Monday, November 30, 2009

On poor news judgment

Shorter National Post letters editor Paul Russell:

Based on my completely unbiased sampling of letters, we have two kinds of readers: the ones who think we're perfectly wingnutty, and the ones who think we're not wingnutty enough.

Burying the lede

Just wondering, but doesn't it stand to reason that there would be far more incentive for the government to inform rather than smear if this sort of observation wasn't tossed in as a mere afterthought behind a repetition of the Cons' attacks on the opposition?
At no time during the raucous Monday Question Period, meanwhile, did Mr. MacKay or Mr. Baird actually answer a question.

On tattered reputations

George Monbiot's scathing criticism of the Harper Cons' role in undermining global climate talks is definitely worth a read in its entirety. But to the extent there's a portion particularly worth highlighting, the description of the Cons' actions on the international stage manages to stand out:
After giving the finger to Kyoto, Canada then set out to prevent the other nations striking a successor agreement. At the end of 2007, it singlehandedly blocked a Commonwealth resolution to support binding targets for industrialised nations. After the climate talks in Poland in December 2008, it won the Fossil of the Year award, presented by environmental groups to the country that had done most to disrupt the talks. The climate change performance index, which assesses the efforts of the world's 60 richest nations, was published in the same month. Saudi Arabia came 60th. Canada came 59th.

In June this year the media obtained Canadian briefing documents which showed the government was scheming to divide the Europeans. During the meeting in Bangkok in October, almost the entire developing world bloc walked out when the Canadian delegate was speaking, as they were so revolted by his bullying. Last week the Commonwealth heads of government battled for hours (and eventually won) against Canada's obstructions. A concerted campaign has now begun to expel Canada from the Commonwealth.
In Copenhagen next week, this country will do everything in its power to wreck the talks. The rest of the world must do everything in its power to stop it. But such is the fragile nature of climate agreements that one rich nation – especially a member of the G8, the Commonwealth and the Kyoto group of industrialised countries – could scupper the treaty. Canada now threatens the wellbeing of the world.
Of course, it's worth noting that while the piece rightly focuses on the government which is currently standing in the way of global efforts, it's worth noting that a good chunk of Monbiot's criticism can be applied to another party besides the Cons:
The purpose of Canada's assault on the international talks is to protect this industry. This is not a poor nation. It does not depend for its economic survival on exploiting this resource. But the tar barons of Alberta have been able to hold the whole country to ransom. They have captured Canada's politics and are turning this lovely country into a cruel and thuggish place.
Needless to say, this would seem an ideal time for a reminder that Stephen Harper isn't the only federal leader who's tried to back increased tar sands development as a matter of "national unity". And that - combined with the Libs' own track record of increased emissions which Monbiot also points out - leaves awfully little reason to think the Libs are any less "captured" than the government which Monbiot rightly excoriates.

On incomplete hearings

Shorter Dwight Duncan:

Having recently declared our latest bottom-line-and-this-time-we-mean-it on the HST, we've decided it might be a good idea to let the public have a single day's worth of say in the matter.

Monday Morning 'Rider Blogging

If nothing else, last night's Grey Cup game should prove to be a second-guesser's dream for the rest of the offseason. In a game decided by a single point at the last second, the 'Riders:
- not only missed a makeable field goal, but allowed Larry Taylor to run the ball out of the end zone;
- kicked two field goals on 3rd and 2, as well as one on 1st and goal from the 2 (at the end of the first half), rather than trying to put more points on the board;
- threw an interception while in field goal range;
- conceded a single point on a punt rather than forcing the Als to kick again from five yards back - after doing just the opposite on the previous play;
- and finally, gave the Als a second chance at a last-second field goal after Duval had missed his first.

Of course, it's the last mistake that seems to be receiving most of the attention today. But a change in any of the earlier events could theoretically have had just as much effect on the outcome. And that's without getting into factors which had an obvious indirect effect on the point count - like the curious decision to start sending kicks deep (resulting in two long returns) after getting goods results out of a squib-kick strategy earlier in the game, or the fact that both the offensive and defensive units came up short when they had chances to close out the game in the last two minutes.

All of which is to say that there are plenty of targets for blame if one is looking to assign it. But while it may not offer much consolation in light of how the game ended, it's worth noting how much the 'Riders did accomplish.

The defence's first-half performance was easily the most effective counter anybody has developed against the Als' offence this season; meanwhile, the offence was opportunistic in the first half and put together a beautiful run-based drive to open up the game's largest lead in the second half. And without both units playing well within extremely well-designed schemes, the 'Riders would never have opened up the lead that they did.

Moreover, even leaving aside the larger leads over the course of the game, one has to figure that if someone had approached Ken Miller at the start of the game with the chance to take the ball and a 2-point lead with 1:39 to go, he'd have snapped up the offer in a second. And the 'Riders have done well enough in similar late-game pressure cookers this season to have had reason to think they'd be able to hold on in the Grey Cup as well.

Unfortunately, it wasn't to be. But as Montreal can attest, even a great team will end up with some near-misses along its road to the top.

So while yesterday's result is obviously a huge let-down based on how close Saskatchewan game to being the champion once again, it's worth keeping in mind that it's not an insubstantial achievement to have made it to that position in the first place. And hopefully some lessons learned yesterday will help the 'Riders to close out some more chances in the years to come.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The real question

More about the 'Riders' heart-breaking Grey Cup loss tomorrow. But the line of the night comes from Rider fan in comments here:
Who let Gantefoer do the counting?

On publicity hounds

For those looking for the most substantive clips from today's Question Period, the segments on the HST and torture in Afghanistan are worth a look - particularly for the news from the latter that the NDP will be presenting a motion in the House of Commons calling for an inquiry.

But while Jim Prentice's appearance was predictably void of news on the environment, Jane Taber's mention that Prentice will be presenting the Grey Cup today seems worth at least a bit of followup. On my quick look, the Grey Cup has traditionally been presented by either the CFL's commissioner or the Prime Minister. So I'll raise the question: is there any precedent for a non-PM member of the federal government presenting the trophy?

(And by the way, Go 'Riders! Consider this a Grey Cup open thread.)

The reviews are in

Greg Weston:
For more than two years, Stephen Harper's government has been sitting on more than 1,000 pages of potentially key evidence in the widening fiasco over the alleged torture of Afghan prisoners.

The documents are the official results of Canadian military police investigations in Afghanistan, dating back to 2006, and go straight to the heart of the controversy gripping Parliament.

But like other documentary evidence surrounding this murky chapter in Canada's war effort, the military police reports remain under government lock and key.

All of which raises the obvious question: What is the government trying to hide?
(T)he justice department declared all of Colvin's memos to be matters of "national security" protected by secrecy laws and threatened to have him arrested if any leaked out.

The same "secret" stamp has also been slapped on the 2006 military police reports and on virtually every other shred of paper related to the Afghan detainee issue.

The feds are even trying to put a "national security" designation on a letter from Colvin's lawyer complaining about government secrecy and intimidation. Go figure.
One thing is already clear.

The Afghan prisoner fiasco is either an insidious government cover-up of official lies and misdeeds or the Harper administration is going to extraordinary lengths to hide the truth about nothing.

Someday, this could all be ours...

Express India:
A radiation leak at the Kaiga Nuclear Plant in Karnataka's north Kannada district has left 55 employees in the maintenance unit falling sick in the suspected radiation poisoning.

The sick employees are being treated for increased level of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen in their bodies, after they drank water from a water cooler in the operations area on Tuesday (November 24).

Tritium, also known as Hydrogen-3, is used in research, fusion reactors and neutron generators.

A urine examination of the employees, which is done everyday, it was found that the tritium level was more than the normal level. The employees are receiving treatment at the plant hospital in Mallapur.

Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar has called it a case of radiation overexposure.

Nuclear experts have not ruled out the possibility of sabotage behind this leak.
And for those wondering: yes, it's a CANDU reactor involved.

(h/t to @jimbobbysez.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

On battle strategies

Shorter Stephen Harper:

On second thought, I'm all about the socialist schemes to suck money out of rich countries - just as long as they buy us out of having to agree to emission reduction targets.

