Saturday, June 24, 2006

On welcoming policies

It seems highly unlikely that Maurizio Bevilacqua (or anybody else) will pay any attention to his suggested increases in immigration (including more family members of current immigrants) past his inevitable elimination from the leadership race. Which is a shame, since while the proposal would likely become a political liability in a general election, as a policy it could not only improve the lives of the immigrants already accepted, and to help strengthen Canada's global influence.

On political surveillance

The CP reports on some of the information-gathering currently undertaken by Canada's main political parties, leading naturally to questions about how political actors should be able to mine and apply data about voters:
(Conservative) Party sources say they are making personalized appeals to thousands of undecided voters in more than 40 ridings they hope to win. They're sending them letters, calling them, and setting up meetings with elected officials from nearby ridings.

It's all part of a data-gathering project that could be the most sophisticated of its kind in Canadian political history. The party has already compiled two million names in an electronic database that records the concerns and political opinions of voters...

Conservatives and opposition parties say they don't buy corporate information on individuals, which would be illegal under the federal Privacy Act. But they identify key neighbourhoods from public-opinion surveys and past election results from individual polling stations within a riding.

Then they can compile information for a single street by using publicly obtained and privately purchased information. Even people's Air Miles cards are used by ad companies and political parties to track their purchasing patterns and demographic data.
It's certainly not surprising that the parties are gathering as much information as possible in order to plot their strategies for upcoming campaigns. But it's worth wondering whether the political system is better or worse off for the strategy - and whether Canada's election rules should be changed to limit the ability of political parties to engage in the current degree of data collection.

Now, it's easy enough to argue that the data merely helps parties to create platforms which best reflect the desires of the targeted voters...making it little more than a more thorough form of canvassing voters for their views, which surely can't be considered a bad thing.

But then there's the problem that no matter how a platform or personalized message is phrased, it may bear little resemblance to the substance of how a party performs in government. And if intensive data mining enables a party to win votes by parroting narrowly-targeted issues and messages rather than by genuinely sharing and applying the same view of government held by constituents, it seems to be a potentially harmful influence on the electoral process.

For better or worse, there doesn't seem to be much prospect of changing the current law, since the current government seems to be ahead in data-mining strategies and since each party in Parliament is presumably leery of giving up information that it's been able to collect and use in the past. Which leads into the question of whether it'll be possible to move away from the demographic targeting model only by making laws to limit its application, or whether there's a real opening for a party to undermine the premise of the model by engaging in a less self-interested policy-making process.

Given what appears to be a great deal of (well-justified) public cynicism about the current system, one would think that the prospect of a party based more on substance than on gloss would hold a significant amount of appeal. But then there's no way to differentiate between the two types of policy based solely on the content of a platform...and any party which spends too much time boasting about its lack of message targeting might well come off as both implausible and naive.

For now, suffice it to say that while it's clear that some targeting is probably inevitable, it's hard to say whether the degree of targeting now taking place (along with any future expansion) is a positive either for the political system generally, or for the parties engaged in it. And since the parties are likely to hold the details and effects of their own strategies rather close to the vest, there doesn't seem to be much prospect of discovering the precise effects unless the targeted voters consider it worth their while to start analyzing political parties as closely as they're being analyzed personally.

Update: Note that the current talk about a voter ID plan could introduce another source of individual information into the mix.

An odd target

The Cons have done plenty that's worthy of criticism since taking power. But it's beyond me how Kevin Baker concludes that "encouraging constituents to stay healthy" ranks anywhere but the very bottom of the list.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Good times

The happiest day of the year offered plenty of good news for Saskatchewan. Not only is the economy projected to keep rolling for the foreseeable future, but the political scene is set to take a turn for the better.

Just wondering...

...but would Liberal leader Bill Graham bother responding seriously to the possibility of the NDP overtaking the Libs if there wasn't a real chance of it happening?


A couple of good articles on P3s in B.C. turned up today. First, from the CCPA:
Value for Money? Cautionary Lessons About P3s from British Columbia...examines how P3s have been used for public infrastructure projects such as roads, transit and hospitals in BC and internationally. It finds that:

- P3s are being aggressively pursued in BC in spite of a lack of evidence that they are a superior option.
- P3s are less cost-effective, timely and transparent than traditional government procurement.
- Partnerships BC, whose mandate is both to promote P3s and evaluate whether they are appropriate for use on specific projects, cannot adequately protect the public interest.
- Decision-making about infrastructure projects is being guided by “Value For Money” assessments produced by Partnerships BC that are so subjective, so complicated, and so consistently withheld from public scrutiny that they are not of legitimate use.

