Saturday, May 28, 2011

Saturday Afternoon Links

This and that for your weekend reading.

- In case we didn't already have enough examples of the Wall government's contempt for voting, James Wood notes that it's dragging its heels on authorizing any enumeration before the official writ period. That figures to work wonders in making it more difficult to accurately identify voters - but raises the question of why a government which is supposed to be able to coast to re-election feels the need to throw as many wrenches into the works as possible.

- We shouldn't be surprised to find out that most corporatist spin is based on blind belief in mythical concepts ranging from confidence fairies to magical wealth creators. But Sixth Estate highlights a particularly egregious example, as Stephane Dion's newest buddies are declaring that we can wish natural resources into existence.

- Meanwhile, in the real world, the consequences of that type of blind faith in markets can be readily observed - even as the Cons double down in their fervour:
As in many other countries, Canada is witnessing a phenomenon in which the most wealthy are enjoying stunning increases in their income while the rest of society stagnates. It’s something that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is likely to hear about in no uncertain terms in the parliamentary debate following the tabling of the budget on June 6.

The trend (long summarized as “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer”) is so pronounced globally that Angel Gurria, head of the industrialized world’s main think tank, is warning that income equality is becoming a “serious threat.”
In a 2008 study of 30 OECD countries, Canada was singled out as one of the member nations that has witnessed the worst widening of the wealth gap.

Inequality and poverty declined in Canada for 20 years before the late 1990s, the OECD study said, but since have gotten much worse.
And some analysts say the economic strategies being pursued by a re-elected Harper will only make matters worse, leading to a further expansion of the income gap between the very rich and others in Canada.

The crux of the issue concerns the Conservatives’ plan to continue implementing corporate income tax cuts and to eventually bring in other tax breaks, such as expanding deposits in Tax-Free Savings Accounts and allowing two-income couples with children younger than 18 to split their income for federal tax purposes.

While these measures have been promoted as ways of creating jobs or helping average Canadians, some economists say the benefits to the rich from these tax breaks will far outweigh anything seen by other members of society.
- Finally, Don Martin points out one noteworthy consequences of the NDP's surge:
Funny thing, but the more...under-30 MPs you meet, all of them unexpectedly elected in the orange wave of the NDP surge, the more you sense they will be a future asset, not a long-term liability, to leader Jack Layton.

They talk beyond their years, think quickly and most have an academic grounding in what federal politics is all about.
I'm only met half a dozen or so, but I suspect it'll be great fun watching them spring in parliamentary action next week.

Thanks to them, the average age of Canada's 308 MPs has dipped below 50 for the first time in history.
Granted, that still leaves the average age in the House of Commons somewhat higher than in the general population. But as with other measures such as womens' representation, the NDP can at least claim proudly to have made Parliament more representative of Canada's population than ever - and hopefully the result will be a political conversation that better reflects the concerns of the general public.

On credibility gaps

Since I haven't yet seen this story linked to the spin which seems to have made it necessary, let's put two and two together.

The professionals responsible for maintaining the solvency of the Canada Pension Plan have made it clear that the CPP is capable of expanding its operations if Canadians decide they'd prefer to have more of their retirement taken care of through a near-universal public program:
The investment arm of the Canada Pension Plan is prepared for any expanded role, if that's what the government wants, president and chief executive David Denison said Thursday after reporting that the fund's assets rose to a record high last year.

"We're not advocating one way or another on reforms, but if it does translate into CPP expansion and we're asked to manage it — we can do it," Denison said.
Any expansion would give the CPPIB more money to manage, but Denison said there wouldn't be much change in strategy because it is already preparing for growth in the multibillion-dollar fund.

The CPP Fund's assets under management reached a record high of $148.2 billion at the end of its most recent fiscal year, compared with $127.6 billion at the end of fiscal 2010, it said in its annual report Thursday.
In contrast, the ideologues dedicated to destroying social programs at every turn are declaring that they're really only motivated by a desire to save the CPP in demanding that its reach be as limited as possible.

So who figures to be a more credible authority on the viability of an expanded CPP: the people who have managed it effectively and responsibly to turn it into the most reliable part of Canada's retirement system, or the corporate interests whose goal is to undermine any reliance on public programs?

On consensus-building

Kady's post on the composition and chairing of committees notes that there's some risk the Cons could try to use their majority to rewrite the rules. But it's worth pointing out that there doesn't look to be much precedent for that step in recent decades.

One of the first orders of business for any Parliament is the approval of committee composition and mandates. And in every single post-election Parliament since 1994 (which of course also involved a new majority government), those issues have been seen as a matter of negotiation and consensus rather than partisan strongarming - such that each of the motions has been passed with unanimous consent. See the relevant journal dates from 1994, 1997, 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2008.

And indeed all MPs - whether party members or not - presumably need to have been at least be willing to accept the process used to set the rules in order to develop that record of unanimous consent.

Of course, we can't ignore the possibility that the Cons might try to either sneak some changes into the Standing Orders with the other parties' acquiescence, or thumb their nose at the apparent convention in order to impose their will on a vote. But it's well worth noting that there doesn't seem to be much precedent for either of those courses of action. And I'd have to figure the Cons would be careful about suddenly tearing up procedures and customs which have been the subject of all-MP consensus for at least the last couple of decades - including during their previous terms in office.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- The McGill Institute's Election Content Analysis includes plenty of interesting information on how this month's federal election was covered. But the most noteworthy point looks to be the lag time between developments in the public and coverage by the media: the key developments in the polls for the NDP - reaching rough parity with the Libs around April 21, and passing them early in the week of April 25) - were followed by a roughly proportional boost in first mentions and overall mentions only several days later. (And indeed, even the last week of the campaign saw the Libs getting more overall mentions than the NDP.)

Of course, it's also worth noting that the lag time also offers an indication that we shouldn't be unduly concerned with the volume of media coverage: after all, the NDP's surge built up without any particular help on that front.

