Saturday, February 10, 2007

One to watch

NDP MP Nathan Cullen is blogging again, this time about the happenings on the committee working to rewrite Bill C-30. It's in early stages so far, but it'll be very interesting to see if Cullen can offer a window into the committee beyond the usual posturing in front of the cameras - and if that exposure can help force the other parties to try to work toward getting some results.

A handy reporting tip

Memo to the CP in response to this sad excuse for a story:

When Stephen Harper doesn't have anything interesting to say, that isn't news. If anything, it's simply his governing philosophy.

(Edit: cleaned up wording.)

A questionable comparison

Allan Woods optimistically suggests that PMS' journey from outright hostility toward public healthcare to claiming to support the Canada Health Act offers reason for hope on the environment. But ultimately, the comparison only highlights why the Cons aren't getting anywhere on the environment - and why they're altogether unlikely to change that anytime soon:
Taking the extra step to meet the 2012 target is a long shot, but Harper's health-care transformation of 2005 could provide a template, some say...

The man who, in 2002, said the Canada Health Act should be "opened up," stepped on to the stage as the Conservative party leader (before a Fraser Institute meeting) and vowed that a Tory government would do nothing of the sort.

Harper's Reform party predecessor, Preston Manning, and former Ontario premier Mike Harris had just released a report under the auspices of the Fraser Institute calling for the federal government to pull out of the health-care game.

"With all the respect that I do have for this institute and for these individuals, I could not imagine a proposal that's more of a non-starter than that one," Harper told the crowd.

"I will never compromise public health insurance in the country because it is the only system that most Canadian families, including my own family, have ever used."

His health-care turnaround, correcting a glaring policy vulnerability, came in the weeks before what everyone expected would be a spring election.

Senior party organizers were well aware of their weakness on the issue. They had been dealing with it for years.

"We were heading into an election with the same old bogeyman there," says one party official. "We had to put that to bed."

No sooner had Harper pronounced his radically reformed policy on health care than everyone – media, opposition parties and non-governmental organizations – stopped talking about it.

"That's the way he does things," the official says of Harper. "His strategy is to find out his weakness and fix it by whatever means. You shut it down, you neutralize it, you overwhelm it. You do whatever needs to be done."
It's entirely likely that the Cons want little more than to "shut down" the environment as an issue. But the extent of Harper's change on health care also seems likely to define the limits of how far he's willing to go on the environment - and it doesn't bode well for the likelihood of Harper going along with Kyoto without a serious push.

After all, Harper's health care stance can only be seen as a move from active hostility toward the program, to a hands-off approach. The Cons' message and action suggests a willingness to continue existing funding levels and avoid slamming the system in public. But then the Cons also quietly cut off existing Canada Health Act enforcement mechanisms, and have invested precious little time or money in the system beyond what was already there before.

Which means that Harper's means of "neutralizing" the weakness has simply been to do and say as little as possible - somewhat appeasing those who support the system without actually having to do anything to improve matters (which would then be subject to criticism by the Cons' hard-right base). And in the case of health care, that type of inaction may well lead to Harper's end goal, as the Cons' refusal to enforce the Canada Health Act has simply moved the issue to the provincial level where single-payer health care is being undermined.

When it comes to climate change, though, inaction won't satisfy anybody. There's certainly no strong movement in favour of the status quo (or the status quo ante), and aside from the most laughable of climate-change deniers the public debate is on the question of what action to take beyond that which has already been done.

Needless to say, that makes for a significantly different problem for Harper. The Cons can't appease anybody by quieting down and trying to declare the issue closed. Instead, PMS can only change the landscape on the issue by taking action which hasn't been taken before - which means having to put forward a plan and publicly defend the principles behind it.

Moreover, even if Harper were to come around on Kyoto, his government would still be subject to criticism to the extent its measures to get there are anything short of succesful. Which means that even by taking a strong course of action which will send climate-change deniers into conniptions, the Cons can do no more than kick the problem into the future and try to earn some of the benefit of the doubt in the meantime.

None of which is to say that the Cons can't or shouldn't make the switch to supporting Kyoto - hard caps, emission trading and all. But Harper's public transformatioin on health care simply doesn't offer a particularly apt analogy. And there's little reason for now to think that the Cons will be willing to take the next step from merely paying lip service while doing nothing about an issue they don't believe in, to actually taking the lead on one.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Unwanted cuts

While I'm never a fan of highlighting polls and analysis which wrongly perpetuate the view of Canadian politics as a Lib-Con dichotomy, it's worth pointing out one of the results of Innovative Research's online poll testing the views of Lib and Con supporters:
On taxes, 16 per cent nationally say they should be cut "even if it means reduced social programs." Almost three out of 10 core Tory respondents (28 per cent) agreed with that notion, while just six per cent of Liberals shared that sentiment.
The article tries to paint the question as one showing a difference between Lib and Con supporters. But the more significant part of the results is the fact that even among the Cons' supporters, the vast majority of respondents don't have the slightest interest in cutting social programs for the sake of reducing taxes.

Of course, Jim Flaherty and others making budget decisions seem to be among the relative anti-government extremists even within the Cons. But the poll suggests that even a good number of those currently supporting the Cons don't see slashing programs in order to cut taxes as a reasonable tradeoff - meaning that the current strategy of arbitrary eliminating government is not only likely to alienate moderate voters, but may even harm any attempt at narrowcasting by serving as a source of discontent within the Cons' base.