Stuart Murray, author of the study and the CCPA’s Public Interest Researcher, says “One rationale after another has been put forward by those who favour P3s, but the only rationale that stands up to scrutiny is that they generate profit for industry. That’s not a good enough reason to pay more for something than it’s worth.”
Meanwhile, the Tyee reports that at least one recent attempt by the Campbell government to strong-arm a municipality into a P3 has succumbed to local resistance:
The most recent round of the debate that's been running since 2001 happened on Monday night when Whistler council met to decide whether to take the proposed P3 to a referendum or cancel the project entirely...

On Monday night, Whistler Water Watch presented the ballots to council. The mayor, Ken Malamed, said was surprised at the (1800 signatures gathered in opposition to the P3 structure), and suggested council extend the vote by two weeks to give the P3 supporters more time to make their case. In the end, however, in a 4-3 decision, the council voted against the extension and also voted against continuing to a referendum. This effectively killed the P3 project.
So where does Campbell fit into the picture?
At the beginning of the debate about how to proceed, in 2001, Mayor Melamed and council rejected a P3 solution entirely. But on May 30, 2002, the B.C. Liberal government announced the creation of a new policy -- the Capital Asset Management Framework -- which requires that public sector agencies investigate alternatives for capital development, including the P3 option.

So after rejecting the P3 option, the province asked Whistler to revisit its decision. And on January 10, 2005, in a 5-2 decision, Whistler announced its support of the P3 option to "design, build and operate" the upgrade to the existing wastewater treatment plant. If the project were to go ahead, design, construction and daily operation would be handed over to a private company.
Fortunately, while Whistler's council was all too easily swayed during the interim, its citizens didn't stand to have a P3 imposed by the province...with the end result that the town should now be free to pursue another publicly-owned treatment plant which produces results as positive as the current one.

There's probably no changing the minds of Campbell and his ilk who insist on putting an end to public ownership of public works. But it's still a plus to know that the P3 movement is on the wrong side of both the weight of the evidence, and enough of the public's opinion to keep municipalities honest. And that should only encourage citizens to make sure that their interests, not those of potential P3 contractors, come first when governments decide how to provide needed services.

Impending delays

The Globe and Mail reports that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will be forced to delay the first set of passport restrictions on Canadians due to take effect at the end of this year:
There are growing signs that the U.S. government will be forced to delay the Jan. 1, 2007, implementation of the passport requirement for air and sea passengers crossing back from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Officials of the Department of Homeland Security insist that their plans are still on track, but a senior Canadian official says federal bureaucrats have been told by their U.S. counterparts that there will be a delay.

The problem is that Homeland Security has still not published its detailed proposed rule, which must then be open for public comment and is subject to other legal delays before a final rule can be imposed by the end of the year.
Needless to say, the expected delays in this part of the U.S.' border scheme should only highlight the need for some more leeway in the current 2008 drop-dead date on land travel. Hopefully the Cons will for once be willing to push the need for a change in timing, rather than continuing to insist that Canada accept the current deadline when the U.S. department responsible is showing no signs of getting its act together in time.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Poker faces

When the Cons are obviously bluffing, the Libs fold. When the NDP raises the ante, the Cons get scared and leave the table. Now who do you want to bet will still be in at the end of the game?

A loaded invitation

Two Senators are daring Harper to open up the full constitutional can of worms by proposing a modest increase in Senate seats for the Western provinces:
Jack Austin and Lowell Murray served notice Thursday of their intention to introduce a resolution to amend the Constitution to significantly increase the number of western seats, particularly for British Columbia.

Under the proposal, B.C.'s Senate seats would double to 12, Alberta would get 10 and Manitoba and Saskatchewan would each get seven.
The proposal doesn't look like one which would leave anybody entirely happy: the West would still be somewhat underrepresented, the other provinces would lose some proportional influence in the Senate, and presumably the talk of opening up the Constitution under the seven-province amendment formula will lead to others presenting their constitutional wish lists.