- And the NDP should anticipate that it'll mostly need to keep building outside the corporate media as well - a point which looks all the more clear in light of Sixth Estate's analysis of opinion-page content.

- Meanwhile, much of the punditocracy's response to the NDP's rise was to declare that it was out of touch with a perceived consensus on issues such as, say, its willingness to revisit Canada's constitution to secure Quebec's support. Too bad nobody thought to ask the public until now:
After almost two decades of constitutional peace, The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey indicates a majority is now willing to risk re-opening the constitutional can of worms to accomplish some specific goals.

For instance, 61 per cent said they're prepared to re-open the Constitution to reform or abolish the appointed Senate.

And 58 per cent said they're willing to offer constitutional amendments in a bid to finally secure Quebec's signature on the Constitution. That includes 66 per cent of Quebecers and 55 per cent of Canadians outside the province.

Fifty-eight per cent also said they're willing to open up the Constitution to change the country's electoral system.
- Finally, Jim Stanford rightly slams the corporatist line that executives should be entitled to take credit for "creating value":
But my bigger point has to do with his claim that he “created value” for investors. This self-important shorthand is regularly invoked by business leaders to justify whatever it is they are doing. But do CEOs really “create value,” even if the share price of whatever organization they are in charge of happened to increase in a certain time period? A more accurate and neutral statement would be that Mr. Underwood was in charge of this REIT during a year when the market value of its unit price increased. Does this mean he “created value”? Of course not.

The market value of those units could increase for all kinds of reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with Mr. Underwood’s talents: like a renewal of low-interest credit creation being used for speculative purchases of real estate-related financial assets (gee, I’ve seen that movie before, and it doesn’t end nicely), overall investor sentiment, the impact of low interest rates on capitalized real estate prices, the impact of tax loopholes on the value of income trusts (indeed, Mr. Underwood’s firm would not even exist where it not for the enormous and blatant tax loophole for income trusts which the federal government is finally now partially closing), and other macro factors.

The only people in Mr. Underwood’s industry who actually “created value” are the workers who actually build and maintain the structures which his firm owns, operates, and markets. Needless to say, the compensation for these genuine value-creators did not increase by 475% last year.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Musical interlude

Andre Visior & Kay Stone - Sunrise

On questions and answers

Lawrence Martin's theory on how the NDP can start making Question Period more substantive looks to be a good start. But I'll add that there's one more consideration worth taking into account - especially in the early days of the new Parliament.

After all, the bulk of the Cons' cabinet has been under Stephen Harper's thumb in previous sessions. And I'm not sure we can expect bad habits to be broken all that quickly, no matter how reasonable the NDP is in seeking substantive answers to reasonable questions.

But two ministers (both in roles which do figure to be a focus of NDP attention) weren't around for Harper's past clampdown, and thus might not be quite as prone to dispensing empty talking points. And so in trying to establish a more positive tone, it might well be worth the NDP's while to direct questions particularly at Peter Penashue and Joe Oliver early on in the new Parliament - not because they're new to government, but to help set a standard that other Cons will start to adopt for themselves.

On losing strategies

Sure, Greg is right to criticize the Libs for being willing to provoke a national unity crisis for political gain. But I'm not sure when that became reason for surprise: have we already forgotten that the party's main Quebec strategy during its stay in government from 1993 to 2006 involved picking fights with the Bloc in order to create the most polarized environment possible between sovereigntists and nationalists, then happily taking the smaller share of that split?

Which isn't to say there aren't a couple of difference this time out.

First, there's the fact that the Libs' strategy is one which has been emphatically repudiated by actual Quebec voters every time they've had the chance.

Provincially, it was the ADQ who first stunned the Libs and their stage adversaries in the PQ by suggesting that maybe that polarization didn't make for the best way of viewing politics. (And while the ADQ didn't end up having much else to offer, there's no particular indication that its later decline actually reflected any change from that inclination.)

Now, the NDP has swept the province federally with substantially the same message about looking beyond the tired old sovereignty battle, combined with an appeal to work together to achieve better results for Quebec and Canada alike.

Given that history, a party interested in learning from its mistakes might respond by looking for some way to fit into a new alignment in Quebec. But if the Libs insist on going back to the same well even after it's proven to have run dry, that only looks like all the more reason to treat them as utterly irrelevant.

And indeed, the other major difference between this and past efforts to use sovereignty as a wedge issue is that this time, the Libs have been reduced to trying to fabricate an issue which is far removed from any substantive effect.

Of course they've had some help, as it's remarkable how quick the media has been to jump all over Jack Layton with future hypotheticals when it's Stephen Harper's definition of a valid referendum that will actually dictate what happens in the near future. But at some point, they're bound to notice that instead of being able to point to any principles or common vision as they try to define themselves and rebuild from electoral disaster, they apparently have nothing better to do than to try to foment divisions in a stronger opposition party. And while that may keep the Libs' hyperpartisans busy, it hardly figures to improve their perception in the general public.

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- thwap is among a few bloggers to rightly slam the Cons' obscene message to flooded Quebeckers that the only way they can hope for help is if somebody stands to profit from it:
Toews (is) justifying removing Canadian Forces from helping with the clean-up after a Quebec flood, NOT apparently as punishment for Quebec voters having rejected harpercon villainy, but because they're worried that they'll displace private sector service providers inspired by the idea of profiting from their misfortune.
Furthermore, the services you're asking for -- if they were authorized -- would place the Canadian Forces in competition with the private sector, at the local or provincial level, which could perform this type of repair work.
Ah! But Vic! Doesn't the same logic justify having all our work in Afghanistan carried out by mercenaries and private prison contractors? Why should we deprive mercenaries of a chance to make a buck out of some misplaced devotion to archaic ideas about who should fight wars on the taxpayers' dime?
- Erin notes the good news in the B.C. Libs' latest HST machinations:
Now that BC’s opposition has successfully pushed back on the HST, the government is starting to follow the logic of its own argument, promising to combine the HST with a corporate tax increase. However, the reversal of BC’s corporate tax cuts would not collect enough revenue to fully offset the removal of sales tax from business inputs.