Which can only lead to the question of whether the Cons will learn from the results and offer up a budget with slightly less of a Grover Norquist influence...or instead continue to navigate a path that even their base doesn't support.

Crazy 'bout that mercury

The CP reports on what seems to be the first substantive difference in the federal environment portfolio under John Baird: rather than trying to pretend that action against other pollutants can be conflated with action against greenhouse gas emissions, the Cons are now standing in the way of anything getting done on other issues as well:
Canada's refusal to support a legally binding global pact to cut highly toxic mercury pollution is another Kyoto-style evasion that allies Ottawa with Washington, critics say.

Canada sided with the U.S. and India during international talks in Nairobi this week. The trio was among a minority of countries that blocked immediate progress of an enforceable system to curb mercury use, including a glut of noxious exports to the developing world...

Environmental groups blamed the U.S. and Canada for effectively delaying an enforceable system. Repeated studies clearly document health threats posed by air pollution, water contamination and mercury-laced electronic junk, they say.

"They want more talk but they don't back up that talk with action," said Michael Bender, spokesman for Zero Mercury, a coalition of 48 public interest groups...

Canada conceded in documents submitted to the UN Environment Program that "there is sufficient evidence of significant global adverse impacts from mercury ... to warrant further international action to reduce the risks to human health and the environment."

Still, Ottawa favours voluntary reduction efforts while binding rules are discussed for the next two years.
Of course, given the Cons' stated intention to ignore Canada's own laws when it comes to environmental action they don't want to bother with, there's little reason to think that a treaty would be acted on in any event.

But that only highlights the fact that there's neither a substantial near-term cost to trying to work toward an effective treaty, nor a rational basis for holding up what should be an important international effort aside from a general distaste for global cooperation. And it's particularly noteworthy that the Cons' rejection of an enforceable mercury treaty arises on an issue where - unlike on global warming - the Cons don't figure to have much of a base motivated by a desire to deny the problem.

Which signals that the Cons' already-ineffective mask on environmental issues is in severe danger of slipping off entirely. And it will only serve the Cons right if their willingness to side with the U.S. against the health of Canadian citizens proves toxic to their hopes for another term in office.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Comparing priorities

Rick Salutin pointed out today the striking difference between the Cons' treatment of issues they're actually concerned about, and their consistent weasel language and refusal to act on the environment. But the difference is equally clear in the Cons' policy priorities as in their use of language.

After all, the Cons are refusing to suggest that income splitting is off the table, despite its costing up to $5 billion annually to primarily benefit wealthy, one-worker couples. But when the Cons are asked about the possibility of spending the same annual amount on emission credits to enable Canada to meet its Kyoto targets (to benefit both Canada and the world by helping to get greenhouse gas emissions under control), the answer is a flat "no".

Useful idiocy

There was no doubt that John Waugh earned himself a thorough punishment for his apparent view that the NDP has miraculously managed to hold exactly the wrong amount of principle, and should thus either abandon politics entirely to demand everything it would like to see in the long term right this minute (likelihood of success be damned), or abandon principle entirely to throw in its lot with the Libs. And good on Robert and Greg for getting to the job.

Sole responsibility

The Globe and Mail reports on a climate-change study whose results can't be blamed on anybody but the Cons, as Canada ranks last in the G8 (with a "complete lack of compliance") when it comes to meeting commitments made just last summer:
Canada ranks dead last among members of the G8 industrialized countries when it comes to keeping a pledge made last year to fight climate change by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, according to a report prepared by researchers at the University of Toronto.

Canada was the only Group of Eight country deemed to have posted a complete lack of compliance with the greenhouse-gas reduction goal set at last summer's G8 summit in St. Petersburg.

Canada has "no plan" to cut its emissions in the short or long term, and could have rising output of the gases blamed for global warming under the Conservatives' Clean Air Act because the legislation doesn't cap releases, the report said...

The G8 has fulfilled only 31 per cent of its commitments since the summit last July. It has not scored this poorly since mid-2002, according to the report.

On climate change, the countries pledged last year "to meet our shared . . . objectives of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions."...

"Canada received the lowest score because of the Harper government's change in policy and attitude towards the Kyoto Protocol," said Brian Kolenda, co-director of the compliance unit on the U of T's G8 research group.
Not that such a report is likely to stop Baird and company from trying desperately to point across the aisle. But virtually all recent developments suggest that the Cons' current plan consists of nothing more than a more aggressive PR campaign behind the same useless "Clean Air Act". And it seems all too likely that the complete failures will continue to pile up as long as the Cons are in power and the Libs refuse to get anything done.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Making up ground

Congrats to the NDP's Paul Ferreira on his upset victory over Laura Albanese in York South-Weston. While a by-election naturally makes for a different dynamic than a general election, it's still remarkable that the Ontario NDP has now managed to take two seats where the Lib incumbents had won roughly 60% of the popular vote (and margins of victory over 40%) in the last general election - leading one to wonder just what Lib seats can possibly be considered safe going into the next general election this fall.

Obstructing justice

PMS is apparently tries to shore up his "lock-'em-up first, don't ask questions later" base by claiming that the opposition parties are preventing any action on the Cons' criminal justice bills. But CBC sets the record straight as to who's holding up any progress for political gain:
Liberals and New Democrats say the government is playing political games by overloading the justice committee so it appears opposition parties are delaying justice reforms.

Opposition MPs deny they are responsible for stalling the government's planned justice reforms, one of the five pillars of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's election strategy.

