Saturday, March 10, 2007

Worth a visit

I'm not sure exactly when went up, and it's plainly still early in its development process. But even now, the site's content pages look to include as thorough a set of resources as I've seen on the TILMA. And it can only help to have such a complete collection of the concerns identified about a deal which can't stand up to real scrutiny.

On targets

With the Greens apparently joining the Libs in refusing to take a stand against "intensity" non-targets for greenhouse gas emissions (leaving the NDP as the only party firmly backing the concept of real reduction targets), one of the most important issues in the climate change debate seems to be on the verge of tipping in the wrong direction. And on the surface, the TD Bank's influential call for environmental action doesn't help matters either in its failure to specify the type of targets required for an effective emission trading system.

But reading between the lines of the TD analysis, much of the argument for an emissions trading plan ultimately supports the need for firm targets rather than "intensity" ones. Let's take a closer look at what the TD analysis calls for - and why an "intensity" structure would fail to meet the requirements.

According to TD (at p. 12), the following two factors are musts for any effective permit trading system:
(R)egulation that imposes reasonable emissions caps on industries. Without a supply constraint to emissions, permit prices would trend to zero, making the program completely ineffective.
What goes unsaid is that under an intensity-based system, an industry can generate a limitless supply of emissions credits to the extent that it's able to increase production without a fully corresponding increase in emissions. In contrast, the supply constraint under a hard cap system is obvious, as the maximum number of available emissions credits is set from the outset.
Effective and timely monitoring mechanisms of emissions. This requires the installation of costly monitoring technology as well as the development of administrative programs for audit and repair.
What's missing here is the fact that under an intensity system, any monitoring is bound to become all the more difficult and costly. After all, an additional variable is added to the mix in the form of units produced - and a company's permitted emission level for a given time period isn't even known until this factor is first measured. Moreover, any audit process is bound to be more complex when it has to accurately determine precisely which units were manufactured by a given industry, rather than merely having to ensure the accuracy of emission measurements.

The TD analysis goes on at p. 13 to discuss targets in somewhat more detail:
(D)etermining the target reduction in GHG is very important. This requires getting the science right. Some factors that complicate the baseline estimate are the state of the economy, technological innovation, and weather patterns. Emissions are influenced by economic activity as first produce more when demand for their products intensifies. Accordingly, the sample period must be chosen with care to include a complete business cycle.

In addition to this, if the emission target is established during a period prior to any major innovation, the result may be a target that is too easily reached - with the effect of too many permits being issued which in turn will drive down their value and be less of an incentive to reduce emissions.
Once again, the introduction of another variable into the mix only complicates matters: it's not hard to anticipate an extensive lobbying effort on the part of each industry to set its target based on a low-production, high-emission period for that industry - while a target related only to emissions would instead lend itself to simply taking the same baseline for all industries, and letting the trading system sort out any changes in the interim.

Meanwhile, the problem pointed out in the second paragraph is again only amplified if a firm can not only reduce its emissions for a given output too easily due to an industry-specific technological innovation, but can also take advantage of that innovation to ramp up its production in order to generate more credits for sale.

Finally, it's worth noting that the TD repeatedly mentions the U.S.' cap-and-trade system as its example of an effective trading regime, as that system couldn't be more clear in emphasizing the need for "an overall cap, or maximum amount of emissions per compliance period, for all sources under the program".

Again, it's a shame that the TD report doesn't say in so many words what kind of targets would be preferred. But on a close look, it's clear that hard targets are necessary both to the TD's suggestions for an effective emissions trading market, and for any real environmental improvement. And it isn't too late for the parties who have been on the wrong side of the issue to agree that hard targets are needed.

For the sake of fairness...

I'm sure in light of this, we'll be seeing plenty of stories about how Elizabeth May is in bed with Ed Stelmach to prevent any stronger environmental action based on real caps rather than "intensity" measures. Right?

Friday, March 09, 2007

Hitting the links

If you haven't seen them yet, a few good reads/views to start your weekend:

- Alison tears into the Cons' attempt to hollow out the lobbying provisions of the Accountability Act.
- Linwood Barclay duly mocks the wingnut attempts to bash David Suzuki and Al Gore.
- PoliticsWatch has the latest on the Libs' internal difficulties.
- And if you haven't yet seen why it's time to join the Editors '08 bandwagon, take a moment to find out.