Nevertheless, this development seems to improve the chances of BC restoring its corporate tax rate to a more appropriate level. More broadly, it weakens the narrative that corporate taxes must always and everywhere decline. The business lobby’s acceptance of the government’s plan undermines its usual claims that raising corporate taxes would be unimaginably horrible.

- But even while recognizing how the Libs' reversal fully validates the NDP's position on corporate taxes, Seth Klein points out some significant obstacles to the move based on their previous rationale for lowering the corporate income tax rate:
More importantly, the government has now acknowledged that we can increase corporate income taxes and the sky will not fall. It is no small irony that when Adrian Dix proposed during the NDP leadership race that corporate income taxes be returned to their 2008 level, he was accused by government representatives and media pundits of being a “class warrior”. Yet now Christy Clark has proposed doing just that (and even gone a step further with a proposed delay to planned reductions in the small business tax rate).

And another rather delicious irony: those corporate income taxes reductions since 2008 were part of the carbon tax’s revenue recycling regime. Meaning, if the government did actually increase the corporate income tax, they would have to amend their carbon tax legislation, which requires that the tax be revenue neutral. Again, I’m all for that. The CCPA has long said that making the carbon tax revenue neutral (and giving big tax cuts to business) made little sense, and that the carbon tax income should be partially used to fund other climate initiatives. So nice to know the new Premier is now ready to break with revenue neutrality there.
- Finally, Dan Gardner finds plenty of Stephen Harper positions which look to be mostly unassailable - but only if one goes back as far as 1996 when he was the one challenging the type of distorted top-down politics he now practices:
"In today's democratic societies, organizations share power," wrote two conservative intellectuals.

"Corporations, churches, universities, hospitals, even public sector bureaucracies make decisions through consultation, committees, and consensus-building techniques. Only in politics do we still entrust power to a single faction expected to prevail every time over the opposition by sheer force of numbers.

Even more anachronistically, we persist in structuring the governing team like a military regiment under a single commander with almost total power to appoint, discipline, and expel subordinates. Among major democracies, only Great Britain so ruthlessly concentrates power."

That's a pretty good summary of what I've been writing lately about the Conservative government.

Which is curious. Because the authors are Tom Flanagan and Stephen Harper. Flanagan is a conservative political scientist. And Stephen Harper, well, you know him.
"The two parties could begin by agreeing to advocate electoral reform." Scrapping the first-past-the-post system is a realistic possibility, Harper and Flanagan wrote, because the NDP would support it, "allowing even a minority conservative government to pass the necessary legislation."

It was an essential step. "Many of Canada's problems stem from a winner-take-all style of politics that allows governments in Ottawa to impose measures abhorred by large areas of the country."

Change a few details and the Harper/Flanagan essay could be published today. Word for word.
"Right now, if Harper wanted to, he could be a complete dictator, because there is no way to stop a majority government," Conservative senator Bert Brown observed recently.

There was a time when conservatives found that appalling. But an awful lot of them seem quite comfortable with it today.

What they find appalling, what makes them quiver with indignation, is a journalist who makes the same arguments they once did about a prime minister who has become what he once opposed.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

On shadows

A couple of quick notes on the NDP's shadow cabinet announced today...

The most intriguing set of announcements comes in the form of several up-and-coming MPs assigned to a counterintuitive set of roles. Indeed, if one had to guess on the placement of Linda Duncan, Megan Leslie and Romeo Saganash among Environment, Aboriginal Affairs and Natural Resources, one might have wondered what link Leslie had to Natural Resources before guessing wrong at all three.

But as a matter of strengthening the NDP's front benches for years to come, it makes plenty of sense to ensure that a number of its strongest MPs get exposed to multiple different portfolios - making the superficially surprising shifts look to have plenty of potential to help the party's future growth.

That said, there is one slightly worrisome side to the new strategy. Rather than including positions to address issues like poverty, child care, Crown corporations and (particularly surprisingly) youth which have been mentioned in past critic assignments, the new shadow cabinet effectively sticks to the Cons' definitions of the role of government - which has the unfortunate effect of giving no direct critic profile to some of the causes where the NDP's efforts will be most important in highlighting issues the Cons would like to ignore.

Of course, the fact that the NDP hasn't set up critic roles doesn't mean that it can't still raise those issues. But it's still worth being careful about allowing the Cons to define which subject are to be taken off the table for the next four years.

On continued momentum

In case there's any doubt, the usual caveats about paying too much attention to polling are probably all the more important now that any federal election is more than four years away. But with that caution out of the way, it's certainly worth watching whether the response of voters to a transformational election is to keep moving in the same direction, or to revert to previous patterns.

On that front, at least the first indications suggest that we're looking at the former - with the NDP holding onto its election-day vote share in Quebec, and actually gaining ground in the rest of Canada. And the more NDP support comes to be the new normal among voters who changed their minds over the course of the election campaign, the better the chances of the party being able to build on that base for years to come.

New column day

Here, on how the Wall government has turned what would be considered "corrupt practices" in any other voting process into a rational strategy for employers trying to prevent workers from organizing.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The challenge ahead

Brian Topp nicely sums up the next steps for the NDP:
So our friends (the folks used to running things) are going to stop ignoring us. They will shortly stop laughing. And then they're going to fight.

New Democrats should welcome this – it is how Canada's entitled are going to inadvertently communicate to the people of Canada that the NDP is close to victory. We won't be hearing about “don't waste your vote” any more. Now it's going to be “don't make a terrible mistake”.

