Saturday, February 19, 2011

Saturday Afternoon Links

Assorted material for your weekend reading.

- Great (and true!) news from the CRTC:
CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein says the commission tried to stall the amendment to its prohibition on false and misleading news for 10 years, but eventually gave into pressure from the Standing Joint Committee for the Scrutiny of Regulations when it proposed its amendments in January.

But now that the regulations committee has agreed to no longer pursue the issue, the chair says the CRTC will drop it.

“We never wanted to touch this thing. We put it forward because we were ordered to do it. We did what we thought would be a workable compromise,” von Finckenstein said in brief interview Friday at the Prime Time conference in Ottawa, organized by the Canadian Media Production Association.

“I was perfectly happy with what it was before, and I’m sure at the next commission meeting, we will withdraw this attempt at rewriting.”
- The Globe and Mail takes up the idea of birth bonds in contrast to the Cons' desire to spend billions on prisons. And it's hard to imagine that many Canadians would choose the Cons' side given the choice:
Assuming Canada had extra billions in a time of large deficits, consider the birth bond – a government investment to be made each time a child is born. The investment would be held until the child turns, say, 18, and then made available for postsecondary education or an apprenticeship program. Canada has 370,000 births a year. How much could it afford to put into an ambitious investment for each newborn, instead of into jail expansion?
If Mr. Page is right, Canada could seed an education account for each newborn with $13,783. Outlandish? Maybe, but it makes more sense than prison expansion, if the government is intent on spending an extra $5-billion. Canada wouldn’t need a birth bond, anyway; net tuition paid by all students is $3.5-billion a year. Instead of Truth in Sentencing, the country could afford Free in University, with change left over.

Let’s assume, for the moment, Mr. Page is wildly out of touch, as Ottawa claims. The federal government’s published budget estimates for federal corrections show an annual hike of $861-million – 36 per cent – by 2012-13 (compared with 2009-10). Now assume, conservatively, that the provincial costs rise by the same amount as a result of the federal crime bills. For that $1.722-billion extra a year, what could Canada do that is forward-looking, and has a long-term economic payoff?

It could pour resources into research. Currently, the government spends about $3-billion on the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Canada could take the $1.08-billion given to the CIHR each year and double it, and still have $700-million to spend on an enormous expansion of subsidies for master’s and PhD students.
- I'm sure we can all agree the general public is too jaded about politics to think that forgery or deception matter. Right? RIGHT?

- But at least some people do still admire Bev Oda. Take for example Tabatha Southey:
Sure, some of us were, and I imagine still are, capable of changing a C to a C+, but very few of us are “courageous” enough to change a C into a “NOT a C.” This is essentially what Ms. Oda did when she (or so she now claims) arranged for a recommendation prepared and signed by the Canadian International Development Agency to be altered to state that CIDA did “NOT” recommend that funding for the church-based foreign-aid organization Kairos be continued, when in fact continuing funding is exactly what CIDA did recommend.

This wasn't a matter of changing $7-million to $3.7-million in funding. Any of us could've done that. This was no such small feat. Fraudsters, we've found our saint.

Not only did Ms. Oda give a false impression regarding what CIDA had recommended, she oversaw the alteration of a document already signed by two signatories and possibly herself so that it would support her claim, if and when the document were ever to be examined by complete and utter morons.

On limited space

There doesn't look to be much too controversial about the decision to build a glass-topped temporary home for the House of Commons. But one aspect of the plan seems rather odd given the problems with the current chamber:
The temporary Commons chamber will have exactly the same dimensions and layout as the existing one, complete with tiered seating for MPs and overhanging visitors’ galleries.
So what could be the problem with matching the current dimensions?
The House of Commons chamber can physically hold only 308 seats similar to the desk-and-chair combination now used. After the 1997 riding redistribution left the House with 301 MPs, it was renovated to hold 304 chairs for sitting members. That number jumped to 308 with the round of changes that took effect with the vote on June 28, 2004. Before that election, the Speaker's Office told that four more chairs and desks had been added in the room's northeast corner, to the Speaker's left, replacing a sitting area for the parliamentary pages. Now there's no more room for expansion.

However, riding redistribution must by law take place every 10 years, adjusting the federal electoral districts to reflect population changes. All provinces are guaranteed that their number of federal seats will not decrease, even if their proportion of the Canadian population shrinks dramatically. So the number of seats is bound to keep going up in the absence of dramatic changes to the way we elect a government (through bringing in some form of proportional representation, for example).
So is there some reason why the temporary chamber is being matched to the current, insufficient amount of space, rather than leaving more room for expected growth in the number of MPs?

On structural choices

Predictably, the same Libs who have stuck with their party through years of propping up the Cons in exchange for absolutely nothing are aghast at the thought that the NDP might ask the Cons to meet its own demands rather than the Libs'. But let's take a closer look at what the NDP's proposal for a budget deal actually means.

