Saturday, December 05, 2009

What Paul said

Here. (Unless we're prepared to rewrite history so that the real villains of Watergate were the Democrats for having a hotel room worth breaking into.)

(Edit: fixed typo.)

The reviews are in

James Travers:
In short order and with scant regard for protocol or Parliament, Harper demonstrated the rich benefits of writing new rules.

First the Prime Minister left statesmanship ashore in Port-of-Spain by using the patrolling Canadian navy to take a wild, partisan shot at rivals for supposedly not supporting the troops over Afghanistan torture reports. Then he dropped the latest suspect economic stimulus update while flying high above Siberia and far away from scrutiny. Finally, MPs were at last given largely blacked-out prisoner transfer documents leaked days earlier to good media effect.
...
After learning the tricks of a dirty trade from the Liberals, Conservatives are now taking political gamesmanship to the next level by doing almost anything to win, even if that makes democratic practice the loser.

Prime ministers are constrained by convention and courtesy to leave domestic bickering behind when they go abroad. Parliament's defining duty to protect taxpayers is eroded when political theatre overwhelms economic disclosure. Public respect for MPs is lost when message management leaves them begging for information that's already yesterday's news.

On spinning heads

It's a pleasant surprise to see that Peter MacKay's dissembling on his responsibility for covering up damaging documents about torture in Afghanistan has actually received some follow-up. But it's particularly odd that the Cons are sticking to what could have been spun as simply a poor turn of phrase even after MacKay's department has acknowledged his clear statutory role:
In testimony before the Commons defence committee on Thursday, Mr. MacKay scoffed at the idea that there could be political interference in the censorship of the documents, as opposition critics suggest.

But his department said in an email Friday that the minister’s office is directing the lawyers in charge of blacking out documents.


"Instructions are given to Department of Justice counsel by the responsible minister and their officials," said an email from Josee Houde, a communications adviser at the Department of National Defence. "In this case, the responsible ministers and their officials are from the Department of National Defence, the Canadian Forces and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade."
...
Mr. MacKay’s spokesman, Dan Dugas, said late Friday that the email from the department changes nothing.

"The fact of the matter is ministers do not redact documents," he said. "Nor do they give direction on what is to be redacted. That is done entirely by experts in the matter and civil servants, who are trained and who have security clearances and have security of the country and people who act for it in mind."

Later Friday, Mr. Dugas said that the DND email was in fact not about redacting documents.

"The answer from department about minister giving direction had nothing to do with redactions," he said in an email.
Now, the issue as it's currently framed seems to be about whether any redactions were the result of "political interference", which is presumably why MacKay is still trying to point fingers elsewhere while running away from his explicit job description. So let's try to clarify exactly what we should be concerned about.

To the extent the issue is merely whether or not MacKay had any role in giving directions as to the redactions, there's no scandal involved in his having done so. In fact, it would be entirely expected that he'd exercise some form of oversight over an information management process for which he holds ultimate responsibility.

By the same token, though, there is serious potential for MacKay to be implicated in a cover-up in one of two ways. If he did give directions which resulted in important information being redacted without justification, then he bears direct responsibility for that. And if he failed to properly oversee the work of his department in handling requested information (i.e. by allowing some other group to make decisions which he should have made), then that too falls directly on him - particularly if paired with an actual torture cover-up in which the Cons' central command has dictated what information is released by departments which are supposed to hold independent responsibility for their records.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Musical interlude

Martin Roth & Bartlett Bros - Losing Gravity

Block the HST

I've noted before my concern that the Libs' decision to vote for the HST would effectively remove the issue from the federal political scene. But it's a great sign that the NDP is doing everything in its power to keep that from happening - which should prove a boon both for the NDP's political prospects, and for the chances of holding the Harper government up to proper scrutiny for paying off the provinces involved.

On hostile audiences

Congrats to John Baglow (aka Dr. Dawg) on his new place on the National Post's Full Comment page. But it figures to be a somewhat worrisome sign when a new recruit is announced with the following introduction:
Before everyone starts sending me nasty emails, think about this: There's nothing wrong with listening to other opinions; it's when you start agreeing with them that you need to worry.
Which raises the question: does it strike nobody else as odd that a media outlet would even consider highlighting opinions which (in its own view) weren't at least capable of being agreed with?