Harper has repeatedly accused opposition parties of obstructing the passage of several bills that would change the Criminal Code, including raising the age of sexual consent, setting minimum penalties for gun crimes and making changes to the DNA databank.

With nine justice reform bills currently before Parliament, Harper on Wednesday said they should have been law by now.

"The public supports this. Police and public officials, including people as philosophically distant from us such as the premier of Ontario and the mayor of Toronto, also back these reforms, yet these bills are still stuck at Parliament, bogged down by opposition obstruction," said Harper.

But the Liberals and New Democrats said the government has deliberately overloaded the justice committee as part of a strategy to portray them as soft on crime...

"Mr. Harper and his government have created this environment where they wanted this logjam, and now they're trying to blame somebody else," said NDP House leader Libby Davies.

Previous governments would have proposed judicial reforms in a single omnibus bill instead of introducing many separate pieces of legislation, said Davies.

The Conservative government, she said, has manufactured the scenario to unfairly blame the opposition for holding up its proposed legislation...

Liberal Justice critic Marlene Jennings said her party supports most of the bills and even offered to fast-track them.

"The DNA identification bill was one of the bills that we said we support, and we would be prepared to get that through the House of Commons quickly," said Jennings. "Well it's only now coming to committee, a year later."
Indeed, there's no good reason why a government with the ability to set the agenda in Parliament would have refused to allow a supposedly high-priority set of bills to make their way through Parliament. And even if the Cons thought their legislation would fail, surely it would benefit them more to secure recorded votes against their plans rather than refusing to get anything done.

Instead, the Cons' greatest fear on criminal law reform (much like the Libs' greatest fear on the environment) seems to be that something will actually get done, thereby eliminating the issue for future campaigning purposes. But with the Cons already seen as "unfair" in their treatment of the opposition, they may be running a serious risk of having that term define their government going into a new election. And if so, then no amount of scaremongering about streets being ruled by gangs and guns will be able to save the Cons' government.

On concerted efforts

The Globe and Mail reports that Ottawa conventional wisdom is turning in favour of a spring election rather than a delay until 2008 - which presumably nobody could have seen coming. And PoliticsWatch reports that the Cons and Bloc are teaming up to try to put the screws to the Libs in anticipation:
A Commons committee appears headed to launch hearings into the discrepancies in the testimony of a number former Liberal cabinet ministers, staffers and public servants who appeared before the Gomery inquiry into the sponsorship scandal.

Conservative and Bloc Quebecois MPs, who combined have enough votes to control the public accounts committee, want to recall a number of witnesses who appeared before both Gomery and the public accounts committee to explain the discrepancies in their testimony.

The Commons law clerk said it could mark the first time in the history of Parliament that a committee investigated possible perjury.

Another set of parliamentary hearings into the sponsorship scandal with numerous faces from the Chretien era is probably the last thing the Liberals and new leader Stephane Dion want in the coming months with a possible spring election looming on the horizon.

The MPs met Wednesday afternoon to discuss a report from the Library of Parliament that compared discrepancies in the testimony of a number of witnesses.

The specific names of those witnesses mentioned in the report were not discussed at the meeting.

The committee plans to meet later behind closed doors to go over the report and vote on who to recall before the committee.
Now, there doesn't seem to be much good reason to rehash the testimony from the standpoint of the public interest. After all, with a report already available, criminal charges gradually trickling out from the sponsorship scheme, and an inquiry (featuring assessments of credibility) already done on the subject, there doesn't seem to be any reasonable prospect of uncovering new or meaningful information.

But then, there's the political side of things, where information-free grandstanding has always been a higher priority for the Cons than actually governing well. And a move to push back into the media the faces the Libs would like can only hurt their position in any upcoming election - or perhaps even force the Libs to buckle under on a budget vote in order to let the newest aftershock of the sponsorship scandal fade before any trip to the polls. Which, given the Cons' seeming intransigence on the environment, may soon be the most likely scenario that doesn't lead to a spring election.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

They, sir, had a choice

A couple of days ago, Michael tried to claim that the Libs had no choice but to do nothing about greenhouse gas emissions through the '90s. (I for one eagerly await his blog's title change to "John Turner Is My Homeboy".)

But while he has a point that it's ludicrous for the Cons to wield the Libs' inaction against them given that Harper and company fought even the Libs' feeble moves every step of the way, it's simply wrong to claim the Libs either weren't aware of climate change as an issue, or had no ability to act sooner.

After all, Kyoto itself is merely a later-negotiated protocol to the Rio Convention on Climate Change - which was negotiated a year before the Libs first took power, and entered into force just a year after the Libs formed government. The Rio Convention didn't set any specific targets, but its developed-country participants did commit to:
adopt national policies and take corresponding measures on the mitigation of climate change, by limiting its anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and protecting and enhancing its greenhouse gas sinks and reservoirs. These policies and measures will demonstrate that developed countries are taking the lead in modifying longer-term trends in anthropogenic emissions consistent with the objective of the Convention, recognizing that the return by the end of the present decade to earlier levels of anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol would contribute to such modification...
Which, if the Libs needed any international justification to act, should have offered a fairly strong suggestion as to where the world then planned to go (before getting sidetracked by the likes of Chretien).

In the wake of this convention, the Libs gave greenhouse gas emission reductions a place in their greatest work of fiction - which explains in large part some environmentalists' rightful disillusionment with the Libs by the middle of the '90s.

