Saturday, May 12, 2007

A display of weakness

It didn't take long for Gilles Duceppe to reverse course on his plans to run for the PQ leadership. But it's far from clear that the move will be anything short of the another disaster for the separatist movement (and concurrent benefit for federalists and the rest of Canada alike).

On the provincial side, the PQ will seemingly head toward a coronation for Pauline Marois rather than a meaningful race. But it can't speak highly of the party's strength or depth that someone who couldn't beat out Andre Boisclair just two years ago is now considered to be head and shoulders above all other options. And presumably both Boisclair's and Duceppe's supporters will be ready to pounce on Marois if she can't push a weakening party back to power in a hurry.

As for the Bloc, Duceppe himself will have plenty to answer for - both in his seeming admission that he sees federal politics as being less important than the provincial scene, and in his seeming confusion as to what his own personal goals are. And those factors can only ensure that both internal rivals and the other parties smell weakness...leaving the Bloc all the more vulnerable to what already looked to be an unfavourable federal scene.

Credit not due

Macleans (along with other media outlets) seems awfully eager to praise the U.S. for what's supposed to be a move in the right direction on border crossings. But it's worth noting that the position put forward as evidence is no change at all from the stance the U.S. has held for years - signalling that the push now is instead to get Canadians to be happy with what the U.S. has always been demanding, rather than for the U.S. to moderate its position at all.

From Macleans:
The United States may be backing down from its plan to require visitors to and from Canada to carry passports...

The U.S. ambassador to Ottawa made positive comments about an alternative proposal that relies on new security-enhanced drivers’ licenses instead.

Speaking in Winnipeg, Ambassador David Wilkins said that the Department of Homeland Security would consider accepting the new high-tech drivers’ licenses - pointing to a pilot project that has been approved for use of the secure licenses between the state of Washington and British Columbia.
The problem, of course, is that it's always been clear that some other form of ID might be accepted - with the only question being whether the U.S. would get its act together sufficiently to actually approve it. Remember this from early 2006:
A simple identity card the size of a driver's licence could be sufficient to allow Canadians to travel in the United States, the U.S. ambassador said Wednesday...

"The Department of Homeland Security is given the jurisdiction or the authority to come up with that or equivalent secure documents," Wilkins said in an interview.

"They are working very hard; it's being discussed at every level.

"I am optimistic that there will be such an alternative document to the passport," he said.
As a result, there's no reason to think that Wilkins' position - or that of the Bush administration - has moved an inch from where it stood all along. All that's been brought forward is a signal that some of the documents which Canadian provinces were working on anyway will finally be considered. In addition, there's no indication of what precise requirements are even on the table, meaning that provinces whose forms of ID aren't among those mentioned so far still figure to face problems when the land-crossing deadline strikes.

Granted, there's some reason for hope in the other evidence mentioned in the article - namely a call from the House of Representatives for both an extension of the deadline, and a study of the merit in more stringent documentation requirements. But there's still little reason to think that DHS in particular or the Bush administration in general have moved past their plan to impose greater burdens on Canadians for their own political purposes...and no reason at all for Canada to act grateful at finally receiving word that its efforts to meet the burden are being considered.

Extreme spin

I'm not quite sure why I bothered reading the column. But since I did, here's Shorter Larry Zolf:
On at least one issue, Harper has changed his position to be no more extreme than the Bush administration!1!!squarerootof121!!! Can you feel the centrism?

For added fun, compare and contrast to the Poor Man Institute's consistently brilliant mockery of pseudo-centrism. As best I can tell, the main difference is that in Zolf's case, the absurdity is entirely unintentional.

Defining the issues

The Times Colonist covers Jack Layton's visit to Victoria, featuring a call for a national pharmacare program and strong criticism of privatization run amok at both the provincial and federal levels:
Federal NDP Leader Jack Layton rolled out a national campaign in Victoria yesterday to provide universal prescription drug coverage and ripped into B.C. politicians for pursuing private developers to build Victoria's sewage treatment plants and hospitals.

"[Premier] Gordon Campbell is determined to privatize as much of this great province as he can -- he's even set up an organization to do it," Layton told Canadian Union of Public Employees-B.C. at their four-day annual convention at the Victoria Conference Centre.

"The purpose of Partnerships B.C. isn't to ensure fairness, transparency or accountability -- it's to ensure the highest profits for the corporations that sign up to public-private partnerships [P3s]," he said, referring to Royal Jubilee's new $269-million patient tower and plans for the region's $1.2-billion sewage treatment plants...

"Stephen Harper and Gordon Campbell are ganging up on local governments here in B.C.," the federal NDP leader said. "They are trying to force local governments to sign onto P3 agreements -- even when it's not in their best interest...