Update: Linwood Barclay does it again. Which by my count makes for more good jokes and points in his two columns linked in this post than in the collective efforts of the Post and Sun media empires to undercut the environmental movement.

The price of support

The NDP has released its priorities for the upcoming federal budget:
The federal NDP will release today a laundry list of measures it wants to see in the minority Harper government's March 19 budget, kicking off public negotiations over what it will take to win the party's support for the Conservative fiscal plan.

The party is warning the Tories it will oppose a reduction in capital gains taxes and further tax cuts for "large corporations."...

The NDP is calling for incentives to help low-income Canadians leave welfare and enter the work force and for more funding for postsecondary education that improves affordability of and accessibility to higher learning...

Other proposals include:
- An end to a special tax break for the oil sands that allows some firms to write off investments quickly.
- Rebates for fuel-efficient cars.
- Increases to seniors' monthly Guaranteed Income Supplement.
- Energy efficiency home retrofits for low-income families.
- A national disability income-support program.
- Accelerated recognition of foreign credentials of skilled workers.
- Funding for child care.
- Establishment of a federal minimum wage of $10 an hour.
The full text of Judy Wasylycia-Leis' letter to Jim Flaherty can be found in PDF format here. It's worth noting that the Globe and Mail's story appears to miss a significant number of important priorities listed in the actual letter: while my first reaction to the article was concern that the the set of demands might be too narrow, the letter includes most of the areas which were notable by their omission from the Globe's coverage (including health care, Aboriginal issues, foreign aid and equalization).

There's plenty to like within the NDP's requests, both from a policy and an electoral standpoint. But even more striking than the content of the letter is its apparent goal: on my reading, the list of policy priorities appears to be aimed primarily at staking out the NDP's position in advance of an election, rather than actually striking a budget deal with the Cons.

After all, the list includes some items which would could be dealt with in standalone legislation rather than the budget. In particular, a federal minimum wage isn't linked at all to government spending, and could seemingly be addressed more easily through Peggy Nash's existing private member's bill.

Meanwhile, other ideas such as a boost in Status of Women Canada funding (with a particular focus on the equality that the Cons believe to already exist) seem plainly aimed at the electorate, rather than at anything the Cons are likely to be willing to discuss. And of course the Cons aren't likely to take kindly to the NDP's rightful concern about another wave of random tax cuts.

It's still possible that Flaherty will be willing to meet enough of the NDP's terms for a deal to be struck. But it's looking far more likely that the Cons will wind up relying on the Libs' aversion to an election rather than finding common ground with the NDP. And if the Libs wind up allowing a budget to pass which doesn't meet the NDP's reasonable list of priorities to benefit Canadians at large, they'll have an awfully difficult time explaining that to voters looking for the strongest possible progressive voice in Parliament.

(h/t to Audacious Ontology.)


There's been plenty of talk about Stephane Dion's speech on his economic plans - which, as noted by Andrew Jackson, doesn't seem to vary at all from what ex-PMPM would have said on the same issue. But I haven't seen any attention paid to the fact that based on an interview afterward, Dion would rather see the Cons stay in power than implement the plan anytime soon:
Canada's minority Parliament may stay alive for another 10 months if Liberal Leader Stephane Dion has his way...

The leader of the Official Opposition's comments are in a stark contrast to his comments upon winning the Liberal leadership crown in December when he had a warning for the prime minister.

"Stephen Harper, we are counting the days until the next election," he said at the time.

But now it seems the Liberals may have to count to at least 300 before an election comes if Dion has his way.

"I'm not sure Canadians want an election every year," he said after delivering a speech at an Ottawa hotel. "It's very demanding to be always in an election. So I don't want an election."...

When asked later by reporters if he would vote against Flaherty's budget if it included another GST cut, Dion said he won't comment on the budget until he sees it.

"You don't request an election each time you disagree with the government," he said. "Otherwise you would request election all the time. I think Canadians deserve not to have an election every year."
Note that Dion's comments aren't even based on an attempt to get anything done in the current Parliament. Instead, he seems to have reached the conclusion that because an election itself would be "demanding", he doesn't see a need to bring down Harper's government on any issue based on what we already know about it...which needless to say will only weaken any attempts Dion may make to criticize Harper's government in the future.