Which gets us to the core of the business that lies before the New Democrats over the next four years: That is to earn the new role Canadians have given the party and to build on it – into a governing mandate – whether the voices of the past like it or not.

On selective benefits

We'll find out before too long whether the B.C. Libs' latest attempt to survive the imposition of the HST will be any more successful than what they've tried for the last two years. But the more interesting effect of today's announcement may be its impact on the other province which harmonized its taxes at the same time.

Here's the message which I'm sure will be repeated plenty more as the HST referendum progresses:
In order to head off that fiscal reckoning, the B.C. Liberals propose to raise corporate taxes by two points effective Jan 1 of next year and to postpone a scheduled reduction in the small business tax.

The moves constitute a reversal of longstanding tax policy under the B.C. Liberals, who've systematically reduced taxes on the business sector. When the New Democrats proposed similar increases, the Liberals denounced them, saying it would negatively impact the investment climate.'

But Finance Minister Kevin Falcon justified the increases by saying that the corporate sector had enjoyed most of the benefits of the tax shift under the HST.
Of course, in Ontario that benefit to the corporate sector from the HST was packaged with...more benefits to the corporate sector in the form of income tax cuts. And all this just before the McGuinty government declared that it had to start cutting back on public services due to the deficit which ballooned as a result of those giveaways.

Now, with B.C.'s government publicly acknowledging the real consequences of the HST and at least trying to paper over its effects, the Ontario Libs figure to have an even tougher time defending their choices. And it shouldn't come as much surprise if it's the party which has offered the more accurate critique of the HST all along that benefits as a result.

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- As part of her look at what lies ahead for the NDP, Barbara Yaffe recognizes why it figures to make for a tougher opponent than the Libs have over the past few years:
How will Conservatives react to Layton leading the main opposition party in Parliament?

It remains to be seen whether they will mount an advertising campaign against him as they did against Liberal leaders Paul Martin, Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.

Conservatives may have met their match, though. After all, Layton has led his party since 2003 and may be too much of a known quantity to be successfully attacked by government backroomers.
- All those who predicted that Newfoundland and Labrador would be the first province to see any effort to call Stephen Harper's Senate bluff (even if based only in the province's opposition parties), please collect your winnings.

- While plenty of people have pointed to Stephane Dion's paper for the MacDonald-Laurier Institute, I'm not sure anybody else has noticed what looks like a major part of the story.

Namely, when did Stephane Dion start writing for a Con-promoted and funded special interest group which mostly serves as a front for Con spin? And if the likes of Dion are lending their names and opinions to the greater glory of the Cons' cronies, what does that say about the Libs' hopes of building any competing institutions?

- Finally, Benjamin Wallace-Wells' feature on Paul Krugman includes this noteworthy tidbit on how economic gains have been divided in the U.S.:
From 1979 to 2004, the income of the richest one percent of Americans grew by 176 percent, that of the richest one fifth of the country by 69 percent, and that of everyone else by less than 25 percent. Working through the numbers, Krugman came to believe that “only a fraction” of the change was compelled by global forces, which had been the standard explanation. The rest, he concluded, was political.

It was Krugman’s Princeton colleague Larry Bartels who made the critical connection, in research Krugman devoured and still cites. Perhaps the most important influence on income inequality, Bartels argued, was something economists had not ­emphasized: whether a Democrat or a Republican was in the White House. Since World War II, Bartels found, wealthy families in the 95th percentile in income had seen identical income growth under both parties. But for families in the 20th percentile, the difference was astonishing: Under Democratic presidents, their income grew at six times the rate it did under Republican ones. There was, for Krugman, a kind of radicalization implied in this.
And I'd have to wonder whether the observations can be applied elsewhere: is there reason to doubt that the wealthy will tend to see relatively consistent gains in income, while the main distinction between different governments and societies is whether anybody else also benefits? And if so, wouldn't that seem like a rather compelling reason to focus all the more on redistribution rather than hoping that policies which obvious favour the wealthy on their face will somehow have trickle-down effects?

On operating assumptions

A couple of notes on today's news about the elimination of per-vote funding to Canada's political parties.

On the relatively bright side, the phase-out period looks to ensure that each party besides the Cons ends up in the black coming out of the federal election:
Flaherty said the government will also make good on the campaign pledge to phase the cut in over time, giving political parties three years to wean themselves off the subsidy.

In their platform, the Tories proposed cutting the subsidy first to $1.50, then $1 and then 50 cents before ending it altogether.
In effect, then, it sounds like the parties will receive $3 per 2011 vote over the next three years. Which means that based on the actual election results and the $21 million national party spending limit...
- The NDP will receive roughly $13.5 million, which will more than fund the 50% share of the party's election costs that isn't already covered by the Elections Canada expense rebate.
- The Libs will receive just over $8 million - which wouldn't quite cover a full national campaign, but should come close to the party's actual expenses after it declined to authorize a $3 million ad blitz at the end of the campaign.
- The Bloc will take in a little under $2.7 million, which should just cover about half of the party's $5.7 million spending limit.
- And the Greens will receive about $1.75 million, which may well cover their entire rebated campaign cost (keeping in mind that the party spent under $3 million in 2008 in a campaign with a far more widespread focus).

Oh, and the Cons will receive about $17.5 million which they don't particularly seem to need.

So for the opposition parties, the smart operating assumption seems to be that the remaining per-vote funding should be seen as effectively wiping the costs of the 2011 campaign off the books - leaving fund-raising to cover future party operations and elections.

But on that front, we're indeed seeing the Libs wanting to change the rules to allow bigger money back into the system:
Liberal MP Marc Garneau, who is running for the interim Liberal leader’s job, said his party recognizes that the financial blow is going to hurt.
Liberals will, however, press for an increase in individual donation limits if Conservatives do end the subsidy, he said.

