Saturday, January 16, 2010

Why it matters

Digby quotes Chris Hayes in offering a reminder as to why progressives need to work on renewing our democratic institutions even when we may not get the results we hope for immediately:
[T]he corporatism on display in Washington is itself a symptom of a broader social illness that I noted above, a democracy that is pitched precariously on the tipping point of oligarchy. In an oligarchy, the only way to get change is to convince the oligarchs that it is in their interest--and increasingly, that's the only kind of change we can get.

In 1911 the German democratic socialist Robert Michels faced a similar problem, and it was the impetus for his classic book Political Parties. He was motivated by a simple question: why were parties of the left, those most ideologically committed to democracy and participation, as oligarchical in their functioning as the self-consciously elitist and aristocratic parties of the right?

Michels's answer was what he called "The Iron Law of Oligarchy." In order for any kind of party or, indeed, any institution with a democratic base to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks. As this bureaucratic structure develops, it invests a small group of people with enough power that they can then subvert the very mechanisms by which they can be held to account: the party press, party conventions and delegate votes. "It is organization which gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors," he wrote, "of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy."

Michels recognized the challenge his work presented to his comrades on the left and viewed the task of democratic socialists as a kind of noble, endless, Sisyphean endeavor, which he described by invoking a German fable. In it, a dying peasant tells his sons that he has buried a treasure in their fields. "After the old man's death the sons dig everywhere in order to discover the treasure. They do not find it. But their indefatigable labor improves the soil and secures for them a comparative well-being."

"The treasure in the fable may well symbolize democracy," Michels wrote. "Democracy is a treasure which no one will ever discover by deliberate search. But in continuing our search, in laboring indefatigably to discover the undiscoverable, we shall perform a work which will have fertile results in the democratic sense."
It's indisputably true that the political system is run by wealthy plutocrats and much of what passes for democracy is kabuki. Same as it ever was, I'm afraid. But that's not exactly the point. It's still worth participating, doing what you can, containing the damage, stopping the bleeding, fighting the fight --- for its own sake. After all, history shows that humans have managed, somehow, to actually make progress over time. You just can't know what will make the difference.

The reviews are in

Gerald Caplan:
Here is a government, from its head down, that practices ignorance-based public policy. Huge areas of the human condition go completely unrecognized – AIDS, global warming, Africa, to name only a few...This is a prime minister who is single-handedly reversing Canada's stellar reputation (too often vastly overrated, I'm afraid) around the world. I've just come from Africa, and I promise you this is no exaggeration.

It's also bizarre in Harper's own terms. He's dying to have Canada elected a temporary member of the Security Council when a rotating seat opens later this year. (What Harper's Canada could possibly bring to the Council except deep-rooted ignorance and sophomoric prejudices is beyond understanding.) Yet he has actively alienated countries all over the world by his various vindictive acts – such as cutting off aid to African countries, refusing grants to widely respected Canadian NGOs, copping out on climate change.

This is a prime minister who knows little about many subjects and feels passionately about them all – the Middle East, international development, the entire Canadian criminal justice system. This is a prime minister who looks at a complex, nuanced, interconnected world and sees only simple black and white. This is a prime minister who breaks the most heartfelt of commitments with bland excuses that make you wonder if you've heard properly. This is a prime minister for whom democratic accountability is a pure oxymoron that has no place in his life...

This week's polls suggest that his arbitrary, arguably unconstitutional suspension of Parliament – a drastic ploy in order to bury the issue of torturing Afghan prisoners – has cost him dearly among Canadians. He of course gave himself the Christmas gift of insisting that his fellow citizens didn't give a rat's fanny about either. He's been wrong so many times I can't even count the Globe and Mail editorials fiercely criticizing him. But he bounces back, time after time, and fools us all. How many more times can he get away with it? Look at his reaction to Haiti. Just watch him.

Coming soon to a six-week ad run near you

Brad Wall's Saskatchewan Party: desperately trying to pretend the last year never happened since early 2009. Which never happened.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Musical interlude

Chemical Brothers - Let Forever Be

All about the turnout

Needless to say, the news that former MP and current party president Peggy Nash will run for the NDP in Parkdale-High Park is great to hear. But what will it take for her to win back the riding?

Interestingly enough, while Nash's 2006 share of the popular vote was lower than that received by the Lib winners before and after, her vote total of 20,790 in that election also represents the high-water mark for any candidate in the riding from 2000 onward. So it doesn't look like the difference between winning and losing resulted from a major swing vote; instead, it was largely a surge in turnout from a usual level of 64% to 70% that played a large part in putting Nash over the top.

As a result, Nash can win back the seat simply by earning back the votes she's already managed to win before. Which means that the NDP should place even more of a premium on boosting turnout in Parkdale-High Park than it figures to in other ridings - and should have an excellent chance to win the seat again if it's up to the challenge.

(Edit: added link.)

Yeah, that makes sense

Shorter Kelly McParland:

In a country as complex and interconnected as today's Canada, the only effective form of government involves a single control freak insulated in his own personal echo chamber.

More reviews are in

Adam Dodek:
We are now in the midst if (sic) Prorogation 2.0. This time, Prime Minister Harper decided not to visit Rideau Hall in person, but instead, telephoned the Governor-General. To the Facebook generation, the use of the telephone seems archaic; to their parents' generation, it seems disrespectful. But hardly as disrespectful as the manner by which this government has treated Parliament and its officers.

In Prorogation 2.0, Prime Minister Harper's winner-take-all vision of Canadian democracy is losing...This year, (people) are angry with the government for preventing MPs from working. Canadians want their representatives to be productive, and they want the opposition to hold the government to account.
Edit: fixed label.