What's worse, that position - combined with the Libs' continued vagueness as to any conditions for support - is only likely to enable Harper to push the limits as to what the Libs are prepared to support (or at least fail to oppose) in a budget. And that may relieve the Cons of any apparent need to deal with the substantive requests of the other parties, whose terms for support have been or are being made public. Which means that the main difference between Dion and his predecessor is that the new Lib regime may not only be failing to get things done on its own, but also getting in the way of other parties who might otherwise be able to accomplish something positive.

Of course, as Dion also noted in the interview, the Cons are likely looking for reasons to go to an election as soon as possible - so Dion may not get his wish in any event. But no matter when the election actually happens, it speaks volumes that the Libs are trying to delay both any action in the current Parliament and the possibility of an election to hold the Cons to account.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Ah, the foul stench of Conservative government

All in a day's work for Harper and company, as word gets out that a lawyer acting for Stephen Harper and John Baird is simultaneously registered as a lobbyist in both of their departments:
The case of Emanuel Montenegrino, who simultaneously worked for Harper in a private civil case while registering to lobby the Prime Minister's Office, highlights a potential regulatory sinkhole in the centre of the Conservatives' vaunted Federal Accountability Act...

Liberals pounced Thursday on reports that Montenegrino – a Conservative supporter who has represented Harper, Environment Minister John Baird and MP Pierre Poilievre in civil suits over the past year – is registered by a host of groups to lobby a variety of government departments, including the Prime Minister's Office and Environment.

"It would appear hypocrisy knows no bounds in this Conservative government," Liberal MP Ralph Goodale said in a news release.

"Just days after the so-called Federal Accountability Act was tabled, and continuing until after it received royal assent (in December), the prime minister would have been aware that his own lawyer was lobbying his office."
Out of curiosity, which takes precedence: soliticor-client privilege or federal lobbying rules?

And from the same article, some other registered lobbyists are also simultaneously among the Cons' primary strategists:
Harper confidantes such as John Reynolds and Ken Boessenkool, both of whom regularly meet with the prime minister to discuss party strategy, are also registered lobbyists.

The prime minister recently made a high-profile appearance with wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen to pledge $30 million in federal cash for spinal cord research. Reynolds, a former MP and interim party leader, is registered as a lobbyist for Hansen's foundation.

Boessenkool, one of Harper's closest advisers, is registered to lobby for energy giants TransAlta and Enbridge, as well as the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association – all of which have a vital interest in Conservative tax and environmental policies.

The renewable fuels association, meanwhile, is headed by Kory Teneycke – a former Reform party youth activist who worked in the Conservative party war room in the last election. The association is currently running TV ads promoting a Conservative pledge on renewable fuels and featuring an appearance by high-profile Tory candidate Peter Kent.
And to add some extra spice to the putrid mix, there's the news that MP Inky Mark's parliamentary mailing privileges were hijacked by the Cons to enable a special-interest group to lobby against Mark's own position:
NDP Wheat board critic Alex Atamanenko and Ethics Critic Pat Martin strongly condemned the recent hijacking of MP Inky Mark’s parliamentary mailing privileges by an anti-CWB lobby group.

“Mark has been the only Conservative MP with the good sense to stand up for the preservation of the wheat board,” said Atamanenko. “So I can only imagine his constituents surprise when they got a mailing from their MP that included an attack on the CWB as part of a campaign to ensure Conservative Minister of Agriculture Chuck Strahl’s view wins the barley plebiscite.”

According to a Winnipeg Free Press article, the seven-page attack mail prepared by the anti-CWB group Market Choice Alliance read "We can not win the fight for freedom of choice without your help. We ask that you be a leader in your communities and rally your fellow farmers, tell them how that choice is there’s (sic) and that this vote is their voice -- use it for choice."

Mark has had to issue a counter mailing to explain to his constituents that he did not order the anti-CWB mailing.
If the current polls weren't enough of a reason for the Cons to want to force an election soon, the prospect of more and more of the Cons' sleaze getting noticed over time can only serve as another reason for Harper to want a quick trip to the polls. But hopefully Canadians will recognize just how foul the Cons' stay in office has been already - and make sure that we're not stuck with any more of the stench than can be avoided.

A bright idea

It's remarkable that one of the least controversial means of reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions hasn't yet found its way onto the lengthy list of private members' bills in Parliament. But Paul Dewar is making sure that the need to phase out incandescent light bulbs won't be ignored:
A Private Members’ Bill that would effectively phase out the sale and use of incandescent bulbs is being drafted by NDP MP Paul Dewar (Ottawa Centre).

