Saturday, May 10, 2008

On liabilities

It's been difficult enough for opposition MPs to try to wring any meaningful information out of a government which has made a habit of responding to questions with lawsuits rather than bona fide answers. But a decision by Parliament's Ethics Commissioner raises serious questions about the ability of opposition members to do their job:
A Liberal MP has been barred from asking questions on the Mulroney-Schreiber affair in Parliament, raising fears that a libel chill is set to extend into the House and committee rooms on the Hill.

Up until this week, Liberal MP Robert Thibault had been one of the opposition party's main questioners on the cash dealings between former prime minister Brian Mulroney and businessman Karlheinz Schreiber.

However, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has barred Mr. Thibault from raising the issue further in Parliament because Mr. Mulroney has launched a $2-million lawsuit against Mr. Thibault for allegedly libellous statements on CTV Newsnet on the matter.

Ms. Dawson ruled that according to the conflict-of-interest code, Mr. Thibault now has a "private interest" in the controversy and he cannot debate or vote on issues related to it.

In the absence of the lawsuit, Mr. Thibault could have continued to say anything on the matter in Parliament, given that parliamentary privilege protects MPs from being sued for what they say in the House or at committee.

However, the Ethics Commissioner said the conflict-of-interest code, as it stands, clearly affects Mr. Thibault's rights as an MP.

She found that Mr. Thibault was wrong to participate in the ethics committee's probe of the Mulroney-Schreiber dealings, including asking questions directly to Mr. Mulroney last December. Mr. Mulroney announced his intention to sue last November and filed the suit in January.

"I am of the view that lawsuits claiming damages that have been instituted against an individual constitute a liability," Ms. Dawson's ruling said.

"His participation in the work of the Committee could reasonably be seen to be potentially influenced by his private interest, thus interfering with his public duties and functions and clearly creating a situation of real or apparent conflict of interest," she said.
What's worse is that the Cons have already been less than shy about using SLAPPs to distract or shut down opposition - even when there was no direct consequence to continuing a line of questioning after such a claim had been filed. Now, Dawson's decision raises the prospect that any future lawsuit can force opposition MPs to keep quiet under penalty of punishment by the Ethics Commissioner even if the claim itself is frivolous.

It remains to be seen whether the opposition responds by looking to amend the ethics code to avoid the problem. But that itself would seem problematic in giving the Cons an opening both to slam the opposition for limiting the definition of a conflict of interest, and to justify far more serious conflicts of their own. Which means that opposition MPs will face a tough choice whether to take a needed public stand to preserve their ability to properly hold the government accountable - or accept the risk that the Cons will render that even more difficult in the future.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The nuclear option

When Berlynn posted last week about the possibility of the Wall government pushing for a nuclear reactor within the province, my initial take was that the Sask Party would have to be crazy to make that their main issue. And while SaskPower's report on possible reactor sites may be stirring up debate, I'm not sure it changes the political calculus at all.

As I've noted before, the argument for nuclear development is at best a tough one politically for lack of any natural constituency which would back the construction of a reactor. Obviously the would-be profiteers would have a strong incentive to push any project, but even voters most concerned about economic development can recognize that other, better options are available.

After all, SaskPower's report only confirms that Saskatchewan's demand for electricity isn't great enough to justify a nuclear plant on its own. Even with the proposed Lake Diefenbaker site singled out for its relative proximity to areas which might actually use the electricity, it's still clear that a significant chunk of any power generated would have to be exported (and wasted in part through long-distance transmission). Which would make Saskatchewan an odd place to put a nuclear reactor even if one is prepared generally to accept the risks that come with one.

Perhaps more importantly, in a province where contractors are already in short supply and high demand, a nuclear megaproject would divert a significant portion of the province's construction capacity. Which would make a reactor more likely to serve as a barrier to economic diversification than to help the economy in the long term.

In sum, the case for a reactor is both weak on its own, and likely to be made by only a few isolated actors. Conversely, though, any nuclear project only figures to serve as a flashpoint for opposition to the Sask Party.

As I noted in commenting on Berlynn's post, at least two groups would have obvious reasons for coalescing in opposition to nuclear development. Environmentalists will naturally point out the risks of nuclear power generally as well as the waste issue, while supporters of the Crowns will have every reason to be wary of any plan which would involve privatizing power profits.

But in addition to those two groups, plenty of others will have reason to want to join up in opposition - whether it's rural municipalities and businesses who would rather see economic development fostered across the province rather than focused on a single point, residents concerned about the danger to water within Lake Diefenbaker and other sources, proponents of other types of power, or others who join into the fray.

And if that type of coalition ends up spending the better part of the next three years opposing the Sask Party in its largest and highest-profile project, it only stands to reason that the same actors will be both highly motivated and well-positioned to end Wall's term in office in 2011.