Mind you, the best possible result would be if more people come to agree with John's posts than anybody at the National Post would think possible. And I'll certainly be rooting for that outcome. But it seems rather counterproductive for everybody concerned for the editors to instruct their readers otherwise, rather than letting the public decide for itself based on the high quality of John's posts.

Previewing the holiday news dump

Saskatchewan's fall session of the legislature undoubtedly answered some key questions about the Sask Party. For example, on the all-important issue of whether Brad Wall's government can find its own ass with a map and a flashlight, the clear answer is that it can't even find the flashlight.

But there also more than a few questions which the Wall government failed or refused to answer over the last few months. So let's note a few of the areas where it seems likely that there will be some important news trickling out over the next few weeks (and seemingly conveniently timed to avoid any questioning in the Legislature):

The Revenge of TILMA. As Len Taylor noted on Monday, the Sask Party has signed onto the "Western Economic Partnership Agreement" with a promise to finalize the details by January 1, 2010 - but hasn't actually carried out a minute of public or legislative consultation. Which figures to mean that we'll see the agreement emerge fully-formed during the holidays with little to no intention on the Sask Party's part to allow the mere public to influence its contents afterward. (See Owls and Roosters for more information.)

The Nuke Question. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Wall and company have rightfully backed away from nuclear power. But at last notice, Wall was still promising a final decision whether or not to push ahead with nukes by the end of the year - and given that the Sask Party has already spun itself into knots trying to keep open the prospect of nuclear power, there may be reason to worry it's simply been waiting until it can avoid answering for the decision before giving the go-ahead.

Cutbacks to Come. In yesterday's question period, Dwain Lingenfelter made a seemingly reasonable request for answers to written questions about the Sask Party's plans to try to make up for their own fiscal incompetence. And Wall's response was to ignore the request entirely in favour of resuming his party's "don't worry, be happy" reaction to evidence that the province might have problems worth addressing. Which would seem likely to signal that the answers will be dished out in tiny pieces intended to slip under the radar over the holidays, rather than being provided at a time when the government would face direct questions.

All of which is to say that there's plenty of reason for suspicion that the holiday season will be a busy one on the Saskatchewan political scene. And we'll find out before long just how much worse off the Wall government can make the province during the legislative break.

The Hated Sales Tax

While the NDP may be alone among political parties in presenting a coherent case against the HST, it most certainly isn't lacking support for that position in the general public:
Three-quarters of Ontarians oppose the looming 13 per cent harmonized sales tax, suggests a new Toronto Star-Angus Reid Public Opinion survey.

In troubling news for Premier Dalton McGuinty's Liberals, 70 per cent of the 1,162 people polled said their opinion of the government has worsened due to the HST.
...
The online poll also found that 76 per cent of respondents are familiar with the tax, which melds the 8 per cent provincial sales tax with the 5 per cent federal GST as of July 1. That means an extra 8 per cent tax on many items that are now exempt from it but are already subject to the HST.

The poll, conducted Nov. 23 to 26, is considered accurate to within 2.8 percentage points.

With 75 per cent opposing the tax and five out of six – 83 per cent – predicting it will make goods and services more expensive, it's clear the government's message that the business-friendly levy will boost the economy is not taking hold.
Of course, the McGuinty government's response is that public opinion will shift if it just repeats its patently false "job numbers" claims often enough. But from an outsider's perspective on both provinces, it looks to me like Ontario has actually had far more of a pro-HST slant in the positions presented publicly to date - making it highly unlikely that a greater focus on the issue from both sides will do anything but further entrench the current state of public opinion.

The reviews are in

Jim Coyle:
Oddly enough, or maybe not in the realm of politics, the players who received the least credit and attention in the recent sound and fury over Ontario's proposed harmonized sales tax are those who probably merit it most.

For consistency, persistence and dignity, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and her colleagues were best in class over the last several weeks.

"I'm proud to be a New Democrat – the only political party that's consistent across this country on this nasty tax," Horwath said.

On that score, with the almost laughable reversal of roles of a Liberal premier who was once wary of the tax now imposing it, and an opposition Progressive Conservative party once in favour of the tax railing against it, she could hardly be contradicted.

In almost every question period, Horwath brought the voice of the common man and woman in Ontario to the Legislature, outlining how the HST would impact Pam from Exeter, or Rick from Aurora, or Ron from Port Rowan.

