Saturday, August 25, 2007

Central responsibility

CanWest reports that yet another 2006 Con candidate - this time one of their higher-profile entrants from Quebec - is speaking up about the Cons' ad-buying scandal. And it looks like the cover-up may be no less significant than the seeming crime:
One candidate said yesterday his campaign was unwillingly dragged into the scheme and disclosed that the party warned him not to discuss the transactions with Elections Canada after he demanded an internal accounting last December.

Jean Landry, a former Bloc Quebecois MP who placed second as a Tory candidate in Richmond-Arthabaska, said that, after Elections Canada challenged his financial statements, he asked the party for bills proving $26,000 his campaign paid the party for advertising expenses were incurred on his behalf.

"Directors of the Conservative party called me to tell me not to talk to Elections Canada again because there were others dealing with the problem," said Mr. Landry, who added that Elections Canada investigators grilled him for three hours earlier this summer.

Mr. Landry says he will have nothing more to do with the Conservative party.
I'll be curious to see if Landry has more to say about which "directors" were involved. But even if he doesn't go public with that information, it seems entirely likely that Landry's mention of the "grilling" signals that Elections Canada already knows at least some details about who called the shots for the Cons.

And Landry's comment is also significant in demonstrating central control over Con dealings with Elections Canada. If anything, if the expenditures had been ordered and made at the riding level, it would surely make sense for the matter to be dealt with at that level again. But with the national party both warning Landry against sharing the results of his own review and telling him not to talk to investigators, it seems all the more likely that there's something to hide. And the Cons' efforts to block any cooperation with Elections Canada may make for another wrongful action.

That said, whatever happens in the investigation only figures to offer a second wave of fallout. No matter what comes out later, it's clear that the Cons are already facing a serious loss of support from agents and candidates arising out of their own Adscam. And particularly given the number of Quebec ridings involved, the scandal seems likely to put a serious dent in the Cons' efforts to gain any more ground in Quebec.

Same old story: Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean edition

La Presse reports on the past party loyalties of the Libs and Cons in the Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean by-election. And if we needed another indication of how interchangeable the parties can be, it appears that the star candidates from both parties have switched their affiliation from one to the other within the last two years:
L'élection partielle du 17 septembre dans la circonscription de Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean donne lieu à d'étranges rebondissements. Depuis le 24 juin, Louise Boulanger, candidate du Parti libéral dans ce bastion souverainiste, est en effet membre en règle du Parti... conservateur.

Selon ce qu'a appris La Presse hier, Mme Boulanger, femme d'affaires de Saint-Félicien, a acheté sa carte de membre le jour même où le premier ministre Stephen Harper est venu fêter la Saint-Jean à Roberval en compagnie de son candidat Denis Lebel...

Mme Boulanger a aussi affirmé que M. Lebel, son adversaire conservateur, est membre du Parti libéral. «Il a sa carte de membre du Parti libéral et je peux vous le prouver», a-t-elle dit. Mais chez les conservateurs, on a indiqué hier que M. Lebel n'a jamais renouvelé sa carte de membre, échue depuis 2005.
The article goes off on a couple of other interesting tangents, including an attempt by Boulanger to minimize her Con involvement, as well as an inexplicably anonymous statement of Con spin which blissfully ignores the Con-to-Lib conversions of both Boulanger and Bernard Potvin (who apparently wanted to challenge for the Con nomination until Lebel's candidacy was announced). But while the Libs fight a losing battle arguing about timing and reasons and the Cons try to spin the game of musical supporters as proof of their own momentum, the more important lesson lies elsewhere.

Namely, there's little enough principled distinction between the two parties that high-profile backers see no problem in jumping back and forth without an apparent second thought. And when the actions of the parties' own supporters show so little difference between the two, there's all the more reason to doubt that voting for one will do anything to avoid the problems with the other.