Incandescent light bulbs use electricity that flows through a filament to create light. Approximately 95% of the energy each standard light bulb uses is wasted as heat. Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs), in comparison, use only 20% as much electricity to produce the same amount of light.

“Canadians want changes in how we produce and use energy. My bill will phase out the production of incandescent bulbs and replace them with energy-efficient bulbs, such as compact fluorescents,” said Dewar. “Changing light bulbs is a simple measure that will make a huge difference -- in terms of the environment and the electricity bill of ordinary Canadian families. Changing even one bulb will generate up to $50 in energy savings and cut greenhouse emissions by up to half a tonne over the lifetime of the bulb. The technology already exists, let’s use it.”...

According to calculations from Australia, where similar legislation is being introduced, lighting, which is mostly from incandescent lamps, represents 12% of greenhouse gas emissions from households, about 25% of commercial-sector emissions and another 25% from emissions associated with public and street lighting.
Since the opposition parties didn't have any trouble agreeing to pass a bill on the immediate end goal of Canada's environmental policy, they'll hopefully at least be willing to work in concert to start putting some of the means in place as well. And if Dewar's bill can show how much of a difference can be made by even a single common-sense change in energy use, that should in turn pave the way for far stronger action on the wider issue of emission reduction.

Low in facts

The Globe and Mail reports on yet another complete fabrication from a Con cabinet minister, as the Red Cross has flatly denied Gordon O'Connor's claim that it has any involvement in Canada's detainee transfer agreement with Afghanistan:
The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed Wednesday that it has no role in monitoring the Canada-Afghanistan detainee-transfer agreement, in direct contradiction to assurances Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor has made to the House of Commons.

The Red Cross also said that it would never divulge to Ottawa any abuses it might identify in Afghan prisons.

“We were informed of the agreement, but we are not a party to it and we are not monitoring the implementation of it,” Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the ICRC, said in an interview.

In his most explicit statement to the House of Commons on May 31, Mr. O'Connor said: “The Red Cross or the Red Crescent is responsible to supervise their treatment once the prisoners are in the hands of the Afghan authorities. If there is something wrong with their treatment, the Red Cross or Red Crescent would inform us and we would take action.”...

That claim has been persistently and vigorously disputed by opposition political and human-rights groups, which contend the ICRC never divulges its findings either publicly or to third parties and that the minister is misrepresenting its role.

“The minister is wrong,” NDP defence critic Dawn Black said.

“Either he is woefully ill informed or he is misleading the House. He needs to clear this up,” she said this week in a interview from her riding in British Columbia.

Even the Foreign Affairs Department has now formally contradicted the minister's statement.

“The ICRC is not required to notify Canada,” Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Ambra Dickie confirmed in an e-mail, delivering a formal response that had been approved by senior officials to a written question from The Globe and Mail. The question was: “Is the ICRC required to notify Canada of any suspected violations of the Geneva Convention against detainees transferred into Afghan custody by Canada?”
While it's a plus to see O'Connor's invention exposed, I'll disagree with Black's view here just as I did with the Libs' strategy earlier, as there's no reason to think that offering the Cons a chance to explain their lies will result in anything positive. At best, O'Connor will have nothing useful to say; at worst, he'll simply conjure up some other excuse which may not be debunked until after the next election, allowing him to give a wrongful impression that he's actually made up for his previous fabrications.

Instead, it's long past time to conclude that the Cons simply don't have anywhere near enough credibility to be worth listening to, and to highlight the basis for that conclusion to the wider public. And with any luck, the end result in the near future will be a change to a government which isn't thoroughly detached from reality.

Update: Not surprisingly, O'Connor's response goes directly into the "nothing useful to say" category:
Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor, in an about-face from earlier comments, acknowledged Thursday that the International Committee of the Red Cross does not inform Canada of the treatment of detainees captured by Canadian troops and transferred to Afghan authorities.

In a terse statement released to The Globe and Mail Thursday evening, Mr. O'Connor said: "It was my understanding that the ICRC could share information concerning detainee treatment with Canada.

"I have recently learned that they would, in fact, provide this information to the detaining nation, in this case Afghanistan."
Among the Cons, this apparently counts as contrition and explanation. But it shouldn't be hard to see that O'Connor's wrong "understanding" was precisely the one that Dawn Black and others attempted to correct.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Can't-miss TV

Ordinarily, there are few shows which I find less interesting than contrived reality TV. But if there were a "wingnuts" team on CBC's Test the Nation, could anybody pass up the opportunity to see just how much more they can embarrass themselves?