It was a New Democrat's ideal fight – standing up for ordinary folk against the easily understood impact of a tax shift from corporate Ontario to consumers.
...
Horwath's attack was focused, sustained and – unlike her PC counterparts – grown-up and constructive.
...
They offered to extend the current sitting to Dec. 22 in order to accommodate public hearings. They received no formal response from the government. The day two Tory MPPs hijacked the Legislature, NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson tried to broker peace.

In the end, Ontarians won a little more time to have a say on the HST, thanks to an NDP-brokered compromise, leveraged through an artful exploitation of Legislature rules rather than their blatant flouting.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

On responsibility

It isn't exactly news that the Cons' spin to avoid responsibility for possible torture in Afghanistan has ranged from implausible to insulting. But Peter MacKay's excuse as to why nobody should blame the Cons for the fact that their well-documented pattern of government-wide secrecy is being applied in particularly egregious fashion to documents related to torture in Afghanistan looks to be a particularly ludicrous one:
Earlier in the committee meeting, however, Mr. MacKay tried to explain the rationale for blacking out the documents:

“The decision around redaction or editing – if you will, because I think a lot of people are perhaps not familiar with the word redaction – those decisions are not taken by politicians or ministers. Those decisions are taken at an arms length level by officials, trained officials, officials with national security clearance aided by the Attorney-General’s special department on national security.
So what's wrong with that statement? Under the Access to Information Act, ultimate responsibility for the treatment of records under the control of a government institution lies squarely on the "head" responsible - which in the case of any federal department means "the member of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada who presides over the department or ministry". In other words, the entire basis of the accountability structure in Canada's access to information system is to make ministers responsible for the disclosure - or non-disclosure - of information in the hands of a department.

Now, it's true that a head is able to delegate that power - and nobody would expect that MacKay himself pored over any of the documents now being withheld to determine what to black out and what to disclose/leak. But that still results in a system in which it's a minister's authority that's being exercised by his or her choice of delegates - with ultimate accountability lying with the person originally charged with the task.

Which is to say that if MacKay's statement were true based on any even remotely meaningful definition of "arm's length" (implying a complete lack of political oversight over the redactions, rather than express political accountability for them), it would represent a stunning shift in responsibility for the handling of information.

Of course, MacKay's statement doesn't figure for a second to reflect any actual "arm's-length" decision-making about the treatment of information. But the fact that the Cons have such utter contempt for the concept of responsible government that they're willing to lie about their own job descriptions by pretending that their statutory obligations are outside the realm of political responsibility looks to be a particularly dangerous sign - particularly if it isn't answered with an immediate rejection of the assertion that ministers can get away with inventing non-existent "arm's-length" relationships to escape their duties.

The reviews are in

Eric Howe via Murray Mandryk:
One of the province's foremost economists says the Brad Wall government is suffering from the same mindset that plagued the Grant Devine government and added $10 billion in debt in 10 years.

University of Saskatchewan economist Eric Howe -- whom the Saskatchewan Party government recently praised for insisting that this province had avoided the recession -- said in an interview Wednesday that the current government has a spending problem and not a resource revenue problem caused by falling potash sales.

"If I were to ask the Finance Minister (Rod Gantefoer) one thing, it would be: 'Where did the money go?' " Howe said Wednesday, adding that the Devine government also blamed its deficits on recessions even when Saskatchewan wasn't in recession.

Just three years ago, the provincial government had only $8 million in revenue and still managed a billion-dollar surplus, Howe noted. Even with the $1.8-billion decline in potash revenue from what was projected in the March budget, the mid-year financial statement shows that the government still has $10 billion in revenues.
...
Describing himself to be as "fiscally conservative as anyone you'll ever meet," Howe said the Saskatchewan Party government has dug itself a "fairly deep hole" -- the largest deficit the province has seen since the Progressive Conservative government's last budget in 1991.

On wedge issues

The Cons may have picked up a reputation for building their political base by adding key groups into their core support. But it's worth wondering whether their decision to slash funding for ecumenical social justice group Kairos might manage to accomplish just the opposite. After all, Kairos' list of partners doesn't exactly look like a list of organizations that the Cons would want to be facing as adversaries:
Kairos represents, among other organizations the United, Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches, the Mennonites and the Quakers.
And there's an even wider group of organizations involved in the climate change work which seems to have drawn the Cons' ire:
Last May, a Kairos delegation of church leaders toured Alberta's oilsands region to see how the projects are affecting aboriginal people and to help determine if they are environmentally sustainable.