On selective leaks

Dr. Dawg is duly skeptical about Christie Blatchford's article seeking to minimize the significance of some portion of the e-mail trail from Richard Colvin. But isn't the most obvious problem with Blatchford's piece the fact that she seems to have based her conclusions on what she knows to be only a selectively-disclosed portion of the e-mails provided to her?
The Globe and Mail now has what appears to be the entire collection of the e-mails Mr. Colvin sent on the subject during the 17 months he spent in Afghanistan from April of 2006 to October of 2007. A couple are virtually completely blacked out; some are heavily redacted, others rattle on at such length they could have done with a little more redacting.
(T)hough Mr. Colvin was careful to note that his guide at the prison was guarded and speaking “in code,” the guide's harshest characterization of detainee treatment was that some were being held in “unsavoury” or “unsatisfactory” conditions.

Of a five-page e-mail, Mr. Colvin devoted four paragraphs, most of this not blacked out, to the treatment of detainees by Afghan authorities.
Now, at best it'll be impossible to draw full conclusions from the e-mails reviewed by Blatchford if only because there's no way to confirm that they actually reflect all reporting from Colvin. But if Blatchford herself has only seen parts of e-mails which she knows to exist - with the redacted portions including part of Colvin's discussion of the treatment of detainees - then how in the world is it possible to think the material reviewed comes anywhere close to answering the glaring questions about what information the Cons possessed and when?

In the absence of any reasonable answer to that question, today's article looks far more like the mark of a government seeking to manipulate public perception by only leaking the least damaging parts of the e-mails involved, rather than one actually disclosing anything approaching full information. And Blatchford's role looks to be a far-too-familiar one: indeed, it surely can't escape her attention or that of others who have followed issues of detainee treatment in the past that a "but the prisoners were well fed!" line was equally used to paper over the worst abuses at Guantanamo.

In sum, there's little to be taken from Blatchford's article other than that the Cons are switching tactics in trying to minimize their wrongs. But in the process, they're only furthering the need for full disclosure to replace the selective leaking they're currently carrying out.

The reviews are in

Jim Meek:
The crux of the matter is our refusal to admit that these beggars are indeed not choosers — and are probably mentally ill. This stops us from acting in a rational way, stops us from facing the fact that the mean streets and the shelters are populated by people who need help — talk therapy, skills training, mentoring, drug therapies.
Nor do I buy for a minute the view that begging affluent men for money, on the mean shopping streets of Halifax, is a lazy way to make a living. It is a humiliating one, instead, which suggests that only the desperate need apply.

Let me move the story now from the streets of the city to Gerald Keddy’s farm fields in the country.

There, farmers struggle to recruit "Canadian" help at the indecent wages they are forced to offer because the rest of us refuse to pay higher prices for our food.
Here’s the connection between farmers and street people, then.

In both cases, we are allowing our narrowly defined self-interest to trump a broader public interest. We are the choosers here. Our collective prejudice chooses to keep mental health patients on the streets — untreated. And our pocketbook preferences keep local food prices down.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Musical interlude

Vibrolux - Drown

On shared responsibility

Interestingly enough, while most commentators have rushed off to follow a trail that immediately turned into a dead end, there actually was one fairly significant development on the HST front today which has gone mostly unnoticed:
Personal income tax cuts for Ontarians aimed at taking the sting out of harmonization won't be jeopardized if federal legislation to give the province financial compensation for the change gets derailed on Parliament Hill.

The Ontario government plans to introduce rules on Jan. 1 that would allow Ontarians to keep a larger slice of their paycheques regardless of whether federal legislation that is part and parcel of the province's tax changes also passes, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said Thursday.
Mr. Duncan said the personal tax measures do not require federal approval or funding.

“We are proceeding as though the agreement will pass the federal house,” he told reporters.
Now, it's possible that Duncan's announcement might itself be largely moot in light of the Bloc's declaration that it will "probably" support the Cons' HST bill. But if not, then it looks like the Ontario Libs may have come up with the first successful strategy to actually split up responsibility for the HST and the set of policies linked to it.

Which isn't to say that the declaration comes without its costs, since it effectively negates the McGuinty government's own ability to pretend that the HST and income tax cuts are inextricably linked. But it does make clear that any federal vote on harmonization will affect only the more controversial part of the HST arrangement, sandbagging the Harper Cons with responsibility for the consumer price hike while taking full credit for the attached goodies which nobody wants to argue against.


A quick reminder for the many members of the League of Pundits with the Attention Span of a Gnat who have come out of the woodwork this morning: you should know better than to take the Cons' talking points at face value.

Nobody with a single functioning brain synapse buys for a second that the Cons' suppression of documents about torture in Afghanistan is actually about national security, or that the Cons' four-year streak of "we'll regulate greenhouse gas emissions next year" actually reflects any real desire to deal with climate change despite their pretense to the contrary. So why the willingness to parrot the Cons' party line when they pretend that their HST posturing is all about pressuring Michael Ignatieff rather than escaping a trap for themselves?

Instead, the real story is to be found in what the Cons are actually doing, not how they're framing it:
“Parliament's decision on the framework legislation will be certain and final,” states a briefing memo that was obtained by The Globe and Mail. “This legislation will have the support of the Official Opposition or it will not. If it does, we expect the bill to win approval before the Christmas recess.

“If the framework legislation is rejected before Christmas, we will not revisit the issue. Not next year. Not after the next election.”
Although bills that involve federal funds are generally considered matters of confidence, “this legislative change does not affect federal revenue or spending and is therefore not a confidence measure,” the document states, which means its defeat would not bring down the government.
So what's the common theme in the Cons' strategy? There are two noteworthy developments, and I'd think they both point to a fairly obvious explanation.

First, there's the sudden insistence on dealing with the HST before the Christmas recess. That means that all of the debate on the issue would take place at a time when all parties seem to be figuring that an election is unlikely, and before the Cons have time to drop very far from their current peak in the polls.

Second, there's the declaration that the HST vote won't be a confidence matter. And this is where it's particularly obvious that the Cons are operating from a position of weakness.

After all, the most damaging outcome for Ignatieff would surely involve the exact opposite move. Having already been painted as a flip-flopper for going from supporting the government as a matter of course to opposing it as a matter of course (not to mention equivocating on the HST itself), Ignatieff couldn't keep the Cons in power over the HST without also cementing the exact image which the Cons have worked so hard to project on him. Yet with his party bottoming out in the polls and trying to lay the groundwork for longer-term planning that's been sorely neglected for years, Ignatieff wouldn't appear to have much choice.

That is, unless the Cons have reason to think that the opposition parties would be able to use the HST as a launching pad to radically change the current picture in Canadian politics in short order if an election was fought on the issue. Which, needless to say, is a theory fully supported by the results of the New Westminster-Coquitlam by-election.

In that case, the Cons' safest course of action would be to try to keep any votes on the HST as far removed as possible from any general election. Which would include both trying to time an HST vote when an election is least likely, and ensuring that any vote on the HST itself doesn't serve as an election trigger.

So what would the smart response be from the Libs? It might be tempting to simply brand the Cons with the HST and then vote it down immediately - tying the Cons to the attempt to raise taxes on consumers then pairing that with an obvious public failure to be discussed over the holiday season. But I'd think the question of timing raises another, better option.

Rather than accepting the Cons' timetable and choosing a side immediately, the Libs should be able to point to the 2010 confirmation dates in the actual HST framework agreements and say that nothing should be decided officially too early in the game. Framed carefully enough, that message could win at least some measure of support from the provincial governments and opposition parties involved: the former in not foreclosing the HST prematurely, the latter in allowing more time for public discussion.

In the meantime, the implementation bill itself should be a natural fit for extensive committee hearings and other public talks at the federal level. All of which would of course be aimed at highlighting the federal role in funding harmonization and tying the Cons to the HST.

Then, the Libs will be in an ideal position to test for themselves whether there actually is enough public outrage to be worth bringing down the Cons (on an HST-related motion if the Cons won't let them use the bill itself). And even if not, the worst-case scenario would be exactly what the Cons are trying to force down Ignatieff's throat now: the HST would pass with Con and Lib support, leaving the NDP as the lone party to benefit on the federal level (but in an election distanced significantly from the HST vote).

Of course, the Libs haven't exactly inspired confidence in their ability to counter moves like this one. But there's no time like the present to start developing some clue as to what the Cons' actions really mean. And the Cons' strategy suggests that there's no issue where they're more scared to face the voters than the HST.