(Of course, this might make for slightly more fair competition.)

On track records

Bill Tieleman points out that Stephane Dion's regressive track record isn't limited to economic issues, as even his history of actions and words on the environment includes some serious warning signs:
While Dion scored an upset win in the December 2006 federal Liberal leadership contest by highlighting his green platform, the longtime Member of Parliament is an environmental dud.

In fact, Dion mentioned the words "environment" and "environmental" in the House of Commons just four times between first joining the Liberal government in January 1996 and becoming environment minister in July 2004 - once every 237 days.

But actions always speak louder - and again Dion has a clear record.

Dion voted with the Conservatives against mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods on Oct. 18, 2001. He joined the Conservatives again in voting against mandatory fuel efficiency for all cars on Feb. 22, 2005.

And as federal environment minister in July 2005, Dion set up a "Chemicals Sector Sustainability Table" to consult on pollution issues - with one of the co-chairs being the vice-president of Imperial Oil's Chemicals Division!...

The (Liberal) party's own 2006 Renewal Commission report confesses that the Liberal government failed to "translate our good environmental intentions into concrete action."

Like when Dion himself reduced offshore oil and gas drilling environmental assessment regulations.

"The science indicates that the environmental effects of offshore oil and gas exploratory drilling are, in general, minor, localized, short in duration and reversible. Under the legislated criteria, a screening type assessment would provide an appropriate level of assessment for such projects," Dion said on Nov. 17, 2005.
While Dion's environmental track record isn't entirely on the negative side of the ledger, it's looking more and more like Dion's talk about the environment is little more than a repetition of Paul Martin's search for "values of convenience" - complete with a heavy dose of dithering. And with such serious weaknesses in his past on his signature issue combined with Dion's utterly uninspiring performance as a leader in the present, progressive voters look to have ever less reason to put their support behind Dion and his party in the future.

(h/t to Oppo-Guy.)

Better late than never

The Star Phoenix finally picks up on the Saskatoon city solicitor's report on the TILMA.

Naturally, the article is slanted in favour of the TILMA: Gerry Klein leads off with the suggestion that any "mature economy" should have no problem signing onto free trade deals without even considering the content of a given agreement, and closes with a false assumption that Saskatchewan won't be able to benefit from its natural advantages over Alberta and B.C. without signing on.

But Klein does at least acknowledge a good number of the examples of positive Saskatoon initiatives which would likely have been barred if the TILMA were in effect. And the long-overdue presentation of the TILMA debate should help to bring the deal into the public eye - and ensure that in Saskatchewan unlike in Alberta and B.C., the TILMA won't be imposed on anybody without a real discussion of the costs involved.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Just wondering...

Hot on the heels of last weekend's poll-spinning, we now have the CP (including an "expert" cited in the article) criticizing the NDP and Libs for having the nerve to recognize that the Cons' draconian crime proposals won't make anybody safer, rather than copying Harper's "smart" resort to baseless fearmongering. I knew the Cons had plenty of money sitting around, but when exactly did they buy a controlling interest in Canada's private media?

Never enough

The National Post and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation team up to whine about the number of people employed by the federal government - even though the actual data suggests that the anti-civil servant crowd has received exactly what it's wanted over the past decade.

Let's start with the complaint:
John Williamson, the national director of the taxpayers' advocacy group the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said the figures speak volumes about government promises to cut bureaucracy over the past 11 years. "The numbers speak for themselves," he said.

"Politicians are good at talking about changing the way government works, but the reality is that government hasn't changed -- it looks pretty much the same as it did a decade ago."...

Mr. Williamson said the civil service cuts of the 1990s were "a passing phase," and the bureaucracy began quietly expanding again as soon as it could.

"It is the nature of the beast to keep filling cubicles in Ottawa," he said "[And] as long as the size of the federal civil service is growing, then the size of government is growing."

One of the problems with the periodic government announcements of cuts or drives for greater efficiency is that while spending on programs is often slashed, those who create and administer these programs rarely lose their jobs, he said.

