Saturday, December 30, 2006

Pushing the limits

It should have been safe to assume that the "success that hasn't occurred yet" line so thoroughly skewered yesterday would at least serve as the outer boundary of reality-averse spin for more than a day. But enter Jeff Goldstein (as pointed out at Lawyers, Guns & Money):
(C)ontrary to received wisdom, (the U.S. invasion) has made Iraq a far better place, if only for the moment potentially.
For reasons far beyond my comprehension given that the word serves only to highlight the sheer hilarity of the statement, the emphasis is included in the original.

Needless to say, this is one piece of spin that's likely to be picked up even faster. After all, mucking around with "hasn't occurred yet" may imply some expectation that real positive results will actually turn up in the future. But if potential returns are to be tallied - even when the potential has in reality proven to be unfulfilled - then suddenly the most absurdly optimistic assumption about a given policy can be put forward as its real effect.

This is the point where I'd normally offer examples of just how ridiculously such a principle could be applied. But is there really a better indictment of the argument than the one already at hand, as Goldstein tries to claim that past "potential" for a miraculous outcome to a war should make the world grateful that thousands of lives have been poured (and are being poured) into a sinkhole?

Sadly, that extreme application of such a bizarre argument can only make less macabre uses seem reasonable in comparison. And we can only hope that the potential abuse of such an argument will end up as far from reality as Goldstein's pipe dream for Iraq.

More selective openness

It's been well noted that PMS' personal refusal to cooperate with the press reached the point this year where Canadian media outlets were forced to get their information from the more-available government of China instead. But when it comes to alienating allies in order to try get the press closer to the military in Afghanistan, guess who's been leading the way.

On empty victories

I don't have much to add about Saddam Hussein's execution that hasn't been said already. But it's worth noting that while any prosecution of a leader deposed from the outside is bound to have some air of victor's justice, Hussein's trial and execution have always suffered from a deeper problem.

Unlike in the case of the Nuremberg Trials, the question isn't simply whether the defeated side is treated fairly after conflict has effectively come to an end. Instead, Saddam has served as a distraction from the real, ongoing civil war in which the U.S. can't plausibly claim to be achieving anything.

As a result, it's far too likely that the U.S.' goal in trying Saddam was to bolster the first half of the "victor's justice" equation rather than the second. The aim never was to accord remotely fair treatment either to the defendants themselves, or to those who suffered at the defendants' behalf - because for the U.S., any reasonable treatment of Saddam and his inner circle would have been seen as a sign of capitulation to the one group which it's managed to decisively defeat in Iraq. And indeed it seems all too plausible that the U.S. was happy to accept some of the more farcical elements of the trial as proof of just how thoroughly it had managed to win out over Saddam himself: surely the more glaring the injustices which don't go unpunished, the greater the victory the winning side must have achieved.

Naturally Saddam's execution, like his capture and the toppling of his statue in the past, is already being seized on by Bushco as evidence of positive accomplishments in Iraq. And indeed for those who don't worry too much about fair trials or punishments that were long since outlawed by the civilized world, they're probably the most tangible scraps of success to be clung to in the sea of violence that is Iraq today. But now, they won't have Saddam to kick around anymore...and it may not be long before they're wishing he was around both to answer for his more severe crimes, and to offer continued distraction from the U.S.' own decisive defeat when it comes to improving the lives of Iraqi citizens.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Shifting goalposts

PMS continues the Cons' spin on equalization, backing away from his party's oft-repeated $800 million promise for Saskatchewan by claiming that it'll instead offer "the best deal for Saskatchewan it has ever had". Which leaves the question of whether the Cons' next move will be to claim that the mere privilege of basking in PMS' Big Daddyness is the best deal a province could ever ask for, or to offer whatever number Saskatchewan wants subject to the caveat that it won't have been delivered yet.

Past disputes, present actions

A couple more interesting tidbits surrounding the sudden resignation of Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley. First, the Ottawa Citizen points out some recent areas of disagreement between Kingsley and the Cons aside from the convention-fee scandal:
Mr. Goodale, however, noted the government suddenly tabled a bill shortly before the Christmas parliamentary recess with a surprise proposal that Elections Canada would administer a companion plebiscite during federal elections to poll voters on their preferences for nominations to fill Senate vacancies.

The Liberal MP questioned whether Mr. Harper had consulted Mr. Kingsley before drafting the legislation...

Conservative MPs were surprised during Mr. Kingsley's recent appearance at the Commons standing committee on procedure and House affairs, when he warned MPs Elections Canada would begin a complete overhaul of the computer system it uses to deliver elections by July.

Mr. Kingsley also told the panel he expected it would take Elections Canada up to six months to implement provisions in a bill the Commons passed earlier this month requiring all voters to present government photo identification or two other pieces of ID at the polls. Mr. Kingsley has long opposed a requirement for voter ID, arguing it could be a barrier for students, low-income voters and new Canadians.
Then, as pointed out by Paul Wells among others, there's this gem from Harper's time at the NCC:
The jackasses at Elections Canada are out of control...