The reviews are in

Murray Mandryk:
Hidden somewhere behind all the ponies, gophers, cheesy moustaches and general warm and fuzzies that Premier Brad Wall has served up at the legislature this week has been a lot of bad news in what's become a bad sitting for his Saskatchewan Party government.
Many of you who watched the meteoric rise in both government revenue and the provincial economy during the first 18 months of the Sask. Party administration had little incentive to worry about such matters.

Most of you are obviously more inclined these days to first turn to the sports pages -- a fact that appears all too evident to Wall's strategists, who have done a masterful job of distancing Wall and company from the bad news and keeping the focus on more pleasant matters.
One might think that governing is about little more than a series of charity events and goodwill gestures like providing protection for the ponies of the Bronson Forest, growing moustaches to raise awareness for prostate cancer or holding a press conference to unveil a lectern for those in wheelchairs that you ordered government carpenters to build.

In the Sask. Party's strategic view, such warm and fuzzy events have the added benefit of portraying government members in their best possible light even at a time when its members can't get through something as mundane as the Bronson Forest Ponies Act without being somewhat partisanly snarky. (And let's not even get into the smarmy and unnecessary partisan games we saw from government members Thursday afternoon as they tried unsuccessfully to ram through Bill 80 that concluded with Sask. Party backbencher Serge LeClerc and NDP leader Dwain Lingenfelter going nose-to-nose in the rotunda.)

But the truth be told, most of you likely care little about such internal dust-ups at the best of times. And until you begin to feel the impact of Gantefoer's mid-year finance statement, many of you will continue to feel it is still the best of times.

Unfortunately, there are growing signs that we are no longer in the best of times -- something that even the Sask. Party members appear to be recognizing.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

On unfettered access

The opposition parties have thus far treated the fact that the Con-friendly witnesses before committee hearings on Afghanistan received access to the same documents denied to them and to the public primarily as a basis for outrage. But it's worth pointing out that the disclosure may have some substantive effect as well - at least, if the Cons do keep trying to weasel their way out of disclosing the documents involved and don't call the inquiry the public wants to see.

After all, one would figure that there would be no lack of requests already outstanding involving the same documents - with more sure to follow if there's any more delay. And now that the Cons have made it clear that national security considerations didn't prevent them from sharing the documents for political gain, is there much doubt that they'd be laughed out of any courtroom if they keep trying to resist disclosure through the access to information process?

On reuse

The NDP has rightly noted that today's Lib climate change plan is just the most recent in a series of paper commitments that haven't given rise to serious action. But I'd think there's another issue worth raising about today's point-form release.

Is there actually a single component of the Libs' latest release which isn't either specifically included (in some cases in stronger form) or at least implied in the first document on the NDP's list (that being the 2002 "Climate Change Plan for Canada")? And if not, what does it say that the Libs still don't have more to offer on climate change than to recycle a plan they didn't bother to implement while in power seven years ago?

In order of priority

The Globe and Mail's report that Stephen Harper plans on staying as far away as possible from the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen obviously doesn't come as a huge surprise. But it does signal one interesting shift in Harper's list of priorities: after trying desperately to link himself to Barack Obama earlier this year, Harper now seems to have signalled that his desire to avoid wearing well-deserved blame for standing in the way of progress on climate change exceeds his desire for more Obama photo opportunities.

Update: Apparently when it was put that way, Harper changed his mind.

On false measurements

Shorter Jim Prentice:

It's preposterous to suggest there's any connection between domestic greenhouse gas emission policies and the international negotiations which we've used repeatedly as an excuse for not developing domestic greenhouse gas emission policies. (And by the way, our years of promising a "Made in Canada solution" never happened.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Shill baby shill

We're probably not far from broken record territory here. But as long as Andrew Steele and his ilk want to keep repeating zombie lies, I suppose someone has to give them their due rebuttal. So for those who missed it the first time:

Even leaving aside problems with his assumptions, Jack Mintz' much-bandied-about "591,000 jobs" number incorporates other tax changes along with the HST. On this ground alone, anybody saying "the HST will create 591,000 jobs" can be dismissed as either not knowing what they're talking about or lying through their teeth.


I suppose I should have known that follow-through on a reasonable, principled stance to push back against blatant Con abuses was more than we could expect - and apparently the Cons were somehow allowed to ram C-36 through the House of Commons after suppressing information promised to opposition committee members. I have my suspicions based on the numbers involved, but can anybody confirm who it was that joined the Cons in voting against Comartin's motion?

Update: As a reader notes in comments, the final vote is here - with Paul Szabo apparently the lone Liberal to vote with the NDP and Bloc in favour of Comartin's motion.

On pushback

With nearly all of the attention paid to the House of Commons focusing on question period, it seems like there's some rather important information that's falling through the cracks. So let's take some time to note what happened yesterday on one of the Cons' posturing-on-crime bills - and what it figures to mean going forward.

Here's the background to a motion presented by NDP MP Joe Comartin:
Following my own and the Bloc's representations on the justice committee, we had arranged for the head of the Correctional Service of Canada to appear before the committee, because we were told by Juristat and the office of the Minister of Justice that correctional service staff were the only ones who could answer factually some of the questions we had raised.

We arranged for Mr. Don Head to appear before the committee. He came before the committee without anything prepared and took questions, including a series of questions from me and the member from the Bloc. In the course of that questioning, it became clear that the information was not compiled in any way. For instance, he could not tell us how many victims' families had asked to make a victim's statement and he could not tell us the specifics of the recidivism rate. He only had generalities that he could talk a bit about to us. He could not tell us at what ages most people were convicted and most individuals got out of prison.

We could go down the list. There were at least a half dozen very specific points that he confirmed the Correctional Service of Canada could give us answers on. He said to me and the member from the Bloc and the chair of the committee that the information could and would be available by the time we got to clause by clause consideration of the bill, scheduled for November 16. Mr. Head appeared before the committee on November 4. It was very clear that he could do it in that period of time.

The week of November 9 was a break week for the House to commemorate Remembrance Day in our ridings, but we were back on November 16. I asked where the information from the Correctional Service of Canada was so that we could do clause by clause in a meaningful way. I was told it had been sent to our offices.

I have subsequently learned that other members of the committee, both from the Bloc and the Liberal Party, with similar questions about where it was were told the same thing.
We all jumped to the conclusion that somehow we had missed that information in our offices, and so we went ahead with clause by clause. The bill went through committee stage and, of course, it is now back in the House for report stage and third reading.

After November 16, I again told the clerk that I did not have the information in my office and asked if it could be sent to my office again. Yesterday morning when I arrived at my office, it was not there. We called again at that point and were advised that in fact it had never been sent either to my office or to anyone on the committee, because it had been sent to the office of the Minister of Public Safety and that it had at least been there by November 16.

That information was never provided to the committee. The committee went ahead with clause by clause without all of that factual information, which was our only source of such information.

Yesterday, I was advised by the Conservative deputy House leader that in fact the minister had that information on his desk and had not seen or approved it. I have to say as a sidebar that he has no right to approve it; this is not a situation where he gets to vet that information. If committees are going to work in the House, they must have access to information without it being censored, deleted or affected in any other way by the decisions of the political masters in our legislature.

I still do not have the information. I had wanted it yesterday, as I had expected to speak on this bill then and to use some of data to try to convince the House to vote against this bill. I still do not have it. I was advised by the Conservative deputy House leader yesterday that I might get it in another week.

We know that if that happens, this bill is going to come to a vote before we ever get the information, and I am certainly not going to be able to use it today in my arguments for why we should defeat this bill. The minister should not have done that.
Of course, the theme of Con secrecy (with its variations related to timing the disclosure of documents after it's too late for them to matter, the civil service being co-opted for Con political strategies, and Cons interposing themselves between the public service and others entitled to information) is a fairly familiar one. But this looks like a fairly striking example which manages to have gone entirely unreported.

Which is particularly a shame since the opposition parties appear to have come up with an effective countermove. Comartin presented a motion to deal with the Cons' bill on the faint hope clause:
I move that:

Bill C-36, An Act to amend the Criminal Code, be not now read a third time but be referred back to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights for the purpose of reconsidering Clauses 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 with a view to making any amendments which may be called for as a result of information undertaken to be placed before the Committee by departmental officials on November 4th, but which the office of the Minister of Public Safety failed to provide before the Committee considered the Bill at clause-by-clause.
Comartin's motion is set to be voted on today. And assuming the opposition parties all support it, it would seem to be at least a start in sending a message that the Cons can't simply delay and deny their way out of proper debate on their policies.