“If individuals want to give more than the $1,100, that’s something that should be discussed,” he said.
Update: And John McKay serves up an even more galling quote here:
“There are certain Canadians who are much more capable of making donations to political parties than others, and I don’t know why they should be denied that opportunity. Five thousand dollars struck me as being a good cap.”
As I noted yesterday, the Cons already figured to have some decisions to make on whether to play around with the donation limit. And the Libs' decision to add their voice to the mix ensures that the issue will receive some more attention while complicating their calculations even further: on the one hand an increased donation limit might be seen as a sign of cooperation even if it's based solely on the Cons' assessment of their own self-interest, but on the other hand it might also turn into an increasingly effective wedge for the NDP to portray itself as the only party opposed to basing political influence on wealth.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Cat blogging interventions.

Tuesday Afternoon Links

Assorted content to end your day.

- Lawrence Martin's column taking Canada's media to task is well worth a read. But perhaps most important is his declaration as to what needs to happen now:
During the election campaign, there were stories of voter-suppression tactics by the Tories, of barring people from rallies, of pork-barrelling with G8 funds and the like. In the last week of the campaign, there was a seeming attempt by a Conservative operative to present Michael Ignatieff as an Iraq war planner. One can imagine what would happen if this kind of thing, straight out of Nixonland, happened in a U.S. campaign. The media would blow the roof off. Here, the story passed in a day or two without further comment.

Our media, particularly The Canadian Press, have performed well in breaking stories on ethical abuse. And there have been examples, such as The Globe’s reporting for several years running on the Afghan detainee controversy, of staying with a story. But we get softer with time. In the Chrétien era, there was less let up. With much help from the Auditor-General, we chased the Liberals down on Shawinigate and Adscam.

In a majority government, particularly one headed by an all-controlling Prime Minister, one of the few checks on power is strong journalism. It is what holds the government to account. If the standards of the media decline in carrying out this function, the standards and quality of democracy itself will decline.
- And for those looking for examples of serious issues deserving of substantial investigation, Canada's embarrassing showing when it comes to addressing corruption and bribery would seem to be near the top of the list.

- Truly, nobody could have suspected that the Alliance wing of the Cons might decide to change the rules once it had removed the PCs from the scene. But I do have to wonder whether the duplicity is being allowed based on the hope that it'll make it more difficult for the Cons' opponents to work through a similar process to the one that assembled Harper's coalition.

- Finally, there's a ways to go yet, but this looks like a rather strong introduction for the NDP's new official opposition caucus.

Deep thought

If the NDP's biggest challenge is to deal with MPs who have lots to say and plenty of ideas to offer, then there's reason to think the party is in great shape.

On funding decisions

The Hill Times' report on the future of party financing in Canada is just one of a few recent pieces to miss the different effect of different changes on Canada's political parties. So let's quickly review what seems possible based on the actions which might be paired with a cut in per-vote funding.

To start with, as a result of the shift in positioning among the opposition parties, the effect of eliminating per-vote funding may itself be somewhat different from what's long been assumed. For the first time, the NDP stands to lose more in raw dollars than the Libs once per-vote funding is removed - a loss which might only amplified to the extent it prevents the NDP from developing an operation on the scale of the one the Libs have normally run. And while the NDP's increased caucus funding will help to fill the dollar gap, we'll have to wait to find out whether the NDP can parlay its new position as official opposition into a longer-term fund-raising advantage over the Libs (who seem to have done fairly well filling their coffers late in the election campaign once it became clear that focusing on votes wasn't going to accomplish much).

Meanwhile, the Greens saw a huge drop in their popular vote as a result of their successful focus on winning a single seat - meaning that the national party which may once have been most vulnerable to an end to per-vote funding has somewhat less to lose.

As a result, the landscape as to how an end to per-vote funding will affect Canada's opposition parties has changed dramatically based on how those votes actually played out on May 2. And the Cons will have some choices to make based on how they perceive the relative strength of their opponents.

Similarly, the talk of raising individual funding limits looks to be based mostly on a sense that times have changed since 2006 (when the Cons and NDP worked together on reducing the limit from $5,000 to roughly $1,100, based largely on the view that the Libs benefitted more than any other party from higher-dollar donors).

On the one hand, one wouldn't expect Harper to want to reverse course if he can avoid it, particularly since it would leave him vulnerable to NDP attacks on bringing bigger money back into politics.

But to the extent his future political strategy depends on trying to prevent any opposition from coalescing behind one party, Harper may well be tempted to raise the limit again in order to strengthen the Libs' position as compared to the NDP. And stronger competition from the NDP as an alternative government may also make it possible for the Cons to position themselves as the chief recipient of big-money donations.

Then there's one more possibility: Harper could look to reduce the federal political tax credit (which naturally figures to be more damaging for donors with less disposable income). If paired with an increase in (or elimination of) individual limits, that would have the effect of limiting receipts from the small-money donor bases of both the Cons and the NDP, while at the same time giving far more influence to big-money donations just at the time when Harper is best positioned to bring those in as the party which will hold power for the next four-plus years.

In sum, we should expect the Cons' decisions on party financing to be based on Harper's calculations as to his own party's advantage in the proportion of money raised through big versus small donations, as well as which of the NDP or Libs he fears most in elections to come. And we shouldn't assume that his past promises and actions won't be undone in the process.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- I don't entirely agree with Duncan Cameron's timeline for the NDP's Quebec victory, as the party had in fact been gaining at least some ground in the polls for months before this year's election. But he's absolutely right as to what we should expect next:
Francophone voters made the Liberals the dominant party in Canada; French speaking Québec has now elected New Democrats. Contrary to what the mainstream media has been reporting, the new NDP Quebec caucus is full of young, bright, energetic, and talented individuals. How well the NDP succeeds in bringing its new Quebec players front and centre will decide whether or not the New Democrats are poised to become the dominant player in Canadian politics. No one should underestimate how much the new Quebec MPs can accomplish by building on the lessons the NDP learned from the successful 2011 election campaign.
- The CP is right to note that there may be employment-related dangers involved in even basic online activity. But rather than simply accepting that as inevitable, I'd think it's worth asking a follow-up question: should employers in fact be entitled to use an employee's ordinary online activity as a basis for discipline or discrimination? And if not, might the solution have to come through legislation?