This is not the first attack on freedom by Elections Canada. Its heavy-handed chief, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, has been an advocate of the most minute of controls and regulations - and stiff punishments - on every aspect of "free" elections...

I believe the Jean-Pierre Kingsleys of the world fear Paul Bryan. Or more to the point, they fear what Paul represents - a free, independent-minded citizen using technology to give power back to individuals. After all, information is power. The less control the government has over the flow of information, the less control it can exert over its citizens. So Elections Canada has charged him withbreaking a law that's as dangerous as it is ludicrous.

Of course, the attitude of Kingsley shouldn't surprise us. After all, he's the chief backer of Bill C-2 - that other election gag law - which makes it a crime for citizens to spend their own money to promote their own views during federal elections.

That too is another example of Kingsley trying to control information. Simply put, Kingsley is a dangerous man. It is appropriate that journalists have dubbed him Canada's "Chief Electoral Ideologue," and "Chief Electoral Nanny."
While many have pointed out the sheer tastelessness of the letter, it's worth citing as well as an example of just how little respect a supposed "law and order" leader actually has for the law, having no shame about unloading with both barrels on a non-partisan official merely trying to enforce the law itself.

Returning to Kingsley's resignation, as Yvon Godin noted in the Citizen's article, the Cons would have had absolutely no way to push Kingsley out of office directly.

But it's worth wondering whether Harper may have made it clear that he'd make Kingsley's remaining time in office as difficult as possible due to his willingness to properly investigate the Cons rather than buying their transparent excuses. And it may not be beyond the realm of possibility that Kingsley in turn could have seen some value in stepping down in the midst of a minority Parliament - in part to help ensure that neither PMS nor any other future leader would get to choose a successor with as misguided a focus as Harper and the Cons seemed to demand from Kingsley.

Update: More from the CP:
Before becoming prime minister, Harper said Kingsley acted "more like a state policeman than a public servant" and on another occasion accused him of iron-fisted bully tactics...

Harper was equally scathing as Canadian Alliance leader, when two party workers were charged with breaking the Canada Elections Act on public-opinion polling.

Two workers were charged with placing a newspaper ad that claimed a local lead in an Ontario riding, without disclosing that their own party had conducted the poll. The elections act forbids publishing poll results without providing basic methodological details about how the survey was conducted - or by whom.

"This is the kind of garbage we're getting into - and more shockingly the kind of garbage that Jean-Pierre Kingsley and people at Elections Canada increasingly think is their business," Harper said in 2002.
Indeed. The Chief Electoral Officer overseeing an election and prosecuting violators of the Canada Election Act - what could be more "garbage"-like than that?

Completing the purge

Apparently at least one part of the existing greenhouse-gas-reduction structure had managed to escape the Cons' axe...that is, until now:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has dismissed a special environmental adviser the former Liberal government named to kick-start Canada's attempts at curbing greenhouse-gas emissions under the Kyoto accord.

Critics said the move torpedoes the Canada Emission Reduction Incentives Agency, also called the Climate Fund, and suggested Harper does not intend to soften his opposition to government funding for the reduction of greenhouse gases...

On Harper's recommendation, cabinet approved an order earlier this month that vaguely referred to fixing "the salary and other employment conditions" of Allan Amey, named by former prime minister Paul Martin in 2005 as the Climate Fund's designated president and also special adviser to the deputy minister of the environment...

The cabinet order disclosed no details other than specifying a slight increase in Amey's maximum salary to $200,000 annually, effective last April 1. But the chief press aide to Environment Minister Rona Ambrose, Bob Klager, later confirmed the order was "administrative, to facilitate Mr. Amey's release."

Amey declined to comment, saying he is bound by a legal agreement with the government. His term as president of the Climate Fund would have been five years once the agency began receiving federal funding to purchase emission-reduction credits, which has not occurred. Amey is a former vice-president of TransCanada Pipelines Ltd. who headed the Alberta government's Climate Change Central before his federal appointment.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen said the dismissal reflects the fractured approach the Tories are taking on global warming and greenhouse-gas emissions.

"It's very hit and miss, mostly a path of destruction, with the odd bone thrown out that might feed somebody somewhere."
It's far from clear how an order retroactively increasing an official's salary would "facilitate" his release. About the only way the strategy could accomplish anything is if the Cons' goal was to issue an innocuous-sounding order rather than one which revealed its true purpose at the time, presumably by including any planned severance amount in the increase.

