Saturday, October 13, 2007

On group dynamics

The Star has filled in some details on the Liebermanley Group through a series of reports this morning. And it seems that the Libs themselves were well aware that their spin on the situation had absolutely no basis in reality.

Let's start by noting that while Dion's public message tried to downplay the danger of John Manley's involvement by suggesting that his presence might moderate both the final report and Harper's actual position, Manley himself has an entirely different target in mind:
Manley, who has twice visited Afghanistan, said he's been deeply touched by the humanitarian needs there and suggested Canada should not withdraw prematurely.

"Afghanistan represents an enormous opportunity for Canada to play a meaningful role in a globally significant arena. But it also represents an enormous challenge to our resources and our capabilities," he said. "And Canadians rightfully ask whether our sacrifices are making a lasting difference."

Manley said yesterday that he hopes Dion is open to hearing the panel's advice on an "appropriate role" for Canada in Afghanistan.
Needless to say, when Manley himself figures the Libs should alter their stance to match the group rather than the other way around, there's absolutely no reason to think Manley will offer any moderating presence on the panel. And that goes doubly given his tendency to let the U.S. dictate Canadian actions as pointed out by Lawrence Martin.

But then, it appears Dion himself knew perfectly well just how problematic the appointment was, even as he tried to spin in the opposite direction for the cameras:
As has happened in the past, Manley's move had Liberals shaking their heads. This was a man, after all, who chose to return to private law practice rather than accept former prime minister Paul Martin's offer of the coveted post of Canadian ambassador to Washington.

Liberal Leader St├ęphane Dion publicly welcomed Manley's attempt to contribute to the divisive Afghanistan debate, but was privately fuming over what many Liberals saw as a betrayal that would help Harper build a case for prolonging the Afghan military mission contrary to the wishes of all three opposition parties.
Which means that Dion himself seems to have recognized the most important problem with the group's appointment - but decided to say otherwise publicly in order to appease the Manley wing of the party. Which can only make it likely that he'll end up giving Manley his wish at the end of the process as well, in the form of yet another combat extension.

It's hard to imagine a much more vivid example of how quickly any trace of principle has been wrung out of Dion over the course of less than a year at the helm of the Libs. But with Dion now publicly taking the Cons' side on another of the major issues facing the country (even while he grumbles about doing so in private), the time has never been better for former Lib voters to turn to a more progressive choice.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Weakening

The Libs have given another couple of hints as to how they're planning to cave to Stephen Harper going forward. And there's all the more reason to doubt that Stephane Dion's party is even remotely interested in presenting an effective opposition.

First, rather than recognizing Deceivin' Stephen's Afghanistan delay tactic for what it is, Dion's response suggests that he's under the delusion that Harper is even remotely interested in hearing and being convinced by opposing views:
Manley said he called Liberal Leader Stephane Dion on Thursday night to inform him of his decision. Dion praised the appointment and expressed hope that Manley might get the prime minister to modify his Afghan position.
Needless to say, there's no explanation as to how someone who apparently shares Harper's desire for long-term combat would even be arguing for a modified position, let alone succeed in winning it on a Con-stacked panel advising a prime minister who's notorious for listening to nobody but himself. And Dion's bizarre willingness to overlook reality effectively ensures that the united opposition response which would be needed to undercut Harper's ploy won't materialize.

Meanwhile, the Libs' environment critic has announced that he doesn't think his party will even consider voting down the Cons' throne speech no matter what it contains on Kyoto:
Liberals won't bring down the Harper government over next week's throne speech, even if it effectively abandons the Kyoto climate-change pact, the party's environment critic says.

"The Liberal Party of Canada isn't going to be goaded into the boxing ring with Stephen Harper," David McGuinty said Friday. "We're not that gullible or foolish."
With the Kyoto announcement having failed to provoke any semblance of a spine from a party which is supposedly dedicated to making the environment one of its top three issues, it's hard to see what the Cons couldn't slip into the throne speech while still be able to count on the Libs propping them up. Though they may well be tempted to toss in the occasional "Librano organized crime ring" just to confirm that the Libs will put up with absolutely anything to avoid a trip to the polls.