The reviews are in

Rick Salutin:
First, all the experts said no Canadian would vote based on the issue of delivering Afghan prisoners for torture. But Stephen Harper killed Parliament anyway, to squelch that debate. Why? What did he know? Perhaps what anyone studying PR at a community college learns: that impressions are cumulative and, as a series moves along, each new one weighs heavier. Firing nuclear watchdog + global black eye re tar sands + ending KAIROS funding + torture scandal = bad election news.

So he annuls Parliament, a procedural act, not a personal one, like attacking conscientious civil servants. He tells the CBC's Peter Mansbridge that prorogation isn't No. 1 on anyone's radar, and the experts agree again. Pollster Nik Nanos says it won't hurt him. “Hardly anyone cares,” writes Margaret Wente. Yet, now half of Canadians say they are watching the issue “closely,” and he's in a virtual tie with a Liberal leader who hasn't even been in the country.

This comes from thinking that Canadians only want a “capable manager” (The Globe's John Ibbitson and Gloria Galloway) who can “lead us back to … balanced budgets” (the National Post's John Ivison). It's the cost of misreading the democratic impulse.
Canada went to war twice for “democracy.” Today, Canadians come back from Afghanistan dead to protect our democratic values and way of life. Do the Harperites think nobody gives a damn when you defecate all over those values, even if it's a symbolic defecation over symbolic values and a largely symbolic way of life? Democracy isn't just practical, it's aspirational. It's about trying to exert some control over your life, individually and collectively. Otherwise, what's the point of a life? People draw a line, maybe more so when it's about symbols, because once those are gone, there's nothing left to take pride in and hold out hope for. So don't treat our Parliament as a piece in your private chess game of power, eh? Show respect.

It's also a slap at the Reform Party's heritage of democratic renewal, which flowed from its Prairie populism. But Stephen Harper arrived out west from suburban Toronto, and was mainly attracted by the party's right-wing ideology; clearly, the democratic element wasn't part of its appeal.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A little light reading

If you're not suitably outraged by the Harper government and haven't yet seen Thor's compendium of Con attacks on democracy, then go read. But you may want to make sure you have a few hours to spare.

It takes two to play

Harris MacLeod is right to point out both the fact that Stephen Harper is far more concerned with being photographed in prime ministerial poses than with actually being prime minister, and the absurdity of Harper's labelling such photo ops as "urgent". But isn't a substantial part of the problem the response of media outlets who choose to send a photographer anyway to do the PM's bidding after being told that actual reporting isn't allowed?

Harper Holiday Homework Assignment

Shelley Glover: Read a book about your boss.

The reviews are in

The Star-Phoenix editorial board:
Negative political advertising intends to brand an opponent, but it also helps define the party or candidate sending the message.

Such ads can do as much damage to the sender as to the target, especially in Canada, where we tend to pride ourselves on a mature political culture that focuses more on issues than on personalities.

The Saskatchewan Party's new television attack ads that target NDP Leader Dwain Lingenfelter reveal as much about the governing party as they do about the man who wants to inherit the premier's chair -- perhaps more.
For a majority government such as the Saskatchewan Party's to adopt such attack advertising suggests a puzzling element of panic.

A minority government can be defeated almost anytime, so in theory it's always in election mode. But why would a government with a comfortable majority and a fixed election date almost two years away stoop to adopt questionable political tactics?
Ultimately, negative political advertising is like using a grenade up close: If you don't hit your target, you're going to hurt yourself badly, and even if you do hit your target, you're still likely to suffer some harm yourself. That's why attack ads have been used cautiously in Canada, particularly outside of writ periods.

For the Saskatchewan Party, this marks a distinct shift in message from positive to the negative. What's obviously missing is sufficient ammunition for an effective attack and a motive for the change in strategy, other than to ape the federal Conservatives.

On brand erosion

The flurry of polls released over the last couple of days has undoubtedly signalled that the public's view of the Cons has taken a nosedive over prorogation. But it's perhaps even more significant that the Cons are also losing ground in areas which don't seem to have much to do with prorogation - including in particular one which is at the core of their brand:
When compared to the findings of an Angus Reid survey conducted in October 2008—just days before the federal election that resulted in a second Conservative minority government—Canadians are less likely to believe that a Tory majority would recriminalize abortion (24%, down 10 points), repeal same-sex marriage (34%, down five points), implement a process to have an elected Senate (35%, down six points), keep taxes low across the country (30%, down 17 points) and subdue the threat of separatism (25%, down 10 points).
Now, it's interesting enough that respondents have reduced their perceived likelihood of every single option presented to them under a Harper majority. But the shift in expectations on taxes dwarfs that on any other issue.

Indeed, two scenarios which were seen as less likely than the "keep taxes low" option in 2008 by at least six points (the repeal of same-sex marriage and the election of senators) are now perceived as relatively more likely. And the latter has switched places despite Harper's repeated broken promises when it comes to the Senate.

What's more, it's hard to see how the Cons can try to win back the skeptics anytime soon. In truth, the Cons have already cut taxes far enough to drive the country far into the red for years to come. And any move to cut taxes further would figure to create more trouble from deficit hawks who have previously bought the Cons' implausible claim to fiscal responsibility than it would be worth in gathering support among tax-cutters.

So unless the poll is simply an outlier in canvassing the relative perceptions among the issues polled, the Cons are rapidly losing a key part of their core message, with no apparent way to stop the damage. And that loss of any perceived core beliefs to point to will only make it more difficult for the Cons to try to win back the support they've been losing over the past month.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The offer

If I have any quibble with Jack Layton's offer to get the Cons back to work in Ottawa, it's that the terms are as generous as they are. If the Cons were to accept, then they'd come away in substance with a free month's avoidance of possible committee hearings - though of course the public cost for Harper undoubtedly outweighs that benefit. And if the theory is that Harper is virtually certain to decline anyway, then my first inclination would be to ask for more (say, by getting the Cons' agreement on some of the Parliamentary reforms the NDP plans to introduce) or offer less (i.e. limiting the number of bills which the NDP would agree to advance to their previous stage).