The delegation included leaders from the Anglican, Christian Reformed, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian and United churches, as well as representatives from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
So might the Cons' effort to silence anybody seeking real action on climate change serve only to drive plenty of voters of faith out of their own camp?

On board games

If last night's post didn't say enough about the Sask Party's complete lack of any idea what it's doing in government, consider this: Bill Boyd may not have been the most prominent member of Brad Wall's cabinet to show the most ignorance of his responsibilities in just the last week. Simple Massing Priest has the details paraphrasing a sudden revelation to Finance Minister Rod Gantefoer:
Pat Atkinson: When did you find out about this 40 million?

Rod Gantefoer: I'm not sure. Let me check. [confers with officials] I'm informed at mid-year.

Pat Atkinson: After the money is spent?

Rod Gantefoer: I take the member's point. That's probably not a good thing.

Trent Wotherspoon: But who is actually on the board? Who approves spending the money?

Rod Gantefoer: I don't know who is on the board, let me ask. [confers with officials] I'm informed that the two members are the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Municipal Affairs.
...
That's right. Saskatchewan Finance Minister Rod Gantefoer does not realize that he is one of two people on the Saskatchewan Municipal Finance Board. Neither does he remember what he has done as a member of that board.
If there's any good news to be found, it's that with the NDP's help in committee, the Sask Party's highest-ranking cabinet members seem to have finally discovered at least a small amount of what their jobs actually involve. And all after only two and a half years in office.

But it's hard to escape the sense that the province would be far better off cutting out the middle man so that the party with some idea what's going on is actually in charge - rather than leaving the province's finances in the hands of a Finance Minister who can't be bothered to find out for himself what his duties are.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Uninformed

Last month, I noted that Bill Boyd is apparently the lone Sask Party MLA or member who Brad Wall trusts to carry out tasks more complex than tying his own shoes. Now, we learn that any such trust in Boyd looks to have been another example of the Sask Party's unwarranted optimism.

Here's Boyd - the Minister responsible for SaskPower, appearing before the Standing Committee on Crown and Central Agencies to discuss a revised SaskPower borrowing estimate - trying to figure out just what it is that he was summoned to discuss in response to NDP MLA Trent Wotherspoon's justifiable skepticism at being told borrowing was actually going down:
Mr. Wotherspoon: —...So just to make sure we understand here tonight, we’re looking at vote 152, which looks at increasing borrowing by 64.5 million. Is that correct, Minister?

Hon. Mr. Boyd: — The borrowing is 598.

Mr. Wotherspoon: — So the borrowing for the year is 598?

Hon. Mr. Boyd: — I’m not sure. Let me just check this for a moment, please.

Mr. Chair, Mr. Member, indeed you are correct. Vote 152 is for 64.5 million.

Mr. Wotherspoon: — So just to make sure we understand that. I maybe misunderstood the preamble at the start, but I believe I heard that there was going to be a reduction from the original budget that was 598.7 million in the original budget document this year. This estimate here, to my understanding, then reflects that we have an increased pressure or increased need of borrowing on top of that of 64.5 million. Is that correct?

Hon. Mr. Boyd: — Well the supplementary estimates would deal with a certain period of time and the balance would be within the rest of the year.

Mr. Wotherspoon: — So in the preamble, there was a discussion about a reduced need to borrow, I believe, on behalf of SaskPower?

Hon. Mr. Boyd: — That’s correct. The original borrowing forecast was $598 million over the 2009-10 period. For that entire forecasted period of time, now the borrowing need is down to $516 million. But this particular estimate, the supplementary estimate is accurate at the 64.5, 64.5 million.

Mr. Wotherspoon: — So then am I correct to assume that we have the original budget estimate of 598.7 million; we’re adding this amount of debt to that in this budget year; and so we’re at 663 million this year of borrowed dollars?

Hon. Mr. Boyd: — Mr. Chair, members, we’re going to ask for some additional folks from SaskPower to provide some information on this. We want to make sure that we are providing the committee with the proper information with respect to that. And there seems to be some concern that we may not have the correct information with us.