No reason for optimism

March 2009: The Wall government unveils a budget which assumes that Saskatchewan would be the only jurisdiction on the planet not affected by the global recession, and relies on potash sales to fund over a fifth of the province's operations despite obvious reason to doubt the projection. When the NDP points out the problems with the Sask Party's projections, Brad Wall chides the NDP for not being optimistic.

August 2009: The Wall government acknowledges that its initial estimates were far off the mark, with potash revenue alone sinking by over a billion dollars from the Sask Party's inflated projections. When the NDP notes the sudden turnaround, Finance Minister Rod Gantefoer blames a "negative perfect storm", and says we should hope for better in the rest of the year to come.

November 2009: The Wall government again revises its estimates downward - concluding that even its August revision resulted in an an estimate more than five times the province's take from potash royalties - and finally acknowledges that Saskatchewan itself is in a recession. When the NDP points out the pattern, Finance Minister Rod Gantefoer...criticizes the NDP for not being optimistic.

Now, one can fairly point out that optimism is a virtue as a motivating factor when paired with some plausible vision for positive change. But it's a different story when it comes to the brand of "optimism" that pyramid schemes and economic bubbles are made of, in which somebody who should know better convinces others to stake their fortunes on unrealistic hopes. And it takes particular gall to keep on demanding the benefit of the doubt after two previous sets of promises have already come crashing down.

Needless to say, it's that latter brand of wilful blindness that the Wall government is demanding from the NDP and the province to paper over its incompetence. Which leaves only the question of whether Saskatchewan's voters will recognize by 2011 that when the basis for ill-placed optimism runs contrary to reality, reality will ultimately win out every time.

Deep thought

As long as the Cons are refusing to even confirm the fact that an investigation is going on at Public Works Canada on their watch, it would be irresponsible not to speculate which Conservative cabinet ministers are about to be indicted.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On definitions

Shorter Con reaction to the 20th anniversary of Ed Broadbent's motion to end child poverty within 11 years:

Poverty can be made to go away if we simply redefine the terms involved. For example, if one defines "child poverty" as "Canada's employment rate", then we've accomplished wonders in reducing it since taking office.

Well said

Ed Broadbent:
First, we should have no illusions about where our poor children are to be found. Most are in families with two adults. Most poor adults work. Most of them have incomes so low that they can't afford housing and can't adequately feed or clothe their kids. If kids are members of aboriginal or immigrant Canadian families, the odds are even much greater that they will be poor.

Second, this poverty was not inevitable. Mostly it is the product of governments that have neither shared nor cared. As a Unicef report last Friday pointed out, Canadian politicians have failed our children. During the 1990s, the federal government abandoned a leadership role for Canada's poor. It unilaterally cancelled the Canada Assistance Plan with the provinces, eliminated all low-cost housing programs, ceased to set the pattern for minimum wages and failed to bring in a national child-care program. Perhaps most serious and unbelievable of all, it exacerbated the inequality that was emerging in the marketplace by changing the income-tax system to the advantage of the richest Canadians.

On the 20th anniversary of a noble parliamentary resolution, let's acknowledge our failure. And then reverse course. Instead of an income-tax policy favouring the rich, let's do the opposite. For a start, let's get our poor, hard-working families what they need immediately: more money.

For more than a decade, it is upper-income Canadians – not the poor or middle class – who have disproportionately benefited from globalization and deregulation. Therefore, I say that increasing their share of income taxes would be based on neither greed nor class envy. It should be called justice.

On conduits

With yesterday's whiff out of the way, let's move on to the more important issues surrounding ten-per-centers. In this post, I'll take a look at the strategic implications of the Libs or any other opposition party seeking an end to them, and follow up with another post on the principle of the matter.

At the outset, let's draw a distinction between three types of communication which are used by federal politicians to get their message out to the public. The first is government-based communication, which takes up by far the largest share of cost - and which, while theoretically neutral and limited to informing the public about federal programs, is bound to at least somewhat support the interests of the party in power. Of course, under the Cons this type of advertising has tilted as far toward partisan messaging as Harper and his party can get away with.

On the opposite extreme is party-based communication, which is at least nominally privately funded (though of course publicly-funded tax credits, rebates and subsidies play a significant role in their distribution) and by definition intended solely for the purpose of partisan advantage. There too the Cons are largely able to dominate the field due to their historical fund-raising advantage.

The third type is then MP-based communication, consisting of householders and ten-per-centers. In theory, this type of communication lies on the middle ground between the other two in terms of content and focus: it's naturally more partisan than government-purchased messaging, but in theory shouldn't be as much so as the material that parties purchase for themselves. (The "middle ground" theory does break down in terms of cost, but only because there's almost certainly less money spent on MP-based communication than the other extremes - which hardly seems like reason to focus on it as the most deserving of limitation.)

And most importantly, MP-based communication is also the type where the Cons have the least relative advantage in getting their message out: one could assume in theory that it should roughly reflect the proportion of seats each party holds in the House of Commons, but in fact the ten-per-center system as it stands is probably best seen as a potential equalizer between all of the parties in Parliament.

Mind you, it's probably true that the Libs have failed to maximize their use of the medium. But surely that can be seen as a problem worth fixing rather than an inevitability.

Indeed, it would seem obvious that the Libs and the other opposition parties are in fact best served defending the type of communication which theoretically allows them the best chance of countering the Cons' control over the federal government and their party-level fund-raising strength. But that fact likely hasn't been lost on the Cons as well - which may be one of the main reasons why the Cons have effectively turned the medium into a purely partisan one featuring their most odious attacks and lies.

For the Libs to attack the medium rather than the Cons' misuse of it then completely misses the point. Particularly with another reorganization in the books, the Libs should be eager to look for ways of spreading their message - not publicly demanding that they be silenced in one of the few formats they currently have available to make their case to voters in Con-held ridings. If anything, the Cons are probably doing Ignatieff a favour by not taking up his invitation, as any restriction on MP-based communication only means that the material available to Canadians will include more from the categories where the Cons are able to completely dominate the field.

Even if the Libs have no idea what they want to say for now, they surely can't believe that they'll ever get back to power without someday coming up with a message which they'll need to put in front of Canadians. And the more the Libs do now to limit their means of spreading any consistent theme later on, the more likely they'll make it that the Cons' message will continue to win out for far too long to come.

On zombie numbers

Apparently Andrew Steele was right about one thing, as Jack Mintz' inflated and misleading job number has been parroted nonstop by HST backers from the moment it was first released (even by those who should know better). So let's quickly recap the main problems with Mintz' report, as well as pointing out how it's completely incompatible with one of the main pro-HST talking points.

The much-bandied-about "591,000 jobs" number:
- incorporates other tax changes along with the HST. On this ground alone, anybody saying "the HST will create 591,000 jobs" can be dismissed as either not knowing what they're talking about or lying through their teeth;
- doesn't take into account negative job impacts from the increased taxes on individuals;
- relies on assumptions about marginal tax rates which completely ignore the reality that reductions in one jurisdiction such as Ontario may simply result in a corporation paying more tax elsewhere;
- ignores existing policies such as research tax incentives and municipal tax benefits which affect the amount of investment made by the private sector; and
- ignores the fact that a focus on capital investment may actually reduce employment in some cases (by encouraging the relative use of capital as opposed to labour).

But let's add another major problem to the mix. Mintz' numbers assume that all of the benefit of tax harmonization will flow directly to businesses, counting every dollar of PST elimination as applying to a reduction in corporate marginal effective tax rates. That would appear to be completely incompatible with the oft-cited claim that businesses will in fact pass along any amount of their PST savings to consumers, as money which doesn't stay in corporate hands surely wouldn't figure to alter investment decisions.

In sum, there's no reason to let pro-HST voices double-count the supposed benefits of harmonization. If they want to claim that any corporate tax reductions will be passed along to consumers, then that has to be taken into account in any wishcasting as to how much money corporations will have at their disposal to invest; or conversely, anybody trumpeting Mintz' jobs number can be assumed to believe that not a red cent of any tax savings will actually be passed along to consumers. And the fact that the pro-HST side has thus far been based on so many utterly inconsistent claims would tend to signal that they'll be reluctant to face up to the realities once that choice is put in front of them.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The reviews are in

Norman Spector (!):
Perusing reports of Janine Krieber’s anti-Ignatieff missile, er missive, this morning, I notice a discrepancy in the English- and French-language coverage.