Toss in the Libs' call for corporations to be put ahead of the general public yet again, and there's no reason at all for Canadians to think either that the Libs genuinely hold even faintly progressive values, or that they'd stand up to Harper to defend them if they did. Which means that anybody hoping for effective opposition (and an alternative to continued Harper government) is long overdue to start looking elsewhere.

On delay tactics

While a few bloggers have commented on the Cons' plan to appoint an -I-r-a-q- Afghanistan study group (cue breathless media fawning: "with a special bipartisan guest appearance by John Liebermanley!"), the talk so far has mostly assumed that Harper's primary motivation is to eliminate Afghanistan as an election issue this fall. But from what I can tell, the move is aimed primarily at the possibility that the current Parliament might continue.

As I've discussed before, the main question on Afghanistan in the current Parliament always figured to be when the issue would be put up for a vote. And there's little reason to think the result of a vote this fall - which the opposition could raise of its own motion at any time - would be anything but a firm opposition vote against an extension.

As a result, the Cons have been desperately trying to avoid any action this fall, trying to push the vote to somewhere between early 2008 and whenever they'll be sure of the result they want. And having obviously failed to convince the public that their entitlement to set the timing for a vote should stand on its own merits, they're now looking to buy themselves a few months with a cherry-picked "bipartisan" study group.

Now, I'm not sure that Canadian voters would ultimately buy the excuse that the Cons should be able to delay the vote any more this way than through their previous edicts. But the appointment offers at least one new fig leaf for a clearly-frightened Harper to hide behind - at least until the opposition responds with a clear statement that it doesn't see the group as a legitimate means of delaying an Afghanistan vote this fall.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Universal ideas

While most of the coverage from the first day of Saskatchewan's election campaign has focused fairly narrowly on the first policy offerings from both the NDP and the Saskatchewan Party, I haven't yet seen the broader philosophies behind those platform planks receive much attention. But it looks like another issue in addition to federal/provincial relations will serve as a major point of difference between the two main contenders, as the parties are seemingly taking polar opposite views on the idea of universality in access to services (even while trying to put money toward the same issues).

Of course, the NDP's prescription drug plan figures to be the largest universal program to be brought up during the course of the campaign. And it only makes sense as an extension of universal health care to make sure that Saskatchewan residents receive relief from the fastest-rising share of health-care costs.

But with the Sask Party having not yet unveiled anything by way of health policy, the most stark contrast for now lies in the parties' respective treatment of education costs.

The NDP's promise to adopt the McCall report would result in an across-the-board tuition cut, making education more affordable to all students while they're actually enrolled at Saskatchewan universities - particularly in light of a concurrent increase in student loan limits for housing and living.

Mind you, some elements of the plan would involve some differentiation - based either on individual accomplishment (i.e. added scholarship funding) or a specific need for improved access (i.e. incentives for students from neighbourhoods of low socioeconomic status). But even the latter differentiated benefits can be classified in terms of universal access. And the obvious core of the NDP's plan is to make sure that all students are better able to afford university at the time they attend it.

In contrast, the Sask Party's education platform is aimed almost entirely at tax credits after graduation. Student debt would pile up no less quickly, and the cost of seeking a university education would be no more affordable at the time when a student actually attends school. The only difference from the status quo would be the possibility of paying any debt down more quickly after the fact.

That graduate credit is also accompanied by a promise to offer an additional credit limited solely to income earned through self-employment - despite the lack of any apparent difference in principle between the merits of self-employment and employment generally. I'd think that's a fairly curious choice, but it certainly offers a stark contrast to the NDP's more universal focus.