The comptroller is being called for right now. So, Mr. Chair, committee members, with your indulgence, if you could perhaps move to some other questions. We’ll certainly supply that information as soon as it becomes available.
That's right: in a committee appearance to discuss an increase in borrowing for SaskPower, with the Finance Minister having already announced the higher borrowing figure, Boyd had to turn to the staff appearing with him to figure out whether any increase in borrowing was actually happening.

But surely it couldn't be that difficult for a high-ranking cabinet minister and his choice of qualified civil servants to figure out whether the single number under discussion was set to go up or down, right? Well, let's check in about halfway through the same meeting:
Mr. Wotherspoon: —...I would like to get to the actual discussions around the estimate here tonight. And so the Chair’s wanting us to cut to the chase. I would look to the minister, if there’s any clarity at this point in time. I know when I came in with the budget book here tonight, I was looking to question an increase of $64 million of borrowing. Now the minister suggested here tonight that that estimate book is incorrect and that . . .

Hon. Mr. Boyd: — No. I didn’t suggest that.

Mr. Wotherspoon: — Okay. Though my understanding was though that the borrowing needs here for the current year will not be 598 million but 519 million, which would mean that we should actually be looking at a reduction here tonight in the borrowing needs of SaskPower.

So we have quite a difference between those two numbers, a $64 million increase or a reduction of the amount that the minister has discussed. Do we have any clarity on those numbers yet at this point?

Hon. Mr. Boyd: — The SaskPower officials are working on that information right now, and we’ll have it as soon as it’s available.
Yikes. But surely by the end of the meeting Boyd would at least have figured out the concepts of "up" and "down", right?
Mr. Wotherspoon: — Mr. Minister, thank you for the clarity that we will receive. That’s very important. But we’re also going to need the process that was similar to what we had laid out here tonight — that being a committee structure and some time to look at whether or not we’re looking at a reduction in borrowing, as the minister suggests, or an increase in borrowing, as the Minister of Finance suggests.

So in either event, Mr. Chair — specifically I guess, if there’s an increase because that’s where a supplementary estimate would then come into effect — we’re certainly going to need and be required to have that time. And it would only be fair to the people of Saskatchewan, many who will be watching here tonight, to be provided that time. So I guess I look to the minister to offer that commitment to this committee.

Hon. Mr. Boyd: — We’re prepared to provide the information as it becomes available through the SaskPower officials.
So there you have it: the Sask Party's Minister of Everything - the man responsible for determining whether to rush forward with nuclear development - the man charged with running the Sask Party's 2011 campaign - isn't quite well enough acquainted with his ministerial responsibilities to figure out the answer to a single yes-or-no question during the course of an hour-and-a-half committee meeting convened for the sole purpose of discussing it.

But have no fear: Boyd does appear to have at least offered the NDP another crack at the estimates which so baffled him. And that should prove much more productive - at least until somebody has to stop the meeting to help Boyd out with the significance of the S with a vertical line through it.

(H/t to a reader.)

The reviews are in

Rafe Mair's latest column features enough provocative statements and theories that few readers will have trouble finding something to disagree with. But it also raises some noteworthy possibilities - especially if the HST remains as powerful an issue in B.C. as it's been so far to go along with Mair's proposed focus on environmental issues:
We may be seeing what no person in his right mind would have dared speak of just a handful of years ago. I speak of the chance that the NDP may overtake the Liberals as the government in waiting. It could happen. Indeed it may already have happened.
...
Under Jack Layton the last three elections have show some promise for the NDP. In his first election he got 19 seats. This moved to 29 in 2006 and 37 in 2008. The fact remains that the NDP has a long way to go in order to be the opposition but with some luck and skill it could happen.
...
Layton faces an uphill struggle and if he's to move up the ladder and pass the Grits he must do better in Quebec and Ontario, make headway in Atlantic Canada and really do well in B.C. In order to do that, the federal NDP must do better -- much better -- in rural B.C., which has become a Tory stronghold. This is where Carole James comes in.
...
Our environment isn't a casual chip to be used in the great game of making money for money's sake. We're dealing here with a moral and ethical issue. Do we sacrifice our waters and our fish not even for our own profit but for others who have no stake in our province?