If that's the case, the Cons seem to have succeeded for now. But in the longer term, one has to figure that the Cons' consistent pattern of duplicity will hurt their cause in the long run as Canadians realize that nothing they do can be taken anywhere near face value. Which will lead to nothing but rightful suspicion as the Cons start trying to claim credit for rebuilding what they've eagerly torn down since taking office.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Aiming for the top

He may have lost out to Jim Flaherty for the dubious "Business Newsmaker of the Year" title this year. But Conrad Black is apparently making a push to retake the throne for 2007 - and it may well succeed if the high-profile litigation surrounding the Hollinger empire manages to exert enough influence on Canada's business world.

Departure and arrival

It may be awhile before we know why Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley resigned abruptly last week in a move that just became public today.

But for those worried that the result could be PMS getting to hand-pick a successor, the good news is that a new CEO can only be appointed by Parliamentary resolution (or on an interim basis by the Chief Justice of Canada). Which may make for an interesting dispute if some consensus can't be reached among a majority in Parliament - but will at least ensure that the Cons can't mimic the U.S. tendency toward partisan election officials.

Slight mitigation

The Comox Valley Record reports that thanks to plenty of media attention and the work of NDP MP Catherine Bell (among other factors), at least some of the damage of the softwood lumber capitulation was reduced in the final draft, as some Canadian remanufacturers managed to avoid paying tariffs on value added to raw lumber:
After fighting and fretting for months about the impact softwood lumber tariffs were having on his value-added wood-flooring manufacturing company, Roscoe has been given a break.

“We actually got it pushed through,” said Roscoe about a new category that will protect a lot of his company’s value-added work from the tariff.

Under the heading of certified independent remanufacturer, Roscoe will now be charged softwood tariffs on only the raw wood he uses, not on the finished project as he was before.

“The certification is only available for independent lumber remanufacturers who don’t have tenures to log,” he said...

Earlier this year Roscoe got caught up in the softwood lumber debate when his products made of soft woods (even though it wasn’t purchased by the stumpage-fee lots of most concern in the trade debate) began being charged the same tariff being put to raw logs. The tariff was charged on all the value-added the small Comox company did as well — including staining, matching ends and more...

After Roscoe and Woodland Flooring were profiled in the Comox Valley Record, North Island MP Catherine Bell took up the cause, even speaking of it in the House of Commons. Roscoe said it was with her help that this category was made.

Despite the good news for one constituent Bell has said in her year-end report that the softwood lumber deal with the United States was a low spot she felt for Parliament’s fall session. For North Island communities as a whole, she said, the deal is bad news.

“We’re really pleased that there is some relief there, but we’ll continue to watch closely,” said Bell about other impacts of the softwood agreement. She said she remains concerned about the future of both small and large industry — and will be paying particular attention to raw log exports in the new year.
It seems clear that the exemption was narrowly drawn for cases like Roscoe's, as there's no apparent reason why a single entity which both logs and carries out value-added operations should have to pay a tariff on its value-added component (as still appears to be the case). And of course the remanufacturing issue is dwarfed by the billion-dollar giveaway and the loss of sovereignty entailed by the larger capitulation. But at the very least, it's good news to see that some action was taken to ensure that the tariff system doesn't completely wipe out any prospect of value-added exports.

(h/t BC in TO.)

On newsmakers

The CP reports that Jim Flaherty has been named Canada's Business Newsmaker of the Year. But it's far more clear with this than with some other year-end lists that the designation is anything but a compliment.

After all, it's not as if Flaherty is following in any but the most dubious of footsteps, as the three-time defending winner was Conrad Black.

And more personally, the article discussing Flaherty's win describes his impact with anecdotes like this one:
To illustrate the extent of Flaherty's newfound infamy on Bay Street, his picture graced the cover of one investment firm's holiday card, along with the caption: "Merry Christmas to everyone else."
Which leads to the possibility that Flaherty's newsmaking may have made him and his party enough enemies to keep him from being in a position to win the title again.

Contrasting strategies

On this week's Question Period, all three federal opposition leaders were given a chance to discuss how they'll handle the Cons' upcoming budget. And the answers may signal a key difference between their respective strategies going into the next year.

First off, Stephane Dion appears to be taking a solidly negative line on the budget, offering possible reasons why the Libs might vote against it but not providing any answer as to what could make it worth voting for:
Liberal Leader Stephane Dion said he has no plans to bring down the government over the 2007 Conservative budget expected sometime in the New Year, but at the same time said he can't in good conscience vote-in a fiscal plan he opposes.

"If the budget is unacceptable for Canadians, I cannot stand up and vote for something that I think will not be good for the country," he told CTV's Question Period in an interview aired Sunday...

"Especially because this government is so right-wing that it's very likely that this government would be very frustrated by the incapacity which Mr. Harper has to fulfill his agenda. We never know what will happen. A budget is coming. Will he have the support of the House for the budget? ... It may be yes, it may be no."
Gilles Duceppe doesn't appear to have addressed the budget directly. But then, his party's price on the budget is well-established in terms of a lump sum payout to the provinces rather than a federal governing strategy.