But from a political standpoint, the proposal will put Harper's back to the wall. After all, he spent significant time during the election campaign musing about how he'd like to see the West better represented. The invitation to move in that direction is one that he can only ignore at his own peril - and it'll be interesting to see whether the Cons see more danger in turning their back on increased Western representation, or in facing the full gamut of constitutional demands.

Globe cool to logical thought, poll analysis suggests

The Globe and Mail seems eager to interpret a new Leger poll as reflecting Canadian disapproval with immigration generally. But the poll itself doesn't support that conclusion at all:
While those polled showed substantial support for Canadian security procedures and multicultural policies, they seemed to be cooling to the country's immigration policy.

While the margin is slight – 33 per cent saying they were dissatisfied with Canada's immigration policy compared with 29 per cent that were satisfied – what becomes more significant is the decrease in positive attitudes from previous research, said Jack Jedwab, executive director of the ACS.

“My findings in the past have been that attitudes toward immigration have been quite positive,” Mr. Jedwab said, citing a recent Gallop (sic) International poll taken before the arrests that found 58 per cent of Canadians were satisfied with the level of immigration in the country.
It shouldn't take much examination to see that the two polls cover entirely different issues. While the latter clearly reflects public support for the number of immigrants accepted by Canada, the former can reflect a number of immigration issues which have received public attention. The issue of recognizing foreign credentials was a frequent topic of discussion in the past election campaign; the need for workers in Alberta has led to public debate over the importation of temporary workers; and even Canada's restrictive refugee appeal process could easily cause a person to disapprove of "immigration policy" without wanting to see the level of immigration changed. Moreover, one could just as easily be dissatisified with the level of immigration as being too low rather than too high.

Instead of taking any of the above possibilities into account, the Globe's article (based on Leger's analysis) instead assumes that any lack of satisfaction with immigration has to do with a desire to lower immigration levels, then makes a simplistic comparison to another poll which asked an entirely different question to suggest there's been some sea change in Canadian public opinion.

Fortunately, one isn't limited to speculation to see just how wrong the Globe's conclusion is. There's also evidence within the Leger poll to suggest that any concerns related to immigration don't correlate to a lack of security arising out of immigration levels:
More than twice as many people polled said they were satisfied (43 per cent) with Canada's multicultural policy than were dissatisfied (18 per cent)...

Roughly the same level of satisfaction came with Canadians attitude toward security – 47 per cent saying they were satisfied with the level of security in the country, compared with 21 per cent who were not.
Now, surely anybody who suddenly considered Canada's level of immigration to be too high based on the Ontario arrests would also flag that as a security issue. Instead, based on the difference between the two poll numbers at least 18% of Canadians are satisfied with the security situation, but unhappy with our immigration system for other reasons.

Sadly, both Leger and the Globe write that distinction off rather than drawing the link. But there should be no doubt that the weight of the evidence still shows Canadians recognizing the importance of immigration, even if our current policies can stand to be improved.

On the importance of showing up

Greg at Sinister Thoughts points out this Politics Watch article, featuring the Libs' poor excuse for the party's chronic absenteeism from Parliament:
The NDP fought back on Wednesday when NDP MPs Nathan Cullen and Brian Masse held a press conference on Parliament Hill to unveil a report card on the performance of the Liberals in this Parliament.

The NDP's report card was highly critical of the absenteeism of the Liberals in the House of Commons on a number of votes, and blamed the Liberals for allowing the government motion to extend the mission in Afghanistan to pass by four votes in the House.

"In this session of Parliament, the Liberals have had the worst record of attendance of any caucus," said Masse, noting the Liberals have had an absentee rate of 18 per cent in the 24 votes held so far in this session, including 11 Liberals who were absent for the Afghanistan vote.

"You can't stand up to a full-time Conservative government, with a part-time Liberal Official Opposition . . . We are in a minority Parliament and every single vote counts in the House of Commons and affects people's lives on a daily basis."
Sounds about right. Though in fairness it should be noted that even when they show up, the Libs have been doing more to act like Cons themselves than to hold the Cons to account.

