political posturing, and a lack of any real desire to deal with the greenhouse gas emissions on a global basis.

On principle

There are plenty of times where no line fits a story better than CC's oft-mentioned phrase: "And if you don't like THOSE principles, well, I've got others." But sometimes, even that classic snark falls somewhat short of a target.

And so it is with Jason Cherniak, who by his own standards has established himself as a Stalinist who makes "unbelievable decisions":

"If you don't like THOSE principles...well, no big loss. After all, I wouldn't know a principle if you whacked me over the head with it."

Update: In comments, Cliff points out that the original attribution of the "I've got others" quote (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) is to Groucho Marx.

On developing wisdom

Thomas Walkom discusses the rapidly-spreading realization that long-term success in Afghanistan depends on discussions with all parties involved, rather than a continuation of the Cons' swagger-and-awe strategy:
When New Democratic Party chief Jack Layton suggested last fall that talking to the Taliban might bring peace to Afghanistan, he was laughed out of court.

The major newspapers dismissed him as either naive or reprehensible. The Conservative government was contemptuous, as were the Liberals.

They called him Taliban Jack.

Eventually, Layton stopped talking about negotiating with the Taliban. Which is ironic, given that the idea is now gaining credibility among those who travel in more established circles.

Indeed, the latest figure to call for a political settlement to the Afghan conflict is a pillar of the Ottawa establishment. Gordon Smith, now director of the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria, is Canada's former ambassador to NATO and a former deputy minister of foreign affairs. His Canada in Afghanistan: Is it Working? was done for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, a Calgary think-tank that is not known for being squishy on matters military...

(According to Smith,) "We do not believe that the Taliban can be defeated or eliminated as a political entity in any meaningful time frame by Western armies using military measures," he says...

"(T)alking to the Taliban" emerges as the only feasible solution. "Given the costs of war," he writes, "NATO needs to look candidly at the prospects – aware that there can be no guarantee – of a political solution."...

It's a grimly realistic paper. It's also in line with the thinking of other recent, unvarnished assessments of the Afghan war, including a report from the Senate defence committee.

Oh yes, and its key recommendation echoes that of Jack Layton. But my guess is that up in Ottawa, the people behind this war aren't going to be dismissing Smith as Taliban Gord.
Walkom is right in pointing out the gap between how Layton was treated in taking the lead on the issue, and how others have been handled when making similar suggestions. But he falls short of discussing the future implications of the shift in conventional wisdom. And once one takes a look at those, it seems all too likely that Canada's (and indeed NATO's) strategy in Afghanistan will continue to be defined by those who see military conquest as the only real end.

After all, while the need for talk may be filtering into some parts of Canada's establishment, it's still a long way from finding its way into the worldview of the Cons. And it's hard to see how they could come around to the possibility of a political solution after building their foreign policy around the idea that the Taliban presents a unique existential threat, such as to justify eliminating Canada's ability to contribute troops to any other mission in the world.

Which means that while cooler heads may be prevailing in the world of think tanks and pundits, there's little chance of them winning out in government as long as the Cons are in power - much as the self-righteousness of the Bush administration has resulted in escalation in Iraq even as most Americans have long since come around to the view that the war is long past being able to meet the administration's stated goals. But if there's reason for hope, it's that this additional parallel between Harper and the Bush administration will also offer another reason for Canadian voters not to match the mistake of their American counterparts in leaving such a government in power longer than can be avoided.

On weak defences

If there were any doubt as to whether or not Gordon O'Connor is in trouble, the Star reports on what he can expect when Parliament sits next week. And while it shouldn't be much surprise that he'll face plenty of criticism, it's striking just how weak any defence seems likely to be.

The sole pro-O'Connor voice which the Star was apparently able to track down was a former fellow cadet and officer. And even from that less-than-neutral source, the case for O'Connor couldn't be much more tepid:
(Douglas Bland) notes that few defence ministers survive their time atop the department without enduring some controversies. "It's just in the nature of this very large organization ... with all kinds of money and where all the employees are armed," he says.

"It's inherently difficult to do and it is even more difficult to do when you're dealing with a wartime situation."...

"When it gets into dealing with these very big issues, like C-17s and re-equipping the armed forces and people being killed and wounded in action, I think he's done a reasonably good job."
In other words, the case for O'Connor amounts to:
- the all-too-familiar refrain that "it's hard work being X!", and
- a claim that if one narrows the issues and squints hard enough with a positive enough impression of him as a person, one can see O'Connor as doing a "reasonably good job".

Of course, that latter point is thoroughly contradicted by O'Connor's track record of fabrications and evasion tactics. Which means that unless Harper and company are prepared to offer a far stronger case for O'Connor's continued place in Cabinet than anybody the Star could track down, it's long past time for the difficult role to be taken over by somebody who hasn't demonstrated his or her inability to fill it.

Friday, March 16, 2007

From proposal to policy

Largely lost in the discussion about the Libs' "carbon budget" proposal has been the question of how best to actually put such a proposal into effect. And all indications suggest that it'll only take a move to get the Bloc onside to put such an idea in place in the very near future:
NDP leader Jack Layton did in fact welcome Mr. Dion's new position, noting that the NDP had asked him to move in this direction when he was environment minister.

“It's a flip flop that I welcome,” said Mr. Layton.
Once again, it's odd that the Libs chose to unveil the plan today rather than (apparently) seeking to submit amendments on the committee review of Bill C-30. But if the Bloc is willing to continue its historic support for action on climate change, then it's entirely possible that the Libs' plan could be implemented at least in large part through a bill passed within the current Parliament. And with Dion still not apparently sure whether he wants an election this year, that appears to be the only way to meet the Libs' own January 2008 target for implementation.