To start with, it's worth noting why it is that the corporate tax cuts already passed with the Libs' help are so objectionable, as they represent one more in a long line of decisions which have done deliberate long-term damage to the federal government's ability to act in the interest of its citizens. Under Libs and Cons alike, tax cuts with massive structural implications have normally been accompanied by short-term social funding to give a false sense of balance - but the effect has been to provide rapidly-snowballing benefits to those who need them least, and one-time, politically-oriented funding to everybody else.

But leaving aside that corporate tax cuts don't figure to be up for a vote anyway, it stands to reason that if the problem with corporate tax cuts is the structural shift toward favouring the corporate sector, then the main question in assessing a budget which includes them is whether it creates enough structural benefits to justify the harm.

With that in mind, the NDP has implicitly offered two different options to the Cons. If they insist on the tax cut schedule approved by the Libs (as looks to be the case), then the price for budget support will be to meet the rest of the NDP's demands, including positive changes to health care and the GIS and CPP which figure to be no less permanent than any corporate tax cut. Or the Cons can retreat on corporate taxes and leave more structural room for future government action - in which case the NDP's ask can be somewhat reduced in turn. But either way, there has to be some point at which the pluses can potentially outweigh the minuses.

And of course, in either event the possibility of a non-confidence vote will remain open - with the NDP having every reason to want any gains from the budget to be passed as quickly as possible to ensure that the Cons can't avoid accountability on unrelated matters by dragging out a budget vote.

One way or another, though, the standard for the NDP is rightly whether a budget and its associated legislation will do more good than harm for Canada's long-term direction. And while I'd think it's more likely than not that the Cons will fall far short of the NDP's demands and precipitate an election, the fact that the Cons can't rely on somebody else supporting them for nothing means that the NDP has every reason to see what it can get accomplished.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Musical interlude

Serge Devant feat. Emma Hewitt - Take Me With You

Friday Afternoon Links

Content goes here.

- I'll second Greg's agreement with Chantal Hebert's latest:
As it did over the census, the Liberal opposition has turned to the social media to put pressure on the Conservatives. Given the alleged seriousness of the offence, one would think the party would turn its mind to putting its money where its mouth is in Parliament rather than on Facebook and Twitter.

If Harper was the leader of the official opposition, he would already be taking steps to withdraw the confidence of the House from the government.
The testimony that triggered the 2005 opposition siege of Martin’s minority government did not involve the Liberal leader or his ministers directly. It surfaced as the result of an inquiry set in motion by the prime minister himself and only a few months before its definitive conclusions were scheduled to be delivered to the public.

Still Harper made a strong case that the issue of the character of the government was one of such importance that it deserved to be put to voters at the earliest opportunity.

What was true then is as true now. The Prime Minister — by virtue of his role and his authority — defines the culture of his government and Canadians deserve to decide whether a culture of ministerial deceit is what they expect from a party that came to power promising to restore the integrity of an abused system.
- And unfortunately, the fact that the Libs are treating Oda's forgery as just another momentary scandal rather than linking it in any meaningful way to the broader question of whether or not the Cons can be left in office - including by publicly stating a willingness to work with other parties to achieve change - only figures to give force to criticisms like John Ibbitson's that the issue is one of "nit-picking" rather than the fitness for office of the Harper Cons.

- Rick Salutin is right to note that there's a serious lack of activist organization to serve as a counterweight to political leaders in reaching the broader public. But it's worth also adding the caveat that there's also a need for some kind of identifiable longer-term goal in organizing to ensure that one-time outpourings of public outrage such as that which toppled Hosni Mubarak don't simply give rise to more of the same under another figurehead leader.

- Finally, Dan Gardner's latest features a reminder as to just how much the Cons have done to eliminate inconvenient (though accurate) data from Canada's public debate:
While the world moves ever deeper into an Information Age, Canadian public policy is headed in the other direction. “As a nation, we have very little capacity to conduct social policy research, evaluate social programs or monitor progress towards achieving social aims,” concluded a federal report in 1998. That statement is even more true today.

“There is genuine concern that Parliament is losing control of its fiduciary responsibilities,” Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, told a House of Commons committee this week. Page raised his red flag for many reasons. The latest is the refusal of the Conservative government to provide MPs with the estimated costs of implementing its crime bill. The government says the estimates are “cabinet confidences.”

So Cabinet gets to see them, no one else. Vote, but vote blindly. Having come to power promising “open and transparent” government, the Conservatives have made government more closed and opaque than ever.

The Law Commission, which studied complex legal issues: closed. The Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), which reports on critical financial issues: under-funded and stonewalled. The long-form census, which was the source of essential data used by private and public sectors across the country: replaced with a useless survey.

Perhaps worst of all, civil servants are increasingly forbidden from organizing conferences or otherwise connecting with external researchers whose findings my be uncongenial to the government. Where contact is permitted, there are still restrictions. I know of one conference where a survey of the attendee’s views was quashed by frightened civil servants because it was likely to produce numbers the Conservatives don’t want to exist. Mission accomplished.