Then there's the NDP, which will spend the month of January highlighting what should be in the budget before deciding how to handle the document the Cons put forward:
(Jack Layton) said the NDP will lay out its proposals for the Conservative budget in January, and will measure them against the final product when deciding whether to support the fiscal plan.

If the Conservatives haven't made concessions on key issues, the NDP could bring down the government, he said.

"That's the way it works."
Now, the approach has its risks politically, as it in turn gives the Cons a chance to affect the NDP's vote by choosing how many (or how few) of the proposals to include in their budget. And that won't be the case for the Libs, since Dion can easily afford to describe any budget in broad strokes as "right-wing" or "unacceptable" (or conversely as "moderate" or "acceptable" if the polls take a turn against the Libs) while making his decision based on other grounds.

But from the standpoint of pushing for the best budget possible, it's surely a better step to put a set of proposals in the public eye and let the Cons try to justify any deviation from them, rather than simply sitting back and waiting to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the final product while declining to influence its content. And if the Cons choose to ignore the NDP's proposals, then Layton will be able to vote down the budget in better conscience than those who haven't tried to shape it.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Lacking for buyers

The eBay bidding on Martha Hall Findlay's Big Red Bus has now ended with a grand total of zero bids. Which means that Hall Findlay will avoid the potential ethical minefield which would have accompanied a high bid - but also opens up the question of just how much else of the Libs' current sales pitch will similarly fail to inspire the buyers they're expecting.

On getting value

As a follow-up to yesterday's post, Ontario Energy Minister Dwight Duncan has joined the chorus saying that AECL won't receive any preference in the bidding to build the province's new nuclear reactors, and that he'll instead look to secure the best possible deal for the province. Which on its own would be a positive development. But wouldn't it be all the better if Ontario had applied the same principle to its choice of sources to begin with?

First shots

The good news is that it now seems clear that the TILMA's reach won't extend beyond B.C. and Alberta without some serious public debate. The bad news is that the National Post is now looking to hijack that debate by cheerleading for the agreement (or at least its own highly selective assessment of what the TILMA involves).

To see just how far off base the Post's coverage is, here's the article's take on what TILMA is supposedly intended to address:
Interprovincial trade barriers generally take the form of non-tariff barriers. For instance, trades people in one province are discouraged from moving and working in another without passing through myriad hoops; out-of-province firms are often prohibited from bidding on contracts tendered by the provincial government, because the rules say governments can use only local enterprises; and beer and spirits from one province may not be widely available in another due to guidelines that favour local firms.

Perhaps one of the most notable barriers is the requirement in Quebec that margarine and butter cannot be the same colour.
Now, if the TILMA were in any way limited to such commercial barriers, there would be a far more reasonable case to be made for it. Though it hardly seems that margarine-colour regulations are a particularly pressing issue in any event - and as noted by the article, the labour-mobility issues included in the TILMA are already being addressed through another provincial process.

But the reality is that nothing in the agreement itself limits its scope to commercial regulation. Instead, the TILMA presumptively classifies all government "measures" as illegitimate and subject to punishment to the extent that they could possibly affect interprovincial trade. Which makes it far more understandable if some provinces are "intransigent" (to use the article's ever-neutral wording) about the possibility of signing over their ability to govern.

Of course, there was never much doubt that any debate about the TILMA was going to include an awful lot of dubious information and obfuscation. And indeed, today's article only represents the second distinct type of spin that's been placed on the TILMA to mask its true contents (since apparently even the Financial Post wouldn't buy the initial claim that the TILMA would result in standardization to the higher applicable standard).

Which makes it essential that each new set of falsehoods be met with a strong dose of reality before it can spread too far as conventional wisdom. And hopefully, the end result will be to push Canada's less anti-government provinces toward agreements which produce all the benefits of the TILMA without the unnecessary straitjacket on government action.

On poor recruitment tactics

The CP reports on another possible casualty in the Cons' war on good government, as the CRTC is expected to have plenty of trouble finding a new chairman now that Industry Minister Maxime Bernier has shown his complete disinterest in listening to what the CRTC has to say:
The lineup of candidates wanting to fill the vacant position of CRTC chairman might be a short one this time around.

The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission is an arms-length agency in an arm-wrestle with the Conservative government over the country's broadcasting and telephone regulations...

"I would wonder whose self-respect would be so low that they'd be willing to be CRTC chair?" asks industry analyst Ian Angus of Angus Telemanagement.

