Saturday, May 20, 2006

A show of weakness

Robert at My Blahg has pointed out the Cons' removal of information about climate change in general, and the Kyoto Protocol in particular, from Government of Canada websites. While Robert rightly notes the dangers associated with a deliberate attempt to purge the website, it's worth noting that in some sense the effort can only be an acknowledgement of just how indefensible the Cons' climate-change position is.

After all, if the Cons had any reasonable argument against the need to deal with global warming, surely they'd simply rebut the previous position rather than trying to pretend it never existed. Instead, they understandably fear that public access to accurate information poses a serious risk to their plan (or lack thereof). And if that kind of weakness in Harper's government receives the attention it deserves, then the Cons shouldn't remain in a position to dictate content of any kind for much longer.

On effective negativity

CanWest covers a study of the forces which tend to lead to friendships, with some all-too-predictable political ramifications:
(G)ossip often "has nothing to do with the person that you're gossiping about. It has more to do with the person you're gossiping with -- and what you're communicating to them," Bosson says.

In research published in the current issue of the journal Personal Relationships, Bosson and her colleagues first asked two groups of volunteers -- college undergraduates who were taking an introductory psychology class -- to think of their current, closest friend, and then to list as many likes and dislikes they discovered they shared while they were first getting to know each other, and then later in their friendships. Both groups remembered sharing more negative than positive attitudes about other people.
It's not hard to see the political equivalent: that it's often easier to build political connections based more on mutual dislikes than based on a shared positive vision. (And I certainly can't claim to be immune from the tendency to criticize.)

It seems to me to be worth wondering whether that status quo can be changed, either in the personal or in the political spheres, based on a concerted effort to identify positive perceptions rather than negative ones. But as long as negativity seems to be the easier way to win friends and influence people, it's hard to see a change happening anytime soon - no matter how many long-term gains could be made by eliminating the tendency to divide people.

Just wondering...

It's now well-known that Stephen Harper was proud to join the militarist hordes ready to accept an easily-debunked story in order to equate Iran with Nazi Germany. But I haven't yet seen any discussion of who asked the question to begin with - and how it ties into Harper's media policy.

After all, it's been often discussed that Harper's office is insisting on deciding who asks questions at the PM's press conferences. With one of Harper's fellow hawks on hand, it's not hard to suspect that Harper was looking for a chance to talk tough - and that any "canvas" of reporters by the PMO could have included some screening of the topics to be discussed.

So, a few questions that I'd like to see answered. Was the questioner in this case hand-picked by the PMO? Was the topic screened? If so, did anybody in the PMO attempt to determine whether the story was true? And would the questioner have received the same priority under the Press Gallery's system?

Needless to say, these aren't rhetorical questions. It could well be that the topics are generally out of the hands of the PMO, or even that a different system than the usual PMO-generated list was used due to Howard's presence. (For that matter, it wouldn't be entirely surprising if the PMO moved to restrict the types of questions asked in the future due to the eventual embarrassment.)

But after yesterday, there can be little doubt just how much impact a single question can have. And that makes it worth asking all the more whether we want the PMO to dictate who gets to ask what.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Fool them twice...

For reasons not apparent, U.S. Democratic Senators are asking the Bush administration to serve up a new batch of thoroughly-cooked intelligence on Iran:
Five Democrats, headed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, wrote to Bush requesting a new National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, while the United States is involved in an international diplomatic effort to get Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.

The Democrats want an NIE, the intelligence community's most authoritative written judgment, to address several points including Iran's nuclear program and its military and defense capabilities.
Now, an NIE would surely be a rather useful tool if there was any reason to think it would be even remotely believable. But based on the indications that Bush has done nothing but further politicize U.S. intelligence in the time since the Iraq intelligence fiasco, there's no reason to think that a new NIE will be worth the paper it's printed on. And by suggesting the process, Reid and company are simply inviting Bushco to strongarm the U.S. into yet another ill-founded war.

Still not getting it

CBC reports that the Arctic is melting at record levels this spring. Yet in Harper's world, climate change still doesn't represent enough of a problem to justify a single enforceable target.