But there's certainly a case to be made that presenting the best reasonable offer possible makes for the ideal way of letting Harper twist in the wind rather than giving him any cover for declining (or opportunity to distract from the theme of cooperation). And regardless of whether or not the offer could have sought more out of Harper, the fact that Layton is the first leader to actually propose a solution to get Parliament back on track figures to give the NDP a great opportunity to keep up the advances it's already made in public opinion as the Cons' standing has fallen.

Hidden from view

I won't go into too much detail about the CBC's report on secret security measures put in place by John Baird last summer. But it's hard to see how the end result reflects anything but incompetence on Baird's part.

After all, it seems that one of the following has to be true:
- The secret measures were and are important for airport security - in which case the fact that they've gone unfunded from the beginning and have since been abandoned in practice is making Canadian air travellers less safe.
- The secret measures weren't and aren't important for airport security - in which case the fact they were implemented in the first place (and left in place since) makes for a waste of resources.
- The secret measures were important for awhile, but have since ceased to be - in which case Baird's failure to follow up and formally repeal the order has needlessly left in place a legal obligation to keep implementing it.

One way or another, the story should serve as a prime example of how much more likely government is to go wrong when it presumes it'll never have to answer for its actions - particularly since it seems like a section which was intended to be used only for immediate security concerns has been used to support an order left in place since August. And that should serve as reason both to want to get Parliament back to work ASAP, and to revisit just how much secret authority Canada's cabinet ministers actually need.

On unreasonable explanations

Bloggers and columnists alike have had plenty to say about the Sask Party's negotiations toward a surgical tourism program sending Saskatchewan patients to B.C. But there are a couple of points which seem worth following up on based on Murray Mandryk's column in particular:
Lingenfelter noted one redacted page that he suggested was blacked out because it clearly showed the government was contemplating paying those premiums. McMorris and government officials insisted Monday that premiums weren't even mentioned in the blacked-out copy.

As per usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

A copy of the redacted words later obtained by StarPhoenix reporter James Wood didn't mention the word "premiums", but did show the B.C. government was requesting a fee for "administrative and capital overhead".
The first point is a relatively minor one. But it seems rather striking that documentation which was supposedly too confidential to be released in response an access to information request on January 5 suddenly became available to only selected media within a week. And I'd imagine the issue is one worth pressing if there's any more followup on the access request.

More substantively, though, I have to wonder whether Mandryk is right to let the Sask Party off the hook for its seriousness about the plan to send patients to B.C.:
Deputy health minister Dan Florizone was quick to explain Monday that this fee differed from a premium and -- more significantly -- it was B.C.'s proposal and not something that Saskatchewan was seriously considering.

Florizone's latter explanation appears a reasonable one, given that the Saskatchewan government doesn't ever seem to respond to B.C.'s plan.
Let's leave aside the fact that the discussion originated between the respective premiers who presumably wouldn't have been making idle chitchat, and focus instead on how the Sask Party responded internally. On multiple occasions, Ministry of Health officials told their B.C. counterparts that the issue was going to be presented to Saskatchewan's Treasury Board - first in September 2009 (a meeting that was cancelled for unspecified reasons), then in October.

Now, it's not clear why the meetings didn't take place. And if the Treasury Board step is a smaller one than it sounds like to me, then I'd be interested to hear that. But it would seem to me that a proposal wouldn't be lightly put in front of the Treasury Board - and that the purpose for taking it to that level would be in part to find budget room for a project which was at least under serious consideration in principle.

Which means that while at least this time the Sask Party didn't get to the stage of actually making final decisions before foisting a policy on the province, it seems hard to justify the conclusion that the proposal wasn't taken seriously on Saskatchewan's end - and downright impossible to defend Don McMorris' denials last fall.

The reviews are in

The Star Phoenix keeps up the outrage over Harper's choice to shut down Parliament:
Mr. Harper has again sabotaged his cause by arrogantly proroguing Parliament instead of delivering accountable government as he promised.

It doesn't help that, having miscalculated the impact of a bit of high-handed political gamesmanship, the prime minister can't seem to offer Canadians a credible justification as to why he felt the need to prorogue Parliament until convening a new session in early March.

The latest rationale Mr. Harper offered this week in a Business News Network interview, that a minority government under the constant threat of confidence votes in Parliament "creates instability that affects the economy," is as pathetic as is it laughable.

As if investors and the market will have greater confidence in a country whose primary institution of democracy, its Parliament, can be shut down at the whim of a prime minister who doesn't want the fuss and bother it takes to conduct the nation's business in an open and accountable manner.
Meanwhile, Carol Goar makes clear what Canadians need to do in response:
Our Prime Minister has a rather unflattering view of us.
He gambled in 2008 that we would re-elect him if he promised there would be no recession and no deficit on his watch. That worked.

He gambled 13 months ago that he could shut down Parliament to avoid a vote of confidence that would have toppled his government. That worked.

He gambled he could convince us that his government's stimulus plan – which consisted primarily of small grants to municipalities for already slated construction projects – sparked Canada's economic recovery. That seems to have worked.

And he gambled he could promise a "new era of accountability," then systematically silence voices that contradicted his own: those of parliamentarians, public servants and members of independent federal agencies. So far, that has worked.

If we want a national leader who respects us, we're going to have to change.