"Why would you want to be chair of an independent regulatory body when the government has made it clear it will override you when it disagrees, unless you're only taking the job because you agree with the government's direction."
Sadly, that may well be the Cons' hope in taking such an aggressive line from the beginning. Presumably if the new applicants are self-selected based on the same reckless vision that seems to drive Bernier, then not only will Bernier have an easier time imposing his ideology while the Cons are in power, but the new chair would also have some clout in preventing any future governments of different political stripes from taking a more responsible view. Which would likely suit the Cons just fine - but would be more than a bit problematic for those of us who would prefer to see effective and independent regulators stay that way.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A lawless retrospective

To follow up on this afternoon's story about Stephen Harper's apparent Canada Elections Act violation, let's take a look at just how sanctimonious Harper was while he himself was breaching the law.

Based on his accumulated donations including the convention fee, Harper went over the Elections Act donation limit on October 31, 2005 - and was accordingly was in violation of s. 405(1)(a) from then on. The very next day in Question Period (which happened to follow the release of the first Gomery report), Harper had this to say:
Mr. Speaker, one would think there would be some element of shame from the Liberal Party regarding today's report but there is none whatsoever.

I want to get past the bluster. The Prime Minister wants to take credit for the Gomery commission. Does he accept his part of the blame for the creation of the sponsorship program in the first place, yes or no?
We'll eagerly await Harper's shame for both his party's and his own breach of the law for their own benefit. But based on today's article, it looks like they're instead seeking to take credit for trying to cover up their tracks by changing the law.

This was followed up the next day by a clear call for punishment of those responsible for breaking the law in the name of partisanship:
As Gomery noted, not only were public funds wasted and misappropriated, but no one has been held responsible or punished.

The Liberal Party of Canada executed this scandal. It was executed by some of its highest officials for the benefit of the party. Why is the government not suing the Liberal Party to recover the millions that are lost and stolen?
Of course, all indications are that nobody from the Cons has been held responsible or punished for their own misdeeds, even though the Cons' breach appears to have put illicit money in the Cons' coffers for a closely contested election.

Fast forward one more day, and you'll find Harper criticizing the Libs for a belief that they're above the law:
Mr. Speaker, the Liberal Party somehow believes it can make a plea bargain with itself. It is trying to be above the law.

This scheme was not set up for the benefit of a few bit players or a few ad companies. This was a scam, first and foremost, by the Liberal Party, of the Liberal Party and for the Liberal Party.
I'm not aware of Harper publicly commenting on whether he plans to try to plead his way out of his own apparent offence, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that the Cons are doing their best to try to have their own self-serving offences plea-bargained out of existence now by casually restating the numbers which they certified a year ago.

Let's move ahead to November 21, when Harper asked how a party which itself had broken the law could claim to uphold it:
On another matter, a few days before an election is to be called, the Prime Minister prefers to criticize the leader of the Parti Québécois rather than work with the federalist Premier of Quebec. He is trying to pass himself off as the champion of federalism by citing the Clarity Act.

How can a party that has acted illegally for years now claim to be the guardian of the law in Quebec?
How indeed, Stephen? (While in fairness Harper was only apparently acting illegally for roughly one year, there's no indication that he himself sought to rectify any violation before the Cons themselves took the initiative to send his excess donations back...making it rather difficult to credit him for any resolution.)

Once the campaign started, Harper was quick to promise that all wrongdoing by parliamentarians would be quickly and decisively dealt with by his government:
"There's going to be a new code on Parliament Hill: bend the rules, you will be punished; break the law, you will be charged; abuse the public trust, you will go to prison."
Let's be generous and leave it open to Harper to determine whether he should more properly be "punished" or "charged".

On December 3, Harper lumped crime and drugs together in calling for minimum sentences for drug offences:
"Crime and drugs now reach places they shouldn't – our parks, our schoolyards, even our churches. Our values are under attack and we must take action to protect those values."...

He said while the Conservatives are in favour of prevention and treatment programs for drug addicts, these are "no substitutes for tough law enforcement."
Apparently the "crime" part also reached Stornoway at the time, and moved into 24 Sussex Drive shortly thereafter. But hopefully some "tough law enforcement" will indeed loom ahead to address it.

Later on in the campaign, on January 16, Harper suggested that the Cons would be proactive in dealing with internal problems rather than letting them fester:
"Let's pledge to the people of Canada, not that we will be perfect, but that we will deal with problems before they become scandals and that we will always try and do the right thing," Harper said...

"I will do everything in my power to clean up politics in Ottawa for good."
If nothing else, the Cons can get credit for creativity in defining "doing the right thing" as feigning indignance while grudgingly giving back wrongly-received donations over a year after the fact. And indeed Harper had blood on his own hands even while he pledged to clean up politics.

Not that this stopped him from closing the campaign with another declaration of the need to end the Libs' scandals:
"If the Liberals are re-elected ... we will not have any kind of direction for this country," the Conservative leader told a rally. "We will never find the money taken in the sponsorship scandal.

"The scandals, the coverups, the investigations will continue. We cannot have our country go forward like that."
In fairness, the Cons have apparently given rise to an entirely new set of investigations. But it's hard to figure that that's what Harper had in mind.