This is where Carole James comes in...My sense of it is that James knows that and, if she is listened to, will provide the boost for Layton’s campaign that it will need. She's liked and respected, personally is a good campaigner and unlike most of her caucus, understands these issues.
...
Layton will learn, if he listens, that the best weapon Kim Il Campbell has going for him is that people are reluctant to believe that any government could be this insensitive and indeed stupid. They are that insensitive and stupid and I offer as proof, as if proof were necessary, Mair's Axiom I, namely that you make a very serious mistake if you assume that those in power know what the hell they're doing.
...
Layton might find comfort from Mair's Axiom II, namely that you don't need to be a 10 to win in politics, you can be a three if everyone else is a two.

At the worst, Jack Layton is a three in a sea of twos and with a little self-education on the Fraser Institute-inspired ravaging of our bountiful home could turn that into a big plus both for him and for the British Columbia we love.

Wednesday Afternoon Links

Since the ol' browser tabs need some clearing out...

- Tom Bradley comments on how the HST will affect the financial sector:
Canada's regulatory patchwork, cut up by geography, product type and ancient history, has already inadvertently shaped how investment products are designed and sold. Structured products, for example, fall between the regulatory cracks and have been given freer rein to make marketing claims and obscure their fees and risks. A whole industry has been built around this regulatory arbitrage (playing one off against the other).

The HST will distort the industry more broadly, however, because some financial services are HST-able, while others are not (Note: The tax experts I consulted with are cringing at the simplification). The relative competitiveness of every product on the shelf will be affected, some good, some bad. The inequity lies in situations where there are products that are indistinguishable as to their objectives, risks and underlying investments that sit on opposite sides of the HST line.
- Devin points out what Stephen Harper used to consider contempt of Parliament until he decided to engage in it himself.

- Michael Geist makes Tony Clement's weird decision to point to a frequent critic of his government as the leading authority for those interested in copyright issues into all the more of a head-scratcher.

- And of course there's the latest from Brian Topp's series on the progressive coalition - with this instalment detailing the negotiations between the Libs and the NDP on the composition of a coalition government. For those of us who remember the outcome, it's especially remarkable that the NDP seems to have ended up getting more than it asked for originally: six seats in a 24-member cabinet along with six parliamentary secretary positions, rather than eight cabinet seats alone.

Epilogue

Last week, I pointed out Joe Comartin's valiant attempt to make sure that the Cons couldn't ram through a bill by refusing to provide information they'd promised to the opposition parties - as well as the subsequent disappointment when the Libs voted to rush the bill through anyway. Well, the story seems to have come to a close with an admission that generally looks to have been noticed nowhere other than on the pages of Hansard:
Hon. Peter Van Loan (Minister of Public Safety, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am rising in response to a point of privilege that was raised by the member for Windsor—Tecumseh related to information that he sought at parliamentary committee from the head of the Correctional Service of Canada, Mr. Don Head. This information was to be conveyed by Mr. Head on a timely basis for consideration before the matter was dealt with in Parliament. It was provided to my office. It was conveyed to the hon. member and to others. However, that was not done on the timely basis it should have been done. There is in fact no good reason why it was not done on a timely basis, and for that reason I come before you to apologize unreservedly to the member for Windsor—Tecumseh and to the House for the failure to provide those documents. While he did have them early enough, they were not conveyed in the proper fashion and it should have been done properly and I apologize for that.
Now, Van Loan conspicuously avoided saying when the documents actually were passed along, or offering any explanation as to why they were sent to his office for vetting in the first place. But at the very least, Van Loan's statement yesterday confirms that the Cons' failure to provide promised information prevented the opposition from doing its job in properly vetting the bill.

Unfortunately, that also offers a signal that the Libs' decision reflects an abdication of their own role in holding the government to account for wrongs that even the Cons can't avoid acknowledging now. Indeed, if anything the Libs' actions send a signal that the Cons are better off covering up everything they can in the short term and daring the opposition parties to do anything about it, rather than allowing anybody on opposition benches to do their job in the first place. And it shouldn't come as much surprise if the Cons end up stonewalling even more than they might have otherwise on the Afghan detainee file and other issues as a result.

Update: Fixed timeline - it seemed longer than a week ago that the issue first arose, but apparently not.