Destruction in progress

Amy Minsky nicely sums up why Elections Canada is set up to avoid political challenges to its funding:
For many federal agenies, requests for additional money must be voted on and approved in the Senate and the House of Commons.

Other agencies, such as Elections Canada, however, do not require this sign-off. The agency operates with this independence in order to remove any implication of political partisanship when funds are voted, said Treasury Board expenditure management expert David Enns.
But then, the Cons never met an independent institution they weren't eager to politicize. And sure enough, one of Stephen Harper's hand-picked, citizen-funded Senate cronies can't resist the opportunity to do exactly what Elections Canada's funding structure is designed to avoid:
"Probably in itself, $100 million is not very much money," said Conservative Senator Doug Finley. "But in relation to the annual moneys budgeted by Elections Canada(,) that seems to be an inordinate amount of (extra) money to ask in terms of your annual budget."
"Since I have been involved in politics, there have been byelections pretty well every single year," Finley said in response to Enns' statement (that additional funding was required to administer by-elections). "I know my party budgets accordingly. Why is it that Elections Canada seems incapable of doing this?"

An opportunity for debate

Aaron Wherry's article on the current state of the House of Commons is well worth a read. But I have to wonder whether part of the solution is easier than one might think from Wherry's lamentation about the meaning of debate in the House:
In many ways, the scene in the House reflects modern practicalities. Since the proceedings are televised, attendance is not necessary to follow what is said. MPs have myriad other responsibilities they must attend to, from committee work to dealing with the concerns of constituents. In the beginning, House debates were covered extensively in the popular media. Up until the mid-1980s, the Canadian Press kept a reporter in the House for the duration of each sitting day. But those days are gone and, besides, despite the impressive decor—carved sandstone and wood, chandeliers and stained glass—a lack of wireless Internet access makes the chamber something less than a modern workplace for reporters.

But the sight of the ornate room sitting mostly empty, an MP on his or her feet pontificating into the abyss, speaks as well to the undeniable obscurity of the institution at this point in history. Because the debates don’t matter, the press doesn’t cover them and because the press doesn’t cover them, the debates don’t matter. Instead of covering the exchanges that occur each day in the House, the evening political shows prefer to assemble their own panels of MPs to exchange shouted talking points.
Now, it's understandable that political TV shows may prefer to generate their own content to fit the time they have available. But for print media in particular, I'd think the debates in the House of the Commons would offer an obvious source of easy and relevant content. After all, every word of the debates is available for public review within a day - and it would seem like a fairly simple matter to make a regular practice of distilling the bills or issues being discussed, along with the parties' positions and any interesting interactions between them, into a regular stream of content.

And what's more, the fact that debates in the House cover as much time as they do means that they're less easily scripted. Which means that there would figure to be far more opportunity to discuss a range of different perspectives than there is in reporting on question period.

Of course, it's probably seen as easier to report on bills only when somebody is putting on a direct PR push. But Wherry is right to note that there's plenty of (at least nominally) important discussion taking place that seems to receive far less attention than one would expect in light of the formal role of MPs. And it might well be a win-win for a media outlet and the state of Canada's political conversation to reverse the vicious circle and start more fully covering Parliamentary debates as more than just a matter of curiosity.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

On voting blocs

Matt Gurney is mostly on the mark in pointing out the Bloc's motivations in raising the possibility of supporting a coalition government. But he does miss the rather important point that there's a third national party competing for seats in Quebec. And unlike the Libs and Cons, the NDP has plenty to gain if the possibility of a coalition is front and centre in the province where it's always been most popular.

Most obviously, anybody looking to choose between the Libs and NDP will have a strong incentive to show support to the national party which is more favourable toward a coalition. And the Libs' choice to position themselves as refusing to discuss the possibility means that the NDP will then be the natural first option for federalists hoping to see a coalition emerge.

But perhaps more interesting is the question of how Bloc/NDP swing voters may be affected if the Bloc succeeds in making a possible coalition into the main Quebec ballot question. After all, given the choice between supporting a party whose main aspiration is merely to support a coalition government and one which actually figures to participate in one, there's every reason for voters to opt for the latter - particularly to the extent the Lib+NDP seat count might be seen as a factor in whether or not a coalition will be formed.

So while the Bloc's strategy makes a world of sense in its messaging against the Cons and Libs, it may also give the NDP the upper hand in the current three-party pileup. And with plenty of Bloc voters already seeing the NDP as their second choice, that might well redound to the NDP's benefit in winning Bloc support as well.

On de-funding

David Climenhaga's call to de-fund the right holds plenty of appeal on the surface, particularly in the wake of a federal government that's spared no prisoners in pulling funding from any group which might disagree with its reactionary worldview with no regard for how much good its projects might accomplish. But I'd think that in an echo of the argument over party funding, it's worth keeping in mind the broader question of how public debate should be funded in general.