But just what is it that the Libs have apparently found to be more important than serving the interests of their constituents in Parliament?
The Liberals suggested it was unfair to target their party for absenteeism when eight caucus members are running leadership campaign and many other MPs are involved as campaign managers or organizers.
In other words, a good chunk of the Lib caucus is too busy dealing with internal party politics to bother playing a role in the overall governance of the country, and hasn't apparently made much of an effort to strike any balance between the two. And the Libs' response is to criticize the NDP for pointing that fact out, rather than to admit that MPs should spend enough time in Parliament to represent their constituents.

Not that it should be too much of a surprise to see party interests placed ahead of all else in the minds of the Libs. The question now is how long it'll take for people to stop expecting the Libs to present a meaningful opposition, and to recognize that the NDP is already doing so despite its smaller amount of resources.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Expanding markets

SGI has taken up Ralph Klein's invitation to see how it can compete in Alberta's insurance market. Which will mean one more choice for Alberta consumers (who may well be familiar with how much better SGI's rates are than those of Alberta's private sector), and one more way in which Saskatchewan's provincial investments abroad help to pay for the costs of keeping the province running.

So that's how it works

It's been well documented that the NDP's policy proposals themselves can't break through the media's usual coverage of spin and pablum. But apparently a proposal released on the same day the NDP calls for a minister's resignation is seen as worthy of a mention in passing.

Update: Based on the CP and CTV coverage, even the concurrent release doesn't seem to lead to any mention of the policy. It's worth noting (via the CTV article) that the Libs in opposition seem to have adopted the same kick-the-can-down-the-road approach that helped them to accomplish so little while in government:
Godfrey said he agrees with the NDP view that Ambrose is incompetent; but said more time is needed to allow the minister to fully demonstrate her incompetence.

Manufacturing a crisis

The Globe and Mail reports on Harper's plan to import another of Bush's pet policies, taking a first step toward undermining the Canada Pension Plan:
Sources have told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Harper's efforts to fix the fiscal imbalance will become clear over the autumn months and that the government is looking at ways to reduce CPP contributions from both workers and employers.

The government is contemplating pouring some of its federal surplus into the CPP to accomplish this...

The fourth (Con proposal) would be the plan to use money from the annual surplus to top up the CPP. Ottawa hopes that doing so will allow it to cut premiums.
Needless to say, it almost certainly wouldn't be long after a cut in premiums before the federal government would plead poverty and point out how much money from general revenue was being eaten up by the CPP. Which could in turn be easily followed by cuts in benefits and talk of privatization due to the manufactured lack of public resources to meet the needs of Canadian pensioners...accompanied by assurances that the same businesses who are thriving at the current rates couldn't possibly abide an increase to the same rates in the future.

Canadians should rightfully expect that their pension system is self-sustaining, and hopefully won't buy Harper's claim that a temporary bump in take-home pay (in an already-overheating economy) is worth giving up the assurance that they can be secure in planning to receive the CPP upon retirement. It'll fall to public pressure (and to the provinces, who do have some say in the CPP legislation) to force the Cons away from imposing such a damaging tradeoff on Canadians.

Update: See My Blahg and blevkog for more.

New update: The C.D. Howe Institute has come out against any politicization of the CPP.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

On networking

A Senate report recommends that CBC-TV become commercial-free. Of course, the recommendation will almost certainly run into serious opposition from both advertisers who want to continue to make use of the network, and competitors who won't want the CBC to receive the guaranteed funding which would presumably replace the current ad revenue. But the cause is still one worth taking up on the off chance that we could enjoy a national network that doesn't have to cater to commercial concerns.

On choices

There's been lots of talk about today's poll on child-care. But much of the discussion has entirely ignored the fact that the Libs' plan alone wasn't the most popular option:
Support for a national child-care system was high across Canada, in urban and rural areas and among families with a stay-at-home parent, said Derek Leebosh, senior associate with Environics.

“It shows that Canadians put a very high value on child care. They think it's important that it be available and accessible.”

A solid majority of those polled questioned why there can't be a family allowance and an improved child-care network, he said.

“A lot of Canadians feel like maybe they're being forced to make a bit of false choice. Why can't we have both? There's huge surpluses. It's not like we're in a deficit.