Not that that's stopped at least one cabinet minister from suggesting that the Sask Party would want to commit to a reactor during its first term. But faced with the choice between pushing an issue which is bound to bring together the strongest possible opposition and focusing his attention on measures which won't do as much to harm his chances of a second term, I still find it surprising that Wall would even consider choosing the first option.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

On wedge issues

The Globe and Mail reports that the Libs are laying the groundwork for a carbon tax/tax shifting proposal to be their policy centrepiece in the next federal election. What's most interesting about the framework being discussed now, though, is that it provides just as strong an opening for the NDP as for the Libs in drawing a distinction from the Cons' status quo:
St├ęphane Dion is poised to unveil a carbon-tax scheme and attempt to neutralize any political damage by offering corresponding personal income tax cuts of between $10-billion and $13-billion to working Canadians, senior Liberal sources say.

The Liberal Leader wants this major environmental policy to be the centrepiece of the party's election campaign platform, according to the sources, and is anxious to reveal it this summer to give Canadians a chance to digest the idea before a federal election.

The plan, according to sources, would shift the 10-cent federal excise tax on a litre of fuel at the pumps into a broad-based carbon tax that would also apply to other fuels, such as for home heating. Sources say that the plan would not add more taxes to gasoline.

But the key is that the money raised – estimated as much as $17-billion – would be returned to middle-class and working Canadians in personal income tax cuts, making it revenue neutral. There could be corporate tax cuts as well.
Let's note first the most obvious critique of the plan, as it would necessarily impose a burden on either individuals or businesses who currently rely on carbon-based fuels and don't have the money sitting around to compensate with new equipment. My initial hunch is that the divide would likely break down along urban/rural lines, with city-based Canadians likely having far more alternatives available (and thus likely coming out ahead in the shift), while rural-based ones would face far more difficulty in adapting.

Now, the Libs could conceivably try to tweak their proposal to avoid this result. But for those of us who want to see Harper removed from office, such a dividing line could prove to be a feature rather than a bug.

After all, the NDP likely wouldn't mind targeting a campaign message toward those who would stand to be most directly harmed by the Libs' plan. Having already taken up the cause of pointing out how gas-price gouging affects Canadians, the NDP would be well-positioned to emphasize that its price-regulation proposal would reduce the costs of the same fuels which the Libs would plan to tax. And on the balance, the NDP would stand a strong chance of gaining more from the Cons by campaigning on more affordable supplies in rural areas than it would lose to the Libs in the cities.

Meanwhile, the Cons would have little option but to argue for a status quo where high fuel prices serve only to pump money into the oil and gas industry. At best, they might try to counter by cutting existing gas taxes. But the NDP could bash that as simply putting more money in the pockets of oil companies, while the Libs would presumably respond by emphasizing the environmental implications of actually encouraging more energy-burning.

In sum, a ballot question based on fuel prices - with the Libs' platform appealing to those who don't use many carbon-based fuels, while the NDP holds the promise of a more affordable approach for those who do while pointing out different means of reducing our emissions in the long term - could easily leave the Cons bleeding support from all sides. And that's the kind of shifting that many Canadians would be glad to see.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Ever more radioactive

The CP reports that while the Cons have refused to answer questions about their position on nuclear power at home, they've been less than shy internationally. And indeed, the Con government may now hold primary responsibility for the potential proliferation of uranium enrichment technology due to the Harper government's apparent desire to push more nuclear development on Canadians:
The Canadian government has been campaigning internationally for months to add this country to the small, tightly circumscribed club of nuclear enrichment states.

But the diplomatic arm-twisting only came to light less than three weeks ago, when the United States announced it was dropping its insistence on a ban on uranium enrichment technology to non-nuclear states.

Anonymous negotiators at the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting in Vienna emerged to say the American demand had been shelved primarily at the insistence of Canada, which wants to build uranium enrichment plants.

Who knew?

As it turns out, a great many people — but few in Canada and certainly not the news media whose job is to inform the public about federal policy.

Canada's interest in uranium enrichment is controversial because enrichment is the critical step needed in bomb building.
For those wondering how the Cons would respond to the news finally becoming public, however, have no fear - as they've responded with their usual commitment to transparency and full information:
In the wake of the Vienna meeting, requests by The Canadian Press for interviews with Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn or Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier were summarily rejected.

Foreign Affairs said it might be able to arrange a background briefing with officials. But almost two weeks later, the request remains stalled somewhere in the Prime Minister's Office or its bureaucratic arm, the Privy Council Office.
While it's never a surprise for the Cons to keep their plans hidden from the public, it's noteworthy that they've taken such a strong position abroad on an issue that they've gone out of their way to hide from at home. And the example of uranium enrichment technology can only force Canadians to ask just what else the Cons have tried to push internationally which might be completely unacceptable to Canadians if the Cons would allow for public debate.