A brief display of indignation won't do it. Harper has waited out several of those.

Nor will a temporary withdrawal of our political support. Harper has turned the polls around before.

The way to show the Prime Minister he is wrong about us is to start defying his predictions and keep doing it till he gets the message.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Now that's unexpected

Needless to say, this makes for a shocking revelation.

No, not the fact that the vast majority of Stephen Harper's cabinet members have just as little say in the government's priorities as the party's backbenchers. Nor the fact that at least one minister is obviously rebelling to the point of a mandate letter getting leaked to John Ivison.

But Jim Flaherty actually getting some say along with Harper in what gets approved? Surely that will get fixed by the next time Harper sends out marching orders.

Out of control

Evidently the Cons have figured out just how serious the public reaction to prorogation actually is - and they've proceeded to ChaosCon 5 in order to try to keep any messages from sticking. Won't buy a cabinet shuffle (my money is on Cannon in the standing position for the Cons' next home video)? Then how about some idle Senate speculation to keep the media busy? Or how would you like a direct attack on Parliament or a claim that Con self-promotion is really just a form of media stimulus to try to get people to forget the excuses that were shot down in then previous couple of days?

In effect, after trying to downplay the story as long as they could, the Cons now seem to be attacking it with the same sense of desperation they exhibited during the coalition showdown - but without any of the focus that came from the threat of immediate removal from office. And I'm not sure the Cons are managing to fool people as easily as they seem to have expected - as the excuses for prorogation get debunked and decried more and more easily, and the other stories are linked to a "distraction tactic" narrative.

Which means that one now has to wonder now whether we've finally reached the point where Harper has gone further than the country is going to be able to forget. And the more ridiculous statements Harper throws at the wall in hopes of running out the clock until the Olympics, the more likely he makes it that he'll have just as much reason for concern about his job by the time Parliament resumes as he did in December 2008.

The road to positive

The Sask Party's Worst Ad Ever has found its way into Saskatchewan's media, with Murray Mandryk in particular raising many of the same questions I pointed out about the ads. But Mandryk's focus on a negative message around Lingenfelter looks to miss at least part of the picture:
That said, there is something about Lingenfelter's repeated use of a word like "loser" that might just be reinforcing that impression the public has of him. It sounds school-yard juvenile at best -- especially so when applied to a serving premier. And, coming from an older, opposition politician, it not only suggests meanness and anger, but also a certain arrogance and sense of entitlement.
Rather than play into the Sask. Party's hands by reinforcing the negative perception voters have of him, Lingenfelter should steal a bit of Wall's script which usually contains a healthy dose of "aw shucks" humility.

What Lingenfelter probably needs to do in 2010 is offer a bit of a mea culpa -- especially within his own party where there doesn't yet seem to be a 100-per-cent buy-in of his leadership. Maybe more important than the policy review at the NDP's March convention would be a leader's speech acknowledging that he, too, has made mistakes, but has learned from them.

Lingenfelter would be well served to take the criticisms head on -- especially the mostly unspoken ones, of which there remain many.
Leaving aside Mandryk's question about "buy-in" which seems misplaced to me, I'd think there's little room for doubt that Lingenfelter will need to build a more positive impression with the general public by the 2011 election. But there are a couple of different ways to get there - and Mandryk seems to me to be suggesting by far the more treacherous one.

Sure, it's open to Lingenfelter to try to substantially change his behaviour immediately in response to Sask Party criticism. But a sudden reversal of course would be bound to call Lingenfelter's sincerity into doubt - with the media likely to be no less skeptical than the Sask Party. And while trying to do a Wall impersonation, Lingenfelter would have to abandon the strengths he's able to build on based on his current image.

So what's the alternative? To start with, Lingenfelter can work with the positive aspects of the persona he already carries. The obvious flip side of the Sask Party's anger is that Lingenfelter offers up blunt critiques which have proven correct in the past, which would seem to fit nicely with the overall message which gives the NDP its best chance of cutting into Wall's public support between now and 2011. So for now, Lingenfelter may be best off reinforcing the up side of negative - particularly at a time when the province's mood is increasingly on his side.

That said, Lingenfelter will have plenty of chances to start injecting more positive content into his public image over the next year and a half without radically reversing course all at once. A speech at the NDP convention might well be one such time (though I'm not sure how a discussion which effectively dwells on Lingenfelter's own negatives would somehow serve to make Lingenfelter appear more positive). But again, the policy development process looks to be the most important opportunity in this area: if Lingenfelter is seen to be an active participant, listening to creative ideas and enthusiastically adopting them on behalf of his party, then it'll be impossible for Wall to maintain a message that Lingenfelter is all negative.

In effect, the better course for Lingenfelter seems to be to keep expectations low for now while laying the groundwork for a positive message which will fit more comfortably with his established impressions by the time voters start paying close attention to the campaign. Ideally, that would leave the Sask Party still complaining about Lingenfelter's negativity in the fall of 2011 - even as the media and the general public start commenting that maybe Lingenfelter isn't as much of a downer as he's made out to be.

In sum, while Lingenfelter will need to deal with the criticisms eventually, the best means of doing that is by actually proving them wrong over time - not by trying to make a single jarring change in course which will only reinforce the Sask Party message while calling his sincerity into doubt.

Owning the issue

Given that the NDP's stance on the Senate has been based primarily on abolition rather than tinkering, it's a bit surprising to see NDP Democratic Reform Critic is calling for Stephen Harper to follow through on his own promised reforms. But it's not hard to see how the move can be a positive one.