Friday, August 24, 2007


CanWest has more on the Cons' developing election financing scandal. To start off with, let's note that as usual, the Cons' excuses aren't getting any more plausible with time:
The Conservative Party contends that it has followed the Canada Elections Act and that all advertising paid for by candidates carried "tag lines" indicating they were authorized by the official agents for the candidates.

The distinction is important because candidates are not allowed to claim advertising expenses they do not incur directly.
The latest defence can be easily seen as a poor attempt to distract from the two real issues in play. First, it tries to get around the question of whether the ads were in fact for the benefit of the national campaign or the individual candidate. Indeed, if the Cons did arrange for individual agents' "tag lines" to be placed on advertising which was known to be for the national party's benefit rather than that of the specific candidate, that only strengthens the case against those agents (along with anybody who encouraged the scheme).

Second, there can be no reasonable argument that the individual candidates "incurred directly" expenses which were knowingly paid by the national party. And based on the transfer system which seems to have been applied, that offers another area where the Cons look to be in trouble - no matter what their tag lines did or didn't say.

Meanwhile, today's coverage also notes that in addition to the Cons quoted yesterday who acknowledged that the expenses were national ones, at least a couple of Cons were completely unaware of advertising done in their name:
Elections Canada says auditors conducting routine verifications of election expense reports found that one candidate and the official agent of another candidate had no knowledge of the details of the certain advertising purchases from the party's media buyer.
What seems important about Elections Canada's investigation is the question of who orchestrated and bore ultimate responsibility for the scandal. While agents may bear ultimate responsibility for a candidate's campaign expenses, the fact that candidate campaigns in some cases weren't even aware of the scheme suggests proportionally more responsibility on the part of the national party.

We'll see where the scandal goes from here, as well as who gets swept up in it from the Cons' side. If there's any bad news today for the opposition, it's that the media seems to be framing the issue as "Cons vs Libs" rather than "Cons vs the law" - but if Elections Canada follows up on what it's discovered already, then it may not be long before some high-ranking Cons face the music for their actions.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

On poor representatives

The CP reports that the first challenge under the Cons' softwood lumber capitulation is set to go to arbitration. And anybody who thought the Cons had already done all they could to put Canada's industry (and provinces) at the mercy of the U.S. has apparently underestimated the Cons' ability to prevent any uppity Canadian interests from intruding on their sellout:
Washington trade lawyer Elliott Feldman, who has acted for Canadian lumber exporters in previous cases, thinks the industry and the provinces will be short-changed by the (new arbitration) process.

Unlike NAFTA panels, they have no legal standing before the London court and must rely on Ottawa to argue their positions.

"Now it'll be federal lawyers defending provincial programs, about which they know nothing," said Feldman...

"We're as happy as we can be under the circumstances," said Bill Thorton, assistant deputy minister for forests at the Ontario Natural Resources Ministry. "I'll confess that it's not an ideal situation. We would rather be there defending our own programs."
That's right: the Cons set up the deal to make sure that industry and the provinces would have absolutely no ability to defend their own interests. Instead, responsibility for defending Canada's position now lies entirely with the same federal government which not only refused to accept Canada's history of wins in previous litigation, but also excluded its own industry from the original negotiation process to make sure that the deal itself would favour the U.S. side, then threatened and cajoled producers into falling into line with the agreement.

Needless to say, there's little reason to think the Cons care any more about Canada's lumber industry now than they did when they first decided to push CFLI's agreement onto it. Which means that with the Cons at the controls for the arbitration process, Canada may be set to follow up its consistent string of victories under the old agreement with an equally long string of losses under the new one.

Shell games

The Ottawa Citizen reports that the Cons look to have broken the Canada Elections Act yet again, this time by wrongfully funneling federal expenses through individual campaigns in order to avoid exceeding the national party's spending limit:
The Conservative party shuffled more than $1 million in advertising money between itself and Tory candidates in the 2005-06 campaign, boosting candidate expenses and qualifying them for larger Elections Canada rebates for their riding war chests.

A Citizen investigation of election financing records shows the Tories would exceed their $18.3-million overall limit on election spending if the advertising expenditures are considered part of the national Conservative campaign -- a point the party disputes.