- Meanwhile, the Cons' own employment philosophy hasn't changed with their transition to a majority, as they're setting a new record for the cost of the federal cabinet. But then, silence in positions of nominal power does carry a price.

- But let's give them credit for evolving on at least some points - as rather than trying to serve as a Pod Person MP like some of her western partymates, new Con Senator Josee Verner is actively declaring that she couldn't care less what her former constituents have to say:
Verner made it clear that in this new role, she has no intention of representing the people in her home Quebec City region.

“The region of Quebec City didn’t wish to have representatives in government,” she told Le Soleil newspaper. “There are those who won the ridings here, and so the people should call them.”
There’s no question of raising Quebec City’s voice in the Conservative caucus or to her former cabinet colleagues, either: “It’s not my mandate,” she declared.
Verner is acting like a “spoiled child” instead of noting how the Tories might be trying to ensure better representation for Quebec, given that the province elected only five Conservative MPs, commented Jean-Jacques Samson, a columnist from Le Journal de Quebec, on TVA.

“I think it’s disappointment and bitterness,” said Jean-Claude Rivest, who sits as an independent in the Senate and has worked with Verner in the past.
- Finally, Joe nicely highlights the Wall government's contempt for Saskatchewan's freedom of information system:
A follow-up email was sent to Johnston on May 16 asking how many records and the total number of pages was being withheld. The reply from Johnston later that day was stunning to say the least:

“I cannot tell you how many briefing notes, pages etc. have been prepared on this issue as we did not ask the branches of the ministry to submit them since we knew we wouldn’t be releasing them under the legislation,” he said. “This would have required several hours of work for staff searching, reviewing and copying documents knowing that they would not be released. As you can appreciate planning for and conducting negotiations requires confidentiality, particularly given that negotiations are continuing at this time. Thank you again for your interest in this matter.”

So it would appear the ministry lied on May 6 when it said that “all the records” relevant to the request were being reviewed.

Under section 8 of the province’s freedom of information legislation, government institutions are required to give access to as much of the record as can reasonably be severed without disclosing the information to which the applicant is refused access. When asked if this mandatory section was applied to the request, Johnston replied:

“From speaking with the people who prepared briefings on the matter, there would be very little left in as the notes go over what is offered and what is proposed and next steps. We cannot disclose proposals, analysis of those proposals, possible options, next steps or strategy. Some information such as what the STF is requesting in terms of pay and the response of the collective bargaining committee has been publicly communicated and is already publicly available. Some proposals have not been made public and would not be disclosed. In summary, once severing was done on a briefing note the only information left in it would have been what is already publicly available through media reports and other public communications.”

The short answer is no, the ministry did not follow the law.

Monday, May 23, 2011

On delayed reactions

It's bad enough that the National Post is so eager to present a fawning take on the Cons' dumb-on-crime legislation. But in presenting another point of view, it apparently hasn't bothered to take into account which party actually makes up Canada's official opposition - neglecting to mention the NDP while including this:
‘‘We remain unwavering in our commitment to fighting crime and protecting Canadians so that our communities are safe places for people to live, raise their families and do business,’’ said Pamela Stephens, spokesperson for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson. “We will be bringing forward comprehensive tackling-crime legislation to be passed within 100 days. Further details will be announced in due course.”

The Liberals, until recently the Official Opposition, claim crime has fallen in volume and severity in the past few years, and that the legislation simply goes too far. They argued that the United States, with its “mega prisons,” is suffering from the effects of this sort of tough-on-crime legislation.
And likewise, QMI's exclusive opportunity to cheerlead for the Cons' F-35 debacle-in-the-making includes the past official opposition rather than the present one:
But critics have blasted the Conservative government for agreeing to buy the jets in what they allege was a sole-source deal, and worry the estimated production and service costs will balloon.

The Liberals vowed that if they formed a government, they would scrap the deal and hold a competitive bid to replace Canada's fighter jets.
So what seems more likely: is Canada's media just too lazy to find any quotes on the same topics from the party actually preferred by voters to challenge the Cons? Or is it making a conscious choice to try to shut out Canada's official opposition?

Monday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your holiday reading.

- Murray Dobbin highlights the Harper Cons' regular support for the irrational, then points out the policy focus from the NDP which can best serve to point out the difference between the Cons' world and the Canada most voters will want to live in:
So if we can expect even more irrationality in the next four years, where might Harper be vulnerable to a rejuvenated civil society and a resurgent NDP Opposition? One area is the economy. where Harper will continue to try to maintain his edge on other parties. He is very vulnerable here, as the dollar continues to rise, the U.S. economy declines and the housing bubble eventually bursts.

The appeal to the irrational will not work if the economy begins to tank. This is one area where Opposition forces need to focus and not get distracted by Harper's efforts to keep his base happy.

The same applies to the jet fighter issue. If the economy begins to decline (and with it revenues), as many expect, this outrageous expenditure will be more and more vulnerable and it must be a focus of opposition, both the NDP and civil society. The government is right now looking at billions of dollars in spending cuts. Asking Canadians whether it should come from Medicare or jet fighters will be a potent political question.
The last two major issues for which even Harper's Christian base demands rational policy are Medicare and economic security for seniors. Harper knows that seniors vote in much higher percentages than the general population and the NDP put the issue squarely on the agenda before the election. It needs to stay there -- both because it is good policy, and because it will make Harper's budget slashing more difficult.