On cooperation

The NDP sets the record straight as to whether or not Harper needs a majority in order to pass a full accountability package:
“The issue of patronage in Ottawa is too important just to drop at the first opportunity,” said Dewar. “To Mr. Harper I say: ‘you don’t need a majority to fight patronage and corruption – you simply need to work with us.’”

The NDP has been working alongside the Conservatives at the Legislative Committee on C-2, agreeing to meet extended hours and limiting MPs’ time for questions so that the committee could hear from more witnesses. These motions passed despite objections from the Liberal and Bloc members of the committee.

“We have shown our good-faith all along the way on the Accountability Act,” said Martin. “We will continue to bring constructive amendments forward to strengthen the bill and are willing to meet around the clock to get this bill done.”
Unfortunately, it looks like Harper is working around the clock toward rather different goals than true accountability. But at least with the public stand from the NDP, there should be even less doubt that it's Harper's insistence on a patronage appointment - not any problem with a minority government - that's slowed down the process so far.

On poor prescriptions

Just last week, I discussed the CIHI's call for a national pharmacare program, with the note that such a program would offer a great opportunity for the Cons to present themselves as a government capable of strengthening health care in Canada. But sadly if predictably, leadership isn't in the cards on this least judging from the Cons' response to a smaller-scale effort in Ontario:
(T)he Conservative government in Ottawa is keeping its distance from the opposition to Smitherman's plan...

Industry Minister Maxime Bernier's office would not comment on the matter, saying the Tory government wants to respect the jurisdiction of the provincial governments and the matter is clearly in provincial jurisdiction.
As I'd mentioned in the previous post, Canada's premiers have already agreed to work toward a pharmacare program in the future...meaning that the jurisdictional excuse is even less reasonable than usual. But unfortunately, the Cons seem all too happy to use any excuse imaginable to avoid accomplishing anything positive. And both individual Canadians and the health-care system will continue to face needlessly high drug costs as a result.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Not showing at the Gallery

CTV reports that Harper is planning to snub this fall's Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner. The current operative reason is that Harper wants to punish the press for having the nerve not to want the PMO to pick and choose who gets to ask questions at press conferences. But I have to wonder whether he just doesn't want to be caught on camera responding to a Canadian equivalent of this.

Undue credit

Tim Harper credits "Ottawa" (in a headline) and "Canada" (in the article) with two major advances in the fight to keep the U.S. border as open as possible for as long as possible. But there's no indication what the Harper government (which would naturally be the largest beneficiary of giving credit to either "Ottawa" or "Canada") had to do with either of the positive steps.

The first change mentioned is the U.S. Senate's vote to extend the current legislative deadline for a passport scheme. And I'd be more than willing to give credit to the extent that Canada's representatives influenced that vote. But as I pointed out yesterday, there's no indication that Canada's ambassador to the U.S. had a clue what was going on - making it look very likely that the vote was a result of internal U.S. decisions, not any substantial Canadian influence.

Then there's the plan for a major summit to discuss border issues. But who's the driving force behind that?
(The summit) will take place on May 31, at the end of the Western premiers' gathering and will see most of Canada's top political leaders converging on Gimli...

Premier Gary Doer, host of this year's premiers' meeting, has expanded the invitation list, his aides say, because recent controversies over softwood lumber and the passport issue have convinced him that premiers and governors have to be part of Canada-U.S. discussions, too.
Note that Doer's strategy of bringing a wide range of friendly stakeholders to the table is one that Harper deliberately rejected when it came to softwood lumber. As a result, there isn't even a plausible argument to the effect that the summit reflects Harper's general means of solving problems.

In sum, the Star's article seems to have gone out its way to give implicit credit to one of the few parties which hasn't noticeably contributed to any of the good results. And while the larger issue is obviously that of whether or not the progress continues, it surely can't help the cause for the media to be lavishing praise on the Con government for its lack of action.

On possibilities

Duncan Cameron kicks around the idea than an Elizabeth May-led Green Party would be ripe for a merger with the NDP. It's certainly an idea worth contemplating, but in casting May as the left's Peter MacKay Cameron doesn't appear to take into account the degree to which former PCs abandoned MacKay following the merger.