On outcasts

Sure, we all know that the Cons have gone out of their way to turn Canada into an global pariah on climate change, and may have some inkling that they're doing the same when it comes to torture and Middle East relations. But Erin only hints at the fact that they're doing the same in another rather important area of international reputation:
Japan defines tax havens as countries whose corporate taxes amount to no more than 25% of profits.

How will the Canadian subsidiaries of Japanese companies be affected if and when Canada completes legislated plans for a combined federal-provincial corporate tax rate of 25%?
This makes for a particularly important question in light of Deficit Jim Flaherty's explicit goal in trying to brand Canada:
In a speech to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, Flaherty challenged provinces to help him create a Canadian "brand" for business taxes by reducing their take of corporate profits.

"I've challenged the provinces to drive down their business tax rates to 10 per cent by 2012," he said during his speech.

Flaherty said by combining that with a 15 per cent federal rate, he would "brand our country globally as a 25 per cent business tax jurisdiction."
In sum, then, Flaherty is actively working to have Canada turn into the equivalent of the Cayman Islands as a country which deliberately sets tax rates outside the accepted range of reasonable policy. And the result is that Japan and any other country which seeks to discourage tax avoidance will end up imposing penalties on companies based in Canada. (Not to mention that Canada will itself create a relative advantage for companies whose main priority is tax avoidance - and a concurrent disadvantage for those which actually accomplish anything useful.)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Well said

While the Cons are trying to get one last rerun out of their anti-coalition hysteria (featuring the least threatening attack graphic ever), Fred Wilson points out some lessons actually worth learning from last year's events:
I think we learned why progressives should favour coalition politics over the “big tent” strategy. In every case that I know of where social democratic or Liberal “big tents” have formed governments, they have implemented neo-Liberal policies, marginalized progressives, and shattered the hopes of social change activists. The coalition brought forward a program developed explicitly in opposition to the neo-liberal agenda at that time, and provided major roles and real influence for progressive voices. Yes, it is possible to achieve political breadth without eviscerating everything you stand for.

We also learned that Canadians are very open to coalition politics, provided that parties are open and transparent with them. One of the noteworthy analyses of the coalition was that original hostility to the coalition turned more favorable after a period of public discussion. Strategic Counsel polls for the Globe and Mail on December 5, 2008, showed 58% opposition to the coalition and 38% support. By January 15, support for the coalition had increased to 44%. An EKOS Globe and Mail poll published January 21, six days before the budget, showed support for a coalition government at 50%.

Unfortunately there are some lessons we didn’t learn, and for me chief among these is the centrality of Quebec for the future of the Canadian left. I was excited by the coalition, because it included the Bloc Quebecois. The coalition did not envisage Bloc ministers, but it did contemplate a working relationship towards shared social and economic goals.

There are some who see the relationship with the Bloc as the achilles heel of the coalition -- but I believe they could not be more wrong. First, there was no coalition possible without the Bloc’s support. Second, 80% of Bloc supporters in Quebec supported the coalition and showed by their support the possibility of a new unity between English and French progressives, and ultimately the basis for a truly representative bi-national Canadian government.

On giveaways

I very much hope CuriosityCat is right in theorizing that the Libs' decision to vote with the Cons on the HST will operate to the federal NDP's benefit. But while I'd think it's probably safe to say the Libs managed to give away seats one way or another, I'd worry that the result might be something else entirely.

Particularly with Ignatieff mirroring the Harper government's language framing the issue as a "request from the provinces" (while glossing over the $6 billion in federal bribes to push the provinces to comply with Deficit Jim Flaherty's wishes), I wonder whether the effect will instead be to direct public anger over the HST toward the provincial scene rather than the federal one. That could end up producing an increased backlash against the provincial governments which the Libs are trying to appease - while taking the Cons completely off the hook for one of the few issues which has actually raised public anger during their stay in office.

On preparation

Brian Topp has already put up two entries in what's sure to be a much-analyzed series of posts about the development of the progressive coalition. But what jumps out so far is the contrast in planning between the two parties who entered into the coalition.

