Saturday, February 09, 2008

On misdirection

As mentioned in this morning's post, let's take a look at the more substantive issue left to be resolved on Afghanistan - which the Libs have turned into an open one by agreeing to negotiate with the Cons rather than sticking to their longstanding position that combat should end in 2009.

The current conventional wisdom, which has spread further than I would have expected, is that the Libs can do nothing more now than try to negotiate with Deceivin' Stephen over the wording of a consensus motion. But has anybody stopped to ask just what they'd accomplish by doing so?

After all, the only real effect of the motion itself will be to determine whether or not Canada agrees to an extension to the end of 2011. From my standpoint, an extension obviously isn't the least bit desirable as an outcome - which is why I'd prefer to see the Libs stand up for their previous 2009 timeline, and spend more of their time attacking Harper for making the motion a matter of confidence, rather than looking for a way to give in.

But even assuming that's where the Libs will get to eventually, it seems to me that they're taking the worst possible route to get there.

After all, the precise wording of the motion the Cons use to extend a combat mission in Afghanistan will have little effect even in the short term, and certainly no ability to bind the future course of the mission. Even if the Libs somehow get Harper to agree to some weasel wording about making training more of a priority, the reality is that it'll still be Deceivin' Stephen in charge for at least the next year and a half (assuming the Libs' intention is indeed to put off facing voters as long as possible).

Needless to say, there's at best a remote possibility that Harper would choose to be bound by any statement of principle. And indeed based on the Cons' track record, there's no reason to think Harper would even start providing enough accurate information about the mission to allow the Libs to evaluate whether or not any change in focus had taken place.

Which means that the upside to negotiating with the Cons is purely symbolic. At best, maybe a few Libs will believe they've saved a small amount of face, but the ultimate outcome will be just the same as if the Cons' motion had passed word for word.

Meanwhile, the obvious downside is that the Libs would end up diverting their own attention, as well as the media's, away from the Cons' woeful record in government and toward an internal battle over the course of the negotiations. Which figures to offer Harper his best chance of boosting the Cons' relative position in the polls during the course of the spring session of Parliament.

Moreover, there's no particular reason to think Harper will do anything but string the Libs along, providing just enough encouragement to make them continue their infighting (with the media likely echoing a government position that the Libs perpetually have to give just a little bit more in order to achieve some consensus). And if Harper ultimately decides he wants an Afghanistan election, he'll still be able to unilaterally reject whatever the Libs come up with and declare that it's his way or the highway.

In sum, if the Libs' goal is to avoid a trip to the polls, the sensible course of action now would be simply to continue their strategy of holding fire by declaring that the Cons' motion as it stands doesn't justify an election, rather than gambling (against all evidence) that Deceivin' Stephen will treat negotiations as anything but an opportunity to exploit internal Lib divisions. Or if Dion instead has any interest in actually ending combat in Afghanistan, then it's long past time to start acting like a leader and aiming some pressure back onto the Cons.

On posturing

The media spin on the Cons' Afghanistan posturing has been so painful over the past couple of days it's hard to know where to start in critiquing it. But for a relatively easy target, one could do worse than the Globe and Mail's coverage today:
The federal government moved yesterday to extend Canada's military mission in Afghanistan to 2011, prompting both the Conservatives and the Opposition Liberals to descend into political posturing that could define a coming election campaign...

Although both the Tories and the Liberals pledged an interest in co-operating on the issue, it took only a few hours before MPs began trading abrasive rhetoric.

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan accused the Liberals of sympathizing with the Taliban when he was asked about the policy of Canadian soldiers transferring captured prisoners into Afghan hands.

"What we will not do is what the agent for the Taliban intelligence agency wants us to do over here, which is release to them information on detailed operations in the field," he said in the House of Commons.

Although the Liberals were less caustic, they were nonetheless steadfast in rejecting the idea of a combat extension.

"We have a motion that we cannot accept today," Liberal Leader St├ęphane Dion told reporters in British Columbia. "We'll come with our own proposal next week and we'll let Parliament do its job."...