Elections Canada recently rejected some expense claims filed by Conservative candidates who reported payments of up to $50,000 to the federal party for radio and TV advertising, according to the Citizen probe...

Elections Canada records show that 50 Tory candidates claimed $1.05 million in radio or TV advertising expenses they paid to the party. Of these, all but four received transfers of funds from the party, totalling $1.26 million, a Citizen review of the candidate returns found.

Many received the money from the party just a few days before they bought ads, and some in nearly the exact amount they later returned to the party in advertising. Most of the payments took place in the final two weeks of the campaign for the Jan. 23, 2006, election.

If this money were spent on advertising for the federal party and not candidates, it would have put the Conservatives well over the spending limit that Elections Canada set for the 2006 election. The party came in just $259,000 under the limit...

Cash transfers between parties and candidates are acceptable under the Canada Elections Act, but candidates can only claim advertising expenses that benefit them directly.

"The party can buy services for the candidates and bill the candidates for it, providing the service is really for the benefit of the candidate," an Elections Canada official said. "The benefit has to be for the candidate if the candidate lists that as expenses."

Conservative candidates interviewed by the Citizen said they understood the money they received and then paid to the party for broadcast advertising was intended to promote the national campaign, not their own.

Gary Caldwell, a Sherbrooke-area businessman who ran a distant second in the Quebec riding of Compton-Stanstead, said the party channelled money through ridings with smaller budgets.

"The federal party wanted to put through some of their expenses through the accounts of candidates who weren't spending up to their maximum," he said...

York-South Weston Conservative candidate Steve Halicki said the national party wanted to use spending room in his campaign because, like most of the Tories involved, he had low voter support in his riding and few contributions or money to spend.

"It was a transaction to allow the party to be able to use some of the unused capacity in my financing," he said. "I paid for this thing, but they actually gave me the money to pay for it."

Lawyer Sam Goldstein, who ran a token campaign for the Tories against New Democrat Olivia Chow and Liberal Tony Ianno in the Toronto riding of Trinity Spadina, said the advertising money he paid was not for his campaign.

"It's national advertising is what it is," he told the Citizen.
Now, I'll note that as one of the few Canadians seemingly interested in closely tracing the links between money and politics, I probably find the violation more dangerous than most would. But even voters not particularly concerned with election financing specifically should be able to recognize the danger in a government which honestly believes that it's above the law in how it classifies and spends money.

And in that respect, it's particularly noteworthy that three separate Con candidates have already gone public saying what the party is still trying to deny. As noted within the article, there's nothing wrong in principle with transfers of money from federal parties to candidate campaigns, or vice versa. But when even the candidates involved are admitting that the sole purpose of the transfers was to shuffle money around the federal spending limit, it seems virtually impossible to believe that there's some innocent explanation - and the Cons' brain trust looks all the more ridiculous for trying to pretend otherwise.

I'll take a more detailed look later at the provisions of the Canada Elections Act which the Cons seem to have violated. But suffice it to say for now that both the official agents who filed misleading reports and anybody within the party who assisted in carrying out a plan to deliberately circumvent the federal limit could face a serious risk of prosecution. And now that we know just how many rules the Cons seem to have wilfully broken in order to try to win power, there's all the more reason to keep them under the microscope now that they have the country's finances at their disposal.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Choosing sides

It's been clear for awhile now that the Canadian Medical Association's calls for privatization are based entirely on concern for doctors' interests rather than any desire to improve patient care. And two new votes from the CMA's recent convention show just how far out of touch the CMA is with the realities facing Canada's health-care system.

First, the CMA overwhelmingly rejected the possibility of even limited prescribing by pharmacists or nurse practitioners:
At their policy meeting, CMA members overwhelmingly endorsed a motion that reads: "The right to prescribe medications independently for medical conditions must be reserved for qualified practitioners who are adequately trained to take a medical history, perform a physical examination, order and interpret appropriate investigations, and arrive at a working diagnosis."