Unacclaimed

The CP reports that the Cons' efforts to insulate Rob Anders from any effective nomination challenge have been held invalid by the Court of Queen's Bench:
An Alberta judge has overturned the controversial Tory acclamation of Calgary MP Rob Anders and ordered a new nomination meeting.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Jed Hawco issued a court order instructing the Conservative Party of Canada to restart the nomination process in Calgary West.

Eleven disgruntled Tories have been fighting Anders' unchallenged nomination since last summer, claiming the party did not widely advertise important dates or adequately search for qualified candidates.
What's particularly remarkable is that from the article, it sounds like the reason for restarting the nomination process may not have been based on the most obvious flaw in the Cons' handling of the riding - namely, their arbitrary disqualification of another candidate who seemingly managed to meet the nomination requirements despite the lack of proper advertising or candidate search processes. Of course, that'll have to be confirmed once the detailed reasons are available.

But regardless of the precise reasons, today's ruling confirms that the Cons are falling short of basic principles of fairness in deciding who'll represent them in the next election. And that disregard for natural justice internally only highlights why the Con government has been similarly disinterested in fair processes when it comes to developing policy which affects all Canadians.

Child's play

A couple of notes on the Cons' impending announcement that they'll provide a small amount of funding to the provinces for child care after all.

First, if anything should be able to kick-start the NDP's drive for a federal Child Care Act, this should be it. Any framework for child-care funding may have seemed largely theoretical when no such funding existed...but now that it's entirely possible for money to be flowing before long, there's every reason to set out the terms under which that money can be spent.

Second, the Cons' plan to offer only the limited amount of money otherwise budgeted for tax credits is one that some of us may have seen coming (and criticized). But the response from both the provinces and the other federal parties should be a simple one. Rather than merely allocating the same dollar amount, the Cons should be talking to the provinces to see what new spaces will cost, and allocating enough money to meet their original space commitment - or else be seen as breaking even their own ineffective promises on child care.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Tweaking the message

There's been lots of talk about - and praise for - the NDP's new ads over the past couple of days. And I agree with the apparent consensus that the ads are not only a plus for the NDP, but also a step in the right direction for Canada's political scene generally in their focus on policy possibilities rather than personalities.

That said, I'll take a moment to quibble briefly with one of the parts of the message which has been earned particular praise from some corners - namely, the "prosperity gap" theme which has surfaced recently.

The problem isn't with the principles behind the message, but rather with the words chosen to express those principles. While the wording within the ad itself avoids any major difficulty, consider this phrase from Jack Layton's recent speech on health care:
And as it has done since 1947, Medicare will serve as an effective way to reduce the prosperity gap and to make life more fair, affordable and healthy for working families and the middle class.
Read as a whole, there's nothing in the phrase which most people would disagree with. But what happens if the words are taken out of context, or even if they stay in a listener's subconscious for future reference while their full origin is lost?

Keep in mind that the main attack on the NDP from both the Libs and Cons is that the NDP doesn't understand or value economic growth. (And put aside the sheer lunacy of that position.)

Based on the NDP's current phrasing, Dion and Harper can take forward the message that the NDP will "reduce prosperity" - and the NDP's own words will make that resonate as something contained within what Layton has actually said. And it can only get worse as Layton's message gets stronger over the course of a campaign, with "fighting the prosperity gap" being converted to a "fighting prosperity" scare tactic.

Not that this is based on anything approaching a fair interpretation of the NDP's message. But surely we should know better than to expect anything even faintly approaching fairness out of the Libs and Cons. And accordingly, some thought has to be put into developing a message that both maximizes the positive reaction from likely NDP voters, and minimizes the distortions available to other parties.

Meanwhile, "gap" itself as a term requires some explanation and ideology to have any meaning. For anybody who doesn't see inequality of condition as a problem, the word will carry no weight at all. And even for somebody who might be sympathetic to the message, the NDP will have to explain what it refers to, since the concept of a "gap" itself might not seem like such a problem without Layton's analysis of what it means.

Once again, the problem may be a subtle one. But the combined effect of allowing other parties' criticisms to resonate more strongly and forcing the NDP to spend more time explaining the underpinnings of its own position could well be the difference between holding the balance of power or not if the current configuration remains roughly the same - or overtaking the Libs or not if the ad campaign otherwise works as well as could possibly be imagined.

So what should the NDP look to do if it's not too late? Consider to one of the more quickly adopted phrases from the past couple of elections, "fiscal imbalance", for an example. Here, "fiscal" is effectively a neutral term, while "imbalance" carries nothing but a stark negative connotation. As a result, a message that a party is fighting against the fiscal imbalance won't likely evoke a negative reaction - even from somebody who hears or repeats only selective parts of the phrase (whether by accident or in order to distort the message).

It shouldn't be that difficult to come up with a similar phrase to address Canada's continued inequality issues. And indeed the "imbalance" term itself might be a useful part of any message given its regular presence in recent political discussions.

Again, the problem is one of wording rather than substance. There's every reason for the NDP to focus on inequality of income, wealth, and opportunity in general as a main theme, and the presentation of concrete policies to deal with those priorities can only help to improve the party's standing. But while the current wording may be well targeted toward rallying the NDP's base and winning a strong share of the populist vote, it also leaves more opportunity for distortion than it needs to. And I'd hate to see the NDP lose out electorally as a result.