While education offers the most obvious example of the differing philosophies so far, it figures to be far from the only issue where the question of universality comes up. Again, health care looks to be an obvious one as well, as the Sask Party is already attacking the NDP's prescription drug plan precisely for its universality. And the NDP's focus on low utility rates also serves as an effective universal benefit which figures to be a topic of conversation.

Of course, it's always possible that the campaign could go in an entirely different direction. But the difference in views on universal access could both serve as the main point of distinction between the NDP and the Sask Party, and lead to a far more meaningful policy debate within the Saskatchewan campaign than we've seen in other provinces which have recently gone to the polls. And hopefully that's a result that would be universally well-received.

Update: And not surprisingly the Sask Party's prescription drug proposal feeds into the argument somewhat as well, clawing back the existing benefits for thousands of seniors, providing no similar plan for anybody aged 15 to 64 and adding a cap on costs only for children under 14. Though it's interesting to note that the Sask Party's means-testing for seniors wouldn't be applied to children (or their parents).

Shady dealings

A few notes on the equalization announcement yesterday by the federal and Nova Scotia Cons.

First, it's far from clear that the ultimate deal reflects any more generous offer by the federal government in order to get a deal done. Indeed, it was reported earlier this year that the federal offer at that time similarly contained no explicit downside while potentially offering an additional billion dollars over the life of the deal - double what the new deal apparently includes.

All along, the question was whether the federal government would actually stick to the deal offered by Harper. And from this angle, it still looks like MacDonald got the answer right the first time.

So what changed since the earlier offer? Obviously the federal Cons haven't done anything much to earn any additional trust in the meantime. But it seems entirely possible that MacDonald bought into the conventional wisdom (however flawed it may be) that with the Libs floundering, Harper's Cons will stay in power for some time to come - meaning that there was little prospect of a new federal government either offering a better deal, or overturning one agreed to by Harper.

Meanwhile, MacDonald likely recognized as well that the federal bargaining position wasn't about to change in his favour as long as Harper stayed in power. After all, the lone Con MP principled enough to stand up for his province had already been expelled, meaning that there was virtually no risk of in-caucus strife over the lack of a deal. Since Harper was obviously willing to pay the price in Nova Scotia seats for failing to keep the federal bargain before, there wasn't much reason to think that would change. And unlike Lorne Calvert, MacDonald hadn't shown any particular willingness to test the legal merits of his position.

As a result, MacDonald may have decided to simply take the best deal he could get on paper now in the hope that Harper (or a subsequent PM) would live up to it.

Based on the fact that the deal doesn't seem different from the previous federal offer, it's hard to give Harper much credit or blame for the fact that the deal happened. But the timing of the announcement has his fingerprints all over it.

In Atlantic Canada, the announcement figures to stop some of the bleeding following Danny Williams' successful anti-Harper campaign in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Though I have serious doubts that it'll actually improve the Cons' fortunes in Nova Scotia as some seem to think.)

And with a Saskatchewan election known to be in the cards, the deal also provides a signal to Brad Wall that Harper would very much like him to abandon any critical talk about the federal government in favour of a "Stephen Is My Sugar Daddy" strategy. Though I remain far from convinced that the result will be anything other than a backlash against both Wall and Harper.

What remains to be seen is whether MacDonald and Harper have calculated correctly in agreeing to the deal how and when they did. And it seems entirely possible that both minority governments will later regret their efforts to temporarily improve their standing now.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

On practical theories

Shorter Andrew Coyne:
Because neoliberal economic theory is infallible, you'd have to be hopelessly dogmatic to even suggest policies which don't implement it in its entirety. And no, I don't see any irony in that statement.

Election inducements

Norman Spector muses about one route to a fall federal election which I'd wondered about as well:
No one can say for certain - perhaps not even Stephen Harper himself - whether the PM will be hitting the hustings later this month. However, if that were his preference, there's no way the opposition could thwart him: Mr. Harper need only instruct all but a handful of Conservative MPs to skip the vote on the Throne Speech.