Medicare will be Harper's biggest test. He hates it and would dearly love to get rid of it altogether, but if he does not tread carefully and slowly, it could be his downfall.
- J.J. McCullough raises some good points as to why it's somewhat misleading to talk about being able to unite multiple parties as representing a united left in Canada. But I'd think it's worth drawing a distinction between how Canadian politics have operated to date, and how they figure to play out in the future - and with the most powerful federal party being one that's working much harder on drawing ideological distinctions than previous governments have normally done, I wouldn't think it's out of the question that Canadians could have their choices far better defined by 2015 than they have been in the past.

- Erin follows up on his post about the difference between wage- and profit-driven economies with a prescription for Canada:
In large, relatively-closed economies (the Eurozone and United States), it would probably be sufficient to raise wages and redistribute income, allowing higher aggregate demand to then boost business investment.

These same pro-labour policies would be desirable in Canada, but given import leakages, the additional domestic demand may well be insufficient to spur investment. Therefore, Canadian progressives also need more direct policies to spur investment, such as public capital spending (whether on infrastructure or through Crown corporations) and targeted incentives for private capital spending.
- And on a related note, the wage/profit distinction leads to a point from Paul Krugman which seems to me to have wider application than merely an assessment of which measure of inflation to adopt for the purposes of setting monetary policy:
I’ve suspected that what we’re really seeing is the inadequacy of even core inflation as a way to purge transitory effects of volatile prices: the measure takes out purchases of food and energy, but it doesn’t take out indirect effects of raw material prices on costs. New research from Goldman Sachs (no link) seems to support that view: it finds that core inflation is getting a temporary bump from the prices of imported raw materials, and will probably subside if the commodity surge is in fact over.

This in turn suggests that policy should really be based on some kind of “supercore” inflation. Should this simply be wage growth? Adam Posen at the Bank of England has certainly gone well down this route, arguing that the relatively high rate of even core inflation in the UK reflects one-off factors and that stagnant wages show that there are few risks. And I totally agree with Posen about the UK policy issues.

Yet there are problems with a wage target — mainly, you don’t want to base policy on the notion that wage gains are always a bad thing.

On durability

David Olive takes issue with the theory that the Harper Cons' coalition will be more durable than the one assembled under previous leaders such as Brian Mulroney. But it seems to me that the two arguments can be relatively easily reconciled.

The argument for the Cons having a durable base of support relies on the reality that at least since 2006, Harper has built a fairly consistent brand that has ensured that his party never drops below about 30% in the polls, and can rally another 5-10% of voters come election time. And while we always need to be careful about assuming that anything is impossible, there's little indication that the Cons will have any difficulty keeping that coalition of voters together if they keep up their current direction - meaning that a PC-style wipeout does seem fairly remote for the moment.

But the possibility that the Cons can rely on a support base in the 30s isn't mutually exclusive with a majority of the general public being opposed to Harper's direction. And, indeed all indications are that Harper has cultivated exactly that scenario as his means of winning and holding power in the face of a fragmented political system.

So yes, we should figure that at least for now, Harper has a larger and more solid base than his conservative predecessors. But that doesn't mean he has the upper hand in the longer term. And indeed, if the NDP can build on its election results to provide an alternative government which far more closely reflects the values of Canadians in general, Harper may have little choice but to risk some of his party's cohesiveness in an effort to expand its reach.

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- It's truly a shame that this makes for such a stark contrast against the Cons' governing philosophy:
Thomas Mulcair does not hesitate when asked to share the most important lesson he was taught by Claude Ryan, the illustrious Quebec politician who mentored him throughout his early career in public service.

“When you come into a room to discuss a file, it’s always good to know more about it than anybody else in the room,” says Mulcair.
But can we all agree that we're best off making sure that our elected officials work on knowing as much as they can about public policy in order to be able to discuss it, rather figuring their job is merely to memorize and repeat three or four party talking points?

- And it isn't only the NDP's top brass who recognize the value in actually learning and growing, as Ruth Ellen Brosseau for one is getting to work in a hurry:
Caught up in the “orange wave” that surged through Quebec and elected 59 NDP MPs, Ms. Brosseau, whose win was one of the biggest upsets, is now spending most of her time in Parliament, getting to know its corridors and corners and exactly how it all works.
At first, (Brosseau's son) Logan was nervous about her new role as MP, as he’s quite protective of her. But they plan to get an apartment in the riding and will spend the summer there; she’ll also be taking intensive French courses over the break.

Against this background, Ms. Brosseau has had to grow up quickly, and that maturity shows in the poise she displays in the interview.
- Meanwhile, for those looking for some extra-credit reading, Alison offers up a lesson as to what's really behind the push for constant tar sands expansion.

- Finally, Sixth Estate provides a reminder that for all their posturing about "ending political party subsidies" Cons fully intend to keep the ones which benefit them more disproportionately than per-vote funding.

On breakdowns

While Alice is working on debunking the all-too-familiar refrain about one-time political standings dictate future strategy and results, Eric is taking the concept to new depths. So let's take a quick look at why it makes roughly zero sense to focus in on the demographic breakdown of the ridings represented by a party (based on a one-time electoral result) as determinative of its support and direction.

In effect, the assumption behind Eric's demographic profiling is that a party's raison d'etre is to represent all constituents within the ridings they've won, and none in the ridings they've lost.

But the supposed changes since May 2 themselves serve as an indication of just how far off base that assumption actually is. If one applies Eric's logic to the status quo as of a month ago, the NDP would have been considered a party whose geographic and demographic base was utterly inconsistent with any interest in winning votes in Quebec - based not just on its past vote shares, but on the theory that it would be too tied to placating its existing bases of support to make an effort to speak to the concerns of Quebeckers.

To the extent anybody wanted to make that case, it would seem to have been entirely debunked. But Eric's analysis takes it as a given that we should use Canada's 2011 election results as a starting point in applying a theory which is utterly inconsistent with those results coming to pass in the first place.