“They don't want to see [the $1,200 cheques] come at the expense of funding of affordable child-care programs.”
In other words, respondents ultimately didn't buy the Libs' either-or claims any more than the Cons'. The preferred position was instead to recognize the need for increased resources flowing to parents as well as the need for government funding to generate child care spaces. Now if only more attention was paid to the fact that one party has been proposing just that all along...

Update: Based on the comments to blevkog's post, I'm not the only one to notice the omission.

Levelling the playing field

The Globe and Mail reports that several small Canadian political parties will be in court today arguing that the statutory minimum vote levels for federal campaign funding violate their Charter rights:
Since January, 2004, federal political parties have received $1.75 annually for every vote they received in the most recent election -- money that helps pay for campaign financing and other party expenses. That funding is restricted to parties that obtain at least 2 per cent of the national vote or 5 per cent of the vote in the ridings where they ran candidates...

But the small parties that exist today say denying them access to even a small portion of the federal funds given to larger parties is unfair and contravenes voting rights contained in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"The Supreme Court has ruled that small parties are equally deserving of respect as large parties and that voters have the right to participate in small parties," said Peter Rosenthal, the Toronto-based lawyer who represents the Marijuana Party of Canada, the Canadian Action Party, the Communist Party of Canada, the Christian Heritage Party of Canada and the Progressive Canadian Party, as well as the Green Party of Canada, which received money this year but was denied after the 2004 vote.
Even the Charter-based challenge may well have some real chance of success. But at the very least the small parties' effort, particularly in the cooperation among parties with such varied political philosophies, should highlight the need for a change in the current election law to encourage a more inclusive political system.

Monday, June 19, 2006

On the advance

The federal NDP continues to cast a wide net, taking on the Bloc for backing the Cons on the budget but not on accountability. It remains to be seen whether the Dippers can catch enough votes in Quebec to get into seat-winning range, but it's certainly a plus to see the party keeping up its efforts to do so...and pointing out how the Bloc has failed to represent progressives in La Belle Province.

Internal accountability

While Stephen Harper's decision to make sitting MPs subject to nomination challenges is certainly worthy of discussion, I have to disagree with Cowboys for Social Responsibility on both the merits and the likely outcomes.

It's a fair question to ask why Cons appear to have gone from being too busy to deal with potential nomination challenges while they were in opposition, to being able to do so once in government. But the problem isn't with the change, but rather with the previous policy which completed insulately MPs from the democratic will of their riding associations. The change may have taken longer than it should have, but that doesn't mean it's a bad one.

I note also that contrary to what's implied from CSR's post, the policy doesn't appear to be limited to backbenchers. As should be the case, each Con MP, whether or not appointed to a privileged position by Harper, looks to be accountable to his or her constituency. Granted, members of cabinet probably won't face particularly strong challenges...but it does appear that the process will apply to all MPs, and not only to the supposedly-expendable backbenchers.

So much for CSR's concern that this means that backbenchers in particular are disposable. But what about the practical effects within the Con party? In CSR's comments, Red Tory points out the possibility that social activists will use their ability to stack a nomination meeting to drive the Cons to the right:
(T)his opens up sitting MPs to pressure from social activists promoting a far right agenda who threaten to stack the nomination meetings with their supporters. The result is that the MP will either fold under this pressure and allow their views to be influenced (e.g., opposing SSM) or risk being defeated.
Of course, social activists aren't the only constituents who could see fit to shape the course of a nomination meeting. It could well be that the result would be instead for moderate challengers to mount successful runs against the Anders- or Vellacott-types who aren't likely to lose to another party anytime soon. And in those ridings where the social activists do outnumber all the groups with an incentive to keep the party moderate, that strikes me as more a necessary cost of an open policy than a large enough concern to justify a "get out of accountability free" card for sitting MPs.

Moreover, it seems likely that in any nomination race, the support of the party structure would tend toward more moderate nominees, providing a strong counterbalance to the possibility of far-right hijacking. Which means that while Red Tory's concern is a valid one, it's far from certain to reflect the end result.

I'll add that there is one more possible concern arising out of the policy. By opening up nominations, Harper may also be able to exercise more control over his sitting MPs by threatening to support an alternate nominee where an MP goes offside. It remains to be whether Harper would apply that type of threat. But any danger associated with increased top-down pressure on MPs would be more a symptom of Harper's own attitude toward his members than a problem with open nominations.