Mr. Dion said his party "is never afraid" of an election, but that his priority was to make Parliament work.

Mr. Van Loan also said the government wants to work with the Liberals.

"The government does not believe the mission in Afghanistan should be a partisan political issue," he said. "It is an issue that transcends partisan interests. Too much is at stake."

But he also attacked the Liberals for wanting to avoid combat.

"You cannot leave our troops as sitting ducks in the field to be killed by the enemy in a dangerous part of that country."...

Deputy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said that while the government's motion suggests a willingness to compromise, Mr. Van Loan's partisan remarks leave him pessimistic the two parties can come together.

"We are anxious to work with the government to find a respectable, honourable compromise that serves the national interest. But you can't go into the House of Commons and be told you're the Taliban information service."
In sum, the actual messages between the Cons and the Libs were fairly clear. Van Loan, while claiming to want to cooperate, repeatedly accused the Libs of being Taliban sympathizers who want to see Canadian soldiers killed; in response, the Libs registered their vague disapproval of the Cons' stance, as well as far too much willingness to play along with Harper's motion, without trying to cast personal aspersions.

From my standpoint, it would make sense to draw a strong distinction between those two strategies. But as far as the Globe is concerned, the Libs' mere disagreement with the Cons' policy choices is reason to lump both parties together in terms of "posturing" and "abrasive rhetoric" - with only the slightest allowance that their failing to accuse the Cons of being in league with the Taliban might make them "less caustic".

If there's any lesson the Libs should be taking from this kind of coverage, it's that their usual strategy of planning to offer a position at some point in the future is seldom worthwhile: better to actually take a stance which allows them to respond with some strength to shape their side of the message, rather than having the media lazily lump them in with the theme set by the Cons due to their own failure to provide anything of substance. And in a later post I'll deal with the folly that both the Libs and some in the media have shown in thinking that any attempt to negotiate amendments to the wording of the Cons' motion is worth bothering with.

But that doesn't let the Globe or other media outlets off the hook for drawing exactly the kind of false equivalency that allows the Cons to avoid answering for their consistent efforts to eliminate any real debate about Afghanistan in favour of baseless personal attacks. And the less the media is willing to single out the Cons for much-deserved criticism, the more likely it'll be to have to deal with even more stonewalling and falsehoods from the Cons in the future.

Update: pogge has more.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Unhealthy

The Cons' excuses for answers in yesterday's Question Period look to have been even more lacking in substance and plausibility than usual - perhaps on the assumption that nobody would notice thanks to Deceivin' Stephen's latest attempt to provoke election speculation. But even with some fierce competition from his colleagues, Tony Clement once again manages to stand out in delivering the most nonsensical responses of all:
Mr. Omar Alghabra (Mississauga—Erindale, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, MDS Nordion testified in committee today that it informed senior natural resources officials of the shortage in nuclear isotopes. Guess when? It was on November 22.

It conveyed a great sense of urgency and it warned of a global shortage of isotopes, yet the Minister of Natural Resources claims he did not know until December 3 and apparently he did not bother telling the Minister of Health until December 5.

Why did the Minister of Natural Resources put Canadian lives at risk because of his incompetence?

Hon. Tony Clement (Minister of Health and Minister for the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, we have heard everything from all sides from Liberal opposition members. One week they are saying we did not act soon enough and on another week they are saying we should have acted sooner...

Mr. Omar Alghabra (Mississauga—Erindale, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, the more that minister emphasizes the fiasco, the deeper the hole he digs for himself.

We learned today that MDS Nordion knew on November 21. We know now that natural resources knew on November 22, but the minister claims he did not know until December 3.

We also know that the nuclear medicine industry knew on November 27, yet the Minister of Health claims he did not know until December 5. Who is telling the truth? Exactly what level of incompetence is needed before one is kicked out of cabinet?

Hon. Tony Clement (Minister of Health and Minister for the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario, CPC):
I guess, Mr. Speaker, that this week the Liberal opposition question is: why did we not act sooner? Last week it was: why did we not act?