Then, two days before election day, Harper pledged to be the driving force behind the enforcement of rules in Ottawa:
Harper reiterated that if elected, his first piece of legislative action will deal with federal accountability. "I will enforce the rules," he said.
And with the campaign at a close, Harper continued that message:
Hours after winning a minority government, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper promised to get to work implementing his top campaign priorities.

"We will honour your trust, we will deliver on our commitments," Harper said to a crowd of jubliant supporters in Calgary.
To nobody's surprise, Harper's self-righteousness only increased as he took power, as highlighted with his claim as to what would set his party apart from the Libs:
Mr. Speaker, as I just said, this party, the minister and all the members of the cabinet intend to obey the law. That is what sets us apart from the Liberals.
In keeping with that position, I can only assume that Harper will soon announce that he in fact crossed the floor in 2005 without anybody noticing.

In sum, it's plain that throughout the past election campaign and ever since, Harper and his party were in violation of Canada's electoral laws in ways that fell within the culture that Harper was vowing to change. And rather than even trying to clean up their act after the fact, the Cons only admitted their wrongdoing by accident, then grudgingly tried to slip their "correction" into the news during the holidays - showing once again that from the beginning, Canada's New Government was nothing more than a hard-right version of the old one.

For added fun, the period reviewed also features Harper criticizing the Libs for refusing to extend the Access to Information Act to the Privy Council and failing to provide Saskatchewan with an equalization deal, demanding the formation of an Office of Public Prosecutions, and calling the possibility of a tax on income trusts a "a direct attack on the retirement incomes of millions of Canadians". Suffice it to say that clean government isn't the only area where PMS has happily repeated the Libs' actions which used to provoke his supposed outrage - and that ethics are far from the only reason for Canadian voters to send Harper packing from Ottawa for good at the earliest opportunity.

CPC: Harper Broke the Law

The Cons have tried to quietly reverse their implausible position that convention fees couldn't be considered donations under the Canada Elections Act. And in the process, they've effectively admitted that Stephen Harper himself violated the Canada Elections Act:
Having been forced to count convention fees as donations, the report indicates the Conservative party then discovered three delegates - including Prime Minister Stephen Harper - had exceeded their $5,400 annual limit for political contributions. As a result, the party refunded $456 each to Harper and the other two delegates.
Just in case there's any doubt, the contribution limits within the Canada Elections Act apply to individuals attempting to make donations, as well as parties who receive them:
405. (1) No individual shall make contributions that exceed

(a) $5,000 in total in any calendar year to a particular registered party and its registered associations, nomination contestants and candidates;
The $5,000 number has changed due to an inflation adjustment, which accounts for the $5,400 current limit.

And the offence for breaching this section is as follows:
497(3) Every person is guilty of an offence who

(f.13) being an individual, wilfully contravenes subsection 405(1) (exceeding contribution limit);

500(5) Every person who is guilty of an offence under any of subsections 480(1) and (2), sections 481 to 483, subsections 484(3), 485(2), 486(3), 487(2), 488(2) and 489(3), section 490, subsections 491(3) and 492(2), section 494, subsections 495(5), 496(2) and 497(3), section 498 and subsection 499(2) is liable

(a) on summary conviction, to a fine of not more than $2,000 or to imprisonment for a term of not more than one year, or to both; or

(b) on conviction on indictment, to a fine of not more than $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term of not more than five years, or to both.
Note that the offence is taken seriously enough to be dual-procedure (giving the Crown to proceed by indictment, which in turn provides for penalties as high as the five years imprisonment provided for in s. 500(5)(b)). That said, it seems unlikely that any prosecutor would pursue that option for a one-time violation.

Regardless of what punishment Harper faces under the Canada Elections Act, though, it's the political outcome which seems to be more significant. It surely won't take long for Con MPs to be tested on their commitment to law and order, as Canadians see how quickly they look the other way when it's their leader who's acted illegally. And now that the Cons have admitted their wrongdoing, it looks like PMS will have the choice of either trying to fight against his own party in addition to Elections Canada to try to clear his name, or admitting his own offence and losing any remaining shred of credibility on the subject of clean and ethical government.

Calling the action

I've written before about the problems which arise when the media which is responsible for shaping perceptions of what's happening on the political playing field fails to give a complete picture. Now, Anonymous Liberal at Unclaimed Territory argues that the media needs to take an even more active role in order to ensure that substance wins out over spin:
(W)ithin the context of commerce and the marketplace, we long ago realized that the average consumer is generally not in a position to tell whether or not she is being lied to or misled, whether by way of an advertisement or an overzealous sales pitch. That’s why, over the years, we have put in place a complex array of overlapping laws and regulations designed to protect consumers from being misled. If a company makes a claim which is even slightly misleading, it will quickly find itself up to its eyeballs in litigation, whether in the form of government enforcement actions, lawsuits by competitors, or consumer class actions (often all three). There are also any number of tort and quasi-contractual claims that aggrieved consumers can bring against the individuals and companies who deceived them.