But then, says Michael, didn't the Libs face a political imperative to move to the right and follow Reform's lead in battling the budget above all other priorities? To which one can only say: of course not. The Libs themselves highlighted their commitment to fighting climate change within days of the opening of Parliament in 1994 - and it surely can't be to the Libs' credit as leaders if they either managed to completely forget the issue, or considered it unimportant enough not to be worth acting on.

What's more, even if the view of opposition parties is taken into account, that's no particular excuse for the Libs' inaction. After all, Chretien's government faced criticism for its inaction even in its first term - indicating that there would always have been at least some support for action against emissions.

Indeed, after the 1993 federal election the total number of MPs from the Bloc and NDP combined (reflecting the opposition parties in favour of action) was greater than that from Reform and the PCs combined (those generally opposed, though I presume some PCs would also have lined up in favour). And even in 1997 and 2000, the opposition voices in favour of action would never have been strongly outweighed by those opposed.

Finally, even if one assumes that the deficit had to be tackled first and alone above all other issues, there's also that small matter of what the Libs made their top priority once the deficit was nothing but a distant memory. Hint: It wasn't investing in emission reductions.

In sum, the Libs indeed had a choice. And it's because of their broken promises and failed leadership that we're now debating whether it's too late to reach our domestic targets under Kyoto (which was seen by some to make for an insufficient cut in emissions all along), rather than having room to spare and emission credits to sell based on their following through.

Diverging interests

I agree entirely with Greg 's analysis that (barring an opposition deal on an environmental bill) a spring election is inevitable if the Cons insist on pushing "intensity" targets rather than real ones based on an understanding with Alberta's government. But as the CP notes, a confrontation between Ottawa and Edmonton may be inevitable on the question of whether the federal government has any role to play in environmental regulation:
Climate change could lead to constitutional turbulence in Canada, as the federal and Alberta governments push rival plans to limit greenhouse emissions.

Each jurisdiction has promised to regulate emissions from big industry using so-called intensity targets, but there’s no guarantee the targets will agree...

So which regime would prevail in case of a conflict?

“We’ll cross that bridge if we get to it,” said Olsen. But he noted that Alberta owns its natural resources, and will emphasize that point.

Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner struck a conciliatory tone when visiting Ottawa this week, but said he expected the federal government to harmonize its targets with Alberta.

Marlo Raynolds, executive director of the Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development, said Alberta’s rush to pass legislation may reflect stepped-up concern about the environment in Ottawa.

“It’s very curious that Alberta has jumped on this so quickly. In premier Stelmach’s leadership campaign you couldn’t find the word climate change or greenhouse emissions.

“I have a hunch that industry started getting nervous about what the federal government might do.”
As pointed out by Raynolds later on in the article, the danger is that Harper might agree to follow Alberta's targets to avoid a fight back in his home province. But it seems to me that the potential battle is instead more likely to lead to a split between Harper and Stelmach - which may actually bode well for the prospect of the federal Cons agreeing to a more effective scheme.

Starting off with Stelmach's standpoint, it's easy to see a political advantage for himself in picking a constitutional fight over jurisdiction to regulate emissions - how better to start his own tenure in Alberta than with a loud declaration of "get your filthy hands off my oil!"? And that in turn might provide him with some incentive to set articifially lax provincial standards, secure in the knowledge that he'll either be seen as having dictated terms to the PM, or win the chance to follow the time-tested Ottawa-bashing strategy.

So how would Harper respond to such a move? It's hard to see how going along with weak targets would play out as anything but a political disaster for Harper across the country: it would guarantee that no other party would be willing to sign onto the Cons' environmental plan, and open up plenty of opportunity for the Libs to win back seats in Ontario and Quebec by painting Harper as taking his marching orders from the oil patch.

But once Harper was already on the opposite side from Stelmach on any issue - whether the level of any intensity target or the federal government's very authority to set its own targets - there would be no benefit to him in taking common cause swith Stelmach solely over the question of whether to use intensity targets. And that's particularly clear given that (almost) every pressure on the federal scene is in the opposite direction.

So while there's some danger in the potential for cooperation between the federal Cons and their Alberta counterparts, it seems at least as likely that this will be the issue which drives a wedge between those groups. And if so, then Harper won't have any reason (other than his own stubbornness) not to work toward a plan that other federal parties can support.

What lies beneath

Scott Piatkowski highlights one side of the Cons' agenda which has somehow managed to stay largely hidden (at least within the mainstream media) since they took office:
Mention the phrase “Stephen Harper's hidden agenda” and most Canadians are likely to assume you're referring to his party's pre- Paleolithic stance on social issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage.

But since being elected last year, the reality is Harper has been equally at pains to hide his real views on foreign policy matters. The reason for this subterfuge is not all that mysterious: he knows that there is absolutely no market for a foreign policy that is blatantly pro-American.

Just how captivated is Harper with the rocket's red glare? In 2003, Harper made a speech to the Montreal Economic Institute in which he called for the Canadian ambassador to the U.S. to have “cabinet rank.” According to Harper, “this will directly link the activities of our government in Ottawa to our activities in Washington.”

The incredible suggestion received little attention at the time, which makes it far easier for the Conservatives to pretend it was never spoken. But even if one accepts the notion that Harper has experienced a genuine change of heart on the proposal, the fact that he thought it was a good idea at the time speaks volumes about the depth of Harper's willingness to pledge allegiance to Washington...