Another motion, also adopted, states that "within a multidisciplinary practice, delegated professional prescribing is only acceptable within when led by a physician clinical leader with ultimate responsibility for patient care."

When one physician suggested an amendment saying that a nurse-practitioner could also lead a health team, it was soundly rejected.
The refused amendment regarding nurse practitioners is particularly striking in its sheer disregard for the interests of patients. In the case of remote areas, doctors may not be available to act as a "physician clinical leader", or indeed be interested in taking on the task.

Under those circumstances, the CMA is apparently strongly of the view that faced with the choice between patients having access to prescriptions under a nurse practitioner or not at all, the latter result is the better one. Which should offer a strong indication that the CMA is far more interested in fighting turf wars than promoting better patient outcomes.

Second, even while privatization poster boy Brian Day claims the CMA is aiming mostly for private delivery of care alone rather than funding, the CMA as a whole saw a need to vote on the concept of patient-paid care (including co-payments and "health savings accounts"). And even faced with a vote on what amounts to a full U.S. system (notwithstanding the protestations of the motion's supporters), the CMA rejected such a drastic and unwanted change by only a razor-thin, 50-48% margin.

Needless to say, the complete detachment between the CMA and virtually all other voices on health care should bring into sharp focus the contrast in interests between Canadian doctors (at least as represented by the CMA's delegates) and their patients. And it's worth noting that this gap isn't entirely new.

After all, while the CMA may have been relatively quiet in recent health-care debates, the medical profession was not always so. Indeed, it's worth remembering that when single-payer health care was first implemented, it was doctors who launched the most vehement attacks against the idea that wealth shouldn't dictate access to medical care.

It remains to be seen whether the CMA's views are shared by any substantial proportion of the profession. The convention votes were based on only 270 delegates, and there are certainly more than a few other doctors looking to put patient care first. But it's clear that at least some physicians see an opportunity to reshape the system for their own benefit no matter how damaging the impact on Canadian patients - and there's every reason to want to make sure that those voices aren't the ones to determine where Canada's health care system goes next.

On sugar-coating

We've seen this all before. When word about the TILMA first started reaching a national audience, every apologist for the deal managed to simultaneously develop a deep concern about hay-stacking and margarine regulations, an equally deep concern that other Canadians shouldn't bother worrying about matters as dull as hay-stacking and margarine regulations, and a devout belief that the TILMA would deal with only those regulations and nothing more. Which led naturally to a barrage of commentary questioning how anybody could possibly care enough to oppose the TILMA.

Of course, the whole argument was ludicrous based on the actual terms of the TILMA. Whatever the merits of dealing with hay and margarine alone, the fact of the matter was that the TILMA was designed with a scope wide enough to threaten literally any government action. And from a practical standpoint, the pro-TILMA argument was patently dishonest, as every minute spent trying to push the broad agreement was a minute which could have been far more productively spent actually reconciling non-controversial regulations.

Fortunately, both the text of the TILMA and the well-cooked evidence which supposedly supported it were both made subject to public scrutiny. And as a result, enough reality seeped into the discussion (at least in Saskatchewan) to stop the TILMA from spreading east of Alberta.

But if there's anything a Con won't do, it's to acknowledge that a strategy has failed. And so, when it comes to the Security and Prosperity Partnership, Deceivin' Stephen himself has taken on the role of pretending that the whole process is beneath any public attention or question, with an even more innocuous-sounding example:
Harper said it was important to work together, giving an example of a business leader who manufactured jelly beans but had to maintain separate inventories because the content rules were different in Canada and the United States.

"Is the sovereignty of Canada going to fall apart if we standardize the jelly bean? You know, I don't think so," he said.
Unfortunately, so far Harper hasn't faced even the slightest challenge in his attempt to minimize the SPP: even some columnists who should know better have accepted the spin without question rather than applying the tiniest bit of scrutiny to Harper's diversion.