We can argue all we want to de-fund the right when it comes to public money. But the right will never lack for private actors with a massive incentive to fund a noise machine out of their own pocket on the understanding that even a tiny change in upper-bracket tax rates can make up the cost. And a call to de-fund the right can only strengthen a countermovement along the lines of the Cons' when the political winds shift.

So instead, the principle that's worth promoting is that it's in the public interest to encourage a broader range of voices than we'd hear based on private investment alone - which includes ideas like Climenhaga's proposal to take a closer look at tax credits to private charities, but also encouraging support for groups who don't have the money up front to buy their way into the conversation. And while public money shouldn't be used as a source of patronage for either side, nor should it be manipulated so as to deliberately exclude anybody.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- We can say this much for Bev Oda's KAIROS forgery: it ranks up there with the census debacle and the 2008 fiscal update crisis as one of the moments which has launched the best commentary on Stephen Harper's government. For sheer outrage, it's hard to top Stephen Whitworth:
It’s past time to say it: it is no longer possible for any informed, intelligent person of sound mind to vote for a Conservative candidate as the party is currently constructed. Voting Conservative automatically indicates the voter is either uninformed (which this paper’s staff and writers will work harder to help correct), or a demented ideologue and possible sociopath.
- Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne is somewhat more restrained, but makes up for it in style points:
In times past — not under the last government, but in any previous — a minister who lied to Parliament, even once, would be gone, immediately: if not out of any genuine sense of shame or remorse on the part of the government, then certainly out of a sense that it could not afford to be publicly associated with such deceitful behaviour. But this government, and this Prime Minister, seem instead to be bent on riding this out. They do not deny that she lied. But neither do they acknowledge that she did. They simply do not address the issue at all. Instead they make another point altogether: that the minister was within her rights to overrule her bureaucrats.

Yes, of course she was. She may even have been right to do so, though that is something that can be debated. What cannot be debated, what she had absolutely no right to do, was to misrepresent her bureaucrats’ views, alter documents, and lie to Parliament.

WHICH IS to say: it is the government’s defense of her, more even than the minister’s misconduct, that is now the issue. Ministers in any government will screw up from time to time. Some will even lie. That is fallible humanity. But when they are caught, when the jig is up, when there are no longer any lies to be told, it is to be expected — it has always been expected — that consequences should follow. At the least, one could expect the government to acknowledge that what she did was wrong — or at the very least, to acknowledge that she did it.

If it then tried to keep her on, arguing that the sin was not so great as to warrant a resignation, that would be objectionable enough, and a denial of all previous precedent. But it would at least be a tacit concession that ministers should not lie to Parliament. If it had tried to pretend there were some doubt about what she had done, that would be graver still, since it would be to deny facts that were not capable of dispute, and thus to cast into doubt the very possibility of fact and evidence as guides to public debate. But just to ignore the charge altogether, to carry on as if nothing had happened, takes us into the kingdom of dada.
- Alex Himelfarb's post on the shifting of the Overton Window is well worth a read. But I have to wonder whether his conclusion matches his analysis: if it's true that the most substantial impact of the right's well-funded push over the past few decades has been to shift the terms of political debate, isn't it more important to develop and amplify a competing narrative than to spend time and energy denouncing the current one?

- Finally, Stuart Thomson makes a good point about the Cons' targeted political stimulus which looks to be worth some follow-up on the national level:
A year after the Citizen published its stimulus story, it occurred to me that maybe 30 smaller, $1 million projects were more effective than a single $30 million project. Maybe even 30 times more effective.

The government would seem to agree. Re-sorting my stimulus spreadsheet by the number of projects, rather than the amount of money spent, produced some startling results.

Vaughan, the so-called battleground riding that recently switched from Liberal red to Tory blue, received funding for a whopping 136 projects. That’s 136 billboards for the government. It’s at the top of the list for all of Canada, but that doesn’t even begin to tell the story. It has 60 more stimulus projects than the second-place riding. It has more than six times the average for Ontario. If you look at the results on a bar graph, Vaughan shoots into the sky, towering above every other riding. It looks not unlike the Toronto skyline, with the bar representing Vaughan mimicking the CN Tower.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but the second riding on the list also tells a story: Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing, home of NDP MP Carol Hughes, who found herself high on a Conservative hit-list after she voted to scrap the gun registry. She changed her vote, but not before attracting a series of attack ads.

How do you tell if a riding like Hughes’ is coveted by the Conservatives? Look around at the 76 stimulus signs dotting the landscape. It’ll tell you all you need to know.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

No longer sacrosanct

Perhaps the most remarkable part of the Cons' desperate evasion on Bev Oda's behalf has been the degree to which it violates the credo that's served as this blog's tagline for the past few weeks. There may once have been some opportunity to cut Oda loose in hopes of minimizing the damage to Stephen Harper personally - but after two consecutive days of the Prime Minister using his role as the face of the government to poke a thumb in the eye of anybody who thinks honesty or even a willingness to concede some connection to reality has the slightest relevance to a party's fitness to hold office, there doesn't seem to be any turning back now.