If there's a meaningful chance to actually bring together a substantial majority of both parties, then the cause might well be worth pursuing. But assuming that the Harrisites within the Green Party would prefer to move elsewhere, it's far from clear that either party would gain influence from a merger...and it seems likely that each party's efforts would be better placed trying to build on existing support.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

And it's done

By a four-vote margin, enough Libs (including the current leader and one of the main leadership contenders) voted to give Stephen Harper carte blanche, even after being informed that a "no" vote wouldn't end the Afghanistan mission. It's hard to see the Libs' decision to hold a free vote turning out much worse for the party: just enough Libs supported Harper's power grab to saddle the party's relative anti-war crowd (not to mention the country as a whole) with a complete lack of oversight over Harper's adventures in Afghanistan, while none of the hawks can be happy with a general party sentiment against biting on Harper's terms.

Update: For example, see liberal catnip's well-justified take on the Libs' vote.

Out of the loop

So much for Harper's closer relationship with Bush leading to Canada having a better idea what's going on in the U.S. On the same day that the U.S. Senate voted to extend by a year and a half the legislative deadline for a new border-crossing procedure, Wilson could only speculate that the existing deadline is "still not certain" - while claiming fairly comically that we'll to figure out what documents will be involved in order to set any new timetable.

Granted, Wilson's recognition that the deadline can change is a step up from Stockwell Day's apparent unquestioning acceptance of the original deadline. But there's still no reason to be optimistic our representative to the U.S. is the slightest bit in tune with what's actually going on - no matter how much the U.S. prefers the Cons' overtures to the Libs' confrontation.

A focus on the positive

For all the entirely justified criticisms of the Cons, one can't deny that they've largely set the agenda so far this Parliament. But the NDP has taken a big step to change that by introducing its promised Early Learning and Child Care Act. The proposed bill isn't yet up at LegisInfo, but from the introduction it should largely mirror the Canada Health Act:
The Early Learning and Child Care Act will be introduced in the House of Commons by Denise Savoie, MP for Victoria, and seconded by NDP Child Care Critic Olivia Chow (Trinity–Spadina). Savoie says that the goal is to protect child care by enshrining it in legislation...

(Said Chow,) “This NDP legislation is based on the principles of quality, universality, accessibility, accountability, educational development and inclusiveness. It is essential to ensure that public money goes to not-for profit centres, not to big box child care corporations which cut corners.

“We must not compromise on quality – parents deserve better, and so do children. And so does our country. Canadians want their tax dollars to serve children, not the executives of some big corporations; to serve the public interest, not private interests.”
The bill will presumably face an uphill battle for now, as it's anybody's guess as to whether the Libs will want to cooperate, and the federal standards might not go over well with the Bloc. But at the very least it's good to know that some positive measures are being brought forward in Parliament...and with enough continuing arrogance by Harper, increased cooperation among the opposition parties may start looking better by the day.

On important missions

With the House of Commons vote on a sudden Afghanistan extension set for later today, the question now is whether all of the opposition parties will vote responsibly - or whether one of them will go against all good judgment by propping up Harper's foreign policy. My hope is that this will be one more moment where Harper gets reminded both that he doesn't have a majority government, and that Parliament isn't going to give up on its oversight function in any event. But with the NDP already taking the right stance, it'll be up to the Bloc and the Libs to join in on the effort to keep Harper accountable.

Before looking at the party-by-party situation, I'll note first that the vote isn't a substantive one:
The issue will be debated for six hours this afternoon and put to a vote tonight. The vote is not binding...
Granted, Harper has a very recent track record of angry overreactions to non-binding motions. And there's not much doubt that similar histrionics would follow a defeat in the Afghanistan vote, presumably involving much gnashing and wailing about how Canada's involvement now can't continue past 2007.

But then, that isn't the question the Cons have put before the House. The question is whether or not any further involvement in Afghanistan will be left entirely to executive discretion, with at least symbolic approval of whatever measures (both military and civilian) Harper has cooked up or may cook up between now and 2009. And in deciding whether or not to accept Harper's future terms without notice, the opposition parties should keep in mind how far Harper's ideological ally to the south has gone in claiming substantive power based on symbolic language.