In La Presse, we read that Stéphane Dion’s wife may be thinking about joining the NDP — a point that Chantal Hébert also makes on her L'actualité blog . In English, there’s no mention of what would be a rather startling development should it come to pass.
The more likely explanation for the discrepancy in the coverage is the longstanding tendency of the media to give short shrift to the NDP — a tendency that is less and less evident in Québec.
Let’s be frank: Whether you agree with them or not, the NDP has been consistent in its opposition to the Afghanistan war — even after the 9/11 attacks, when it was not easy to take this position. And it was also noticeable, last week, that the NDP was the first party in Ottawa to call for a public hearing into Mr. Colvin’s allegations — a bandwagon that the other opposition parties quickly jumped on to.

One of the NDP spokespersons, Paul Dewar, radiates sincerity on the issue — as opposed to the faux outrage one normally sees on our television screens coming from Ottawa. And, in Jack Harris, the Dippers appear to have an MP who can match Bob Rae in competence.

So let’s give credit where credit is due. And, with the NDP riding high in the polls and even outscoring the Liberals in the Hochelaga by-election, isn’t it also time for the media to take the party more seriously and give them a bit more coverage?

On misinterpretations

Note: See update below.

I'll go into more detail later about the strategic mistake behind Michael Ignatieff's demands on 10-per-centers. But before going down that road, it's worth noting that Ignatieff seems to have completely lost track of the issue he's supposed to be dealing with.

At the start of his letter, he alludes to the difference between householders and 10-per-centers, with the former presumably consisting of mailings from an MP to his or her riding, and the latter of mailings from an MP to another riding. Which seems to me to be entirely consistent with how the terms are normally used.

But how does one then make sense of Ignatieff's demands?
For that reason, I am urging you and the other members of the Board, to take the following steps:

1. Ten percenters should be limited to a Member's own riding;
2. The practice of ten percenter "regroupings" must be abolished; and
3. The name of the leader of the sending member's party must be included in any ten percenter and the leader must explicitly endorse the content of the product.
From what I can tell, if #1 was actually carried out as the parties actually understand the term "ten percenter", then the effect would be to abolish ten-per-centers entirely. Which would of course make the other two recommendations entirely moot.

More charitably, one can interpret "ten percenter" in the recommendations to actually refer to "householders". Of course, there's a reason why those terms are different: the "ten percent" wording itself is a reference to the proportion of a riding outside an MP's own which can be targeted with a mailing, such that it can't sensibly be applied to mailings within an MP's own riding. But at least one can then make sense of Ignatieff's demands if that's what his wording reflects: #1 would serve to abolish ten-per-centers as normally understood, while the latter two demands would place limits on the use of householders within an MP's own riding.

That would still raise serious questions as to whether we really want even more political communication to be focused on leaders rather than the connection between MPs and constituents. But it's particularly odd that one can't even get to that substantive issue without overlooking the fact that Ignatieff's letter utterly mangles the terminology used for MP mailings. And that might be taken as a sign that Ignatieff and his inner circle really don't understand just what it is that they're calling for.

Update: In comments, anonymous notes that while the controversy around ten-per-centers has generally involved their being sent into ridings other than the one held by an MP, there's no reason in principle why they can't similarly be sent into an MP's own riding. Which does mean that Ignatieff's set of demands makes at least some sense referring to ten-per-centers alone - though concerns about the content which might potentially go into an MP's own riding if ten-per-centers are limited to that audience seem rather far afield from the problems being raised now.

So, my mistake on that front. But as Ian notes in comments, there's still the substantive issue of the disconnect between MPs and constituents to be dealt with.

Update II: Should I be more or less embarrassed now that the National Post editorial board has made the same error? Yes, I'm thinking "more" too.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Monday Morning 'Rider Blogging

Most of the discussion before and after yesterday's win over Calgary has surrounded the starting quarterbacks. And Darien Durant certainly deserves the credit he's received for his performance in the game. But let's leave no room for doubt: the most important factor in the 'Riders' win was a defensive scheme which did more to bottle up Henry Burris than any I've seen in the CFL.

Under normal circumstances, Burris is largely able to dictate the outcome one way or another. Most defences facing Burris spend the entire time on their heels, facing an impossible choice between focusing on coverage and letting him run wild, or spying the quarterback at the expense of receivers getting open deep. And even when Burris' passing isn't up to par, he normally manages to makes some plays with his legs. Which means that opponents mostly have to hope for Burris to miss open receivers and make bad decisions in order to stay in the game.

But not yesterday. Burris managed one long run on the Stamps' first drive - then by my count had a grand total of zero plays the rest of the game where he threatened the 'Riders in the open field. For the most part, that's because Saskatchewan kept him hemmed into a perpetually-collapsing pocket, with different rushers coming at different times to prevent him from waiting for a receiver to get open. And the few times the Stamps designed plays to give Burris more room to operate, Saskatchewan consistently had two waves of defenders coming for him, with the second (hello, Rey Williams!) arriving to drop Burris before he could look downfield after dodging the first (hello, Stevie Baggs!).

In the end, Burris was completely stymied on the ground and couldn't find much weakness in the 'Riders' secondary. And the 'Riders had to be ecstatic with that combination, even if it meant another fairly big game for Joffrey Reynolds.

Of course, the problem for the 'Riders' defence is that the game plan that worked so well against the Stamps will have to be discarded for the Grey Cup - as a scheme designed to frustrate a quarterback who loves to wait for plays to develop would be suicidal against Anthony Calvillo's quick trigger. But the 'Riders' defence has proven extremely versatile this season, and should be able to get back into bend-but-don't-break mode for next week's game.

Meanwhile, the 'Riders' offence played roughly in the upper end of its normal range. As usual it showed some inconsistency throughout the game, but it avoided any turnovers other than Steven Jyles' third-down fumble, and converted on most of its opportunities to score to stake the 'Riders to the lead.

The one major concern for the offence has to be a running game which was almost completely ineffective until the team was in prevent mode. But Durant can make up for that in part with his own scrambling, and one has to expect that a game against the Als will be enough of a shootout for the team's passing attack to the be the top priority anyway.

Now, the 'Riders get a chance to win the Grey Cup on fairly friendly turf - and hopefully the crowd will once again be a major factor in Saskatchewan's favour as it has been in the last two home triumphs. But even leaving that advantage aside, the 'Riders have showed throughout the season that they're one of the CFL's top teams on merit - and it'll only take one more great performance to put that title in the history books.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

On politicization

Shorter National Post:

We have grave concerns that some new types of toys might carry value-laden messages, and demand a return to the completely depoliticized tradition of GI Joe figurines for boys and E-Z Bake Ovens for girls.

(Edit: fixed labels.)

Real reason to smile

There's understandably been plenty of discussion about Janine Krieber's Facebook post. But it's worth highlighting what sets Krieber's message apart from most of the Libs' recent internal disputes - as instead of using her concerns to try to change the balance of power within the Libs themselves, Krieber is one of far too few to recognize that progressive Canadians already have a better option:
I am looking around me, and certain things are attractive. Like a dedicated party that doesn't challenge its leader at every hiccup in the polls. A party where the rule would be the principle of pleasure, and not assassination. A party where work ethic and competence would be respected and where smiles would be real.

Maybe I'm not dreaming.
Of course, Krieber has already been pressured into removing her initial post - which serves as about the most compelling rebuttal available for those looking to spin it as a sign of Lib willingness to tolerate dissent. And we'll have to see whether Krieber or anybody else around her ends up following through on the obvious implications of her message.

But at the very least, Krieber has given every Lib who disagreed with Michael Ignatieff's conclusion that Stephen Harper deserved to be left in power at the start of this year some reason to question whether there's a better alternative available than trying to turn the Libs into something they're not. And the more individual members start thinking about that possibility, the better the chances that Krieber's optimistic vision of a united effort to reverse Harper's direction through a party unencumbered by the Libs' and Ignatieff's baggage will ultimately come to pass.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

On insider trading

Cathie was the first to point out the connection between Brad Wall's decision to throw away the $800 million per year once promised by Stephen Harper in order to accomplish nothing on more friendly terms with the federal Cons and the Sask Party's subsequent fiscal meltdown.