As a result, companies take great care to ensure that their statements are truthful, and consumers can be reasonably confident that advertisers are not lying to them.

The same is not at all true in the realm of politics, where candidates and interest groups can pretty much say whatever they want and voters are generally left to fend for themselves. Lies and misleading claims are commonplace, if not the norm. The perverse result is that most Americans are far better informed (or at least far less misinformed) when they step into the mall than when they step into the voting booth...

For reasons that I don’t understand, our mainstream journalists and media figures always seem to operate under the assumption that the average person is capable of sorting through all the political information they’re bombarded with and reaching an informed decision. This despite the fact that half of our laws are premised on the exact opposite assumption, i.e., that people are easily misinformed by those with an incentive to do so.

I remember, for example, that in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, the media made a habit of noting that most Americans supported the invasion. Rarely, however, did anyone mention the fact that nearly 70% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11 or the fact that the Bush administration had been going out of its way to foster that misperception.

As I’ve observed before, when it comes to covering politics, journalists today are much more like play-by-play announcers than referees. They no longer see it as their job to step in and call fouls, i.e., to call a lie a lie. This is a pity because--for the reasons explained above--it is in the arena of politics where we are most in need of referees; it is in the arena of politics where the normal referees (government officials, judges, private litigants) cannot operate effectively.
Unfortunately, it appears that at least some in the media are looking to head in exactly the opposite direction. See e.g. Tony Burman's list of media outlets which have slashed their newsroom staff - presumably making it far more difficult for those sources to cut through any inaccuracy before reporting on any given story. Which seems to be an odd reaction to the increased amount of content available through other sources: surely any media entity looking out for its longer-term best interests should want to stand out as a particularly credible source of information, rather than being just one of many voices passing along spin without adding any substance.

It's debatable whether the media is better seen as referee within the political game itself, or simply the main filter for interpretation of that action. And I'd think the announcer role is a perfectly appropriate one as long as it's carried out to the fullest, since it too should involve some reasonable willingness to provide an accurate depiction of what's going on.

But however the media's role is best described, it can only bode poorly if the media's ability to watch the game is being curtailed just as thoroughly as its willingness to point out all of the action. And if the current trend continues, then the main question going forward seems to be just how much longer the media can continue to undermine its own place in politics before new actors step into the role for good.

On non-competition

Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn apparently thinks he's doing Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. a favour by declaring that the federal government wants to see AECL win a contract to build new nuclear reactors in Ontario - and preparing to use the federal nuclear regulatory process to make that happen:
Federal Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn says it is "imperative" that Crown-owned Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. be awarded the multibillion-dollar contract to build Ontario's first new nuclear reactors in more than two decades.

"I'm quite prepared to say on the record that we are not technology neutral," Mr. Lunn said in an interview. "We are very favourable to the Candu technology."...

The federal government appears willing to circumvent the regulatory process in the interests of protecting Canada's nuclear industry just as nuclear energy enjoys a renaissance internationally.

"We must build the Candu technology at home," Mr. Lunn said. "It's imperative for the Canadian nuclear industry. If we can't compete at home, I would suggest it wouldn't look very good for our technology elsewhere around the world."
The problem, if course, is that it hardly helps AECL's reputation if any success in "competing" in Canada arises only by fiat from the federal minister responsible. Which leads to the odd result that even AECL itself is contradicting Lunn in emphasizing that nothing has been predetermined in AECL's favour:
AECL spokesman Dale Coffin said the company could have an advantage over other bidders because the regulator is familiar with its technology. "Other than that, we're subject to the same review as everybody else," he said. "We have not publicly stated that we think we have a fast-track advantage here."

Aurèle Gervais, a spokesman at the (Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission), said no decision has been made regarding the licensing of any reactor design.
It also can't hurt AECL's cause in the Ontario contract - or help it worldwide - that the CNSC apparently doesn't have enough resources itself to thoroughly evaluate any other bid. As a result, the "familiarity" factor might well be decisive regardless of the merits...which plainly won't serve as a meaningful vote of confidence in AECL when other countries decide who should be given the responsibility to build their reactors in the future.

Of course, there's plenty of doubt as to whether or not the idea of building new nuclear facilities is a good one in the first place. But even leaving that larger issue aside and operating on the terms of those who would see nuclear power as a viable energy source, there's no apparent benefit to be had by undermining the fairness of the regulatory process involved. And by declaring his desired end result of what's supposed to be a neutral process, Lunn has only helped to ensure that AECL isn't seen as meaningfully competitive at home.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Central benefits

One of the questions which arose in the last federal election campaign was that of whether any party was really standing up for the place of a strong federal government. While I'll stand by my view that the NDP at least implicitly made that case, Michaelle Jean offers the basis for a much more explicit position:
(Jean) says independence would weaken Quebec.