Stalwart

I fear I may have jinxed the NDP by pointing out its then-perfect record of current MPs not planning to step down for the next federal election, as word came out today that Bill Blaikie's distinguished tenure in the House of Commons will end with the current Parliament:
Bill Blaikie, Member of Parliament for Elmwood-Transcona and presently Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, will not be seeking re-election whenever the current minority parliament comes to an end.

“I have advised the executive of the Elmwood-Transcona NDP Association that I will not seek re-nomination, and urged them to begin the search for candidates to run for the NDP nomination in this very winnable riding for our party,” said Blaikie.

Blaikie, the longest serving member of the current parliament, is Dean of the House of Commons. He was elected almost 28 years ago, on May 22, 1979, and has served in many capacities, most recently as NDP House Leader, NDP Parliamentary Leader, NDP Deputy Leader, and currently Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons.
We'll presumably find out before long who will earn the NDP's nod to try to succeed Blaikie. But whoever wins that role will have some massive shoes to fill - and the House of Commons will be worse off for the loss of its current Dean once Blaikie is gone.

Unstable spending

While the Cons have spent much of their time lately throwing cash at anybody who stands still long enough to catch it, they're apparently not interested in providing any of that as stable funding to cities. And that reluctance likely speaks volumes about the Cons' lack of interest in funding much of anything in the long term:
Canada's towns and cities may be bursting with new residents but Prime Minister Stephen Harper isn't in a hurry to pledge cash to help them cope.

Harper yesterday conceded what the latest population tallies reveal – "the census continues to emphasize the urbanization of Canada," he said.

But speaking in King City, he pointedly dismissed a campaign by big city mayors for more funding and sidestepped a question on whether additional infrastructure cash from Ottawa might be in the works in light of the census data that show suburban regions growing rapidly...

(A)sked about the campaign of big city mayors who have been lobbying to get 1 cent of the goods and services tax to fix crumbling infrastructure – worth about $5 billion a year – Harper offered little hope.
Now, a large part of the calculation is undoubtedly a matter of political purchasing calculations - the Cons presumably figure they can give themselves a better chance of winning seats by putting their money elsewhere. But it's worth noting as well the difference between the long-term, stable funding requested by the cities, and the Cons' strong preference toward one-time or temporary funding announcements.

Generally, the Cons' direction appears to be toward long-term elimination of government through their pattern of random tax slashing, where each announcement is plainly intended to continue for the long term (not to mention be accelerated by their "tax-back" gimmick).

In contrast, the current pre-election spending drive has only a couple of components which could possibly be seen to involve long-term funding, compared to a raft of one-time announcements (particularly on the environment). Which sends a strong signal that the Cons' interest in the issues involved doesn't extend past the next federal election - while their commitment to hacking away at Canada's government in the long term knows no bounds.

Of course, even if the Cons were willing to make more announcements toward long-term funding for Canadians' priorities, there'd be every reason to doubt their sincerity. After all, the Cons made clear when they took office that no federal promise to continue funding would be given any weight past a single year at most.

Which should make Canadians rightly suspicious that if the Cons ever managed to win a majority, all the priorities which the Cons are so happily funding now would face exactly the same flat rejection as Canada's cities have received in their quest for stable funding.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

On consolidation

Antonia Zerbisias and Charlie Angus are once again right on top of the latest from the CRTC. But while there's some silver lining in that there should some real public consultation on media consolidation later this year, it looks like several mergers will be rubber-stamped before the CRTC actually deals with that issue:
Yesterday, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) either caved to public pressure or saw reason – or both – and decided to postpone its hearings on media concentration until next fall.

That gives the public more time to participate than the 35 calendar days the federal broadcast regulator had originally allowed when it announced hearings for April 29 just two weeks ago. What's more, the CRTC had originally set its hearings on "diversity of voices" to occur concomitant with its proceedings on the $1.365 billion mega takeover by CTVglobemedia of CHUM.

Which, for all intents and purposes, suggested that the merger was a mere rubber stamp away from regulatory approval.

So, the good news is, the CRTC has seen the error of its ways and recognized that the alarming rate of media concentration in Canada – arguably the most vigorous in the democratic world – merits full, fair and open public debate.

"The current wave of consolidation in the Canadian broadcasting industry, and the possibility of more major transactions in the future, raises important questions relating to the diversity of voices in Canada," Konrad von Finckenstein, the CRTC's newly appointed chair, said in a statement. "Holding a public hearing in the fall will allow us to give these issues the thorough and in-depth study they deserve. This exercise will result in clearly articulated policy guidelines that will further the evolution of the Canadian broadcasting system from that point forward."

All very noble but, deeper in the news release, comes this paragraph:

"Regarding the major ownership transactions that have been filed or publicly announced as of this date, the commission is of the view that procedural fairness demands that such applications be heard in a timely manner and pursuant to the rules in force when the transactions were announced."

Which means that, not only does the CTVglobemedia-CHUM deal slip in under the wire, so do the recently announced takeover of Alliance Atlantis by CanWest Global and New York investment bank Goldman Sachs, and Astral Media's acquisition of Standard Broadcasting.

"That's very convenient," said NDP heritage critic Charlie Angus yesterday in an interview, noting that these are among the largest media deals in Canadian history.
As Zerbisias points out, there's no apparent reason why any mergers should be allowed to proceed on the basis that there's no real problem with the current lack of media diversity - particularly when that position seems unlikely to survive the broader review. And while it's a plus that Canadians will rightfully receive at least some chance to be heard, it's all too clear that until that happens, the interests of corporate broadcasters will continue to be given precedence over the public interest.