Buying silence

Shorter Con defence purchasing policy:
Never mind price, quality or reputation - our number one requirement is a bidder's willingness to keep its mouth shut.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Losing the blame game

The CP reports on just how thoroughly the Cons' anti-Ontario strategy is backfiring:
The Canadian Press-Harris/Decima poll conducted in the first week of May shows that while Ontarians lay the blame for the poor economy on the door steps of both the federal and provincial governments, when push comes to shove, more choose Ottawa as the bigger culprit.

The survey found that 62 per cent of Ontarians believe the Harper government is not doing enough to help the province from falling into have-not status, whereas only 50 per cent say the same thing about Premier Dalton McGuinty.
If the poll proves anything, it's that the Cons have failed utterly in attempting to inoculate themselves against responsibility for Ontario's relative decline. Instead of shifting any blame onto the shoulders of the McGuinty government, the Cons have at best ensured that both levels of government would be linked to the continued downturn in manufacturing and other key sectors. And the links only seem likely to grow stronger if worse times are in store.

Of course, based on the Cons' latest excuse for an attack on Jack Layton, it looks more and more like the Cons are happy to keep insulting Canada's most populous province to pander elsewhere. But considering that Harper's already-tenuous minority was based on his party managing to win 40 seats in Ontario - many of those by small margins - there's plenty of reason to think the Cons have the most to lose if the battle continues.

Listed

I'll take a moment to remind readers of last year's debate over Bill C-31, when the Cons, Libs and Bloc ignored repeated warnings about the dangers of distributing sensitive personal information to political parties based on the belief that voter lists could never fall into the wrong hands. And if the Cons had applied their current no-amendment rule to the bill which came back from the Senate, there's every reason to think birthdates would in fact be included in the default information available to anybody who could get their hands on an electoral list.

Why might this be worth remembering? Oh, no particular reason.

Monday, May 05, 2008

No defence

A Treasury Board spokesman has confirmed my suspicions about the likely effects of the Cons' decision to shut down the CAIRS database:
A spokesman for the Treasury Board, which oversees Ottawa's access policy, said CAIRS was initially intended to be an internal tool, and that users can now obtain the information by going to federal agencies one by one.
Of course, the obvious result is to make the process for providing the same information more burdensome than it would otherwise have been - for both requesters who will have to make requests to each and every federal agency for the same data they could once get from a single source, and for the agencies who will now have to manually assemble and provide data which was once readily available.

Based on that background, it's particularly comical that Deceivin' Stephen couldn't find any better defence for the decision than to claim that it would somehow reduce "costs and delays" associated with making the information available. But then, on this topic like so many others, the Cons' next honest or believable public statement will be their first.

Another nail in the coffin

Paul Wells points out (and translates) Le Devoir's latest discovery from Conadscam. And if the information already in the public eye didn't seal the Cons' fate, the internal e-mails released today look like they'll do the job: not only had the Cons' central office decided to spend the money in question without ever consulting with the ridings who were supposed to have "incurred" the expenses, but officials then argued internally over which ridings should be tied to the scheme.

Not that this will stop the Cons from trying to deflect, minimize and obfuscate as they have so far. But the gap between the Cons' public pretense and their documented actions just got even wider - and neither the individuals behind the scheme nor the party as a whole figure to avoid their day of reckoning much longer.

Laissez-faire politics

The Hill Times reports on the Libs' hopes that a summer road trip will erase all memory of their propping up the Cons. But what's more important from the article is the Libs' continued insistence that they can count on matters beyond their control to set them up for the next federal election:
After last week's national caucus meeting, Liberal sources told The Hill Times that it's highly unlikely they will trigger an election. It's chiefly because, the sources said, the economy is continuously slowing down which in case of an election would be politically disadvantageous for the Conservatives. As well, Liberals said there's an expectation that Elections Canada could proceed with criminal charges against some of the Conservatives on the so-called "in and out" election financing scheme. Due to these two reasons, sources said Liberals want to wait until the fall as it could give them a political advantage in the next federal election.

Liberal MP Bryon Wilfert (Richmond Hill, Ont.) refused to rule out the option that there won't be an election this spring or summer but hinted that his party would prefer to wait.

"There's so much going on with the economy and all these ethical issues and all that ... the leader will decide when he believes all this has come to what I would call the perfect storm," said Mr. Wilfert in an interview with The Hill Times.
It's no wonder that the NDP has been able to gain ground by actually taking the lead in opposing the Cons, rather than hoping that someone or something else will do the work involved in proving to Canadians that Harper and his party need to be removed from office. And voters will have all the more reason to make the NDP their preferred alternative once they realize that Dion and his braintrust have no intention of ending the Libs' tradition of dithering even if they do somehow luck their way into power.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

On class war

Shorter Lorne Gunter, joining in on CanWest's pity party for the wealthy:
Statistics Canada's report on income shows that increased inequality in employment income has been balanced out by progressive taxation and social programs. Which somehow proves my point that we don't need progressive taxation or social programs to reduce inequality.