Friday, October 19, 2007

Return of the Pod People

In the midst of a week of speculation and analysis of the throne speech and its fallout, the first House of Commons mention of the Cons' Pod People Plan didn't receive any attention in the media. But with all three opposition parties apparently presenting a united front on a story which is starting to come into focus, it may not be long before the Cons find themselves on the defensive.

Not surprisingly, the point of privilege was brought up by Nathan Cullen, who generally summarized what's already known about the Cons' pseudo-MP in Skeena-Bulkley Valley. But two of the points in response add new information to the story.

First, while the Cons previously disavowed any national support for the Pod People plan, they seem to have let the mask slide. Now, their Saskatchewan caucus chair Tom Lukiwski has also tried to defend the Cons' undemocratic appointments. Which should remove any plausible claim that the plan stopped at Harris, and provide a strong suggestion that it's indeed a national policy (contrary to the Cons' initial protestations).

Second, other opposition MPs besides Cullen also had additional examples to offer. Perhaps most interesting was Paul Szabo's statement as to what he's been told while trying to do work for his own constituents:
Mr. Speaker, just this past week I had a case in my constituency office requiring the urgent intervention by a minister to get a family member to come over to attend to a terminally ill child.

We wrote to the minister but we did not get a response within a reasonable period of time. We made the necessary inquiry. We were told directly that the department no longer responds to opposition members' requests for assistance and ministerial intervention.
Now, the prospect that the Cons have instructed federal departments to ignore requests from opposition MPs would be dangerous enough on its face. But it's all the more so when combined with this week's news about the Cons' data-gathering techniques:
CIMS is used not only to track voter allegiance in a given riding -- something every political party attempts -- but also a host of other data gathered in the course of an MP's constituency office duties.

"Any time a constituent is engaged with the member of Parliament, they get zapped into the database," Turner said in an interview. "It's unethical and it's a shocking misuse of data.

"Because once you cotton on to what's going on here, it's not good constituency work at all to allow that data to fall into any kind of hands. But the party is desperate to get more and more data in there because the primary use is fundraising. The secondary use is voter tracking to get out the vote."
Putting the pieces of the puzzle together:
- The federal government won't deal with any constituent issue unless it's brought up by a government MP.
- Government MPs won't deal with any constituent issue without collecting whatever information they can get from the encounter, and using it for Conservative Party purposes.

In sum, under Harper, any benefit from the Government of Canada is contingent on a constituent's giving a quid pro quo (whether knowingly or not) to the Conservative Party.

So what can the opposition parties do about it? The first step is obviously to raise the issue publicly wherever they can. And it's possible for them to do more on that front: while the Ethics Commissioner investigation, point of privilege, and media exposure have helped, it's long past time to use some prime Question Period time to force Harper to answer for his government's patronage.

Second, the opposition parties should be working together on legislation to ensure that neither the Cons nor any other party can misuse personal information about Canadians, and agreeing to use whatever means available to fast-track it through Parliament.

This could be as simple as making political parties subject to the Privacy Act, or it could involve a new set of rules under the Canada Elections Act. But whatever mechanism is chosen, it would both make for good public policy, and put a serious dent in whatever advantage the Cons may be deriving from their misuse of data.

And if the Cons want to make such legislation a confidence matter and fight an election over their ability to use the federal government as the Patronage Distribution and Information Gathering Department of the Conservative Party? Well, that's exactly the kind of ground where a referendum on the incumbent figures to be a losing proposition for Harper.

We'll see if the issue gets as much attention as it deserves going forward. But once again, the problem isn't so much any hidden agenda from the Cons as the one that they've already put in plain sight - and the opposition should be happy to make sure the public pays due attention to what's going on.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

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