Update: See also Angus' take here.

Limited progress

CanWest reports that the federal Libs may finally be coming around to the need for absolute greenhouse gas emission caps:
The Liberal party is preparing to turn up the heat on the Harper government by endorsing absolute reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions by industrial polluters, CanWest News Service has learned.

Senior Liberals hope the move will restore the shine to the environmental reputation of Liberal Leader Stephane Dion and differentiate the party on a key election issue from the Conservatives, who have proposed less stringent "intensity-based" targets to reduce pollution linked to global warming.

An announcement of the Liberal position could come as early as Friday, when Dion will deliver a speech in Ottawa revealing part of his new environment policy.
Of course, there will still be one serious question facing the Libs even if they do indeed make the change in their platform. Namely, will they actually work to implement such hard caps in the near future (which could easily be done through the agreement of the opposition parties in reviewing Bill C-30), or will this instead be added to the pile of issues where the Libs' best-case scenario is to spend the next year whining about the Cons' failure to get anything done?

And unfortunately, the Libs' willingness to get something done now is very much open to question, particularly based on the reported timing of the announcement:
NDP environment critic Nathan Cullen was skeptical, noting that no party has submitted amendments to the committee studying the government's proposed legislation on climate change and air pollution, even though they agreed to do so by Thursday.

"The heavy lifting will start straight away, and I'll be putting calls in to the other opposition parties," said Cullen. "There's been almost no dialogue from them, with a deadline of this Thursday, five o'clock, when you have to have all your amendments in."
It would be curious indeed for the Libs to submit the substance of a plan in their proposed amendments for a Thursday deadline, then try to make another announcement of that plan the next day after its details were already publicly known. Which suggests all too strongly that the Libs' current strategy is instead to contribute nothing to the committee, then use Friday's announcement to grandstand about how little is currently getting done.

Of course, I'll grant the Libs full credit if they defy my expectations and actually propose amendments to match their apparent shift in position. But it seems all too likely that even if the Libs have changed their policy stance for the better, they'll still be looking for excuses to avoid implementing that policy to serve their political interests. And that can only make them complicit in any failure by the Cons to put effective emission limits in place.

On reassurances

Gordon O'Connor has apparently completed filming of his Afghanistan documentary, "Abdul Qadar & Me". And the good news is that despite some technical difficulties, O'Connor eventually managed to look into the eyes of Abdul Qadar Noorzai, head of Afghanistan's human rights commission.

Mind you, Noorzai has brought up a few inconvenient truths about how his group is woefully lacking in staff and resources to actually monitor any significant part of southern Afghanistan:
Mr. Noorzai has said that monitoring detainees will prove difficult, because he has only eight staff members to conduct prison inspections across all of southern Afghanistan, and some regions are considered too dangerous to visit.
But based on O'Connor's judgment, those concerns were apparently discarded in favour of the eye test.

Which should put an end to the matter. After all, what reason would we have to think that O'Connor's word can't be trusted?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Transference much?

Of all the comments on Pat Martin today (and there have been some ludicrous ones from Libs and Cons alike), this manages to stand out for sheer detachment from reality:
(Martin) did not come out and criticize Jack, he pointed the finger at NDP's policymaking and communications apparatus, which, he said is far too guarded in spreading the party's message, often replacing plain talk with officialese. Considering the hierarchy in the NDP, that's just code for blaming the leader. Nobody takes a crap in that party without their leader's approval or approval from the leader's office.
That's right: a supporter of Harper's Cons trying to accuse the NDP of micromanagement. If you listen carefully, you can hear irony spinning in its grave.

Content-free

Last week, I discussed the NDP's terms for supporting the Cons' upcoming budget. By way of contrast against the NDP's clear discussion of policy, take a look at the Libs' press release on the budget, which appears designed to be the favourite if a new Bulwer-Lytton category is created for press releases:
Liberal Leader StĂ©phane Dion today called on the Conservative government to change direction and demonstrate a real commitment to meeting Canada’s challenges by using the upcoming budget to set a long-term course for success, instead of squandering the budget on short-sighted measures aimed at an early election that Canadians don’t want or need.
I suppose one can find a small amount of content in Dion's desire to avoid an election. But for all the passage otherwise says about what the Libs believe, they presumably also have press releases in the works on the subjects of "forward, not backward", "upward, not forward" and "always twirling, twirling, twirling toward freedom".

At the very least, one would hope the rest of the release would be an improvement from that woeful start. But no such luck: instead it only alternates between the Libs' bad habits of offering nothing more than their last platform and criticizing the Cons for using their ideas. In fact, there's literally not a single policy suggestion in the release other than "do what we were doing" - which speaks volumes about just how little Lib renewal has actually taken place under Dion.

It remains to be seen whether the Libs will be widely called on their lack of anything useful to offer - or how long it'll take for them to develop some substance under Dion. But if they plan on being this useless for long, the NDP has all the more reason to think it can become the strongest alternative to continued Harper government far sooner than most would anticipate.

(Edit: typo.)

Building momentum

There's been ample talk today to the effect that the federal NDP is at a crossroads going into the upcoming election. But far less attention has been paid to some important signals that the NDP is headed in the right direction.

First, there's the announcement that Thomas King will be seeking the NDP's nomination for Guelph:
Writer, radio personality and professor Thomas King has officially thrown his hat into the political ring.