But the reminder is particularly striking given how Wall spent the week when his government was officially called out for blowing a billion-dollar hole in the province's budget. While the province was coming to terms with his government's gross incompetence in abandoning money promised by his federal counterpart, Wall was using Saskatchewan's public funds to buy access to U.S. politicians in hopes of pushing them to invest a fraction of that amount in a carbon-capture project - and picking up utterly undeserved national attention in the process.

Now, for those who see politics as nothing more than a way to further one's personal interests, the tradeoff of giving away billions of dollars which might otherwise flow to one's province in exchange for an excuse to seek photo ops south of the border might seem like a brilliant move. But Saskatchewan citizens have to be seriously wondering how much the province has already lost in the exchange - and how long it can afford to be run by a politician who's far more interested in boosting his own profile in Washington than in what's going on back at home.

Not taken on faith

Gerald Caplan pipes up on the long gun registry weeks after the most recent vote in Parliament actually made the issue relevant. But someone who's still presented as an NDP insider falls into one of the same glaring mistakes as others who dealt with the topic at the time:
hich leaves the NDP, where a full third of MPs broke ranks with party policy and voted to abolish the long-gun registry. It's clear that many NDP loyalists and many others sympathetic to the party were bitterly disappointed both by the number of breakaways and the failure of Layton to rein them in.
So let's see if Caplan can answer the question which seems to have been glaringly ignored by others:

Exactly what party policy requires the NDP to vote uniformly in favour of the long gun registry?

I've already pointed out that the historical position of the NDP was actually primarily against the registry. It surely hasn't escaped attention that some NDP MPs (notably John Rafferty) campaigned on a promise to vote against the registry, with the party offering at least tacit approval at the time. And as an added bonus, I've taken a quick run through the party's most recent set of policy pronouncements - and not only does the policy book presented at this year's convention not mention the gun registry, but the gun registry wasn't even so much brought up as a resolution (in contrast to, say, handgun smuggling, which was at least raised as a point of debate).

Mind you, it would be fair enough if Caplan wants to make the case that the NDP should change its longstanding position allowing MPs to vote their conscience on the gun registry (both as a government bill and a private members' bill) - and the fact that there is some frustration among some supporters is certainly a relevant data point on that question. But I'm not sure one can plausibly make the case that the NDP should rush that kind of decision before the next vote on the bill in any event. And that position would be a far cry from trying to pretend that there's some existing policy that's being violated by an entirely consistent position.

In sum, I'd invite Caplan to provide some of the currently-nonexistent evidence that the NDP's "party policy" is or has ever been what he claimed it to be. But if his main goal is to change the current path of Bill C-391 rather than taking inaccurate potshots at the party he's given column space to speak for, I'd argue that he's far better off pressuring the Cons to actually explain how their unanimously whipped bloc can be squared with a demand for a free vote - rather than criticizing the NDP for the fact that it hasn't whipped its votes in keeping with his every whim.

The reviews are in

Bruce Johnstone:
A nightmare is another way of describing the sickening feeling of seeing $1.9 billion in projected revenues plummet by two-thirds to $638 million in the first quarter, then plunge another 83 per cent to $109 million by mid-term.

A sickening slide also describes what happened to the finance ministry's projected potash production, which fell 62 per cent to 4.4 million tonnes, the lowest level in 37 years.

The ministry's miscalculation on potash shaved two percentage points off the province's projected economic growth of 2.1 per cent in the 2009-10 budget. Economic growth is now expected to come in at negative 2.9 per cent -- a full five-percentage-point drop from the budget projection.

For its part, the NDP Opposition called Gantefoer's gaffe "the biggest example of fiscal incompetence in the history of Saskatchewan." In absolute dollar terms, it may be.
At the time, then-NDP finance critic Harry Van Mulligen warned production cuts announced by potash companies could easily derail the budget's revenue and economic projections.

"Bottom line," Van Mulligen said, "shaky economic and revenue assumptions, plus runaway spending, equals a potential fiscal trainwreck."

As it turns out, Van Mulligen was remarkably prescient, unlike his counterpart in the government benches.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Musical interlude

Matthew Sweet - Sick of Myself

The reviews are in

Murray Mandryk:
What was most disturbing about Thursday's mid-year Saskatchewan budget update wasn't the bungled $1.8-billion miscalculation of potash revenue, nor was it necessarily the throw-caution-to-the-wind decision to wager the equivalent of 20 per cent of our annual spending on a volatile resource at its apex and likely to face some level of decline.

It wasn't the startlingly unwise decision to spend the one-time sale of Saskferco assets to cover off the day-to-day operations of a government, nor was it the lack of anything vaguely resembling an austerity plan to deal with what might be another year of decline.

What was most disturbing wasn't even Finance Minister Rod Gantefoer's view through his rose-coloured, half-full glass that we can't have another year like we just had -- despite warning signs in his own mid-term report that things could be as bad in 2010-11 as they now are in 2009-10.

What was truly most disturbing was the complete and total lack of humility we saw from this Saskatchewan Party government, which should damn well be embarrassed by its own incompetence right now, rather than celebrating. Yes, celebrating.

We just witnessed Thursday a Saskatchewan finance minister present a mid-year budget update revealing that a surplus he forecast last March was now an overall $1.05-billion deficit. It's the biggest deficit since 1991-92 ($1.3 billion), when the provincial government was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and the second-biggest deficit ever.

And Gantefoer gets two standing ovations from his caucus colleagues in Thursday's question period? Are you kidding us? What is it about running government that you don't understand?

For more information...

Following up on my earlier post, here's the official information on the Saskatchewan NDP's policy renewal process (including tomorrow's meeting in Regina):


On renewal opportunities

For those wondering when the Saskatchewan NDP's much-anticipated policy renewal process would officially get underway, the answer is: tomorrow. The first phase will consist of two public meetings to be held:

- in Regina from 1 PM to 5 PM November 21, at Tommy Douglas House (1122 Saskatchewan Drive); and
- in Saskatoon from 1 PM to 5 PM December 5, at UFCW Local 1400 Hall (1526 Fletcher Road).

These meetings will focus on finalizing terms of reference for the rest of the policy process to follow, as well as compiling ideas for topics and experts to be discussed. For now, the expectation is that a first round of reports and public input will be completed in time for the NDP's provincial convention in 2010, with a broader public engagement and consultation process to follow before final debate over the policies at the 2011 convention.

In other words, there will be plenty more chances to have your say as the process plays out. But for those eager to help develop the NDP's next wave of policy ideas (whether or not you're currently a party member), now is your chance to get started.

Someday, this could all be ours...

The Leader-Post:
Nuclear facilities and power plants are contaminating local Canadian food and water with radioactive waste that increases risks of cancer and birth defects, says a new report to be released on Friday.

The report, Tritium on Tap, produced by the Sierra Club of Canada, warned that radioactive emissions from various nuclear plants across the country have more than doubled over the past decade. The figures were based on statistics compiled by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission which measured pollution coming from the plants.

Although Canadian guidelines have suggested that the existing levels of tritium in the water are safe, the report cites recent peer-reviewed studies, including a recent review by the UK’s Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters, that suggest the opposite.
Atomic Energy of Canada Limited has confirmed a “controlled release” of tritium into the Ottawa River from December 2008 to February 2009 but said this leak did not pose any risk to the environment because it respected the existing regulations. However, the Sierra Club said tests of the water done by a lab at the University of Waterloo revealed tritium levels that were five times higher than in water at other locations without any nearby nuclear plants.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Far off the mark

Most of the commentary on the Sask Party's mid-year declaration of failure has focused on the fact that the Sask Party has managed to rack up a billion-dollar deficit two years after taking over the strongest Saskatchewan economy ever. But if such a thing is possible, there's another part of today's announcement which looks even more disturbing:
The province has also downgraded its projections on the state of the provincial economy.

In the budget, it was projecting real growth in the economy this year would be 2.1 per cent.