That may make Oda's job relatively secure in the short term. But if we are headed for a spring election, it surely figures to make the kingpin weaker than he would have been otherwise. And if the current level of observer outrage over a government that's willing to ignore crimes within its midst holds up through an election campaign, we may well see the entire edifice come toppling down.

Wednesday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your midweek reading.

- Dan Gardner nicely sums up the Cons' destructive governing style with a handy analogy:
Lots of people accuse him of being ruthless, or an ideologue, but he’s usually credited with being a basically competent manager.

He doesn’t deserve that credit. His government is badly run and incoherent. Promising fiscal conservatism, Stephen Harper spent money like crazy, expanded the federal government, cut taxes, and turned a surplus into a structural deficit (yes, it’s structural, as even the International Monetary Fund agrees). He has no real plan for getting the budget back into balance.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with questioning the census or any other status quo. Indeed, it’s always good practice to consider the relative merits of alternatives.

But as any reasonably competent manager knows, you do that before, not after, you pick up the sledgehammer and smash stuff.
- But let's give the Cons credit for at least being efficient when it comes to what really counts: maximizing the amount of public money going to their cronies.

- Frances Russell points out what the Cons' use of public offices for political advertising says about their disrespect for Canada's political system and voters alike:
With his unprecedented commandeering of the Prime Minister's Office, Harper has out-Americanized the Americans -- and struck another blow against our constitutional tradition.

No U.S. politician, not senators, not congressmen, not even the president, can conduct fundraising, campaign ads or any overt political activity from Capitol Hill, the White House or federal buildings or facilities. The House of Representatives Ethics Manual prohibits the use of House recordings for "any political purpose."

Harper's attack on Canadian traditions doesn't stop there. The prime minister has his minions looking for ways he can appropriate the role of the Governor General as Canada's head of state to hand out honours and awards to Canadians.

He's already created the Prime Minister's Volunteer Awards. And he has been fighting his defence minister for two years to get one of the military's troop and cargo Airbuses repainted white.

Pollster Frank Graves told The Hill Times he believes Harper is trying to assume "symbolic office, similar to the president of the U.S., which is one of the things they have been shooting for."
- Finally, who plans to spend the afternoon refreshing this page waiting for Bev Oda's name to be added?

On cost shifting

Shorter Harper Cons:

Money is no object when it comes to posturing on crime - at least, as long as somebody else is stuck with the bill.

Cause and effect

David Akin is right to note that there's an obvious connection between the Cons' ad campaign and what looks to be a shift in their favour in the polls. But there's another causal link worth pointing out as well: because the Libs gave the Cons two months worth of advance notice that they were pushing for an election, the Cons were able to put the ads together to improve their starting position if one happens in the near future.

Which looks to make for just one more way in which the Libs' positioning against the other opposition parties is serving only to help Harper - and should serve as a reminder that telegraphing every move isn't any brighter now than it's been for the last five years.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Cats on mats.

Harper is a Dirty Word

And I for one think it's about time Macleans governed itself accordingly.

Just wondering

Yes, I know Jane Taber can't be held to the standard of "exercising independent thought" that we'd like to expect from most political journalists. But is it really too much to ask that she at least remove the Cons' ad copy when reproducing one of their supposed strategy memos?

On balancing interests

As promised, let's follow up on the CRTC's push for false news with a brief look at some of the cases that need to be taken into account in determining what limits can properly be applied to freedom of speech.

Most of the discussion has revolved around R v. Zundel, in which the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a Criminal Code offence against spreading false news. But that decision is rife with points of obvious distinction: the statutory provision couldn't be justified based on even remotely modern rationales since it had been passed to protect nobles of the realm from slander by commoners, to the point where the Court majority couldn't find any valid public policy rationale for the prohibition; it was found to be overbroad in extending to any "statement, tale or news"; and it involved the "most draconian of sanctions" (i.e. criminal prosecution for an indictable offence) against an individual offender.

In contrast, none of those considerations applies to the CRTC's standards for false news. So the more relevant case looks to me to be Thomson Newspapers Co. v. Canada (Attorney General), which led to a far more balanced analysis on the question of whether the publication of polling results could be banned in the final days of a federal election campaign. The Supreme Court majority did strike down the law in question, but only based on a lack of minimal impairment after concluding that there was a legitimate objective involved in ensuring that some meaningful opportunity existed to challenge the accuracy of a poll. Which signals that there can be a legitimate role for the government to play in preventing some types of information from going unchallenged where it might unduly affect an election.

Now, I'd think there's some need to expand that analysis to apply to the wider public debate - as would be the case in discussing false news in general rather than a specific type of data at a specific time.

But that can be balanced against the fact that the CRTC's rules apply only to broadcasters. That means that they only affect the limited range of actors who wield disproportionate power to choose what content will be presented to Canadian viewers. And the ultimate sanction for a violation of the public's trust reposed in a broadcaster is merely a loss of a privilege (the license that allows for more direct access to viewers than would be available otherwise), rather than a limit on any individual's freedom of speech.