The question is this. When is the opposition going to show leadership on that side of the House? One week it is, why do we not act and the next week it is simply, why do we not act sooner?
That's right: the Cons' idea of a "gotcha" is to trap the opposition saying first that the government should have acted sooner, and then...that it should have acted sooner. And even the later correction doesn't make any particular sense, as there's no reason why it would be inconsistent to say both that the Cons acted too late and that they did too little to prevent an isotope shortage.

But let's give Clement some credit for indirectly answering at least one of Alghabra's questions. After all, this is just one more indication that no amount of illogic or incompetence is enough to force Stephen Harper to admit that one of his cabinet ministers isn't up to the job.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

On stalling tactics

Shorter Con attempt to delay their way out of a sorely-needed Parliamentary investigation into Conadscam:
Sure, we were caught holding a bloody knife at the scene of a stabbing. But we still won't let you investigate what happened unless you agree to dig through every cutlery drawer on the block.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

On motives

A couple of quick questions for those covering Deceivin' Stephen's latest machinations on Afghanistan.

Might it be worth challenging Harper as to why he feels the need to make the forthcoming Afghanistan extension vote a matter of confidence when he didn't do the same on exactly the same issue in 2006, rather than simply assuming that what Harper decides can't be criticized?

And if, as seems likely, Harper's decision is driven solely by partisan calculation, then shouldn't the Cons' patent lack of principle when it comes to Afghanistan (or any other issue) be an important part of any coverage?

Hopeless

Shorter Jason Cherniak:
Some people may believe in a little town called hope. But as far as I'm concerned, we're better off bulldozing it to make way for a superhighway.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Right-think

Greg Weston points out what may be the most extreme suppression of dissent from the federal Cons yet, as they've decreed that even criticizing the government in a letter to a Member of Parliament may be treated as grounds for dismissal:
A recent memo from the Canadian Grain Commission's director of human resources to rank-and-file public servants, for instance, sent a clear message: In Stephen Harper's wonderful world of open and accountable government, having an independent mind and mouth risks not having a job.

Seems one of the major federal public service unions has been encouraging its members at the commission to write to their MPs, opposing Bill C-39 killing federal control of grain sales.

A subsequent e-mail from management, approved at the highest levels of the Harper administration, warned in part: "You are free to convey your views to your Member of Parliament, so long as you do not criticize the Government of Canada, or otherwise bring into question your ability to perform your employment duties."

Translation: As long as you agree with Harper, by all means write and tell your MP. Otherwise, best not leave your office as a return address on the letter.

The muzzle doesn't stop there.

Even letters to the editor that may be critical of The Conservative Truth are apparently out.

"If you identify yourself as a Canadian Grain Commission employee in a letter to the editor that criticizes government policy relating to (the commission), you could create a perception that your views of government policy are not impartial, and that you may not be able to follow or apply government policy in an impartial manner."

Translation: By all means write to the paper, and be sure to check the want ads for your next job opportunity.
If anything, the latter type of muzzle may be somewhat less surprising given the Cons' consistent efforts to control any media coverage. But it's particularly stunning that the Cons have now made it explicit that even a letter to an MP - whose job is of course to represent constituents' interests when it comes to matters of federal policy - is now being treated as unacceptably independent thought for a federal employee.

Update: Mind you, the Cons do seem to have left the door open for employees to write to any MP other than their own. And of course only Con MPs would have any means of tracking who's written what. So for those looking to criticize the government, I'm sure any opposition member will be happy to receive news about the Cons' mismanagement.

Monday, February 04, 2008

No private matter

Thanks to the Canadian Medical Association Journal (as reported by the CP), we know have an explanation as to why AECL wasn't coordinated with other isotope suppliers as it had been in the past - as the current "private" component of the public-private partnership dealing with isotopes from Chalk River preferred to risk patients' lives rather than its own market share. Do we need any more evidence that privatizing even further only figures to make matters worse?