"We live in a world where large alliances are important. I'm among the Quebecers who feel that way," she said.

"I believe in the federation. The very definition of federation means coming together. I like that idea, of coming together. To bring together your strengths, your imagination, your ideas, your creativity.

"That's how I want to live."
While Jean's quote arises in the context of Quebec's choice to remain within Canada, it should resonate equally well when applied to the question of whether or not issues should be shunted to the provincial level at every opportunity. And with a popular and respected GG taking the message public, it shouldn't take long for federal politicans to tie the call into a vision for a strong federal government to better serve as a force for shared strengths and creativity - leaving only the question of who will take the opportunity to pair a platform which implicitly applies the principle with an explicit message as to the value of federal action.


The CP reports on the RCMP's ongoing income trust investigation, and notes that at least one prominent Lib seems to have reacted to this year's election loss with a view that the party needs to be quicker to take revenge on nonpartisan officials who publicize bad news:
Wayne Easter, who was once political master of the Mounties as Liberal solicitor general, argued the Martin government should have given Zaccardelli the boot as soon as his letter (mentioning the RCMP's income trust investigation) was made public.

"In an election campaign you don't call an investigation unless you have absolute substance for that investigation," Easter said the day Zaccardelli finally resigned.
As noted in the article, it seems fairly clear that the decision was at least a reasonable one within the scope of the commissioner's duties. After all, the calls for an investigation had been made publicly, meaning that there was some need to respond publicly but cautiously - which Zaccardelli plainly did.

Moreover, it's not as if Easter's current suggestion would have made any sense politically. Can Easter really believe that the Libs would have improved their public perception by firing the RCMP commissioner for announcing an investigation into a matter which was already in the public eye? Would he really expect the result to have been anything but Harper painting any dismissal as an attempt to halt the investigation itself? And do any of us want to know what the electoral results would have been in that event?

I have to assume that Easter would have enough political acumen to know the realistic answer to all of these questions has to be "no". But if so, that only signals that Easter is entirely willing to take a completely implausible stance in an effort to both tie Zaccardelli to the Cons, and keep deflecting blame for the 2006 result. Which offers just one more example of the Libs having seemingly learned nothing - and one more reason not to reward them with the opportunity to put ideas like Easter's into effect in the future.

Update: The Tyee points to this story with a few more details from earlier this month - featuring Irwin Cotler apparently siding with Easter (without going specifically saying that firing was warranted), while Anne McLellan focused solely on the political issue while stating that she would have ordered a review after the campaign.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Restarting the cycle

The Financial Post reports that in a matter of two days after the Con released their draft legislation on income trusts, it's already come out that at least one existing trust may be able to avoid the impending tax based on dividends having been paid at one point in the flow of money from the company to its investors:
Cinram International Income Fund may turn out to have an advantage over other income trusts when the four-year tax holiday for companies using this popular structure comes to an end.

Draft legislation on taxing income trusts, released late on Thursday, could favour the DVD maker because most of the money it pays its investors is made up of dividends, not distributions. As expected, the draft legislation outlines how distributions to unit holders will be taxed at the trust level, but leaves dividends alone.

Cinram could end up with little tax on its payments to investors because of the way it is structured. Most of the company's earnings come from the United States, and Cinram's U.S. company pays Cinram's Canadian company a dividend, which it passes on to its unit holders. Because investors are receiving a dividend that has moved through the company's financial structure, observers say it will be treated as a dividend by the taxman, rather than a distribution.

If so, Cinram won't incur a tax on its distributions to unit holders, like other trusts will have to pay in 2011, when the Conservative government's plan to tax trusts like corporations takes effect.
It's not entirely clear from the article how Cinram is currently structured, and whether the result will be for the fund to escape the combination of corporate and trust taxes that most actors would face.

But regardless of whether Cinram is already set up to avoid the impact of the Cons' move to close the income trust loophole, the apparent discovery only highlights the certainty that new tax dodges will emerge to take the place of income trusts. And the controversy which surrounded income trusts over the past few years should make it glaringly clear that future governments need to be far quicker to address those dodges than past ones have been.


In case anybody thought it was a fluke that Don Martin had so much trouble finding five Con cabinet ministers worthy of approval, Politics Watch's list manages to reach that number only by including both David Emerson and Vic Toews. Yes, that Vic Toews.

Meanwhile, in other year-end lists, the NDP manages to place two MPs on a top-five list (Pat Martin and Peter Stoffer), without a single placement on the under-performing MP list - which is a direct reversal of the Libs' numbers. It's remarkable that the largest opposition party managed to avoid having a single member worthy of the top list for MPs, but somehow the Libs pulled it off.