Moreover, all indications are that the Cons are doing their best to suppress current information. While the Globe and Mail notes that the apparent reason for the extension is to allow Canada to commit to lead the mission beginning in 2008, the Cons didn't even bother to make that possibility known while putting the motion forward. And by approving Harper's actions based on obviously-limited information, any opposition party supporting the motion would be taken to endorse similar tactics in the future.

In sum, the downside of voting against the motion should be nil: it would force Harper to actually answer a few of the questions his defence minister once posed about the mission, or perhaps to move another motion more limited in time and scope, but it wouldn't prevent another vote on the mission once some of the unknowns are brought into the open. A "yes" vote, on the other hand, will be taken by Harper to foreclose any further Parliamentary debate or oversight on Afghanistan, and will set a precedent that Harper can ignore the seat allocation in Parliament and play the Big Daddy role that he seems to long for.

So what will the opposition parties do? Thus far, only the NDP has stated its position:
The 29-member NDP will not support the government's motion to extend the Canadian involvement in Afghanistan, Leader Jack Layton said after the meeting.

"We've looked at the proposition that the Conservatives are bringing forward and we're troubled by it," Mr. Layton said. "We don't think there's a fully developed plan."
The Bloc apparently hasn't shown its cards yet...but given that it's apparently stuck supporting the Cons on confidence motions for the next little while, I have to think Duceppe will recognize the need to keep his party relevant by doing more than just rubber-stamping Harper's public message.

And that leaves the Libs. So far the commentary suggests the Libs are "divided" on the issue...presumably because some still associate the mission with what the Libs entered into, and don't want to see Harper receiving credit for past Lib decisions. But that calculation ignores both the political reality that Harper's government has gone out of its way to be associated with the mission, and the fact that good government (i.e. one based on reasonable defences of policy rather than on political games) should trump politics in any event.

As for the view that the motion should be supported based on agreement with the general mission, I'd argue again that the mere view that the Afghanistan mission is worthwhile doesn't justify voting for the motion. If the mission can be defended based on full information including a realistic scope, then let Harper make that case prior to a vote on a future motion. But all indications are now that the Cons want zero accountability and oversight over an extended timeframe. And the mere fact that the Libs have fond memories of similarly keeping the opposition in the dark doesn't offer any good reason to support Harper's efforts.

The question for the Bloc and the Libs now is whether Harper's administration should be handed a blank cheque, or a reality check. The choice should be obvious: Canada's citizens didn't see fit to hand Harper power to do as he pleases either domestically or abroad, and it would be an utter abdication of an opposition party's role to fold in the face of Harper's current jingoistic bluff. We can only hope that the Libs can swallow enough pride about their own actions in government to start holding the current government accountable.

Update: In addition to the CPA piece pointed out in the comments, note also that the Polaris Institute has pegged the cost of the mission at over $4 billion and counting.

Meanwhile, the Bloc has also announced its intention to oppose the motion. According to the same article, the Libs will treat the issue as a free vote...meaning that in the absence of any apparent agreement within the party, individual Lib MPs will get to determine to what extent they trust Harper with the keys to Canada's military.

(Edit: typos.)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


In case there was any doubt that the Cons are purely interested in political machinations rather than good governance, let's see how much time they spend dealing with the actual "unsatisfactory" issues from Sheila Fraser's report - particularly the $18 billion in back taxes owing - as compared to one of the programs that's now working well in Fraser's judgment.

Words of wisdom

It doesn't seem particularly likely that Harper will bother following Sheila Fraser's advice (as opposed to wielding her report against the Libs and claiming that as reason to do whatever he feels like). But just in case the Cons actually want to clean up government, Fraser has an eminently sensible suggestion:
(D)espite her critique, Fraser prefaced Tuesday's 200-plus-page report with a word of caution for a Tory government whose first piece of legislation was the massive Accountability Act.

"Programs that are mired in controls and reporting requirements are not programs that focus most of their efforts and resources on improving the lives of Canadians," wrote Fraser.

"In many respects, the government needs fewer rules, but rules that are consistently applied."