His other comments at the time indicate a clear willingness to allow American military objectives to determine Canadian policy. At an event in April 2003 dubbed the “Friends of America Rally,” Harper called the U.S. “our best friend in the whole wide world.” On Fox News, Harper told Americans that he was speaking “for the silent majority” in Canada endorsing the war (in Iraq)...

With (minority-Parliament) political considerations in mind, Harper's desire to fulfil the wishes of his “best friend in the whole wide world” has been relegated to lower profile issues such as the egregiously one-sided softwood lumber agreement that his government signed last year.

While the Conservatives continue to pretend they're maintaining a respectable distance, Canadians would be well-advised to watch for more signs of the mask slipping. And if Harper is successful in gaining a majority, we can expect the hidden foreign policy agenda to be revealed in its entirety.
As much as the Cons have done to shroud their entire government in secrecy, it's worth noting just how much further they've gone when it comes to talks about North American integration. And it would only make sense that the extra layer of denial and obfuscation exists due to the content of the discussion - i.e. that the Cons' longstanding desire for further integration (and proportionally less Canadian independence) has already been thoroughly discussed between the Cons and their American counterparts.

Not that the Libs are anything close to blameless in getting the SPP process started during their stay in power. But it seems clear - from both Harper's past positions, and the extra walls surrounding Canada/U.S. relations today - that the Cons are looking to push the issue much further. And based on those signs, it's entirely possible that a Con majority would lead to not just a revealed "agenda" for future discussion, but a fully-formed and agreed plan to give up even more of Canada's ability to think and act for itself.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Higher learning

CanWest reports that at least one federal party found time to deal with some substantive policies in the middle of today's spin and machinations, as the NDP's Denise Savoie was putting forward a bill on federal post-secondary education funding:
The New Democrats are calling on the Conservative government to make good on an election promise to replace all-purpose federal transfer payments for social programs with dedicated funding for colleges and universities.

The call to divide the Canada Social Transfer into two components so provinces receive dedicated cash for higher education is the central plank of the NDP's proposed Canada Post-Secondary Education Act, tabled in the House of Commons on Monday.

The Conservative 2006 election platform promised to create an independent Canada Post-Secondary Education and Training Transfer, but the Tory government has yet to follow through on the commitment.

The NDP will be using "every lever and pressure point in Parliament" to make sure it happens, the party's education critic Denise Savoie said in unveiling the new legislation.

Modelled on the Canada Health Act, the education act guarantees accountable, stable federal transfers for post-secondary education, and enshrines in federal law the principles of public administration, accessibility and quality...

The proposed post-secondary education act has won the backing of major education groups, including the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Canadian Federation of Students.

"As the Conservative government ponders fiscal balance, I would urge them to consider that the previous government took out, to pay down the deficit, a huge loan from Canadian students and it's now payback time. And the Post-Secondary Education Act is the first step in that process," said Savoie.
Of course, it's unlikely that the Cons would have intended their promise to lead to a bill such as Savoie's. After all, they're apparently entirely unwilling to enforce federal standards under existing legislation - which means that new standards on education aren't likely to have much practical effect as long as the Cons are in power.

But for the longer term, it only makes sense both to clearly set out what federal funding is intended for post-secondary education, and to apply explicit principles to the use of that money. And it's a plus to see the NDP putting the issue front and centre in Parliament to push for progress.

On frame selection

The issue of framing political discussion has received loads of the border, with an increased Canadian presence since the Cons proudly displayed their adherence to Frank Luntz' right-wing framing philosophy. Today, Murray Dobbin weighs in with his take on a few phrases progressives should use to help turn the tide:
Never say "Medicare crisis." Say the "corporate threat to Medicare." Why? Because the privateers want people to think there's a crisis so they will acquiesce to a radical solution: privatization.

Never say "private care." Instead say "for-profit care."

Never say "defence spending." Say "war spending." Because the huge increases in that department are exclusively for making war.

Don't say "child care." Instead say "early childhood learning." Because the right tries to frame daycare as undermining the family, and warehousing children.

Never refer to the Clean Air Act. Call it what it is, the Dirty Oil Act.

Never, ever say "free trade agreement." Instead, say "investors' rights agreement."

Never say Tories. Say "the Harper Conservatives." Because the former reminds people of the politically moderate Red Tories who are long gone.

Similarly, never say "the Conservative government." Say "the Harper government."

Never say "decentralization." Instead, say "the erosion of universal social programs."

Two can play the framing game. It's about time those who care about the country got serious about winning.
I'll note briefly that I wholly agree with a few of Dobbin's suggestions, and completely disagree with at least one. And I'll discuss those in more detail later.

For now, though, I'm curious as to what other progressives think about Dobbin's examples. Are these the phrases we need to be most concerned about shifting? What other frames should we be looking to create?

And perhaps most interestingly in differentiating Canada from the U.S., how does the framing battle change when voters aren't limited to two political choices?

An unpleasant surprise

On a day which should have provided another excellent opportunity to highlight the continued interchangeability of the federal Libs and Cons, word comes out that the Manitoba NDP has inexplicably followed the federal Libs' example in rejecting (and in this case repealing) a one-member, one-vote system:
In a surprise move, the provincial New Democrats voted yesterday to overhaul the way they'll choose their next leader.

Gone is the system of "one member, one vote" favoured by the grassroots and many party activists living in far-flung rural ridings.