In sum, there are certainly ways in which an open nomination process could seem to go bad, both due to internal riding politics and central management. And those dangers certainly explain why the Cons and Libs apply such a process selectively rather than as a matter of course. But the rewards of a principled stance in favour of internal accountability ultimately outweigh the potential costs. And Harper deserves credit, not blame, for endorsing for once a policy which actually makes his party more accountable rather than less so.

(Edit: typo.)

Crazy 'bout that mercury

The Star reports on yet another negative consequence of Ontario's decision to keep its coal-fired plants open into the next decade, as the decision now appears set to torpedo a national effort to reduce mercury emissions:
Sources say the Liberal government's recent decision to break a 2003 cornerstone campaign promise and keep open the province's pollution-spewing coal-fired generating plants well past 2009 is behind the policy U-turn.

Canada's federal, provincial and territorial environment ministers were poised last Friday to announce a reduction in the highly toxic mercury emissions by 50 per cent from 2003-04 levels by 2010.

But in a letter to Saskatchewan Environment Minister John Nilson, president of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME), Ontario Environment Minister Laurel Broten said the province is unable to keep the commitment.

While Broten claims Ontario is "the champion for mercury and air issues" among the environment ministers' collective, she offers no timetable for when Premier Dalton McGuinty's government could actually abide by standards approved by Ottawa and the other provinces and territories.
For now the end result is expected to be only a delay in the announcement, but Ontario's decision to back away from what was to have been a national commitment will do nothing but offer political cover for other governments who in turn repudiate either the mercury-emissions goal or other agreed environmental standards. And with the most powerful Lib government left in the country refusing to live up to even its existing environmental commitments, it'll be all the tougher for the federal party to plausibly claim interest in the environment as one of its core values, rather than a convenient campaign plank to be ignored after election time.

Make a note of the date... Harper's honeymoon phase appears to be officially over. Or, to be more accurate, we now know that it ended some time ago:
Furious Canadians bombarded the prime minister with e-mail following controversial spring decisions not to lower Parliament Hill flags for soldiers killed in Afghanistan or allow the public to view their return to Canada, documents obtained by CanWest News Service show.

The letters, sent via Stephen Harper's Web site and obtained under the Access to Information Act, provide a glimpse into the public psyche during one of the first major missteps by the new Conservative government...

Of the thousands of e-mails that poured into Harper's office the day after he imposed a press ban on homecoming ceremonies in April, an overwhelming majority were highly critical.

For each positive endorsement of the policies, there were approximately 50 angry notes filled with words such as "disgraceful, shameful and cowardly."
While it shouldn't be surprising that the policies were unpopular, it is telling that the detractors outnumbered the supporters by such a wide margin - particularly over a policy which was supposedly implemented based on the interests of some of the same people who wrote in. And based on the reaction to this among other mistakes and broken promises, it's clear that much of the public long since concluded that Harper doesn't deserve a free pass.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

On battle lines

The Globe and Mail suggests that Quebec's new carbon tax may ultimately win the approval of oil producers since it's relatively easily passed along to consumers. So far, the oil industry is still fighting tooth and nail against anything which could affect its profits rather than admitting to the preference. But if the debate shifts to one between measures which fall primarily on producers and ones that mostly hit consumers, it'll be interesting how the federal Cons choose between their financial base and their voting base.

More wasted space

pogge points out that the Con's announcement of security funding which has received mention in virtually every Canadian media outlet this weekend doesn't reflect a single new dollar. But by virtue of having come from the government, this too is apparently more worthy of widespread coverage than policy ideas which actually deal with widely-acknowledged problems.

On wasted space

The Star does its best to push toward an Ignatieff acclamation, shedding plenty of ink on the utterly unremarkable fact that Lib senator David Smith is supporting Ignatieff's leadership run.

It remains to be seen whether Smith's input in the leadership race will be as successful as it was in some of his prior efforts cited in the article, including his complete failure to bring the Chretien and Martin camps back together in 2004. But whatever Smith's impact on the race, surely some of the column space could have been better spent on a party which is actually introducing new ideas, rather than on the obvious back-room machinations driving the Lib leadership contest.

(Edit: corrected link.)