King is seeking the nomination as Guelph's New Democratic Party candidate in the next federal election, which could come as early as this spring...

King, 63, is a University of Guelph English professor, the author of almost a dozen books and creator and star of the CBC-Radio series "The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour."

A former photojournalist, King was raised in California. He was active in promoting native rights, the environment and social causes.
Note that Guelph has been a close riding for several elections now - which makes for a strong chance that a candidate with national name recognition such as King will be able to put the NDP over the top in the riding, as well as giving the party's image a boost across the country.

And if that weren't enough good news, there's also talk that the NDP may be about to unveil a new star candidate in Quebec:
The former Liberal MNA for Chomedey may be getting ready to make the jump to federal politics, and has his eyes on the New Democrats.

NDP Leader Jack Layton confirms Thomas Mulcair, who quit Jean Charest's Liberal cabinet in February 2006 after a cabinet shuffle, has been talking with him.
Mulcair was in the front row at the University of Montreal during a noon hour speech by Layton, and was seen driving Layton in his car when they left the university.
The NDP leader says he and Mulcair have been talking about important issues facing Quebecers and Canada for quite some time.

Mulcair announced last month that he would not run in the current Quebec election campaign.
Of course, any decision for Mulcair is yet to be confirmed. But it's nonetheless significant that a prominent former MNA is interested in helping the NDP to make inroads into Quebec.

Remember as well that while both the Cons and the Libs have lost a number of incumbent MPs, the NDP currently looks to have all of its sitting Members of Parliament back in the race whenever the next election occurs. And whether or not one believes there's a particular strength in NDP incumbency, it can only help matters to be able to add new talent to an already-strong slate, rather than having to replace a significant amount of departed experience.

Which isn't to say that the NDP doesn't have work to do in building its popular support to (and beyond) the level achieved in the 2006 election. But the current efforts to count out the NDP seem to be missing some significant parts of the bigger picture - and it's still entirely possible that the next trip to the polls will only see a continuation of the NDP's growth over the past few election cycles.

On identity theft

The Globe and Mail reports on one environmental group which has even more reason than most to be frustrated with the Cons, as Ecotrust Canada's name has been usurped for the Cons' benefit:
(T)o put it mildly, the nearly 13-year-old organization is not amused that the Tories seem to have lifted the Ecotrust Canada brand name for the government's own $1.5-billion environment package. So, when Mr. Harper comes calling here today to shower the province with an expected $200-million in EcoTrust cash, Mr. Gill will be waiting for him.

"The government has not been taking this seriously, and I think they should. We want our name back," Mr. Gill said.

He said the matter goes to the heart of what some critics have charged is a rushed, back-of-the-envelope approach to combatting climate change by Mr. Harper's Conservative government.

"They didn't even take the time to do due diligence on the name," charged Mr. Gill, who founded Ecotrust Canada in 1994. "That's how quickly this whole thing has been cooked up."
But having made such a glaring mistake initially, the Cons have stayed in character by going out of their way to avoid fixing matters:
The organization quickly wrote to Mr. Harper, pointing out the confusion and what appeared to be a violation of its exclusive right to the Ecotrust name.

"The government's assumption of the name 'Canada EcoTrust' is a serious threat to our brand," the letter said.

"Ours is a consciously non-partisan organization and to have our name adopted by any government, no matter how well-intended your program, diminishes our brand."

The organization, saying it did not wish to pick a fight with the government, asked Mr. Harper for a meeting to try to resolve the issue.

Apart from a few phone calls from "low-level functionaries," however, there has been no response, Mr. Gill said...

Mike Van Soelen, communications director for federal Environment Minister John Baird, said the government is "taking a look" at the complaint from Ecotrust Canada.

"We are certainly taking their concern serious," he said.
In fairness, this particular incident appears to have been the result of shoddy preparation rather than deliberate co-opting of Ecotrust Canada's name. But with the Cons still apparently refusing to do anything besides "take a look" at the problems with effectively taking over a non-profit's brand, it doesn't seem likely that the legitimate concerns of Ecotrust Canada will be dealt with anytime soon - particular with the Cons evidently more interested in campaigning than in governing effectively.

Of course, it's far from sure that an immediate election is indeed forthcoming. And if not, then one has to wonder whether the Cons will see an opportunity to combine traditional astroturfing with the power of the state to undercut the brand of other prominent groups. Might they call their rigged democratic reform process "Democracy Watch" to confuse Canadians about Duff Conacher's recent criticisms of the Cons, or "Fair Vote Canada" to undermine the PR movement? Could a shell "Red Cross" be set up to try to retroactively keep Gordon O'Connor's assurances about reporting on detainee treatment in Afghanistan?

The possibilities are endless for a government which sees existing groups as nothing more than opportunities for co-opting. And based on their treatment of Ecotrust Canada, there's every reason to think that this is just one more area where the Cons' lust for power is being (and will be) given precedence over any other consideration.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Foreseeable dangers

Amazingly, it only took Murray Dobbin a month after highlighting the need for better-targeted progressive messaging to launch an explicit defence of red tape. But while the frame selection couldn't be much further off the mark, the spirit of the column is dead on:
A couple of stories in recent days have highlighted a trend that has been eroding the public interest and public safety for over a decade -- and all in the interests of the corporate bottom line.

Deregulation is one of neo-liberalism's five big initiatives (free trade, privatization, service cuts and tax cuts make up the rest). And it shows how successfully they have framed the issue.