Which is a shame, since Harper's attempt to characterize the SPP process is at best misleading. Surely even the most Kool-Aid-addled Harper supporter, if pressed, would be forced to acknowledge that Canada, the U.S. and Mexico haven't entered into an extensive, multi-year set of high-level meetings and consultations based on candy-related issues alone. Which means that Harper's decision to change the subject to jelly beans is at best a transparent attempt to deflect attention from the real issues - whatever those may be.

Of course, in the case of the SPP, there are plenty of questions about just what the real issues are. In contrast, the text of the TILMA was at least open for public analysis once it was signed by B.C. and Alberta - meaning that those concerned about the agreement could deal directly with what its proponents had actually developed. In contrast, nothing about the SPP process has been made the least bit accessible to anybody but the participants - which can only give rise to reasonable suspicions about what's going on that's being hidden from the public.

In that respect, it may well be true that the current SPP discussions aren't currently addressing the thorniest possibilities, such as currency integration and bulk water exports. But if the leaders were genuinely concerned about speculation about such talks, then the obvious answer is for the leaders involved to open up the SPP talks to demonstrate just what is going on - rather than to make obviously misleading statements about what's happening, and then blame the very people who are being denied information for not having concrete evidence behind their concerns.

So why haven't the leaders involved acted on the desire of even some SPP supporters to see the process opened up? As best I can tell, they likely see it as easier to cast aspersions against specific opponents rather than actually having to justify the process as a whole. As long as the main question is a matter of trust or distrust as to what's actually going on, the political fallout is likely to be negligible: those likely to be suspicious of the negotiators anyway may get all the more frustrated, but the lack of substantive information flowing either way ensures that the the battle is largely fought to a draw.

In contrast, there's substantially greater political risk if public attention instead narrows to the concrete issues. For example, Harper would face the task of trying to publicly defend policies which many Canadians - including those who might otherwise be willing to consider a Con vote - will have serious reason to doubt. And even the nearly air-tight SPP process has let out some major ones such as no-fly lists, weaker pesticide standards, and unquestioned acceptance of politicized data.

Unfortunately, mainstream coverage of the SPP has neither called out Harper for his diversion tactics, nor reported widely on the issues which have already been identified as part of the SPP process. Which may well be exactly the result the Cons have been counting on all along - but which only ensures that Canadians will have ever more reason to worry about what Deceivin' Stephen is hiding from them.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

On pointless fights

The CP reports that the Cons have predictably chosen to respond to the Kyoto Implementation Act by serving up more excuses rather than any new ideas. But a more interesting report also went public today which confirms that the Cons have known all along just how implausible and misguided they were in criticizing the legislation:
A newly released federal analysis of the impact of Canada's international climate change obligations suggests senior government experts were at odds with Environment Minister John Baird's doom and gloom warnings that the Kyoto Protocol would provoke an economic disaster.

The four-page briefing note for the minister, a clause-by-clause analysis of legislation introduced by Liberal MP Pablo Rodriguez, said that the Kyoto Implementation Act would be a "major challenge" that could also force massive federal investments overseas. But it said nothing to support Baird's warnings that the law could lead to massive job losses, rising energy prices and a recession...

The Environment Canada briefing note said the legislation included "useful" recommendations to ensure openness, by forcing the government to produce progress reports that would be reviewed by the federal environment commissioner, including an initial plan that would be due this week, 60 days after the legislation was adopted...

John Bennett, an environmentalist and spokesperson for, said the analysis demonstrates that the government may have forced its bureaucrats to help Baird produce a report to demolish the Kyoto agreement with statistics that were "made to order."

"They ordered the work done to prove their point," Bennett said in a phone interview on Tuesday. "Still, this government continued to ridicule this bill after they had received it, [when] they definitely could have worked with it."
Of course, John Baird figured to be even less likely than most of the Cons to actually work with a positive suggestion rather than staying in attack mode. And today's non-plan for non-compliance is less than surprising in reflecting the Cons' continued unwillingness to work with the Kyoto Implementation Act even now that it's become the law of the land.