What about the argument that we should rely on the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council rather than providing for any role by a government regulator?

To start with, I'd note the obvious public vs. private bias involved in assuming that there's no problem in limiting speech as long as it's carried out by a private actor. But more importantly, the CBSC is itself made up of exactly the parties who have at least a theoretical interest in expanding their ability to distort the public debate on issues which affect them and their advertisers.

That makes for exactly the type of situation where at least some backstop is needed - both to keep the CBSC focused on the interests of the public rather than those of its members, and to ensure that possible sanctions are significant enough to keep individual broadcasters honest. (After all, a broadcaster which knows that it can air the Liberals Engage in Treasonous Sharia Bestiality Hour for the duration of an election campaign while facing no sanctions other than a possible obligation to issue a retraction after it's too late isn't going to be the least bit deterred - while the potential loss of a license figures to do far more to ensure at least some standard of reality.)

So the big questions to me look to be: should we refuse to acknowledge any imbalance between broadcasters and their possible subjects in their ability to influence the public? And should we trust private parties to protect the public interest in reality-based broadcasting with no regulatory backstop except in cases of threats to safety?

While there's room for debate on both points (and a revised standard of knowing falsehood may make sense), the ultimate answers figure to be "no" and "no". And so I'll stick with the view that it's worth fighting for some public protection of truth in broadcasting.

Update: It looks like Avaaz covered most of the above and more in its submission to the CRTC (warning: PDF). h/t to Dr. Dawg.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday...

- Yes, the story behind the Cons' KAIROS funding forgery is far from over. And while the media and opposition will undoubtedly want to get to the bottom of the matter, Paul Dewar rightly notes that somebody else should be very interested to figure out who doctored an official document to mean the opposite of its original text:
NDP MP Paul Dewar wants Oda to appear again before the foreign affairs committee to face questions. He raised the prospect of a police probe if opposition MPs can't find out who “doctored” the document.
- Meanwhile, Murray Dobbin notes how the KAIROS forgery fits into the Cons' general style of governance:
Shocked hardly describes it. This is political thuggery worthy of a dictatorship. It clearly originated in the PMO, but Bev Oda, the hapless minister of International Cooperation, was assigned the role of Official Stonewaller. Oda's answers to questions put to her by a parliamentary committee reveal an arrogance of power that is identical in its mentality to the dozens of autocracies around the world. Oda stated she didn't know who doctored the documents she signed, but said: "I know that the decision ultimately reflects the decision I would support."

That is almost impossible to believe. Almost surely, the only reason the not was inserted into the document was that it had already been signed by Oda -- indicating she accepted the recommendation by CIDA officials. Had Oda not signed, authorizing payment of the grant, there would have been no need to doctor the document to reverse its intent. She could simply have declined to sign it and announced that KAIROS would not be getting a grant. The vulgar method used to circumvent the law demonstrates just how little this government cares about the rule of law. They couldn't even be bothered to make it credible.
- But if there's any good news to be found in the Cons' constant cover-ups, it's that they may be setting up their own government's demise. Here's John Ibbitson:
(N)ot only do the Conservatives give tax cuts to fat cats and waste billions on toys for the military and prisons that turn scared kids into hardened criminals, but they also erode democratic freedoms by keeping Parliament and the rest of us in the dark about their plans.

Only you don’t have to camp out at Liberation Square to bring this government down. You only need to cast a ballot.

None of this may matter. The Conservatives think they can win the next election on the ballot question of competence and leadership, and the polls suggest they’re right.

But don’t be surprised if you see a Liberal attack ad that shows Parliament with the doors chained shut. And the Conservatives will have only themselves to blame.
- Finally, the Star points out the dishonesty in the Cons' attempt to play to prejudice by attacking veiled voters:
No fewer than 253,069 voters cast mail-in ballots in 2008. Elections officials had no way of checking their faces. Other voters turned up at the polls with two pieces of acceptable non-photo ID, such as a hydro bill, a government cheque or an insurance policy. Still others with no valid ID at all just swore an oath and had a neighbour or roommate (with valid ID) vouch for them.

In a crunch, a veiled Muslim woman can either show her face in private to an official, or swear an oath that she is qualified to vote, and present two pieces of ID.

Given all these factors, it is absurd, as the Star has argued before, to think of veiled Muslim women as posing a threat to the integrity of our electoral system. Laws that in effect single out Muslim women send an ugly message that if minorities want to exercise their rights as Canadian citizens, they should behave and look more like the “mainstream,” whatever that might be.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Fair and balanced

Gloria Galloway helpfully presents all possible sides of the corporate tax debate: the Cons complaining that the Libs don't currently support their tax slashing, the Libs complaining that the Cons aren't slashing their choice of taxes, and the CFIB suggesting that everybody should agree on all possible tax slashing.

Is it too late to add a talking point from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation? You know, for balance.