"Health care gets cut, education gets cut -- things like that -- rather than the size of the federal bureaucracy."
So just how many "cubicles in Ottawa" have been filled over the past decade at the expense of program spending?
In 2006, the last year for which the federal statistics agency has figures, there were just over 380,700 Canadians working for the federal government, down slightly from about 382,000 in 1995. The study looked at bureaucrats working for all government departments, including members of the Canadian Forces, the RCMP and employees of federal boards and agencies such as the Canada Revenue Agency...

The Statistics Canada paper said the overall number of federal civil service positions fell sharply in 1996, under deficit-reduction measures introduced by then finance minister Paul Martin. About 29,000 bureaucrats took early retirement or buyout packages that year, and the overall size of the civil service continued to fall until 1999 when it bottomed out at 326,500 --a drop of more than 55,000 federal government employees in four years.

But from 2000 on, the numbers began to increase. In fact, since 1999, Ottawa has added slightly more than 54,000 new people to the federal payroll, Statistics Canada said, an average growth of 2.2% a year.

The increase is attributed to growth in services such as border guards, RCMP, Canada Revenue Agency and the CBC. Employment in the military and "core" public departments fell over the period.
To anybody interesting in discussing the facts, this would serve as strong evidence that in fact the number of "cubicles in Ottawa" has indeed undergone a significant reduction. Not has Ottawa's civil service not expanded back to its pre-1996 levels, but even during the expansion of government spending over the past few years, staffing at "core public departments" has continued to decline. Meanwhile, the move in the total numbers back toward the starting point is based on the inclusion of programs such as policing, which even the CTF (hopefully) wouldn't be rabid enough to oppose.

But since that fact doesn't fit with the CTF's stock rant about bureaucracy, it's entirely ignored in favour of the usual attempt to demonize the civil service. And the article doesn't bother to seek an opinion from anybody who's actually willing to respond to the study's conclusions - meaning that the CTF's blatant disregard for the facts goes entirely unchallenged.

Sadly, it's articles like this that have enabled the anti-government mantra to become such an overwhelming part of Canada's public debate. And while the Cons would likely revel in the opportunity to undertake another wave of slashing, hopefully other parties with a bit stronger grasp on reality will realize that it's pointless to try to please people who apparently won't be satisfied until the civil service is torn down entirely.

Softwood peace in our time

Way to go, Neville Harper!

Not banking on progress

Jim Flaherty, ever the populist crusader, has once again taken his idea of a strong stand against Canada's banks on the ATM fee issue by gently hinting that it would be real nice if they could, you know, think about possibly doing something if they feel like it, under penalty of potentially being asked nicely again. And the response only shows just how laughable Flaherty's supposed strategy has been: the Bank of Nova Scotia is now claiming that yet another quarter of record profits somehow proves that nothing should be changed.

Now if only the federal government had some leverage it was willing to use to ensure something actually happens, rather than merely continuing to grandstand...

Rolling onward

While far too many keystrokes have already been used up on the controversy surrounding My Blahg, the more important longer-term development appears to be the NDP's announcement that it's in the process of setting up a blogroll of its own. In principle, the idea sounds like a good one - but there may be some significant warning signs as to the implementation.

Part of the problem is that the announcement itself seems to have come out more by accident than as a result of any strong effort to promote the project. While I'd rather have seen the NDP unveil it directly than leak it to a blogger, there's no reason why anything intended to be an important party project should be made public as an afterthought in Anne McGrath's letter to Ed Morgan.

What's worse, the concept that the blogroll is to serve as some response to Morgan's concerns may also offer a hint as to what the blogroll will look like.

I should note that others are understandably worried that an official party blogroll will result in controversial posts like Robert's being directly linked to the NDP. But my concern is the converse: that the blogroll will instead go too far in trying to suppress anything that could possibly be controversial, and thus consist solely of blogs where party insiders insert a couple of "I think"s into NDP press releases with no place for public comment.

That would definitely avoid any McClelland-type meltdowns. But it would also set back any effort to turn the NDP's website and/or blogroll into anything more than another top-down conduit for the same information which readers can easily get through the NDP's e-mail list.

That said, there's still plenty of reason for optimism at the news that there's a blogroll in the works. Now, the need is for those of us who support the NDP to make sure that the right balance is struck between encouraging the creativity of Dippers across the country and staying within the boundaries of reasonable discourse.

Monday, March 05, 2007

On disenfranchisement

Shorter Jay Hill:
Anyone who can't deal with our arbitrary barriers to voting doesn't deserve to vote anyway. Speaking of which, who's up for a poll tax?