Too cynical? No doubt. But no more so than reports of Liberals hoping to avoid an election by voting in sufficient numbers for the Throne Speech, a confidence matter, while awaiting an opportune time to defeat the government. Judging from the reaction to what would be Parliament Hill's first "absent opposition," perhaps this degree of cynicism no longer falls below acceptable standards in federal politics.
Now, Spector seems to confuse the possibility of some portion of the Libs merely sitting out the throne speech with an actual vote in support. The Cons could indeed force the Libs to either vote for the speech or face an election if they decline to show up in sufficient numbers. But contrary to what Spector suggests, the Libs could well succeed in propping up the government by voting for the speech if the Cons simply sat out the vote.

In any event, though, I have my doubts that the Cons would actually follow this strategy on the main vote on the throne speech.

After all, based on the structure of the vote itself (yeas before nays), the Cons would be forced to register their precise number of votes first. That would allow the Libs to have the final call as to whether or not to actually bring down the government - at least giving Dion his choice of options. And if the Libs did decide to bring down the Cons, they (and the other opposition parties) would then be able to muster their full forces for a resounding non-confidence vote, trumpet the government's lack of confidence in its own throne speech as the sole reason for the election, and spend the campaign asking why Canadians should have confidence in a party which doesn't have confidence in itself.

In contrast, if the Cons are determined to force an election, the more likely play would be to declare one of the Libs' throne speech amendments to be a matter of confidence, while refusing to telegraph in advance their own vote on the amendment.

Presumably the Libs would have to vote in force for the amendment due to the embarrassment that would result from their voting down their own proposal in order to avoid an election. And most likely, the Libs would phrase the amendment such that the other opposition parties would be unwilling to vote for it - though the Bloc and NDP would have the option of throwing a monkey wrench into the works by voting against type. (For that reason, the Libs couldn't even be sure to avoid an election by voting against their own amendment.)

If all went as expected, though, the Cons would then have the choice to precipitate an election by simply declining to vote against the amendment. And all without demonstrating any direct distaste for their own agenda.

For that matter, any number of other possibilities also exist. The Cons could declare a confidence motion on an NDP or Bloc amendment designed to be consistent with the Libs' own platform, or indeed the Cons could virtually ensure an election by outright voting down their own throne speech - with not much more apparent political cost than they'd take on by simply refusing to vote.

About all that can safely be concluded for now is that the Libs' telegraphed strategy of refusing to vote down the throne speech has opened up a virtually infinite array of possible countermaneuvers. And if the Libs continue to signal their fear of an election by hinting at ever more embarrassing maneuvers to prop up the Cons, that only increases the likelihood that the Cons will be motivated to force a trip to the polls.

Wall: Patronage Is My Only Principle

In a well-timed follow-up to last night's post, Murray Mandryk notes that Brad Wall has finally found an issue where's willing to differentiate his party from the provincial NDP. But there's plenty of reason to doubt that Saskatchewan voters will buy into his call to beg for federal handouts:
While Wall said the court challenge should be pursued "if there's a chance to win this case", he seemed equally critical of the NDP government for clinging to the "have-not" equalization argument.

"Are we going to have the kind of leadership in the province any time soon that acts like it's leading a 'have' province and a province that intends to remain a 'have' province?" Wall asked last week.

Interestingly, Wall's talking points were near-identical to what came out of Harper's mouth: "What Saskatchewan needs is a government that will understand the challenge is to take advantage of that opportunity to become a 'have' province permanently, rather than try and come up with some formula that's going to pay equalization to have provinces, because there is no such formula," Harper said...

While reiterating he's been as frustrated as anybody with the Conservatives' broken promises, Wall said he's equally frustrated because he believes there was a better deal to be had for a "have" province outside the equalization formula, one that might have involved federal infrastructure spending in Saskatchewan or addressing off-reserve First Nations issues. Moreover, even though his past criticism of the broken Conservative promise has not gone over well in Ottawa, Wall hinted that his closer relationship with the federal Conservatives could help Saskatchewan secure an even better deal than the $800-million-a-year deal.
So here's the contrast between the two parties. The Calvert NDP is calling for a stable federal formula which meets the Cons' campaign promises while actually allowing the province to spend the money as it sees fit - and wants to pursue the most obvious avenue to reach that goal.