Here's Topp on the NDP's course of action after Jim Flaherty introduced his FU to the country:
“CTV is reporting that the per voter public financing scheme is to be cancelled in tomorrow’s update,” he wrote. “I believe that the Liberals could be tempted by our earlier proposition, faced with such a catastrophic proposal. Self-preservation could provoke out-of-the-box thinking. I would like to discuss having you re-open your line of communication with your contact.”
...
I took a bit of time before replying to our federal leader’s email, to get my mind around the idea we were going to try to reactivate our coalition proposal (we had floated the idea of replacing the Conservatives through a coalition during the 2008 election and then again earlier that fall, and had been rebuffed by the Liberals, who were now focused on a new leadership convention).
...
“What is the state of the ‘letter’ that we had been considering sending to the political leaders?” Layton asked me at 7:24 a.m. via his BlackBerry. “Was there a list of legislative initiatives that would form the basis of a relationship? (such a list would have to be revised in light of emergency in any event).”

Layton was referring here to a draft letter, never sent, which we had planned to present to St├ęphane Dion on election night had the numbers justified it, proposing a coalition government.
...
“He said the Liberals are voting against. It would seem this might be real!” I wrote to Layton and McGrath (4:52 p.m.). “Indeed,” Layton replied (4:56 p.m.). “I intend to meet him tonight to start the process. He’s saying no because he knows our option can work and that Duceppe will support it. Good job we were prepared.”
...
I was also suggesting Mr. Layton think about his working group. I hoped that the members of our “scenarios committee” (a study group that included chief of staff Anne McGrath, former federal leader Ed Broadbent, former Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney, and myself) would be part of our bargaining team, since we had spent many hours thinking about these issues over the past four years. In the alternate I wanted to be cleanly severed from the process so that I could stop thinking about it.
In other words, the NDP had been ready for the possibility of a coalition for some time. Not only had it raised the topic with the Libs at times previously after having thoroughly discussed the possibility internally, but it actually had a letter prepared to go to the other opposition parties to set the steps in motion to replace the Cons.

Mind you, Topp can only shed so much light as to the Libs' response. But all indications seem to be that they weren't able to do much other than react to the NDP's preparations. They did eventually demand a shift in the numbers of allocated cabinet seats, but don't appear to have made any fundamental changes to the plan that the NDP put forward - and of course it was the Libs' lack of preparation to put together a first set of communications about the coalition that helped to derail the initiative before Michael Ignatieff killed it off.

And Tim Naumetz offers some of the explanation as to why the Libs have indeed been unprepared to deal with developments as they've turned up:
(From 1988 to 1993 there) were no elections, no chances of an election, and none of the temptations and internal struggles that precede or follow an election with the prospect, a dream or not, of winning back power.
...
"I was in opposition from 1988 to 1993," said Liberal MP Maurizio Bevilacqua (Vaughan, Ont.) in an interview with The Hill Times. "I know the work we did, we had the Aylmer conference, everybody in caucus was beefing up, everyone was travelling, travelling to help other candidates. There was a sense of clear direction."

He said the inevitable turbulence for the Liberals under three minorities in a row can only contribute to party instability, especially with two losses in the same period. "What happens in a minority situation is you always think you're months away from winning an election or at least attempting to win. After you've been in power, you obviously think you're going to be (back) in power soon. These minority governments didn't allow us the time to say, 'Look, we have a certain period that we need to re-focus, reshape, re-think, reinvigorate the party and that should have been, perhaps, more of a priority than it was. Today, we would have been probably in year four of the rebuilding process. What these minority governments have done is interrupted that."
Now, Naumetz' focus is on party-building issues rather than political scenario development. But it would stand to reason that the same factors are at work when it comes to the strategic political planning which is vital in a minority Parliament.

While the NDP has been able to develop response plans to deal with all types of political developments, the Libs haven't been able to do much but scramble to respond to what the other parties have put on the table. And that's created a vicious cycle for the Libs, particularly when the agenda is largely being driven by a governing party which enjoys nothing more than backing its opposition into a corner.

Of course, the Libs are hoping that they'll have more time now. But all indications are that they're still making things up on the fly rather than having even a single consistent direction, let alone any planned options to change course. And the fact that they're once again starting from scratch under the direction of a new chief of staff would suggest that they'll face plenty more important choices before they've had a chance to plan out any strategic responses.

Ouch

Kent compares the Sask Party's "guiding principles" to its track record in office. And it shouldn't come as much surprise that the results are...well, not pretty to say the least.

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.)