Instead, party activists at yesterday's NDP convention narrowly voted to return to the old delegate system that elected Premier Gary Doer nearly a decade ago.
As already pointed out by Kuri and Northern BC Dipper, the move is nothing but a damaging one from the standpoint of internal democracy. And it's particularly galling that the OMOV system was never even given a chance to select a leader: while there might have been more reason for a change back if some perceived harms of an OMOV system had come to pass, the move instead prevents Manitoba's NDP from even trying out a system which would decentralize power and give more of a say to members who aren't able to be on the convention floor.

That said, I'd think there's room for a forward-looking response. It may well be that the convention was simply a relatively small one where the issue didn't figure to be a primary concern, which would have facilitated a push by the anti-OMOV crowd without too much fanfare or thought.

But if the NDP members who voted for the OMOV system previously join forces again, and Gary Doer holds onto the party leadership until at least another convention down the road, then it could well be possible to reverse the decision before the leadership system next comes into play. And hopefully it will turn out that it's this weekend's turnaround - and not the previous move toward OMOV - that represents only a temporary shift in the direction of Manitoba's NDP.

An emerging consensus

Murray Mandryk points out yet another area where the Cons are backtracking on a promise to rural western Canada, as they appear to be siding with CN Rail to preserve a severely one-sided set of transportation regulations:
For a while last spring, it actually looked as if Harper's new Conservative MPs in the West were making headway in the long-standing issue of regulatory transportation reform in the grain-handling industry.

"We felt we were making very good progress," said Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Winnipeg-based Western Grain Elevator Association, in a recent interview.

The association representing all the western grainhandlers, including Agricore United, Cargill Ltd., James Richardson International Ltd., Louis Dreyfus Canada Ltd., Parrish & Heimbecker Ltd., Paterson Global Foods Inc., the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool and the Weyburn Inland Terminal Ltd., had even successfully solicited support from the mining, forestry and petroleum industries on a package of regulatory and legislative reforms, Sobkowich said.

Also onside were western Conservative MPs, including the dozen from Saskatchewan, who -- according to Sobkowich -- vowed they were equally determined to address the "shortfalls, inefficiencies and failures" of the railway system affecting grainhandlers. Those problems are too numerous to list, Sobkowich said, but one big regulatory issue has been ensuring that rail companies face the same penalties as grainhandlers.

For example, grainhandlers have a mere 24-hour period to load 100-car unit trains, he explained. (You may recall that one of the railways' arguments for the demise of the country elevator system was the better servicing of the more efficient unit trains). Failure to meet these obligations results in penalties or loss of incentives, which means inland terminals can't take deliveries during that period.

However, if the rail companies don't supply the unit trains on the day they are required, grain companies wind up losing deliveries for a day or three. Yet the railways don't face reciprocal penalties...

(W)hile the federal government seemed initially eager to implement the changes, that quickly changed early last summer and the changes have not been adopted, Sobkowich said.

Now, the Conservative government and Transport Canada are suggesting that the grainhandling companies should reach a consensus before any such changes regulatory changes are implemented.

So what happened? Sobkowich won't speculate. But it's worth noting that CN Rail made it known early last summer that it opposed these changes. It's also worth noting that CN is headquartered in Quebec, where Transport Canada Minister Lawrence Cannon resides. It's also worth noting that Quebec is where Harper's Conservatives want to win more seats...

Sound familiar? It should. This is the exact tactic the federal government is using over its promise to Saskatchewan to remove non-renewable resources from the equalization formula. Make a promise to West and when it displeases eastern interests, claim it can't be kept because there's no consensus.

Sadly, it's the same old story.
Needless to say, there doesn't appear to be any particular reason for CN to offer its support to a consensus aimed at reducing its current advantage over its customers. Which means that the Cons' excuse will likely ensure that the current "shortfalls, inefficiencies and failures" continue as long as the Cons remain in power.

Now, it's well and good to seek consensus on an issue to the extent reasonably possible. But I don't recall anything in the Cons' platform about refusing to take any action which couldn't be agreed to by all affected parties. And rightly not, given the near-certainty that any issue will involve competing interests where it's impossible to completely satisfy all sides.

Nor could one find a similar principle in the Cons' actions in government, as dissenters have typically been excluded from decision-making processes (and their interests largely ignored, if not outright mocked).

In fact, even on equalization the Cons have made clear their intention of imposing a final result in the absence of consensus. But of course, that end result is one which appears likely to prioritize blatant politicking in other provinces over the promises the Cons made to the West.

Which leaves only the question of whether prairie voters will recognize the pattern and reach their own consensus that the Cons' word is worth absolutely nothing. And the more times the Cons show their continued disdain for their own promises, the more likely that outcome becomes.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Cutting it close

The Hill Times reports that after barely a year in office, the Cons have already damaged federal finances to the point where they'll face a choice between either presenting a largely goodie-free budget or going into a deficit:
Don Drummond, chief economist at the TD Bank Financial Group in Toronto, said the government should have fiscal room to live up to its commitment to correct the so-called fiscal imbalance; to introduce what many expect will be environmental tax incentives for individuals and businesses; to deliver the Tories' promised Working Income Tax Benefit; and to reduce taxes on capital gains. Beyond that, there will be little fiscal room for much else, such as "broad-based" tax cuts, Mr. Drummond said.

Correcting the fiscal imbalance alone, he predicted, will cost nearly $3-billion, and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's fall fiscal update projected just $3.5-billion for "new spending and debt and tax reduction initiatives." The update predicted even smaller spending surpluses in future years, causing observers to wonder how the government will make the numbers add up...