Who in their right mind would want more red tape?

Well, for starters, pretty much anyone who flies in Canada, eats food, drives a car, uses prescription drugs or lives some place that could catch fire. That's just the short list.

All you really have to do is think about the profit motive and imagine that there were no regulations to moderate its impact. That's what regulations are mostly about -- attempting to manage the greed unleashed by capitalism. And neo-liberalism is all about undoing that management system and replacing it with corporate self-regulation. ("Self-regulation" being right up there on the list of modern oxymorons.)...

The deregulation madness eventually has consequences. Planes fall from the sky. Or, as is happening lately in the U.S., people get poisoned by bad food. In the past six months, hundreds of people have been made ill or dead by contaminated lettuce, spinach and, most recently, peanut butter...

(D)eregulation can go on even without legislation and with the public none the wiser. All you have to do is slash the number of inspectors and the law or regulation can be made all but useless. All of this is being done to enhance "competitiveness" -- except that there is no hard evidence that deregulation will have any impact other than to put Canadians at ever greater risk.
Dobbin notes the pattern of weaker regulations and enforcement over the past couple of decades - beginning with the Libs' budget cuts in the '90s, and progressing toward today's initiatives to try to not only cut regulations, but also tie the hands of governments who would otherwise want to implement more effective measures.

What makes that trend all the worse is that the deregulation hasn't happened for lack of incidents in the meantime which should have emphasized the need for effective government involvement. As a result, it seems entirely possible that it'll take a far more severe harm than the most recent examples such as Walkerton, Kashechewan or the U.S. food incidents for the general public to demand any substantial improvement in regulation and enforcement. But it's hopefully not too late to change direction before the worst materializes...if enough effort is put into showing Canadians just how much less safe they are as a result of the anti-state movement.

A timeline of distortion

Friday, March 9: Lorne Calvert highlights the fact that Stephen Harper did not invite him to participate in an agricultural spending announcement:
(T)he Saskatchewan government said it hasn't been told why Harper is visiting Saskatoon, raising questions about the relationship between Ottawa and the province.

"I've been a bit surprised by the arrival of the prime minister (Friday), we had no advance notice of this," said Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert.

"I have no idea what he intends to announce, if he is here to make an announcement. I have no idea whether it's to be on environment or equalization or agriculture or research."
Friday, March 9: Harper explains why Calvert was not invited to the announcement:
When asked yesterday why Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert was not on hand, Mr. Harper pointed out that this was a national, not federal-provincial program.

He also said joint initiatives are being discussed -- and signed -- with a number of provinces, but Ottawa hasn't come to an agreement with Saskatchewan on several issues, including climate change and patient waiting-time guarantees.
Monday, March 12: Macleans rewrites history:
Unlike Ontario's Dalton McGuinty and Alberta's Ed Stelmach, both of whom were at Harper's side when he announced new funding in their provinces, Saskatchewan premier Lorne Calvert declined to attend the event. Calvert and Harper have been nursing a disagreement over the Prime Minister's intention to include a portion of non-renewable natural resource revenues in a revamped equalization formula.
Needless to say, there couldn't be a better result for Harper: not only was he able to exclude Calvert from any PR benefit resulting from the announcement based on his own arbitrary standards, but his fawning media has managed to wrongly put the blame for the exclusion on Calvert - thereby benefitting Harper's provincial lapdogs. And if reality is once again a casualty in Harper's war for political power...well, so much the better for the Cons.

Eerily familiar

As much as the Cons try to criticize any attempt to link them to the Bush administration, they sure seem to be going out of their way to build parallels. Take Gordon O'Connor's excuse as to how he thinks he can regain the trust of Canadians after his previous position on Afghan detainees was proven to have no basis in reality:
He will meet with the head of the Kandahar office of Afghanistan's human rights commission to make sure the group honours an agreement to monitor the condition of the detainees on behalf of Canada.

"I want to look the man in the eyes and I want to confirm that they are going to do what they say they're going to do," Mr. O'Connor said. "I just want assurance from him that he will monitor and he will inform us of any abuses."
No word yet on whether O'Connor thinks he'll be able to get a sense of anybody's soul. But it won't be the least bit surprising if that becomes part of the post-visit spin.

O'Connor may think that his verdict on the visit (complete with predetermined judgment) should be enough to paper over his own fabrications. But there's no reason for Canadians to agree - whether it comes to O'Connor's future portrayal the terms of the new agreement, or to his ability to evaluate the honesty of somebody else promising to fulfill that agreement. And with Canadians discovering the fact-free underpinnings of their reactionary government far faster than the U.S. managed to, it may not be long before the parallels between the Bush and Harper regimes include a massive political rejection of both.

Update: This is remarkably irresponsible even for the Cons, as it turns out that O'Connor didn't even bother checking to see whether the human rights official in question was actually around to meet with him:
Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor's attempts to meet with the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission failed Monday when he discovered the organization's director wasn't in Kandahar.

Mr. O'Connor said after arriving Sunday night that he wanted to meet AIHRC head Abdul Qadar Noorzai to look him in the eye and confirm that his group, the newly appointed monitors of Canada's detainee agreement, are “going to do what they say they're going to do.”

But the meeting was cancelled late Monday afternoon when it emerged that Mr. Noorzai was in neighbouring Helmand province.

It's not known why Mr. Noorzai was in Helmand or whether the meeting will be rescheduled.
One presumes that in the interest of fairness, we'll see multiple weeks of Bourque headlines on O'Connor's waste of federal funds.