But what the briefing notes make clear is that in this case, as in so many others, the Cons had far better advice in front of them than what they chose instead to follow. And their decision to continue kicking and screaming against even a bill based primarily on some measure of the accountability which the Cons once claimed to value offers yet another reason why the Cons' judgment can't be trusted.

Update: Steve has more.

Clement: Smoke More!

The Globe and Mail reports that Tony Clement planned to resuscitate a talking-down approach to addressing drug use while ignoring the plain truth that safe-injection sites are far more likely to actually solve part of the problem. And remarkably, Clement's justification is even worse than the planned policy:
Mr. Clement decried the fact that, in Canada, there are nearly as many people who smoke marijuana as ones who smoke tobacco, and blamed vague, ambiguous messaging from politicians and public-health officials.
So on Clement's terms, it'll be a success if more Canadians start smoking tobacco (such as to reduce the relative number who smoke marijuana). Now that's the kind of clear, unambiguous message Canadians need to hear...

Monday, August 20, 2007

Small consolation

Shorter Con sources on Minister of Unaccountability Michael Fortier's federal-building selloff:
Sure, we've sold our house in order to rent it back at a loss. But thanks to our shrewd negotiating, the buyer agreed not to make us change the drapes!

Warped incentives

The Globe and Mail reports that the Cons can't claim they weren't warned about the ineffectiveness of their vehicle feebate program:
Federal bureaucrats warned the Conservative government to keep it simple when creating an incentive program for purchasing a fuel-efficient vehicle because setting up different rules for different models would make it dramatically less cost-effective.

Yet that advice clearly went unheeded in the 2007 budget, which included an incentive and levy system with separate categories for cars, trucks and vehicles that could run on a rare form of ethanol called E85...

For years, civil servants have measured the effectiveness of such programs by measuring how much public money would be required to reduce one tonne of heat-trapping greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions.

“The key findings from the working group are that the cost per tonne of GHGs reduced is high for all options; ranging from $150 per tonne for a permanent incentive that rewards very fuel-efficient vehicles without distinguishing between technology or class; to $2,350 per tonne, for example, for an incentive that differentiates between passenger vehicles and light trucks and expires after four years.”

The second option is essentially what was announced in the March budget, with incentives of between $1,000 and $2,000 for purchases involving seven cars with four-cylinder engines, six SUVs and three mid-size cars with six-cylinder engines that run on E85 fuel. A small number of large vehicles would be slapped with a levy of as much as $4,000.
As alluded to in the article, the working group's findings suggest that none of the vehicle-incentive plans proposed would be particularly efficient at reducing emissions. But even if the Cons were bound to push forward with a vehicle incentive program of some kind, it speaks volumes that they didn't see any problem in choosing an option 15 times less cost-effective than another one readily available to them.

Again, it's not clear whether the Cons will even bother paying out a cent under the program - meaning that the longer-term cost may be measured as much in the missed opportunity to get something done as in sheer dollars and cents. But it's once again glaringly obvious that the Cons' talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions hasn't been backed by even remotely effective action. And when the Cons have failed so miserably even when it comes to seemingly obvious choices such as the better form of feebate program, there's ever less reason to think they can be trusted with more complex policy issues.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

On recognition

It's already been noted (if perhaps not widely enough) that the SPP discussions this week will take place in almost total secrecy. But the CP reports on part of the agenda which the Three Amigos are willing to make public - and even that gives rise to reason for serious concern, as Deceivin' Stephen is apparently eager to have Canadian regulatory decisions made based on politicized data from Bushco's FDA:
The border announcement is one of several expected at the summit. The leaders also plan to announce that they will recognize the research of each country's food and drug regime in an effort to reduce costs and avoid duplication.
Now, the plan might not be such a dangerous one if there was any reason to think that the research itself would be equally accurate from country to country. But the recent history of the country whose research figures to be "recognized" the most often says otherwise.