(Note: the Hill Times apparently doesn't have direct links to its articles - see the headline, "Up to five per cent could be disenfranchised in election".)

Repeat after me

Westmount Liberal rightly takes the Libs to task for their misfiring message in response to the Cons' proud aversion to reality. But unfortunately, even a post supposedly trying to get the Libs back on track ends up far from what should be the core message:
The Liberal response, led by House leader Ralph Goodale, was that Harper is a bully.

Forget bully. Let’s call a spade and (sic) spade.

Stephen Harper is a liar who engages in deliberate, malicious character assassination.

An honorable (sic) Prime Minister would apologize for the harm he has caused.
Say you are sorry Steve. We are waiting.
The problem with both Westmount Liberal's post and the Libs' wider theme is that the message should cut off at "liar".

Much as the Libs would like to think otherwise, "Stephen Harper isn't nice to Liberals" is never going to be a winning campaign message. Nor is "I, personally, don't feel that Stephen Harper is particularly honourable, and I challenge him to prove me wrong." And even the "Stephen Harper is right-wing" message that Stephane Dion has tried to push should only be a secondary attack after the obvious critique of the Cons.

After all, we have plenty of evidence that the Con government is both disinterested in learning what facts exist, and entirely happy to make things up - either for political benefit, or simply for fun. Which may seem innocent enough for the occasional joke, but surely can't be an acceptable standard when a government responsible for the well-being of Canadians is dealing with meaningful policy questions.

So make the core message "(Stephen Harper)/(The Conservatives) can't be trusted". Provide examples. (Again, there are plenty.) Rinse. Repeat.

In addition to being a stronger initial criticism, the effect of such a line of attack is to devalue whatever response the Cons provide. If Harper delivers an apology demanded by the Libs on one of the "character assassination" issues, the implicit result is that the Libs' demand has been met and the issue is neutralized. And the Cons have nicely insulated themselves from the "right-wing" message for now by basing their policies largely on what the Libs already had in place.

But any response to "Harper can't be trusted" only invites more scrutiny as to the motives and deceptions of the Cons. Which in turn allows for the individual listener to speculate about what kind of harmful motivation might exist.

That's where messages like "right-wing" may be effective - as one possible interpretation of what lies below the surface. But the central point should be that even those who approve of Harper's policies as much as not still have reason to doubt every word out of his mouth.

Of course, for an added bonus, the line can be expanded to apply to policy areas once it takes root. "Stephen Harper can't be trusted with our environment." "The Conservatives can't be trusted with the well-being of our troops." And so forth.

Now, there's probably some reason why the critique hasn't been put at the forefront to date. That may be based on a concern that the Libs have enough doubtful statements in their own history to benefit, or a sense that the public simply doesn't buy that any politician can be trusted and thus won't punish the Cons for their fabrications, or a belief that it sounds too much like the "hidden agenda" line that's obviously run its course. And if the Libs want to ignore the line and leave it for the NDP, then hopefully Layton can capitalize on it to present himself as the alternative to a Lib/Con feud that only be seen as entirely missing the point.

But one way or another, the most obvious way to stop Harper seems to be to point out just how untrustworthy he and his party have proven to be. And the greatest failing of Dion's leadership and the Libs' supposed renewal is that they seem to be too eager to play on Harper's terms to highlight that message.

A call to action

NDP MP Catherine Bell's efforts to push for real federal electoral reform continue, as Bell has unveiled her Voter Equality Action Centre. While the education link is a work in progress (and not for a lack of readily-available material on PR in particular), the site is definitely worth a visit for voters of any party looking for the most direct path toward a federal voting system which better reflects the will of Canadian citizens.

Choosing unaccountability

The Globe and Mail reports that having already omitted several parts of the accountability legislation that they initially promised, the Cons are now looking to render useless the lobbying provisions of the Accountability Act that eventually passed:
The Harper government has opened the door to a watering down of its vaunted strategy to crack down on lobbying, as it contemplates forcing lobbyists to only report their formal verbal communications with federal officials, documents show.

Under proposals that are circulating in the government-relations industry in Ottawa, lobbyists would not have to report “spontaneous” verbal communications with government officials, nor would they have to disclose e-mail or other written exchanges.

The proposals stand in contrast to the Conservative Party's pledge in the 2006 election to “require ministers and senior government officials to record their contacts with lobbyists.”...