It's no great secret that farmers and the environment have both fared extremely poorly under the Cons so far. But the damage to both is all the more clear in the Cons' refusal to establish the planned emissions-trading scheme:
Players in the new Kyoto-inspired emissions trading industry say they've moved up to $1 billion in Canadian investments and technology out of the country because Ottawa is stalling on a plan to reduce greenhouse gases...

"Our own budget requests have probably been reduced by 90 to 95 per cent because of the uncertainty. We still intend to spend some money in Canada, but it's a small fraction of what we would have otherwise," (said Len Eddy, managing director of AgCert Canada).

AgCert Canada is one of several companies operating in Alberta that were prepared to invest hundreds of millions into Canadian farms to help them reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In turn, the farms could benefit from lower energy and operating costs, while also having the option of generating new revenues by selling credits for emission reductions to large companies.

Another firm, Icecap Limited, was expected to invest up to $500 million in the Canadian economy, but they shut down their Calgary office several weeks ago, and moved back to the United Kingdom.

"You can either keep farming running by paying them subsidies, or you can give them other methods that allow them to do transactions that would make them profitable," said cattle farmer Peter Morrison, who estimates he's losing about $900,000 a year in potential sales on the emissions trading market.
Even looking only at dollars and cents, it would seem fairly obvious that driving substantial investments out of the country for the sake of nothing but inertia must be a fairly poor strategy. But it's all the more so when the effect is to prevent farmers from operating in a more environmentally-friendly manner, and from becoming more profitable in the process.

It could well be that the Cons (as they seem so eager to claim) will do an about-face by this fall. But even if so, the effect of their government would be to delay a positive action which was already in progress, and probably to cast uncertainty over the developing market as well. And surely the image of a ditherer who can't be bothered to ensure progress on a policy with so many obvious positive effects isn't one that Harper should want to take on.

Cooperative efforts

For those wondering how long it would take the opposition parties to start cooperating to force the Cons' hand on progressive issues, it appears that Kyoto has become the first major unifying issue:
The three opposition parties will join forces today to pass a motion aimed at embarrassing the Conservatives over their position on the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

The Liberals and the New Democras intend to support a Bloc Québécois motion calling on the government to have a plan in place by Oct. 15 for Canada to meet its international targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases.
It remains to be seen whether it'll be possible to pass substantive legislation the same way, whether that be with regard to child care or amendments to the Accountability Act. But at the very least, the Cons must now be on notice that they're not about to receive a free ride in Parliament...which should hopefully encourage Harper and company to reconsider just how many regressive changes they want to try to force through.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Way off the mark

In case the Cons' plan to dismantle the long-gun and rifle portion of the existing gun registry wasn't enough of a burden on the police who now use the system, now CTV reports that the Cons are planning to push the responsibility of running the continuing registry onto the RCMP, while the Miramichi workers trained to operate the registry maintain their jobs doing something else (perhaps making ID cards). Which will presumably leave an ID-card firm to take over the RCMP's crime-fighting functions.

Never mind debating whether he's a right-wing ideologue or a power-hungry chameleon, could Harper be a bureaucratic socialist at heart?

Something to learn from

CBC reports that Canadian schools are fund-raising an average of nearly $16,000 per year in order to keep going - and that the fund-raising isn't only to provide for trips and perks:
The results of the first numbers-based study of marketing in the school system found that ad deals with corporations and fundraising campaigns are being used to support schools' basic needs...

Schools raise an estimated $200 million across Canada from ad deals and fundraising, the report said. Money is generated by selling chocolate bars, ads on campus, charging user fees, exclusive contracts with corporations and even by selling curriculum materials, it said...

Money raised by ad deals and fundraising went most often to library books and school trips, the survey found. But Shaker said she heard from one teacher whose school used ad dollars to buy sinks for the bathroom.

"You can argue that a sink isn't necessary, but I'd like to think that running water is something that you can expect in our schools," she said.
The article also notes that the presence of private fund-raising tends to widen the quality gap between wealthier and poorer schools. But the bigger issue is that schools across the board are having to spend so much time and effort seeking private financing rather than being able to rely on public funding to provide functional facilities and basic educational materials. And if that problem isn't fixed now, Canadians as a whole will pay the price for a less well-educated population in the future.