On false opposition

Andrew Coyne rightfully skewers the Libs for not believing a word of their rhetoric on what's supposed to set them apart from the Harper Cons:
The difference between them and the Conservatives, the Liberals would like you to know, is all about “values.” That is, it’s about “priorities.” I mean to say, it’s about “your Canada” versus “Stephen Harper’s Canada.” Indeed, the Liberals have three favourite examples of how the two parties’ values diverge, which they will rhyme off for you at the least provocation. In a phrase, they are: fighter jets, prison cells, and corporate tax cuts.
There isn’t any doubt about where the Liberals would like you to think they stand on these. “Instead of spending $16 billion on untendered stealth fighters and…borrowing $6 billion more to give tax breaks to the largest corporations,” the Liberal website proclaims, “Liberals want to address the economic pressures facing Canadian families when it comes to family care, pensions, learning and jobs.”

Unveiling a new French-language campaign, the MP Denis Coderre fumes: “[Harper's] priorities have nothing to do with us: billions for stealth Fighters and American-style mega-prisons, yet nothing for families.” Addressing partisan crowds on his periodic road trips, Michael Ignatieff often expresses his devotion to building “schools, not prisons.”

Got that? If you don’t like jets, jails or, um, jorporate tax cuts, vote Liberal. Except… that’s not actually the Liberal position on any of these. Or to the extent that it is, it’s at best a recent conversion. The merits of all three policies may be debated. But you have to actually be on the other side to do so.
I understand the Liberals’ need to differentiate themselves from the Tories. But, really: what kind of chumps do they take us for?

Well said

Alice chimes in with the definitive post on how to handle between-election polling:
(S)top reading "the polls", stop obsessing about "the polls", and for goodness sake stop writing that "the polls say this will happen or that will happen", because they don't say any such thing. And take amateur seat predictions having a zero-general-election track record with as big a boulder of salt as Joan Bryden's sources advise taking the polls. "The polls" didn't predict the Conservatives would win Montmagny–l'Islet–Kamouraska–Rivière-du-Loup, or that the Liberals would win Winnipeg North either. Campaigns matter, and outsiders don't know what ridings political parties are going to target or send resources to yet, though we can certainly draw some conclusions now (and no, it's not based exclusively on whether they were "close" last time or not either).

The future of hackery

Shorter Brian Lilley:

What kind of two-bit, credibility-free news outlet has the nerve to take a politician's actual words out of context when it's so much easier to just make something up out of thin air?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday Afternoon Links

Content goes here.

- Joan Bryden notes that even pollsters are warning against paying too much attention to tiny fluctuations in their results:
(T)he media often trumpet shifts in provinces or other small sub-samples of the population, like urban women or educated males. But with MOEs of as much as 10 percentage points, seemingly huge 20-point fluctuations are actually statistically meaningless.

"I've seen pollsters comment one week, you know, 'The Tories are dead in Quebec' only to have this magical resurrection the week after and there's a pressure to sort of explain that and you come up with saying, 'You know, well, (Prime Minister Stephen Harper) made this statement or he wore this tie,'" says Mukerji.

"I think if you take a step back and look at the general trend, there hasn't actually been all that much that's changed, quite frankly, in the party standings."
- I tend to agree with the theory, raised by Alan Shanoff among others, that the recently-developed responsible communication defence to libel or slander claims should be a guiding principle in determining how the CRTC should handle false news. But it's also worth pointing out where the law of defamation falls short of protecting the public interest: shouldn't the need for responsible journalism be just as obvious when a broadcast involves subject matter that isn't so directly aimed toward an individual's reputation as to be enforceable through a private lawsuit?

- Stephen Gordon criticizes the new head of Statistics Canada for being willing to spout the Cons' party line on the census even when his organization has conclusively refuted the claim that there's any real prospect of a voluntary survey providing data of the same quality as a mandatory census:
In point of fact, Statistics Canada has done quite a bit of research documenting the fundamental flaws associated with voluntary surveys; see Kevin Milligan's guest post as well as this. Insisting that "critics cannot be sure" is a remarkable thing for a Chief Statistician to say; statistics is not in the business of providing absolute certainty.
I understand that as Chief Statistician, there are certain truths that Mr Smith cannot speak in public. But that's no excuse for making statements that are contrary to available evidence. Statistics Canada has a reputation to maintain; Mr Sheikh resigned in order to protect it. It would be a very bad thing indeed if Statistics Canada is itself the next victim in the continuing assault on evidence-based policy.
- Finally, while the conventional wisdom is that cabinet ministers have absolutely no ability to act outside the wishes of the Harper PMO, let it never be said that at least some cabinet ministers can't take a stand on principle. That is, when it comes to true matters of conscience such as airplane colour schemes. I'm sure news will soon leak that despite his census embarrassment, Tony Clement should be seen as a maverick for refusing direct orders as to his tie selection.

Sunday Morning 'Rider Blogging

So far, the Saskatchewan Roughriders' offseason looks thoroughly unimpressive.