In reality, of course, a party has many different constituent groups to take into account, and the demographic breakdown of currently-held ridings figures to be at most a secondary consideration. In terms of direct influence, the more important figures are bound to be the MPs themselves, along with the party activists and supporters who take a direct interest in the party's message. And in terms of strategy designed to maximize future electoral outcomes, it would be utter lunacy for a party to focus more on the most-distant tranche of voters in ridings it already holds (who are included in Eric's numbers) than on swing demographics which might actually result in winning additional seats in the future (who are excluded).

Fortunately, I doubt that the NDP (or any other party) will decide to follow the suggestion to represent only the demographics in the ridings they now represent, rather than looking at a more complete picture as to who might be able to elect MPs in the future. But it's worth pointing out the flaws in Eric's analysis for the benefit of outsiders too - lest we otherwise see many more opportunities like the NDP's Quebec surge needlessly brushed off by the commentariat.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

On windows of opportunity

Following up on this morning's post, the usual point made to dismiss the idea of abolishing the Senate is that constitutional change is haaaaard, such that we shouldn't bother proposing any changes which would require it. And based on Canada's constitutional history, that might make for a sound enough argument.

But surely the Harper era has taught us that we can't afford to rely on precedents and conventions to protect us from the Cons' drive to take and hold onto power. And I'd argue that in fact, constitutional change may not be far away.

To see why, keep in mind that there are five provincial elections set to take place this year. And while we should be cautious about putting too much stock in current projections, there's at least a real possibility that we could see both Manitoba and Ontario elect Harper-friendly governments, while the other three provinces maintain their current governments.

So let's ask: what's the worst-case scenario if that scenario comes to pass?

Adding wins for the Manitoba and Ontario PCs to the current small-c conservative governments in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador, we would see a distinct rightward bent and Harper linkage to provincial governments from seven provinces representing well over half of Canada's population. And that's a highly significant standard, given that it would create an obvious opportunity for Harper to push for changes based on Canada's constitutional amending formula. (Incidentally, that window would face a significant risk of closing in 2013 or sooner when British Columbia holds its next election.)

Of course, there isn't much talk about how the amending formula might apply at the moment - which seems to be based largely on the fact that past constitutional discussions have been premised on an assumption that any change should be supported by at least an attempt at consensus across different jurisdictions and ideologies, rather than an opportunistic government seizing a momentary political alignment to pursue longer-term ideological goals.

But given Harper's pattern of using absolutely every possible angle for partisan and political gain, we can't afford to assume that he'll choose differently if it's possible to rewrite the constitution to his advantage. And he may have enough supportive provinces to impose a narrowly-focused set of constitutional changes (such as, say, adding private property rights to the Charter) without addressing other constitutional grievances or paying much attention to the values of Canada's general public - particularly if nobody else works on raising alternative points of view in the meantime.

What's more, I'm not sure Harper would even expect to pay much of a political price if he did push ahead with constitutional changes. After all, the ideological linkages being pointed out as a matter of federal voting choices would seem fairly consistent with the changes we'd expect Harper to consider. And similarly, the interests which would lead Harper to want to make constitutional changes are generally shared by the provincial governments he'd need onside.

So what should we take away from the prospect of Harper being able to rewrite Canada's constitution toward his own ends? To start with, we should approach this fall's provincial elections with a close eye on what the results might mean for our system of government federally.

But equally importantly, we should recognize that no matter how hard Harper works to lull us to sleep, constitutional change may not be any further away now than an attack on the Cons' political opponents was when they claimed to want to work collaboratively in the fall of 2008. And it's essential both to be aware of the possibility and to work on shaping any change that might be discussed before it's too late.

On vestigial entitlements

In the midst of the justified outrage surrounding the Cons' latest Senate abuses, a few people are starting to point out some of the other distortions created by the status quo which Stephen Harper seems so pleased to keep in place.

By any measure, Canadian voters cast their ballots for an NDP Official Opposition, as it ranked a clear second place by votes, seats or any other standard for popular support. But the party actually favoured by mere voters as the alternative to a Con government will continue to receive zero input in one of the two chambers that exercises formal power in considering and passing legislation.

Instead, because of the Senate's archaic structures, the Libs will continue to hold the title of official opposition in the Senate for now and the foreseeable future. And indeed, an individual who served as a campaign co-chair in the election that rejected the Libs is seemingly set to stay in a role which allows him to use the trappings of public office to promote his party over the actual opposition.

And what's worse, there's effectively no way of remedying the problem within the Senate structure as it stands.

Even if Stephen Harper were to make the utterly implausible decision to do everything within his power to deal with the glaring distortion among the opposition parties - including appointing NDP senators to rectify the imbalance - he wouldn't be able to advance the NDP to official opposition status in the Senate in time for the 2015 election. Likewise, a start to Senate elections would have no chance of overcoming the Libs' built-in advantage with senators of any political stripe in the Cons' first term in office.

And based on the more likely path where Harper keeps on using his appointment power for patronage purposes, the Libs could continue to benefit from an undeserved Senate advantage over the NDP even through nearly a full term of NDP government beginning in 2015 - to say nothing of the Cons' own exploitation of publicly-funded patronage in the meantime.

Of course, the problem isn't a particularly new one. In fact, one of the longest-serving Senate opposition leaders in Canadian history held that role primarily on behalf of a PC party which ranked in fifth place in the Commons party standings.

But now looks to be the first time that the gap between electoral outcomes and Senate standings has been so glaring under a government which pretends to be interested in dealing with the undemocratic nature of the Senate. And the fact that the Libs' vestigial caucus will ensure that the Senate will remain unrepresentative regardless of what reforms might happen for the better part of the next decade (or more) should serve as an indication that abolition is ultimately both an easier and fairer choice.