Now, it's saying the Saskatchewan gross domestic product will decline by 2.9 per cent.
Keep in mind that the initial projection was made at a time when even the likes of the federal Cons had been forced to acknowledge that there was an international recession afoot. At that time, the Wall government stood alone in somehow pretending that its province would be immune from the effects of the global downturn. And the result is that by the end of the year, the Sask Party's projections now figure to be a full 5% off the mark in determining the size of Saskatchewan's GDP.

That means that the Wall government's incompetence goes beyond merely mismanaging Saskatchewan's books, and extends to having no clue what's actually going on in the province around it. And while either would be reason for a change ASAP, the combination of both makes it all the more clear why Wall can't be left in control any longer then can be avoided.

On standards of proof

Shorter Lawrence Cannon:

My main concern about the apparent reality that the Con government is complicit in torture is the quality of evidence supporting the accusation. And I've got self-serving hearsay to prove it.

The blame game

It's still not clear exactly what it will take to either put the brakes on the HST or turn it into a decisive issue in favour of the NDP as the lone party which has taken a consistent stand against it, But this kind of development would appear to be a major help on all counts:
The federal Tories pushed, prodded and ultimately paid Ontario to adopt the harmonized sales tax and any effort to disown those actions smells like a rodent, Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said yesterday.

"There are always rats in these debates," Duncan said, without naming any names.

"It's always funny to watch those individuals who are trying to deny the $4.3 billion their government is giving us. It's fun to watch."

Owen Sound-Bruce-Grey MP Larry Miller raised the ire of his provincial seatmate and fellow Tory Bill Murdoch earlier this year for disavowing his government's role in the tax, and Sarnia's Pat Davidson has been quoted as encouraging seniors to fight against the HST as well.

But Duncan said Ontario wouldn't, and couldn't, merge its retail sales tax with the federal GST for a 13% HST without plenty of encouragement and $4.3 billion of federal money.

"The feds certainly pushed us," Duncan said adding any doubt about where the federal Conservatives stand on the HST should be erased when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty introduces enabling legislation sometime before this coming March.
Of course, both the federal and provincial levels of government will have to try to justify the HST enough in order to pass legislation to implement it. But with both now engaged in finger-pointing as to who's to blame for tax harmonization (and at least some apparent concern within both governing parties), there's a significant possibility that Duncan and Flaherty will end up having far less attention to direct toward the task of convincing citizens to accept a tax hike for corporate benefit. And the more the ministers who signed onto the deal send the message that they don't want to take responsibility for the HST, the easier it'll be for HST opponents to convince the public that it's an indefensible choice.

On double standards

On Monday, the Sask Party "notified the media" that RCMP officers would be entering the NDP caucus office at the legislature - insinuating that the opposition as a whole was somehow under police investigation. And the RCMP did indeed turn up - to invite the opposition to participate in a fund-raiser. The media reaction: a verdict of "boys will be boys".

On Wednesday, the NDP raised questions about the effectiveness of legislation on criminal record checks by pointing out an actual incident involving a Sask Party cabinet minister which would have slipped through a crack set up by the government's bill. The media reaction: a sudden case of the vapours about the incivility of pointing out such matters.

So is the problem that such talk is a "low blow" only if it actually has a basis in reality? Or is the issue that in CanWest's world, such attacks are only allowed from the right?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


About the only problem with Paul Wells' description of the bucket defence is that he only applies it to the Cons' handling of Afghan detainees rather than to...well, pretty much everything. So let's make the appropriate amendment:
The goal of (Stephen Harper's communications strategy) is not to suggest a single, coherent, (analysis or position on any point). It is to throw up such a fog of confusion and contradiction that the entire (political) process is discredited or spectators are discouraged from continuing to pay attention.

On unsustainability

Most of the discussion about this week's developments in Saskatchewan's legislature has focused on the question of whether the Wall government is actively looking to sell off Casinos Regina and Moose Jaw. But I haven't yet seen any pickup on the more important question of whether they generally see selling assets as part of their future budget plan - and there's reason to worry on that front:
Mr. Wotherspoon: — As an article said this weekend, Mr. Speaker, again that minister is being disingenuous. This opposition has been crystal clear from day one that this budget was tabled as it relates to our concerns around potash revenues.

Mr. Speaker, about a year ago the government sold its 49 per cent interest in Saskferco. The sale provided a net profit of $783 million for Crown Investments Corporation. That was money Crowns like SaskPower and SaskEnergy could have used to help maintain and build their provincial-wide networks while keeping rates low, Mr. Speaker.

Can the minister confirm that by the end of the current budget year virtually all of the $783 million profit will have been squandered to try to cover up the mistakes of his irresponsible budget?
Hon. Mr. Gantefoer: — Mr. Speaker, implied in the member’s question is that we have introduced a lot of spending that isn’t needed or wasn’t appropriate or wasn’t appreciated by the people of Saskatchewan. And I would like to know which kind of things would the opposition have suggested we not do. Would they suggest that we not raise taxes? Would they suggest that we shouldn’t have tax relief for our citizens . . .

In the past, the opposition’s answer to any of these challenges was to raise taxes. Mr. Speaker, what we have done is important to the people of Saskatchewan. What we have done is the biggest property tax decrease in the history of the province. What we have done is $300 million of real savings for people who pay taxes in the province, mostly the most vulnerable. Which of those things would you suggest we not do in order to meet the budget targets?
Now, it would seem that Gantefoer had a fairly easy out if he wanted it. After all, he's already acknowledged having completely misread the potash market for the year - and while that's obviously problematic as an indicator of his judgment, it would seem to provide at least some basis to argue that this year might be considered an exceptional circumstance where some capital income might need to be redirected toward ongoing expenses.

But Gantefoer's answer suggests just the opposite. In effect, rather than making a case that a billion-dollar hole in Saskatchewan's budget is a single-year problem, Gantefoer is trying to make the case that it isn't a problem at all - such that he doesn't see any reason to bother meaningfully cutting costs or increasing revenue in order to balance the books.

At first glance, that might raise concerns about running a long-term deficit. And that too might be a serious problem as time goes by. But for now, it's equally clear that Gantefoer is perfectly happy to use Crown capital sales to try to keep budgets nominally in the black even as his party depletes Saskatchewan's public trusts.

As a result, the most important issue surrounding the Sask Party's budget management isn't so much that of what public bodies are next on the auction block. Instead, it's the fact that Gantefoer genuinely sees no problem with selling the fridge to keep caviar on the table - leaving only the question of how long Wall and his party can go on convincing Saskatchewan citizens to demand the unsustainable rather than seeking a government which is actually willing to make responsible decisions.

And there's the answer

In comments here, pogge notes that at least some of the Cons' publicly-funded ten-per-centers have served to drive traffic directly to partisan websites:
The last couple of ten percenters I've received from my Conservative MP have encouraged me to provide my feedback by filling out an online survey -- at the Conservative Party website. I checked one out and discovered that name, mailing address and email address were required in order to submit my answer to the single survey question. It's just another way of using a taxpayer funded mailing to build a Conservative Party database.
So while there's plenty more to be discovered about exactly what the Cons have done with the material they've received by mail, there doesn't seem to be any room for doubt that some information derived from Con MPs' publicly-funded mailers has been entirely for the benefit of the Conservative Party rather than having any pretense of trying to listen to constituents.

Meanwhile, burlivespipe has an excellent suggestion as to how to respond in order to thoroughly smoke out the Cons' misuse of public resources:
Next time I get one instead of recycling it, or as I've occasionally done, sent back with a snide comment, I am going to put down some faint praise and my info. It would be a privilege to see if this does 'track-back' in terms of a financial plea... That would make a pretty impressive post and possible legitimate news story.

On unreasonable collection

While impolitical has largely covered the Globe and Mail's report on the Cons' use of ten-per-centers, there's one piece of the story which cries out for followup:
The mailers serve a more sophisticated function than just spreading a political message. Many of them include mail-back coupons, which are used to compile vital mailing lists on which political parties depend to solicit votes, volunteers and money – and that's hard, expensive work.

The Tories typically ask recipients to choose which party leader they like, and mail the coupon back.
Now, one might remember a couple of weeks ago when the Cons tried to raise a stink over fund-raising links on Lib MPs' websites. And one might well be able to make the case that publicly-funded MP resources shouldn't be used for partisan purposes.

But the Cons' ten-per-center scheme would seem like a far more blatant abuse of MP resources for partisan purposes. It directly takes advantage of both MPs' free mailing privileges and constituents' ability to mail material free to MPs, but by all accounts turns the entire transaction into an information-gathering effort for the Conservative Party.