"You have to bear in mind that they've only got $2-billion by 2009. So anything they do on the fiscal imbalance is going to carry on over time," Mr. Drummond said, pointing out that pouring $3-billion into the fiscal imbalance is not a one-time payment. "Even doing $3-billion a year would ultimately cause them a problem."...

Mr. Drummond said that, based on monthly economic numbers since the release of the update in November, he assumes that the Finance Department is working with numbers similar to those in the update. However, other economic projections, such as one from the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives in November, say the Tories will have more than $4-billion to spend...

Overall, Mr. Drummond said that he expects the government's plan to correct the so-called fiscal imbalance, including both equalization and new health and social transfers, to total nearly $3-billion, almost all of the Tories projected $3.5-billion planning surplus.

"I think that cosmetically they will add up all the all the money they transfer for infrastructure to the provinces and the municipalities and that will become a new, fourth major transfer. So you'll have four major transfers, being equalization, the Canada Health Transfer, post-secondary education, and the infrastructure transfer, and that will come up pretty much to $3 billion," he said.
For this year, it looks like the Cons should be able to keep the budget in the black while still offering up an election-type budget through a combination of highly-targeted giveaways and loosened projections. But even using the CCPA's more realistic estimates, the Cons appear to be moving the budget toward the red within a couple of years at most if they follow through on their current plans.

Which would presumably provide Flaherty with a much-longed-for excuse to take an axe to even more programs...assuming the Cons are in power long enough to send Canada's fiscal situation into the usual right-wing sinkhole.

Meanwhile, the article also gives a fairly detailed look at the NDP's stance on the budget through finance critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis. And to the surprise of no realistic observer (but surely the shock of a good chunk of Libs), the NDP doesn't plan to support anything that looks like the Cons' usual offerings:
Judy Wasylycia-Leis (Winnipeg North, Man.), the NDP finance critic, said considering that the government has committed to fix wait-times, the so-called fiscal imbalance, reduce taxes, increase the defence budget, and reduce the capital gains tax, there will be little room for anything else. Eliminating the capital gains tax alone would cost about $2-billion per year, she said, and to win support from the NDP, the government would have to scrap some its promises and provide funding for education, affordable housing, the environment and other programs.

"I would say that, with the combination of the dwindling surplus and lack of flexibility, and the ideological bent to these Conservatives which is focused on tax reductions and increased defence spending, it's going to make it very hard for use to find common ground. Really, what it would mean is that you'll have to scrap those plans and you'd have to start looking at really serious alternatives," Ms. Wasylycia-Leis said.

She said that with a budget expected to be focused on the fiscal imbalance, it may be that the Bloc Québécois will be the only party to support the government. "If that's their game plan, then maybe we're going to be looking at a situation where the Bloc's supporting the budget like they did this past year, and everybody else is clamoring for other priorities."
If the Cons are indeed going to put $3 billion into few-strings-attached transfers to the provinces, then it's entirely possible that the Bloc will end up keeping Harper in power until at least this fall.

Meanwhile, for anybody who wants to keep the federal government in a strong enough financial position to be able to do any good for Canadians, it doesn't look like the Cons' second budget is going to be any better than the first. And it shouldn't be news that the NDP (apparently along with the Libs) will respond accordingly if the Cons don't offer something far more positive.

Leading with weakness

It's well known that one of Karl Rove's favourite political tactics, which appears to have found its way into the Cons' arsenal as well, is to mount a focused attack on an opponent's perceived strengths. But the Libs seem to think there's a corollary about leading with their own weak spot, sending out Michael Ignatieff to criticize the NDP for "propping up" the Cons.

Now, never mind the fact that Ignatieff seems to be in denial about the distinct lack of "propping". Instead, what's most striking is that Ignatieff himself is likely the least-credible Lib in trying to criticize cooperation with Harper.

After all, this is the same Michael Ignatieff who may single-handedly have given Harper carte blanche in Afghanistan (between his own vote and his influence on leadership supporters). And it's the same Ignatieff who, even on the environment, sided with Harper against the other Lib leadership contenders on the question of whether to give up on Canada's Kyoto emission targets.

At this rate, it may not be long before the Libs agree to let Joe Volpe set their "new ethical standard". Which makes for great entertainment for the Libs' competition - but it's hard to see how the Libs stand to gain by giving prominent air time to their least credible voices.

A promising sign

CanWest reports on John Baird's Question Period appearance. But while Baird's "doublespeak" manages to win the headline, the more interesting story is a renewed possibility for opposition cooperation on the environment:
Environment Minister John Baird urged all the federal parties Sunday to put partisanship aside to get moving on the environment file in the wake of the global climate-change report.

But then he proceeded to take several partisan shots at the Liberals and their leader Stephane Dion during a CTV Question Period interview from Paris where a global panel of scientists declared global warming unequivocal and mostly caused by humans...

Baird never once mentioned the New Democratic Party, which holds the balance of power in the Commons, and has proposed 15 amendments to radically change the proposed Clean Air Act.

Among other things the NDP would set much tougher greenhouse-gas emission reduction targets, impose strong vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, and eliminate key tax incentives to the oil and gas sector.

Dion said Friday he agrees with the NDP's "orientation" though he declined comment on specific proposals.
Naturally, there's an obvious need for the details to be discussed for the hint to be transformed into reality. But there doesn't seem to be much reason why Dion would echo the NDP's "orientation" without also having some willingness to work with the NDP's ideas.