Update: Corrected source, as pointed out by Josh in comments at POGGE.

Frankly speaking

CanWest reports that the Cons have once again broken the rules in order to better submit to the will of His Harperness - this time, by using MPs' mailing privileges to send out centralized party messages without even pretending to refer to any MP:
The House of Commons is reviewing the way it educates MPs about sending mail after a Conservative caucus research group mailout was sent to households across Canada for free, a privilege the group does not enjoy.

According to the Canada Post Corporation Act, mail sent to or from members of the House of Commons is not subject to postal fees, an arrangement often referred to as the "franking privilege." However, the Conservative Resource Group's mailing did not have the name of a sponsoring MP as part of its return address...

The recent mailout features a picture of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal leader St├ęphane Dion, and invites recipients to choose between GST policies allegedly championed by the two men.

The black-and-white flyer asks recipients to send their responses to CRG Government Caucus Services at the House of Commons, but does not include the name of a specific MP who will receive them.
On its face, the mailing issue may be slightly different from others such as Conadscam. While Conadscam seems to have come about precisely because the Cons couldn't legally spend additional money on the national level, there's nothing stopping the Cons from using their oft-trumpeted fund-raising returns to send out exactly the same mailing while paying for postage. (Though it's worth pointing out just how petty the scheme looks in that context.)

That said, it's easy to see how both schemes, along with the Cons' general control over MP messaging, originate from precisely the same general strategy. In each case, anything a Con MP could possibly acquire as a result of a place in politics - be it campaign spending room, mailing privileges, or even the very ability to attract a media audience - is seen as ultimately belonging to Harper and his central command. And in order to better serve Harper, any Con MP is expected to ignore the legality of what's being done in his name as long as it helps to disseminate the party message just a little bit further.

In that context, it should be obvious that merely educating MPs about the rules governing their franking privileges (as discussed in the article) won't ultimately accomplish much. The greater issue is instead that of a government which once again seems to think that rules don't apply to it - and only Canadian voters can ultimately solve that problem.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Well said

The most important question surrounding the Cons' policy of obsessive secrecy and political control has always been whether or not it would be duly recognized and criticized. Fortunately, the last few weeks have seen far more media willingness to call out the Cons for their information embargo - and Randall Denley's column on information suppression at Environment Canada may be the strongest statement yet:
(A) leaked department PowerPoint presentation says the options (facing an Environment Canada expert) are asking the expert to "respond with approved lines," having media relations respond, referring the call to the minister's office or to another department. Having the expert talk to the media as if he were a grownup doesn't appear on the list. While stopping short of denying the existence of the document the news story relies on, Jack says he hasn't seen it. Sounds like he's not going to look for it, either...

The media control specialists in the federal government are canny enough to know that if they say nothing, most any story will eventually fade away. The problem for the Stephen Harper government is that it takes that tack so often, out of concern for its image, that it is having the contrary effect of damaging its image. One really has to ask, what has this government got to hide? Do the public servants know a lot of things that would scandalize us if we knew, too?...

In fairness, one has to thank Environment Canada for continuing to release the weather forecasts without clearance from above. Baird might want to rethink that. If the weather were cold all the time, maybe people wouldn't be as worried about global warming. The government could just say the weather was cold and stick to its story. We'd all know it was untrue, but it would fit well with the government's overall communications policy.
It remains to be seen whether or not Denley and others will take their rightful concern about the Cons' dishonesty to its logical conclusion by giving proportionately less voice to the federal government's spin doctors, and putting more effort into digging behind the public facade. And if (as seems likely) the Cons' rationale for silencing the public service is indeed based on skeletons waiting to emerge from their closet, then the potential rewards for that type of shift figure to be significant.

Regardless of how much followup there is, though, it's an important first step for the mainstream press to recognize and point out the disconnect between the Con party line and anything resembling the truth. And that message will hopefully be enough on its own to confirm to Canadian voters that they're best off taking power out of Harper's hands as quickly and decisively as possible.