What we don't know for sure is how (if at all) information from the returned ten-per-centers crosses the line from MPs' offices to Con party databases. And that looks to me to be the area crying out for some more research: surely it's worth putting some pressure on the Cons to tell Canadians exactly what they're doing with their publicly-funded survey results (including whether they're finding their way into the Cons' partisan database). And even if they won't say there's bound to be somebody involved in the scheme in the past who can answer the question.

Garbage in, garbage out

Shorter Leader-Post editorial board:

Sure, polls may say that the vast majority of Reginans are entirely willing to pay for improved recycling programs. But we're positive that the city's residents will develop sticker shock if the city actually listens to its citizens. Please? Can we get some tax rage over here?

Update: For those interested in letting the city know their preferences on improved waste management, its questionnaire is still available here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Filed under "don't give them any ideas"

Apparently the Cons' attempt to sidestep questions about Leo Housakos by rewriting his biography has failed miserably.

But as long as Housakos is entirely malleable about changing his public face to suit Stephen Harper's interests, I'm sure he can get out of trouble by making one more change to his biographical information. After all, who in the opposition would dare to point out any concerns about corruption if he was named, say, Terry Fox?

The reviews are in

John Geddes:
Environment Minister Jim Prentice’s remarks today to the effect that it will be years—years!—before the Canadian government implements regulations to cut greenhouse gas emissions have to be crushingly discouraging for anyone who regards climate change as an urgent problem.
It’s fair enough to point out that Canada is part of a big, complicated world. But what’s stopping the Canadian government from proposing decisive measures on the international stage, even implementing some bold ones at home, to prove its seriousness? Instead, the tone of the Conservative government is passive to the point of being inert.

In the run-up to next month’s global climate change summit in Copenhagen, Prentice continues to repeat the government’s pledge to cut emissions by 20 per cent from 2006 levels by 2020. But what does that commitment (tepid as it is by world standards) mean if all the details around how to achieve it are left to the leadership of other countries?
I'll quibble only with the description of the Cons' policy as "passive" or "inert" rather than actively obstructionist. But it seems beyond doubt that while three consecutive ballyhooed environment ministers have claimed to want to deal with greenhouse gas emissions, the Cons' track record looks far more like that of a party run by climate change denialists than that of a government which saw a problem worth solving. And it's only getting worse as time goes by.

Winning the race to the bottom

Congratulations are in order to Con Environment Minister Jim Prentice. I didn't think anybody would be able to make his party's legacy of "wait 'til next year" for greenhouse gas emission regulations look good in comparison, but his "wait 'til global unanimity (which we're preventing)" definitely does the job.

On bravery

Dr. Dawg has thoroughly debunked Terry Glavin's attack on Afghan MP Malalai Joya. But it's worth pointing out that the absurdity of Glavin's column can be more neatly summed up by looking at what he thinks makes others "brave" in contrast to Joya. Shorter Glavin:

The true mark of bravery is to demand that others risk their lives for your benefit. Chickenhawks Forever!

Shocked... what I'd be if the Cons weren't regularly taking private positions siding with corporate interests over Canadians in general despite their public pretense to the contrary. Which means that their dishonesty on airline passengers' consumer rights comes as no surprise at all.

On outsourcing

I'll start off this post by noting that there are few more tiresome refrains in Canadian politics at the moment than the Cons' line that Michael Ignatieff is about to run back to Harvard at the drop of a hat. So take the below as a point about what Ignatieff is doing while he's in Canada, not a reason to claim that he'll be teaching classes by next semester.

That said, there's reason to wonder whether Ignatieff is checking out of a seemingly vital part of his role as Lib leader. From yesterday's Hill Times:
In the past month there have been operational changes to try and make things run more smoothly. For instance, Mr. Ignatieff's so-called "Kitchen Cabinet," comprised of senior Liberal MPs, has stopped meeting every morning for half-an-hour and instead now meets weekly for two hours. Also, responsibility for preparation for the daily Question Period has been moved out of the OLO and is now overseen by Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale's (Wascana, Sask.) office.
Now, one could argue that Ignatieff's choice to farm out responsibility for question period would be consistent with the theory that he needs to focus less on Parliament in general and more on travelling around the country. But even if that's the reason for the switch, it looks to me like a highly questionable move.

After all, I've mentioned before the disproportionate amount of attention that question period receives in Canadian political reporting. And that only seems to be getting worse now that question period regularly the subject of live Tweeting from multiple sources, as well as near-instant reporting through two major media outlets.

Of course, there's no indication that Ignatieff will ever be able to get meaningful answers out of Harper or his government anytime soon. But the themes raised in question period still form the basis for most reporting on developments in Parliament. And even in the absence of any prospect of actually finding out anything new from the Cons, it's still the lone time when Ignatieff gets the chance to challenge Harper in direct wit-to-wit combat rather than having to fight the Cons' PR machine - not to mention a chance for many MPs to show their mettle in front of a national TV audience.

Based on that background, I'd expect question period to at least be included as a component of the messaging strategy being carried out by an opposition leader's office. Instead, though, Ignatieff has apparently washed his hands of it, leaving Ralph Goodale to manage it separately from the Libs' party-building work.

That might result in the Libs developing stronger direct challenges to Harper in the House, as Goodale presumably has far less qualms about the kind of oppositional politics which seem to have tripped up Ignatieff. But it also figures to raise far more likelihood that the Libs' questions will operate solely as temporary pokes at the Cons, rather than as part of the party's work on a longer-term narrative. And the Libs have to be wondering whether Ignatieff's decision to offload a major part of his and his party's work might be a sign of more flagging interest to come.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Now that's reassuring

Sure, the fact that the Sask Party hasn't given workers or the general public any input into two waves of anti-labour legislation might seem like reason for concern. But take heart, working Saskatchewanians: the Wall government will make sure you're taken care of just as soon as you're dead.

I stand corrected

My apologies to Stephen Harper for suggesting that he'd follow in the footsteps of Pat Fiacco and Brad Wall as a wannabe radio deejay. Instead, he's obviously using his time in office to assemble a demo tape for a future television variety show - which of course fully explains why he doesn't have time for such trifles as the Copenhagen climate change conference that his government has worked so hard to undermine.

On political considerations

The latest study on stimulus spending from the Citizen and Chronicle-Herald should make it clear that there's no inherent reason why infrastructure money would end up flowing disproportionately toward government ridings - as Ontario provincial ridings actually showed a slight tilt in the other direction.

That makes it all the more worth questioning why such a consistent pattern of government favouritism has played out in federal ridings. So let's consider a few of the possibilities as to how money could be simultaneously funnelled to favour the Harper Cons without any similar effects provincially.

First, let's note that federal stimulus money was earmarked for "shovel-ready" projects - meaning that projects with a greater degree of previous planning would be more likely to be prepared to receive funding. That means that the stimulus funding may prove to have been the Cons' payoff for setting up a Department of Pork a couple of years ago: it would only make sense that the Cons' efforts to seek out ways to spend in their own ridings then would result in there being more projects planned and ready to go this year.

And the Cons' publicly-known focus on pork-barrelling also doesn't seem likely to have escaped the notice of provincial and municipal governments, which leads to the second important possibility: it may be that provincial and municipal governments looked at the Cons' track record and concluded for themselves that their projects had a better chance of being approved if they could be linked to Con or swing ridings. Needless to say, that would result in the Cons effectively being able to rely on the other levels of government to establish a partisan tilt for them, as more marginal projects were submitted (and presumably approved) from Con ridings.

Finally, it also seems clear that the Cons have made sure that opposition MPs were kept in the dark when it came to helping their constituents with funding application. That too would create an obvious source of possible bias without the Cons having to actually reject applications from opposition ridings.

(Of course, all of this is in addition to the documented bias in the approval of some projects at the federal level.)

Now, I'd be particularly interested to see if Ontario actually serves as an example of the converse on the provincial level: if the McGuinty government sent signals that it intended to be even-handed and actually provided MPPs from all parties with equal resources in putting infrastructure projects forward, then those would seem to be fairly clear distinguishing factors between the two levels of government. And if Ontario does serve as an example of how stimulus spending can be doled out fairly, then the federal Cons have even more to answer for in their complete failure to make that happen.