Which means that the best option for dealing with the legislation now before Parliament - that of an opposition-party deal which will force the Cons to either reluctantly go along or call an election as the anti-environment party - may still be a reasonable possibility. As before, it all comes down to whether or not the Libs are willing to work with the NDP and the Bloc to agree on what needs to be done...but there's more reason for hope now than has been apparent for some time.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Buying into the market

It's never been much secret that one of the primary models for the Harper government has been the Australian government of John Howard. Which makes it worth watching how PMS will respond to Howard's public declaration that "carbon pricing" mechanisms are needed to fight greenhouse gas emissions:
Australia must place a price on carbon emissions to fight climate change, Prime Minister John Howard said Monday in an apparent softening on his refusal to join in global emissions trading.

Australia, the world's largest exporter of coal, joined the United States is refusing to sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol which called for deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions believed to worsen global warming. Australia is also one of the world's worst greenhouse gas polluters per capita because of its dependence on coal to generate electricity.

“Market mechanisms including carbon pricing will be integral to any long-term response to climate change,” Mr. Howard said in his weekly radio address to the nation.

Carbon pricing is usually based on a permit trading system in which polluters can buy and sell credits to emit carbon on an open market and reap financial rewards for using cleaner technology.

Another option is a tax that would financially penalize polluters for the amount of carbon they emit.
Mind you, there is reason to be suspicious as to just how the term "carbon pricing" can be manipulated aside from the two possibilities mentioned in the article. But if indeed Howard is accepting the need for an emissions trading regime (and today's message seems to be another step forward following his establishment of a task force last fall), then that shift in the international handling of the issue may provide yet another reason for the Cons to move toward a cap-and-trade system in Canada as well.

Letting down our guards

For all Stockwell Day's flaws, he apparently has little problem with the art of spin, "denying" a report about the planned removal of workers from Canada's prisons by saying the report really only reflects the potential for job reassignment:
Ottawa has no plans to cut the overall number of positions at federal correctional institutions, the Minister of Public Safety said Sunday.

Stockwell Day made the comment in reference to an article in Saturday's Globe and Mail that indicated the federal government is planning to reduce the number of prison-guards by three hundred.

Mr. Day says while officers are at times reassigned to meet the particular security needs of different locations, no jobs have or will be lost in the process...

Documents forwarded to the newspaper by members of the prison guards' union indicate the government proposes cutting officers across the country's 54 prisons. The numbers cited were part of a study put forth by Correctional Services Canada last fall.
If the lone issue were whether or not Canada's current correctional workers would continue to be employed, Day's answer would be of at least some use. But the bigger question has to be that of whether or not Canada's prisons will be adequately staffed - not simply whether current workers will lose their jobs.

And on that issue, it's worth keeping in mind that Day's vision for criminal justice includes $200 million to build new prisons where current workers could presumably be "transferred". Which would leave the current workers with a far greater workload, while also increasing the risk to both their safety and that of inmates - but all without cutting a single "position" currently available.

Needless to say, it can't come as any comfort to either inmates or workers that Day is merely willing to say he won't cut staff below current levels. And while inmates won't be able to do anything about any increased dangers, it shouldn't be the least bit surprising if some present staff see that as reason to leave Correctional Services Canada whether or not their position still exists.

On foot-dragging

Jeff points out Greg Weston's column on the Cons' delays in bringing substantial parts of the Accountability Act into force. But as noted by Weston, it isn't just Canada Post that's being kept free from promised accountability by the Cons' delay tactics:
Left out of all the fanfare was the fact that eight key sections of the act come into force only when the federal cabinet (read: Harper) decrees it to be so. And no one we can find in government seems in much of a hurry to get that job done...

(T)he new access-to-information overhaul isn't the only change in the new accountability act the Conservatives might rather see later than sooner.

All the new measures intended to protect government whistleblowers, for instance, have yet to be enacted.

Given the Harper administration is already conducting at least four separate witch-hunts, um, investigations, into leaks of embarrassing poop on the Conservatives, it is hard to imagine the PM rushing to encourage even more whistleblowers.

Ditto for the implementation of tougher conflict-of-interest rules for those in public office, and the appointment of a new independent ethics commissioner, for the first time reporting to Parliament and not under the thumb of the PM.
If anything, there might be reason to hold off on the Access to Information provisions unti the Cons finally get around to the more thorough review which was claimed as the reason for cutting the PMO and Cabinet out of the Accountability Act's provisions in the first place. After all, if there's going to be continued delay on access to information, then it only makes sense to deal with all those provisions as a package rather than letting the Cabinet provisions slip out of the public eye.

But it's a different story when it comes to holding MPs to an appropriate ethical standard and doing everything possible to protect whistleblowers. There's absolutely no reason for any delay - and indeed, there shouldn't be any risk to the Cons in proclaiming the provisions in force if they've kept their promise to follow the Accountability Act from the moment they took power.

(pause for laughter)

In reality, there's every reason to think that the Cons have no more played by the Accountability Act's rules than the previous ones. Which means that the Cons will be happy to avoid enacting their promised reforms as long as the risk in exposing their own actions to scrutiny appears greater than the risk of being called out on yet another broken promise and example of PMS' unnecessary secrecy. And it'll be up to the media and the opposition parties to tilt that equation in favour of action by asking just what Harper feels the need to hide.