Mind you, O'Connor does have one more distinctly Republican option if he's determined to deliver an authoritative opinion. That is, if he can track down enough footage of Noorzai to perform a soul diagnosis.

Update II: The latest spin from O'Connor is that an exchange of letters and a meeting from last year (before Canada actually signed any agreement with the human rights commission) offer all the assurance Canada could possibly need:
(I)n a news release, O'Connor pointed to a recent exchange of letters between Canada and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

The defence minister said the AIHRC has agreed to undertake "to provide immediate notice to Joint Task Force Afghanistan or the Canadian Embassy, should it learn that a detainee transferred by the Canadian Forces to Afghan authorities has been mistreated."

O'Connor added that in June 2006 the Commission met with officials from Foreign Affairs and National Defence in Ottawa to discuss human rights conditions in Afghanistan as well as detention conditions.
Let's leave aside the implausibility of a meeting last year having any relevance to a deal signed just last month. Does this mean that O'Connor's trip to Afghanistan was solely for the purpose of looking into Mr. Noorzai's eyes for reasons unrelated to the agreement?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Structurally unsound

Greg Weston discusses both the severe potential downsides of the Cons' fire sale of federal buildings, and the lack of any reason to believe the Cons have done anything to try to avoid the dangers:
Stephen Harper's government is offering to sell the Hays Building and eight other federal office towers in prime urban locations across the country -- and promptly lease them back for 25 more years of glorious public service.

The scheme could turn out to be a sweetheart deal for taxpayers, putting a wad of cash in the public purse, and a bunch of decaying buildings in the hands of more efficient private-sector property management.

Or it could be one of the most imprudent money-sucking shell-games ever attempted by a federal administration, providing the treasury with short-term capital gain for 25 years of punishing fiscal pain.

The deal, of course, is in the details, and the Harper government of openness and accountability is once again diligently offering Canadians none of the above...

Government insiders say noses have been turning up every time Fortier's planned fire-sale of federal assets is raised.

As one source told us: "Public works was asked if taxpayers were going to make money or get soaked, and all they could say was, 'We could either make a bundle or lose a bundle.' There is no apparent business plan for something that could involve billions of dollars."
Weston notes as well that some of the Auditor General's concerns surrounding Public Works already involve damaging choices to lease rather than purchase property. Which means that the problems with such a scheme are not only readily foreseeable, but already observed in previous leases. Which would surely offer a rather strong reason to thoroughly analyze exactly the kind of business plan which the Cons may not have even bothered to put together, and certainly wouldn't bother subjecting to scrutiny if they had.

Meanwhile, the alleged benefit of putting responsibility in the hands of third parties is almost certain to be illusory. Not only does that step involve adding in a profit margin for a private operator, but it also ensures that the federal government will need to maintain at least a significant portion of its current expertise in building management simply to make sure that any building operator meets the terms of the lease agreement. Which means that the end result is likely to be nothing more than even more cost and duplication of effort.

For the Cons, none of these concerns are apparently seen as even worth answering - though of course given their track record of fabrications, there's little reason to think that any answer would be honest in any event. Which should offer another reason for the opposition parties to take a wrecking ball to Harper's government before it's too late.

On verification

There's been lots of good news recently about public action against climate change, ranging from yesterday's story about the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition's "Adopt-an-MP" strategy, to today's series of Kyoto rallies. But for those who want to minimize their own environmental impact in addition to lobbying for change at the governmental level, a couple of other stories also highlight the difficulty that individuals face in trying to do their part - and the need for further government action to ensure that individual Canadians can trust that investments in the environment are put to good use.

First, GreenBiz discusses the current lack of any verification behind voluntary carbon trading:
More than three-dozen companies now offer to trade our cash to underwrite projects that reduce the amount of greenhouse gases circulating in the atmosphere. According to industry figures, this voluntary carbon market has already prevented or sequestered hundreds of millions of pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. And the field is exploding. Two of the world's largest power companies, General Electric and AES Corporation, just announced plans to create 10 million tons of greenhouse gas offsets by 2010 to sell to commercial and industrial customers.

But with battling experts, evolving scientific knowledge and no Better Business Bureau to police this new green field, what guarantees that the carbon offsets being sold effectively protect the environment?...

The voluntary carbon market surged 1000 percent over the past two years, according to recent reports. It racked in sales of over $100 million last year and is set to double again by next year. Yet no single standard exists to appraise the quality of marketed carbon offsets, forcing consumers to rely on advertisements for much of their education. In the short term, this could prove a bonanza for businesses marketing carbon offsets. But in the long term, it could compromise this consumer-driven market's credibility, threatening inroads made in the battle against global warming.

Now, says Jeff Reamer, assistant vice president for renewable energy at GE Energy Financial Services, "just about anyone can hang out a shingle and say I'm selling a ton of carbon."

Confronting this lapse, United Kingdom regulators announced last month that all future voluntary carbon credits undergo the same scrutiny as carbon credits sold on the mandatory European carbon market for factories and large institutions. The move has come under heavy criticism from many in the industry who argue that such regulation will strangle the innovative side of the market that keeps transaction costs low and contributes to sustainable development. Whether they are for or against the government approach, however, nearly everyone agrees with UK Environment Secretary David Miliband: "People need to be sure that the way they offset is actually making a difference."