Meanwhile, Wall is looking for a mandate to make regular appearances, hat in hand, at the federal Department of Pork, in hopes that Saskatchewan can pry out a few more federal dollars based on his ideological connections. And all in the name of presenting Saskatchewan as a proud "have" province.

What's more, it's worth noting that Wall may have missed one of the most important conditions attached to the federal infrastructure funding which he seems to want to pursue. That's right: after his party has spent the past four years trying (unsuccessfully) to shed its well-deserved reputation for wanting to axe the province's public sector, it's now entirely willing to make Saskatchewan dependent on funding which is explicitly tied to P3 schemes rather than public ownership. Which could turn the campaign into even less friendly terrain for the Sask Party.

Of course, the campaign hasn't even started yet, and it could be that other issues will turn up - assuming that Wall is willing to take another stand rather than trying the safer tactic of a full Seinfeld campaign. But his current stand has the potential not only to turn the provincial debate in the NDP's favour, but also to weaken the federal Cons in the province as their own patronage gets placed in the spotlight. Which means that Wall's effort at mutual back-scratching with the Harper government may only wind up giving both exactly what they deserve.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

On popular opposition

Danny Williams' landslide win in Newfoundland's provincial election may not be receiving the attention it deserves on a national scale. But it isn't likely a coincidence that the premier who's attacked Stephen Harper most directly (despite sharing relatively similar ideological leanings) has managed to significantly improve his position as a result - while the one who received the most Con largesse to try to improve his electoral position, as well as the next three most Con-friendly provincial governments to face their voters, all lost ground within their provinces.

In case there was any doubt, this should provide an obvious hint as to the upside of presenting a strong challenge to the Cons' federal government - as well as an indication that Harper's supposedly deft political touch is more myth than fact. And it may not be long before Harper's own federal party is the next to learn that lesson the hard way.

A deepening quagmire

The Globe and Mail reports on yet another reason to doubt Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan figures to resolve anything, as it turns out that government officials in the Kandahar region are themselves so corrupt that they can't be trusted to pay police officers.

Now, Canada's action in taking over the job of paying the police might offer a short-term boost to the area. But there's little reason to think that it'll be either logistically feasible or politically acceptable for Canada to take on an ever-growing role in governing Afghanistan in the future. Which means that between the lack of any trustworthy local government and the grim reality on security which only gets mentioned by the Cons when an opposition MP visits the area, there's ever less reason to think the Cons are being honest about the long-term prospects of the mission.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Recognizing the bias

Lawrence Martin points out the media's (largely) inexplicable habit of hailing nearly everything the Cons do as sheer strategic genius, rather than paying attention to Stephen Harper's obvious failure to even hold on to his party's previous level of support:
Stephen Harper's disdain for the fourth estate has been well documented. His government has allowed less access than almost any before it. In his latest salvo, he is snubbing the annual press gallery dinner.

But rather than hurt him, Mr. Harper - is there method in his badness? - is getting increasingly favourable media treatment. To look at the recent coverage, you would think his government is on a roll. Breathless reports follow breathless reports on how he could destroy all opponents in an election this fall.

That's not bad for a governing party stuck at 33 per cent in the polls for months, one that has fallen six or seven points since it tabled its last budget in March, one that has lost more support in that time than the Liberals or NDP, both of whose numbers have remained stable.

This is usually the kind of news that gets you booed out of town. But, in the case of Mr. Harper, the scribes are doing more cheering than jeering. They look at opinion surveys on who would make the best leader and see that he is far ahead. Given the built-in advantage a prime minister has in such a ranking, any PM who doesn't enjoy a wide spread over a relatively unknown opponent should take up lawn bowling...