By forcing Harper to justify doing nothing, the NDP may well have an opportunity to bring both voters who support abolition (who may well be willing to consider reforms as a fallback) and those who prefer reform (while generally seeing abolition as the alternative) under the same tent, rather than allowing the Cons to benefit from the latter group even as they refuse to keep their promises. And if Harper decides he can't afford to let that happen and starts seeking public commitments that his appointed senators won't stick around past an 8-year term (which makes at least as much sense as the other pledges he's apparently been demanding of appointees), then the NDP will be able to take credit for forcing the Cons to act on what they've been promising for years.

Of course, it would have been all the better if the NDP had been able to get Harper to follow through on his musings a couple of years back about pursuing abolition if reform legislation was blocked. But since there's no way Harper will take that road now that he's stacked the Senate with dozens of his cronies, making him either offer up some improvements or pay a political price is probably the best that can be done in the near term.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Just so we're clear... trying to look busy to avoid accountability for their decision to take a two-month holiday, the Cons couldn't come up with more than 13 audio-free seconds of footage of Harper and a few of his minions sitting around a table. And they couldn't even generate that much without prominently featuring Rob Nicholson looking directly into the camera and shifting uncomfortably.

Which raises obvious questions: how long did five senior cabinet ministers spend around the table trying to impersonate serious decision-makers? A half an hour? The better part of December? And what happened in the rest of the time to make this the best footage the Cons could come up with?

Update: In comments, Malcolm points out another highly unusual aspect of the "meeting":
The only kind of minister who briefs the PM without officials in tow is a stupid minister. If this was a real security briefing (as opposed to a method acting workshop?), there would be military, RCMP and Public Safety folk in the room.

Returning fire

Not surprisingly, it didn't take long for Dwain Lingenfelter to get a chance to respond to the Sask Party's Worst Ad Ever. And while I can't say the response hits exactly the themes I'd have chosen, it does nicely point out the folly of the ad in the first place: does anybody think Brad Wall wants to spend the next two years with the province's political focus on the strength of Lingenfelter's case for criticizing him?

On employee relations

Kathryn May has written two noteworthy stories on public-sector staffing issues over the past couple of days - one focusing on depression among public servants, another on a generation gap within the federal civil service. But it's worth noting just who it is that's sending the strongest signals to actual and potential civil servants that their work isn't appreciated.

After all, the Harper Cons have told the federal employees they oversee in no uncertain terms that as far as they're concerned, public-sector jobs aren't important enough to be filled once they're vacated. Hence a strategy of attrition of existing employees - even as the Cons try to claw back the retirement benefits long promised to hardworking public employees.

And for those considering whether to go into the civil service for the future? It's bad enough that they've been met with talk of hiring freezes which send a parallel message that public service positions aren't important enough to fill. But the Cons have also sent clear signals that their hiring is based on ideology rather than merit - and of course their regular punishment of anybody who dares to provide the public with useful information would figure to drive away anybody who actually values public service over political interests.

As May notes, the Cons' attitude toward the public service hasn't yet stopped the flow of applicants - primarily since the Harper recession has left many more Canadians in need of whatever work they can get. But it's not hard to understand how being under the control of bosses who ultimately don't value the work being done might create a serious problem for the civil service. And we probably won't know just how much damage has been done until Harper loses the power to fire anybody who speaks out against him.

Lying. It's what they do.

Michael Geist:
Within days of the Yes Men incident, both Environment Canada and the Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre, which is part of Public Safety Canada, wrote to the hosting ISP to ask that it shut down the fake websites. While officials understandably pointed to trademark and copyright concerns (the sites were designed to look confusingly similar to actual government websites), those claims alone would not have been enough for most Internet providers to act.

Instead, officials used both the persuasive power of an official government request combined with inaccurate claims that the sites were engaged in phishing to escalate the issue. One email to the hosting company noted the request was sent on behalf of the Minister of the Environment to demand prompt deletion and removal of the hosted sites. The same email claimed the sites were involved in phishing, leading the German-based Internet provider to promptly shut them down.
While the sites were obviously an embarrassment, there were several avenues to address the issue. Officials could have filed a complaint with the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, which manages the dot-ca domain (both sites used dot-ca addresses). Alternatively, they could have turned to the courts for an order to either shut down the sites or suspend the domain name registrations. Instead, the phishing claim effectively substituted one hoax for another and, in the process, undermined the trust in a global system designed to guard against identity theft.
What I wonder is what consequences might result if it's possible to prove the Cons had no reasonable basis for alleging that phishing was involved. It could be that a government department doesn't face either possible obstruction-of-justice style criminal charges (and it may be that the report was only made to the ISP in the first place rather than any government body), but at the very least one would think the sites which were wrongfully taken down would have a case for punitive damages for a claim made in bad faith. And it's surely an embarrassment for Canadians in general that our good name has been used in a fraud on the international community.

A slight correction

Conflating themselves with the troops: It's what the wingnuts do.
At least when they can. And when they don't have any troops to hide behind, they'll conflate themselves with, say, a province instead.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Just wondering

One of the major problems with prorogation is the presumed inability to reconvene Parliament to deal with an emergency if one comes up. And with the Olympics set to take place on Canadian soil during the Harper Holiday, there's particular reason for concern if there's absolutely no way to pass emergency legislation if needed.

So I'll toss out a question which I'm not sure has yet been dealt with directly: is it actually impossible to reconvene Parliament during a period of prorogation, or merely unprecedented? (Put another way, if prorogation takes place purely on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, can the PM also reverse course and issue a new order to the GG?) Or are we completely out of luck if Harper's choice leaves no way for even all-party agreement to pass needed legislation while the world's eyes are on Canada?

The rewrite continues

Another day, another couple of stories which conspicuously rewrite history to pretend that pro-coalition grassroots efforts in 2008 didn't happen. And in both cases, there are points worth some serious followup.