(T)he government has laid out five options that would define the type of communication needing to be reported, with only one of the five options including written communication.

In the four options that only include oral communications, three would call on lobbyists to report only their “arranged communication” with government officials. This would have the effect of excluding informal communications in settings such as cocktail gatherings or unplanned meetings on the street, where lobbying nonetheless can occur.

“It's just a huge loophole. People will say, 'Let's go golfing and have a spontaneous communication,'” said Duff Conacher, co-ordinator at Democracy Watch.

“The Conservatives have clearly broken their promise to end secret lobbying,” he said...

A spokesman for the Treasury Board confirmed that the Accountability Act will not force federal officials to record their own contacts with lobbyists. “The onus is on the lobbyist to report,” said Robert Makichuk, chief of media relations at Treasury Board.
While Conacher focuses on the ease with which any "spontaneous communication" exception could be manipulated, the other two proposals are equally problematic.

In the case of limiting any reporting requirement to verbal communications, the result would be to leave e-mail communication in particular wide open for abuse. And regardless of what restrictions are actually in place for lobbyists, the lack of a recording requirement on the government end of any lobbying activity - which the Cons seem to consider a closed question by now - will only lead to problems in trying to enforce whatever requirements exist.

Of course, it's still possible for the Cons to choose the better of their listed options. But it shouldn't be much of a secret that where the Cons stack the options on one side of the ledger, that division tends to reflect the outcome they prefer to see implemented. Which means that any good the Cons have done on the accountability file appears to be at an end - and that Canadians who want a more transparent government have every reason to make sure the Cons don't hold onto power any longer than can be avoided.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

An unstable platform

It turns out that the Libs are indeed working on developing some platform beyond the same one which got them beaten in 2006. But if Gerard Kennedy's comments are any indication, they're trying to go in many different directions at once in their policy development process:
Kennedy says some platform planks may be unveiled over the next two weeks, in addition to a major speech on the economy on Thursday. A third speech is planned for the following week but the subject matter has not yet been firmly nailed down.

Still, Kennedy says Dion is hamstrung somewhat by his commitment to consult widely with Liberals about the platform. It's a promise Kennedy says Dion is determined to keep, even though it hampers his ability to stake out a clear agenda immediately, which helps fuel Tory charges of indecisiveness.

"We can't take a short cut. People want today to know what the policies are going to be but if he did that today then he wouldn't have had the benefit of having engaged as many Liberals as we're trying to do."
While there are obviously some conflicting demands on the Libs, it looks like they're managing to avoid meeting any of them. Dion's current promises, whether based on past platforms or his own ideas, will only cast doubt on whether the consultation is intended to have any meaningful effect - while the ongoing consultations will in turn make any current statements appear tentative at best. And of course any change from Dion's current promises to the final results of the consultation will help to feed into Dion's image of indecisiveness and inconsistency.

Not that there are necessarily any easy answers given the processes that both Dion and the Libs have put into place. But it looks entirely likely that the current tour will only play into the weaknesses in both Dion's image and the legacy of their previous stay in power. And the more the Libs become known for having no reason or rhyme to either their actual policies or the process behind them, the more likely progressive Canadians will be to look for an alternative which doesn't suffer from the same weakness.

Further in the wrong direction

For those concerned that Canada wasn't doing quite enough to pass the buck when it comes to human rights for Afghan detainees, Gordon O'Connor has reassuring news.

But then, some of us may have hoped to see Canada actually take some action for itself to verify that human rights are respected - or at least secure access to information which would allow it to make sure that other parties meet their own commitments. And unfortunately (if not surprisingly), the Cons appear to remain entirely happy with their "mature" policy of ignorance.

Spin doctoring

Greg nicely dissects the willingness of mainstream pundits to spin every poll toward the "we're headed to a Con majority!" narrative even when there's no real evidence the Cons' position has improved at all.

But while the fairest interpretation of SES' data is probably that it tells us nothing we didn't know already, let's note that it would be equally accurate to read the poll as follows:
(T)he fact that a growing proportion of voters in every region except the West is "uncomfortable" with the idea of a Harper majority is terrible news for the Conservatives, and potentially good news for all other parties.

"Even though there's been no drop in the number of voters planning to vote Conservative, these numbers show that more and more voters from Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada see a Conservative majority as dangerous -- even with over a year in power Harper hasn't been able to shed the "boogeyman" label," (the pollster) notes.