If it so desired, an ornery-minded press could find much fodder for trashing the Tories: They're running all over the map on the environment file and coming up with not much; they lack clear direction on a war that has no foreseeable end; they have a small list of accomplishments; and they failed, after following a modest five-point plan in their first year, to give the country a sense of direction in their second.

But, instead of targeting the PM, the press has chosen Mr. Dion. For the most part, the Liberal Leader is well deserving of the opprobrium. But the fact remains that the Harper Conservatives have been losing the most ground in terms of public esteem.
Unfortunately, Martin makes exactly the same mistake that he observes elsewhere by giving Harper credit for being "crafty" in his consistent scorn for the media. Which suggests that it's going to take an awful lot of work to try to get the current narrative turned around.

But at the very least, it's significant that at least some prominent columnists are waking up to the free ride that Harper has received so far. And if that leads to anywhere near the scrutiny the Con government has earned, then Harper's stay in power may not last anywhere near as long as most media commentators seem willing to assume now.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Senseless

Shorter (or at least more accurate) Halls of Macadamia:
In light of the shooting of Constable Christopher John Worden, we should declare war on everything even speculated to be linked to his death, including low-income citizens, apartment complexes, and police assistance calls. But not guns, because that would be wrongly politicizing a tragedy.

Introducing the Department of Pork

I posted last week about some of the glaring problems with the Cons' infrastructure plan. But in a column which received far too little attention, John Ivison points out that the Cons are deliberately diverting their already-meager funding to immediate pork projects rather than genuine infrastructure needs, going so far as to create a new planning group for that purpose:
The government is sitting on a $33-billion fund to be spent under its Buildings Canada Infrastructure Plan over the next seven years, and it hopes to leverage a further $50-billion from provincial and private-sector partners.

The problem is that Mr. Cannon has had difficulties getting projects out the door, to the great frustration of his colleagues, who want to go into an election having promised to build wharves in Saskatchewan, bridges where there are no rivers and a shiny new hockey arena in every riding...

Whatever the reason for the slow pace of project rollouts, Mr. Harper has lost patience and has moved to set up an infrastructure group within Mr. Cannon's department, led by the former head of the Conservative research bureau, Ian Harry.

This group will report regularly to the Prime Minister's Office with updates on how to spend the money "strategically" -- that is, in Conservative and marginal ridings.
As an aside, let's note that Ivison's numbers may not be entirely accurate based on last week's report. Instead, the $50 billion number seems on my reading to include the $33 billion coming from the federal government - and half of the $33 billion in turn is based on a transfer of gas tax revenues to municipalities, rather than actual infrastructure projects.

Which isn't to say that it's a bad thing for spending decisions to be in the hands of municipalities or provinces rather than the federal government. And that goes doubly in light of what Ivision has revealed about the Cons' current spending strategy.

It would be bad enough, if perhaps more justifiable, if the Cons were merely distorting the timing of infrastructure announcements in order to receive immediate credit for future spending. But from Ivison's column, it's clear that Harper has specifically ordered that the shape of infrastructure spending will also be based on purely partisan considerations rather than actual infrastructure needs. Which raises the spectre that the Cons could soon be pouring large amounts of federal money into bridges to nowhere while more pressing needs in non-Con regions are ignored.

Of course, the new infrastructure group is far from the only example of the Cons' view that Canada's public money is nothing more than their own partisan re-election fund. Remember their general plan to divert 5% of all government spending to their own purposes in years to come, as well as specific examples such as their move to stretch the definition of environmentally-friendly cars in order to provide tax breaks on vehicles manufactured near Jim Flaherty's riding.

But it takes a special kind of chutzpah for Harper to have deliberately set up a publicly-funded body for the sole purpose of spending public funds for the Cons' political gain. And the more attention the Cons receive for having set up their Department of Pork, the more likely voters will be to conclude that the Cons can't be trusted with the power to waste Canada's public money.

(Edit: added label.)