First, there's Susan Delacourt's latest:
(I)t can be argued that last year's protest was more effective -- so far, anyway -- because it had an influence on the Governor-General. It was partly out of deference to widespread anger that she decided to grant the prorogation last year to Harper, we've heard. Right now, it's not clear what this Facebook group can accomplish -- the Jan. 23 rallies will be an important measure, but where will that influence have an effect?
Now, I'd take the above passage with a mine's worth of salt. Assuming that the Governor-General herself has kept the confidences of the PM, the only possible source for information about the basis for Jean's decision is the Harper PMO - which obviously has a massive stake in both ignoring the pro-coalition side in 2008, and talking down the possible impact of the prorogation protest now.

That said, if Jean's decision was in fact based in the slightest on favouring one of two competing sides in an active public opinion battle rather than the constitutional convention of accepting the advice of the PM, then that might well be the most disastrous precedent of all coming out of Harper's prorogation tactics. And any Cons who think they have reason to be smug about the outcome might want to consider what it would mean if opposition parties see both a need and a benefit in packing Canada's streets with protestors in order to influence the GG's decisions.

Secondly, there's James Wood's excuse for Brad Wall's refusal to comment on the prorogation crisis despite the fact that he's nominally the minister responsible for intergovernmental relations:
When reporters asked for the intergovernmental minister this week to comment on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to prorogue parliament, it was clear the Saskatchewan Party government wasn't too anxious to have Wall wade into that nest of thorns (especially with rumours flying that the PM was to attend the world junior hockey championship in Saskatoon on Tuesday -- and have a handshake meeting with the premier at the game. In the end, Canada's hockey-fan-in-chief didn't make it.)

The Sask. Party government has had its ups and downs with the federal Conservative government, but has generally been among its closest provincial allies. The prorogation issue, however, has fired passions on both sides and there appeared to be little interest in having Wall stoke them further.
Again, it's downright bizarre that Wood would consider the current prorogation as having "fired passions on both sides" when hardly anybody has bothered to take Harper's side - and the few voices trying to carry the Cons' water have tried to make the case that "it's not a big deal" rather than offering passionate support for Harper.

But the line is particularly out of place when Wall chose to wade directly into the 2008 confrontation when there actually were large movements on both sides. And particularly with Con member Don Morgan providing a tepid defence of Harper rather than even recognizing for a second that Saskatchewan's voters might not be happy to have Parliament shut down, this looks to be another example of the Sask Party placing its allegiance to Harper above the interests of the province.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

On misguided attacks

There's been little room for doubt that the Sask Party is attempting to mirror the strategies of its federal cousins. As early as this fall, they started running boilerplate radio ads trying to tie Dwain Lingenfelter to a theme of "backwards", and presumably with some money burning a hole in their pocket they've put up billboards to try to highlight the fact that they were in office nearly a year and a half before they blew through the surplus left to them by the NDP.

But I have to wonder whether the Sask Party has completely missed the point of what Harper's ads have sought to do. And the latest TV ad (which I saw for the first time Friday night and will describe as best possible since it doesn't seem to be online yet) may be the most counterproductive piece of political advertising I've ever seen.

From my memory, the ad consists basically of the following:
- Picture of Dwain Lingenfelter with voice-over introducing him
- Picture of Lingenfelter next to words "boom or bust"; voice-over criticizing Lingenfelter for using those words in the Legislature
- Picture of Lingenfelter next to the word "grumpy"; voice-over criticizing Lingenfelter for describing the province's mood with that term
- Picture of Lingenfelter next to words about an economic downturn; again, voice-over criticizing Lingenfelter for using the words in the Legislature
- Clip of Lingenfelter saying "that's what losers do" in reference to Wall; voice-over criticizing the use of the word "loser"
- Picture of Lingenfelter with text about "no new ideas"
- Image and voice-over saying the ad is presented by the Saskatchewan Party.

So what's wrong with the ad? Let's start with the bizarre choice of a first scene based on the text "boom or bust" which actually repeats the NDP's critique of the Sask Party's economic mismanagement.

By way of analogy, consider how much sense it would make for the Libs to open an ad with a brief, obviously out-of-context excerpt of the Cons' "tough on crime" rhetoric - say, the text "coddling criminals" next to Harper's picture.

One can say that the image might seem damaging to Harper on its own. But the choice of targets actually addresses an issue of brand strength for Harper, creating a disconnect even in the minds of relatively uninformed viewers. And perhaps more importantly, that type of glaringly dishonest juxtaposition would positively demand a fact-check response from the Cons and the media alike which would point out that Harper wouldn't use the phrase except to describe an ill to be avoided.

Now, the voiceover in the Sask Party's ad makes it clear that its criticism is that Lingenfelter shouldn't use a phrase like "boom or bust" to describe their economic mismanagement. But that too seems to reflect the Sask Party buying far too much of its own spin. It's highly doubtful that viewers will share the view that Lingenfelter is unreasonable for using the phrase, particularly when concerns about the Wall government's handling of unpredictable resource issues have been voiced by the province's mainstream media commentators. And to the extent the province's political discussion revolves around the question of whether the Sask Party is indeed pushing an economic theory which leads to "boom or bust", it's surely the NDP that stands to benefit.

So the Sask Party starts off by using its own ad time to spread an NDP critique of its government, with little apparent reason other than the seemingly misplaced hope that viewers will share their view that any criticism of their performance in office is unreasonable. And matters don't improve from there.