On choosing entry points

CBC reports that Canada's "safe third country" agreement with the U.S. which reduces the scope for legal refugee claims has driven would-be Canadians underground:
Canada's refugee agreement with the United States is forcing more people to try to enter Canada illegally, a study from Harvard says.

The report, entitled Bordering on Failure, says the number of refugee claimants at Canadian border crossings has dropped by more than 50 per cent in the past 18 months, and that more refugees are trying to find other ways into the country, including human smuggling...

Janet Dench, the executive director of the (Canadian Council for Refugees), says the number of refugee claims has dropped to about 4,000 from 9,000 in the year before the agreement was signed. And she says illegal crossings are on the rise.

"We do know that some of them are finding a way of getting into Canada irregularly," Dench said. "This is what we were frightened would happen. They have no recourse but resort to dangerous methods of crossing borders."
There doesn't seem to be much prospect that the Cons will be willing to question the agreement. After all, it's not news that Harper's definition of a mature relationship means not asking questions or holding anybody accountable. And with the Libs having signed the agreement in the first place, there unfortunately doesn't seem to be much chance to make any changes through Parliamentary pressure either.

Which is a shame, because in the long run, both Canada and the U.S. may be less safe if Canada ends up taking in more undocumented refugees due to an inflexible system for legal immigration. And even from the standpoint of continental relations, it's not hard to anticipate Canada's inflow of illegal immigrants today providing the basis for the next set of U.S. demands to close the border in the future.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

On poor communications

Sandra Buckler tries to justify Harper's disdain for the media. But her explanation falls somewhat short of fitting the facts:
Buckler's analogy - likening the Tory relationship with the media to a brief, first date with a stranger - was in response to criticism that the government has tried to shut out journalists as they try to cover federal politics.

Reporters have complained that their calls are not returned, that they receive copies of speeches days after they were delivered, and that media availability is too selective.

"Stephen Harper is running a more focused, a disciplined government than prime minister (Jean) Chretien, and certainly more so than prime minister (Paul) Martin," said Buckler in a sometimes confrontational discussion.
Now, it may well be that somewhere there's a performance evaluation of William Stairs to the following effect:

Returns calls immediately. Makes materials available to media simultaneously with public delivery, and sometimes in advance. This lack of focus and discipline cannot be tolerated.

But despite Buckler's best efforts to turn virtues and vices inside out, it seems far more likely that the problem between the Cons and the media is based on a combination of Harper's lack of interest in keeping the media informed, and the Cons' incompetence in what efforts the Cons have deigned to bother with. And having treated his "date" that shoddily, Harper won't have anybody to blame but himself if the media decides it would prefer to see other people running the country.

The costs just keep on coming

Another potential effect of global warming: a need for $1 billion in all-weather roads to replace Northern ice roads which no longer freeze over sufficiently to support traffic. (And as an added bonus, toss in increased transportation costs before those roads are built.)

On selective rights

Shorter Tony Blair: Judges have some nerve concluding that human rights apply to all humans.

On planned obsolescence

Buried in a CP article on a new argument over Canadian content levels is an odd suggestion from the Canadian Association of Broadcasters:
Speaking for private radio, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters says new consumer technologies, from satellite radio to IPods, have created challenges for the old set of rules and it's time for changes...

The CAB says the required (Cancon) level is considerably lower for satellite-delivered pay radio and is proposing several initiatives to help level the playing field.

They include a bonus system of credits to encourage airplay of emerging artists, a reduction of Cancon levels to 25 per cent for so-called "oldies" -- pre-1985 music -- and stricter guidelines on the entry of new stations into the market.
In other words, CAB is arguing that its industry can't keep up with the choices available to listeners through other media. And part of its solution to "level the playing field" against that increased choice more strictly limit listener choice within its own sector.

Needless to say, that idea should be a non-starter. If traditional radio is to remain viable in competition with other broadcast media, it'll need to offer more choice, not less. And if current radio stations are successful in preserving their market share by preventing their medium from improving, the effect will only be to eliminate public demand for broadcast radio all the faster.

More costs of inaction

So how does Vancouver underwater sound as a trade-off for a refusal to combat climate change now?