Sure, a team can't stop key players from retiring like Jeremy O'Day, or taking their shot at the NFL like Andy Fantuz. But it can try to make up for those losses by looking for young, high-upside Canadian talent - and on that front the 'Riders have given away more than they've taken in, while a rapidly-rebuilding Edmonton team not only snatched up ex-'Rider Donovan Alexander but also grabbed former Ram and #1 pick Chris Bauman for free.

Meanwhile, the 'Riders' one player pick-up involved winning a bidding war to pay top dollar to a 34-year-old lineman who's been so much as a divisional All-Star exactly once in his career - making for as much of a low-upside, high-downside transaction as one could possibly imagine.

But the offseason is young, and there are still plenty of players available (to say nothing of the glut of rookie talent that may come on the market if the NFL does lock out its players). For now, the 'Riders' sights figure to be limited to the CFL's free agent list - so let's take a look at who beyond Saskatchewan's own free agents might be worth pursuing based on the combination of talent and price.

1. Brandon Browner, CB - In most cases, I'm not a fan of paying big money to try to lure a player away from another team. But every rule has its exceptions - and Browner looks to be far too good a fit for the 'Riders to pass up if he returns from the NFL's Seattle Seahawks in 2011.

After all, two of the 'Riders' biggest weaknesses in 2010 were an inability to cover a single top opposing receiver (due in large part to a secondary filled mostly with smaller players), and a propensity to give up big kick returns. And those areas of need mesh perfectly with Browner's talents: he's a big, athletic defender who can single-handedly take even a top receiver out of a game, and also a special-teams demon known for cutting down returners before they get started.

Of course, the Stampeders will figure to want Browner back as well. But he'll have his pick of CFL teams if he does return - and the 'Riders should do everything they can, including offering an elite-level contract, to get Browner into the green and white if they get the chance.

2. Chris Leak, QB - No, he hasn't had the chance to prove much in the CFL yet. But with Anthony Calvillo back for another season in Montreal and Adrian McPherson next in line for playing time, it wouldn't be surprising if Leak is looking for a chance to move up someone's depth chart sooner rather than later. And the 'Riders would seem to be able to offer a better opportunity to win a backup job to start the 2011 season than any other CFL team.

3. Jermaine Reid, DT - The one area where there's loads of free-agent talent available is the defensive line. But instead of going for an older, higher-priced option like Kevin Huntley or Eric Taylor, the 'Riders might be best served picking up a non-import who may have some untapped upside if he can earn more regular playing time. And Reid showed enough promise in 2010 (4 sacks for Hamilton) to be worth a look.

4. Adam Nicolson, WR - Of course, Bauman would have been a better fit in every way than Nicolson, who was already deemed expendable by the 'Riders last year when they shipped him out for Prechae Rodriguez. But Saskatchewan does have an opening for a big possession receiver, and even if he's on the verge of falling into journeyman status Nicolson is the best option left on the free-agent market.

5. Justin Medlock, P/K - I noted last season that Medlock would have been an ideal fit for the 'Riders to provide a strong punter who could step in to replace Luca Congi as placekicker in the event of another injury. This offseason, both Medlock and Damon Duval fit that bill among the CFL's free agents - and while Eddie Johnson is a great fallback option as a punter, the 'Riders may want to see whether the price is right in looking for more special-teams flexibility.

On feigned helplessness

Michael Geist rightly notes that there's little reason to buy the argument that Canada's current laws don't provide adequate protection against file-sharing sites:
The claims in the isoHunt lawsuit must still be proven in court (as would any case using the new powers contemplated by Bill C-32). But past cases suggest Canadian law is hardly toothless. In 2008, the recording industry filed a lawsuit against QuebecTorrent, a Quebec-based BitTorrent site. Within months, the Superior Court of Quebec handed down a permanent injunction against the site and it discontinued operation. Soon after, the industry targeted other sites with cease-and-desist letters, relying on existing law to demand that they stop operating.

Foreign organizations have also successfully used Canadian copyright law to counter alleged online infringement. Last month, the Dutch anti-piracy group BREIN announced that it had quietly shut down dozens of BitTorrent sites by filing copyright violation complaints with the sites' hosting providers. While BREIN keeps the names of the sites secret, it notes that Canada is one of the countries where it brings legal action.

The reality is that all major countries are home to some BitTorrent sites, including Canada. The question is not whether Canadian law is equipped to deal with these sites — recent history and the latest lawsuit demonstrate that it is — but rather why the industry has opted for a strategy of damaging Canada's reputation by loudly claiming that it is unable to address online infringement using existing law while it quietly files court documents that suggest that the opposite is true.
But that reality shouldn't be used to understate the difference between the status quo and the Cons' plan under C-32 (bolstered by the attempt to paint Canada as lacking the enforcement mechanisms already in place). And indeed, the fact that copyright holders are complaining despite the existence of mechanisms to deal with peer-to-peer sites should offer a compelling signal that it's the peers themselves who are the targets of the Cons' legislation.