Since the United States has neither a federally mandated carbon market nor established standards, it could not follow Britain's lead even if it wanted to do so. Instead, a potpourri of unofficial groups proposed their own standards.
It's perhaps not surprising that regulation hasn't yet caught up to the relatively new field of voluntary emissions trading. But even when it comes to monitoring products at large there's currently a serious need for more information and regulation, as the National Post notes that Canadians can't be sure that a product labelled as "environmentally friendly" really is so:
"Everybody is claiming one green thing or another," says Scott McDougall, president of Eco Logo, an independently operated labelling program established by Environment Canada in 1988 to help consumers identify sustainable products and services. "If companies look hard enough, they can usually find one thing about a product to market as green."

With the environment taking centre stage in politics and popular culture, companies are looking to cash in by touting themselves as environmentally friendly. But not all claims to being green are what they seem.

For example, says Mr. McDougall, a company that produces detergent might note it has low phosphates while concealing the fact it also contains a high number of carcinogens. A paper manufacturer can boast sustainable forestry practices but pollute huge quantities of water.

"Right now, we're seeing a lot of those kinds of claims," he says.

Unlike in the United States, where the Federal Trade Commission regulates claims about environmental friendliness, no such regulatory body exists in Canada...

As firms tout ever-more tangential green credentials, it may hurt those making genuine strides, Prof. Middleton says.

"The danger is that what they achieve gets devalued by the overall inflation of everybody saying they're green," he says.
Of course, it's understandable that the main call for government action is aimed at ensuring across-the-board emission reductions.

But while meeting Kyoto targets is an important first step, any government interested in meeting the environmental demands of its citizens should also be doing its utmost to make sure that individuals who are willing to pay a premium for further progress can rely on the claims of businesses who claim to be making a difference. Which in turn requires real verification of the claims of those now capitalizing on a "green" label.

From the articles, it looks like readily-available precedents are available both for the federal government to modernize its regulation of "green" labels, and for one or more provinces to began establishing standards to ensure that purchasers of voluntary emission reductions actually receive value for their money. The question now is whether Canada's governments will recognize the value of verifiable environmental progress, and empower their citizens to make fully-informed decisions to buy green.

A study in contrasts

Today's headlines offer another opportunity to contrast the leaders of the two national opposition parties in Parliament - and all the more reason to wonder just what the Libs are thinking with their current strategy.

On the NDP side, the Star reports on Jack Layton's efforts to win gains for Canadians in general, and cities in particular, in the upcoming federal budget:
The federal government must do more to help Toronto deal with its infrastructure needs than announce funding every now and then, NDP Leader Jack Layton says.

Vowing to "fight like hell for Toronto" in the coming federal budget, Layton yesterday called on Ottawa to do more to help the city address its infrastructure needs.

A long-term funding plan for Canadian cities is what's needed, said Layton, who was at the University of Toronto yesterday to outline his expectations for the Conservative budget.

The $1.5 billion announced Wednesday by Prime Minister Stephen Harper for better GTA transit and cleaner air does not go far enough, Layton said.

"Cities can't go from announcement and press release to press release," Layton said in a phone interview. "What we've seen for years is these announcements being made and then the money doesn't get around to flowing.

"That's why a predictable financial plan that the federal government will stick to has got to be laid out in the budget."

Layton wants the creation of a national transportation strategy, 20,000 new affordable housing units per year across the country, more money to help cities address climate change, as well as investments in child care and in post-secondary education.

He says the Tories, with a budget surplus that could approach $13 billion in extra cash from last year, should help Canadian cities that are being hampered by a $60 billion infrastructure deficit.

"If we continue to let this slide our cities are going to be less and less competitive, our economy therefore less robust," Layton said. "And we're going to find our economic future is being sacrificed because our governments chose to ignore our infrastructure."
One would think that the combination of identifying problems and making positive suggestions to fix them would be a standard modus operandi for an opposition leader. But then we get to Stephane Dion's latest message:
Canada can't afford another year under a Conservative government, Stephane Dion told about 200 Manitoba Liberals last night in Winnipeg.

"We have wasted a year. We cannot waste another year," the federal Opposition leader told delegates to the provincial annual general meeting at Canad Inns Polo Park.

Dion said Prime Minister Stephen Harper is lacking vision for Canada and re-packaging Liberal programs and claiming them as his own.

Harper appears to be on a pre-election spending spree, said Dion.

"He is spending so much, it is hard to follow and he's mostly unveiling Liberal plans," said Dion.

The East-West power grid --which would transmit Manitoba electricity to Ontario -- was already in the works when the Conservatives took power, said Dion.

"But Harper pretended it was new. It wasn't," he said. "I think it is dishonest that he doesn't have an imagination."
It's hard to untangle all the weaknesses and conflicting principles within the passage. In particular, a seeming criticism of the amount the Cons are currently spending seems entirely inconsistent with an attempt to claim credit for that same spending. And the most basic criticism seems to be one of attribution rather than one of substance...which doesn't seem likely to differentiate the Libs from the Cons in any area that Canadian voters will care about when they decide who deserves a vote.

Mind you, it also doesn't help matters that the "Canada can't afford another year" message conflicts directly with what Dion said just days earlier.

In fairness, Dion has started to announce some policy ideas at other appearances lately - some of which may even be slightly different from his party's previous platform. But it still seems like the Libs' primary concerns right now are personal indignance and navel-gazing, leaving the NDP to lead the charge on policy.

Which can only make the current NDP look all the better if it's able to win real concessions from Harper - or highlight the need for an increased NDP contingent if the Cons are able to pass a regressive budget due to the Libs' political machinations.