Based on the "boom or bust" message, it takes about three scenes for the viewer to even figure out whether the ad is pro-Lingenfelter or anti-Lingenfelter. On my first look (with the commercial muted), it could equally plausibly have been a poorly-thought-out Sask Party production or a poorly-thought-out NDP ad until the "grumpy" talking point came out. And someone not familiar with the exchanges between the parties in the Legislature might not be able to associate that spin with its source either.

Which goes doubly since the "grumpy" line is a downright bizarre line of attack. In a year which has seen a recession, a potash collapse and a Grey Cup heartbreak (which probably did at least as much to shape the provincial mood as the first two), the suggestion that a few Saskatchewanians might have been in a bad mood at some point hardly seems like reason to take out TV ads against a political opponent. And the ad is being released in the midst of the province's winter blahs, with a bad news budget to follow in early 2010 - meaning that viewers may have every reason to share in grumpiness even if they link the word to Lingenfelter.

From there, it's back to criticizing Lingenfelter for pointing out reality with a reference to a downturn. Yes, the Sask Party denied the recession as long as it could, and would probably have avoided ever admitting it if the evidence hadn't grown too strong. But the fact that the NDP was right in recognizing it all along - and the Sask Party patently wrong in denying it - isn't exactly the most sound basis for criticism, and again put the Sask Party on the wrong side of the facts and the province's media as well as the NDP.

That leads into the one portion of the ad which actually presents Lingenfelter speaking. But the clip of Lingenfelter saying "that's what losers do" positively cries out for explanation as to what it is that he's referring to. And that means that the Sask Party's ad may in fact lead to more Saskatchewan residents learning about Wall's woeful business history than might have found out about it otherwise.

To close out the ad, there's an obvious play from the Harper playbook in the form of a "no ideas" attack on Lingenfelter. But here's where the context is particularly important.

It's true that aside from his proposal to get SaskEnergy back into the natural gas production business, Lingenfelter hasn't proposed a lot of new policy yet. But there's an awfully good reason for that: as the Sask Party should be fully aware, the NDP is in the middle of a province-wide policy development process.

And that's a serious problem for the Sask Party's message. However plausible any viewer might see the attack as being for now (and Lingenfelter and others have been publicly pointing out the policy development process since the early stages of the leadership campaign), surely the Sask Party can't be operating under any illusion that the line will have any force left by the time it counts. And by setting up an attack line which they know will be completely false once people particularly start paying attention, they're actively undermining their own credibility in everything else they have to say about the NDP.

Again, I'd think the Sask Party's mistakes in the ad can be traced back to a failure to understand why the pattern that's played out federally might not apply in Saskatchewan. Tom Flanagan recently explained the Harper Cons' propensity for attacking early and often in the following terms:
But tacking back and forth among the opposition parties, forming tactical alliances as required to keep power, cannot work long if those parties are spoiling for an election. Hence arises the third principle of Conservative political management: Always keep at least one of the three opposition parties afraid of an election, so that you don't have to wage a campaign except at a time of your own choosing.

So far, the Conservatives have been successful in this. Remarkably, in almost four years of Tory power, the three opposition parties have never voted together to deny confidence and force an election. Someone's always been afraid.

Implementing this principle has meant adopting the strategic doctrine of “permanent campaign,” the most visible manifestation of which has been the waves of paid advertising directed at Liberal leaders and policies. Traditionally in Canadian politics, advertising has been a campaign weapon, but it has proved just as effective in avoiding campaigns as in winning them.

Yet paid advertising is only the most visible manifestation of the Conservative doctrine of permanent campaign. There is much, much more behind the scenes: a campaign manager always on duty and reporting directly to the Prime Minister; contracts for planes, buses and war-room facilities; grassroots fundraising and voter identification 363 days a year (no calls on Christmas and Easter). Indeed, the fundraising makes it possible to maintain all the other aspects of the expensive model of permanent campaign.
In other words, the attack ads have formed part of the federal Cons' strategy to keep the Libs under their thumb in a minority Parliament. If the Cons had the security of knowing exactly when an election would arise, they'd likely plan things differently. But in light of the possibility of an election at any time, the Cons have hit each Lib leader early and hard in order to keep control of the House of Commons - using whatever theme looks most likely to affect numbers in the short term, and counting on the constant threat of an immediate election to keep the Libs from doing anything to negate the message in the longer term.

It would seem obvious however that different principles apply in a majority Legislature where the election date is known in advance. With the next Saskatchewan election nearly two years away, there's little apparent value in driving down an opponent's polling numbers for the moment - and every reason to plan messages now which can be built up in the time leading up to the election.

Instead, the Sask Party looks to have done just the opposite. Yes, for now their ad ties Lingenfelter to a series of negative themes which might drive down NDP support for a short period of time. But it also sets a ridiculously low expectation level for Lingenfelter over the next two years: so long as the NDP's policy process comes up with anything at all by way of new ideas, the Sask Party is actually helping to build the message that Lingenfelter has more to offer than people currently expect.

And all of the above avoids the most remarkable achievement of the ad. In effect, the Sask Party has presented an absolute self-contradiction: a relentlessly negative ad which criticizes nothing more than...going negative. So the ad actually undermines its own core message - while also allowing the NDP to justify any degree of negative advertising later by pointing out that the Sask Party did it first.

In sum, then, one could hardly have come up with a better 30-second Sask Party ad - for the NDP's purposes. Which takes it past mere ineffectiveness to the realm of the genuinely counterproductive - and earns it the title of Worst Political Ad I've Ever Seen.

Of course, Wall does start with a substantial lead in the polls, and presumably has time to revise his party's messaging if he starts to realize just how boneheaded the latest ad looks to anybody who doesn't consume a regular diet of "you can't criticize the government!" Kool-Aid. But Wall did manage to go from the most favourable financial situation the province has ever enjoyed to a fiscal panic in just two years - and if the latest ad is any indication, the Sask Party may be on track to do exactly the same thing on the electoral front.