Remember that Bushco's track record is one of constant political interference in the operations of the Food and Drug Administration, including:
- muzzling the Surgeon General to prevent him from even speaking about "stem cells, emergency contraception, sex education or prison, mental or global health issues";
- consistently demanding that scientists alter or suppress their work for political reasons, particularly in the area of drug research; and
- ordering that an application to make "Plan B" contraceptives available over the counter be rejected before a required manufacturer's study was even complete.

And of course the FDA examples are only part of a wider pattern of political interference with scientific research in areas ranging from global warming to abortion.

Until now, the U.S.' politicized research at least wouldn't have had a direct impact in Canada (though of course the shape of public knowledge on both sides of the border has surely been altered by the U.S.' anti-scientific sense of priorities). But if Canada signs on to an agreement to recognize fudged U.S. data without question, then every bit of flawed evidence coming from the U.S. will affect Canadian citizens no less than American ones.

Needless to say, Bush himself would surely be happy to spread the influence of his political appointees as far as he can. But for Canadians who want to see regulatory decisions made based on accurate data rather than Bush's political agenda, there's no benefit at all to be had from signing on to the planned deal. And if Harper is going to the bargaining table on Canada's behalf lacking either knowledge or interest about the serious problems with the FDA under Bush, then Canadians have yet another reason to think that the Cons can't be trusted with power.

On progressive choices

It's good to see some additional commentary on one of the less-noticed Quebec by-elections (that in Roberval-Lac St. Jean). But I have to question two conclusions seemingly reached by Uncorrected Proofs: that there's a significant threat that the Cons will unseat the Bloc in the by-election, and that a vote for one of the federalist opposition parties won't have a substantial impact.

On the question of which party holds the advantage going into the by-election, it's indeed true that the Conscame surprisingly close to taking the seat in 2006, and have a significantly higher-profile candidate for the by-election. But it's worth remembering that they may have alienated a substantial part of their existing base to do so - with the candidate who managed to pull them within 8% of the Bloc talking about an independent run, and a substantial chunk of the Cons' riding association switching its allegiance to the Libs.

With the only party within striking distance of the Bloc facing an uphill battle just to make up for lost support, the Bloc figures to be fairly safe in retaining the seat...particularly if they do indeed place their by-election focus on retaining their current seats rather than challenging Outremont.

While the party on top thus doesn't figure to change, though, there's plenty of room for movement in the relative strength of the challenging parties. And there's far more room for the parties to gain or lose ground than it would seem based on the 2006 results.

In fact, in 2004 it was the Libs who came in second, with more than double the Cons' vote total. Based on their having nominated a relatively high-profile candidate (in addition to apparently winning over at least some disgruntled Cons), it's fairly clear that they're looking to take back that mantle - and have at least some reasonable chance of succeeding.

Moreover, Roberval-Lac St. Jean isn't entirely barren territory for either the NDP or the Greens, even if it's hardly a strong pickup opportunity at this point.

In the NDP's case, its 2006 vote total of 2,151 was the Dippers' second-best ever in the riding (behind only 1988). Particularly based on the party's obvious focus in Outremont, it's probably unrealistic to expect the NDP to boost its share of the Roberval-Lac St. Jean vote much in the upcoming by-election. But with the NDP well-positioned among current Bloc voters, it could plausibly challenge for the seat an election cycle or two down the road if the Bloc does crumble - as long as it doesn't fall too far behind the Libs and Cons now.

Meanwhile, the Greens put up a respectable showing with 1,689 votes in 2006 - placing them within 3 percentage points of third place. And while the Greens too will face challenges in gaining any ground, they'd surely very much like to beat out one or more of the NDP and Libs for the first time in Quebec.

In sum, while the Bloc seems fairly likely to hold onto the seat, Roberval-Lac St. Jean offers another important opportunity for the federal parties to jockey for position now and lay the groundwork for future gains. And any progressive voter concerned about which party will have a leg up in the long run should be sure to vote for his or her preferred party now - lest it lose ground that can't be made up later.