Sunday Morning 'Rider Blogging - NFL Prospects

I won't spend a lot of time discussing the developments surrounding Eric Tillman this past week, as I'd think there was a reasonable case to either keep Tillman or ask him to resign as eventually happened. But particularly now that Tillman is out of the picture, the 'Riders have to be looking at which of their 2009 members they can build around in the longer term as a new GM takes charge of player recruitment, and which ones they need to be ready to replace at any time.

So let's take a look at one of the major questions facing the 'Riders next year and beyond: which of the 2009 'Riders are most likely to stick in the NFL over the next few seasons rather than forming part of Saskatchewan's long-term plans? (Needless to say, the question is particularly timely in the wake of the Indianapolis Colts' signing of John Chick, who'd be #1 on this list.)

1. Louie Sakoda - P/K

Based on his college production as a placekicker, it's surprising he was ever available for the 'Riders to sign last year as an emergency replacement for punter Jamie Boreham. And after taking a bit of time to adjust to the CFL, he performed extremely well on punts and kickoffs by the end of 2009. So it'll be a surprise if Sakoda doesn't manage to work his way into the NFL in the longer term - meaning that the 'Riders shouldn't expect him to be around for long.

2. Weston Dressler - WR

Dressler may be well below some of the players lower on this list in his likelihood of actually winning a starting job in the NFL: surprisingly few teams seem to have learned from Wes Welker's example that an undersized receiver with speed can be a hugely valuable weapon, and the team which actually has Welker in its lineup already has an understudy ready. But I'd have to like Dressler's chance of making good on any opportunity he gets.

3. Joel Bell - OT

Bell may not have the CFL reputation of the likes of Dressler or Fantuz. But he has great size and athleticism for an offensive lineman, and was able to play effectively in a starting role within mere weeks of first being exposed to the CFL game. And at age 24, he has many years ahead of him to potentially make a similar impression south of the border.

4. Andy Fantuz - WR

The working theory at the moment seems to be that Fantuz won't make it in the NFL due to his lack of speed. But I have to wonder whether he'll effectively get a shot at two positions: even if his speed won't play at receiver (which itself can't be taken as a given), at a sturdy 6'4" he's wouldn't figure to be more than a season in the weight room away from being able to fit in at tight end.

5. Stevie Baggs - DE

Baggs' strengths in the CFL may not translate entirely into the NFL, as he's almost certainly too small to last as a defensive lineman south of the border and may not slide in as a pass-rushing linebacker as easily as Cameron Wake did this year. But he's also been a highly effective special-teamer for the 'Riders, and would seem to have a strong chance of holding his own in that role.

6. Keith Shologan - DL

Shologan stuck long enough with the San Diego Chargers in 2008 to miss the first half of the CFL season, and has since developed his game extremely quickly with the 'Riders as an effective starter following Scott Schultz' retirement. But note one possible hitch for Shologan, as the 'Riders' preference for quickness on the defensive line may keep him from bulking up to the size which an NFL team might prefer in a tackle.

7. Luca Congi - K

On demonstrated talent alone, Congi would be at least two places higher on this list. But Congi signed a two-year extension in October without any suggestion that he sought a Fantuz-style clause allowing him to test the NFL waters - meaning that it's questionable whether he's even looking to make the jump, and that it'll be some time before he gets the chance. As a result, he ranks lowest on the list of anybody who has a relatively clear path to the NFL with his current skill set.

8. Adam Nicolson - WR

The catch for Nicolson is that he obviously won't get much of an NFL shot before he proves himself in the CFL first - and as long as he's behind Fantuz, Rob Bagg and Chris Getzlaf among non-import receivers, there aren't going to be many passes thrown his way to allow that to happen. But his size and athleticism give him a better chance than Bagg or Getzlaf of eventually earning an NFL job, particularly if he gets to take over Fantuz' role.

9. Renauld Williams - LB

Williams has already been an NFL journeyman for several years, and thus can't be seen as somebody who's just needed an opportunity to show his stuff. But there would figure to be some chance that his experience as a starting (and starring CFL) linebacker will be seen as outweighing the fact that he's past the age where teams might see room for him to improve athletically.

10. Joe Sykes - DL

By this point in the list, one could fit in almost anybody from a couple of categories: either players young enough to have room for growth and athletic enough to fit an NFL position (Donovan Alexander, Hugh Charles, Jerrell Freeman, Graham Harrell, Carlos Armour, Michael Stadnyk), or reasonably young players with NFL experience who might be able to use their CFL game film as part of their case for a more prominent role (Dalton Bell, Lance Frazier, Gerran Walker, Chris McKenzie, Bobby Harris). But let's go with Sykes based on the possibility that the departure of Chick (and potentially Baggs as well) will allow him to showcase his skills in the CFL in 2010 and make the jump.

As for the possibly surprising omissions from this list:
- Having turned himself into an upper-tier CFL quarterback by age 27, Darien Durant would seem to have less far to go than some of the players above. But even the likes of Ricky Ray, Henry Burris and Casey Printers have found themselves trapped no higher up than third on an NFL depth chart, and Durant's size figures to further reduce his chances of ever winning playing time south of the border.
- As mentioned above, Rob Bagg and Chris Getzlaf have both been extremely productive as young receivers. But I'd think a CFL receiver prospect would have to at least rank as above-average in either size or speed by an NFL standard in order to get much of a chance, and neither Bagg nor Getzlaf fits the bill. Which hopefully means that the 'Riders will be able to build their offence around the combination of Durant, Bagg and Getzlaf for a long time to come no matter what else happens around them.