He also laid out his plan to provide prescription drug coverage for the 20 per cent of Canadians with little insurance and 3.5 million with none at all...

Initially, the federal government, through the provinces and territories, must start by providing catastrophic drug coverage.

That means putting a cap on the cost of expensive drugs for those who can't afford them so that they don't fall into financial ruin or stop taking treatment because they can't afford it.

Layton also proposed steps to reduce the costs of drugs for provincial governments and businesses that offer drug plans, limiting advertising by pharmaceutical companies, changing the rules around patents, and arranging bulk purchasing.
Needless to say, it's an excellent sign for Layton to be stepping outside the bounds of personality politics to focus attention on a couple of important policy issues which all too often get overlooked. And with the NDP seemingly surging in B.C. already, a strong campaign kicked off by Layton's visit should have a strong chance of either forcing the Campbell and Harper governments to answer for their neglect of public needs, or ensuring that they're punished at the polls if they don't.

Friday, May 11, 2007

On second thought

Bill C-31 managed to pass in the House of Commons with the support of the Cons, Libs and Bloc despite a massive set of readily-noticeable problems. But the Citizen reports that in the Senate, Libs and Cons alike are giving the bill the serious look that was sorely lacking in the lower house - and so far the consensus seems to be that the bill should be sent back to the drawing board:
A bill proposing to put the birth dates of all federal electors on copies of the permanent voter registry given to political parties could cause an explosion of identity theft and invasion of privacy, Liberal and Conservative senators warned yesterday.

In a rare departure from the wrangling that has recently enveloped the Senate, senators from both sides questioned Government House Leader Peter Van Loan over the proposal to release vital personal information so broadly.

"With the passage of this bill, everybody's date of birth is going to be known to everybody in Canada," said Liberal Senator George Baker, noting Elections Canada gives the political parties electronic copies of the permanent voters list three times a year as it is updated with new data on citizens.

Mr. Baker, who cited court rulings saying compulsory release of birth information violates the Charter of Rights in certain circumstances, found support from Conservative Senator Pierre-Claude Nolin, who also raised concerns about rights violations...

Liberal Senator Lorna Milne...noted parties swell their ranks during election campaigns with volunteers who may be unfamiliar to party organizers: "People just walk in off the streets and volunteer."
While the Senate may suffer from serious problems from a legitimacy standpoint, in this case it's providing at least some counterbalance to the party-over-public viewpoint that managed to push the bill through the House of Commons. And it'll be interesting to see what happens if the seeming position on both sides of the aisle in the Senate holds up.

Will Harper be as eager to accuse his own party of Senate obstruction as he seems to be with the Libs? Will the Senate grudgingly pass the bill with or without prodding? Or will the bill be sent back for serious changes which either the Cons alone or the Libs and Bloc together will be forced into accepting in the public interest?

One way or another, it's for the best that C-31 is coming under more scrutiny. And hopefully today's questions are merely the first step in a process to make sure the worst parts of the bill get cut out before it passes into law.

On unintended consequences

In and of itself, the Cons' proposal to increase the number of Ontario, B.C. and Alberta seats in the House of Commons looks to act as little more than an ineffective temporary diversion: a readjustment was set to take place around the same time anyway, and the likely anger from provinces which will receive proportionally less seats figures more than outweigh the gratitude of the provinces which will receive more.

But it's worth noting that while the plan may have little practical impact on the federal political scene, it may have a far greater effect in helping one of the Cons' least-desired democratic reforms to take root in Ontario.

After all, one of the most immediate criticisms of Ontario's proposed MMP system - and likely one of the most effective from a sheer populist perspective - has been the complaint that the province doesn't need more politicians.

But at last notice, the provincial Cons figured to be the primary opponents of the MMP plan. And it'll be awfully tough for Tory and company to make use of that argument when their federal cousins - led by some of the most prominent figures in the last provincial Con government - are actively increasing the number of legislators on the federal scene. Which means that the Ontario discussion figures to spend substantially more time on much more favourable territory for the "Yes" side.

In the end, Harper's most significant contribution to real democratic reform may be in the last way his party would have expected - or wanted - to influence how Canadians choose their leaders. And with any luck, a successful Ontario move toward more proportional voting will only be the beginning of a national trend.

Freedom of speech ends where we disagree: Committee Edition

The NDP's hard-fought effort to win hearings on the Security and Prosperity Partnership may only be a first step in attracting public attention to the issue of deep integration. But it's managed to cause yet another Con to blow a fuse - this time the committee chair Leon Benoit, who attempted to shut down the hearing to prevent a witness from testifying about the consequences of guaranteeing energy supplies to the U.S.:
Amid heated charges of a coverup, Tory MPs yesterday abruptly shut down parliamentary hearings on a controversial plan to further integrate Canada and the U.S.

The firestorm erupted within minutes of testimony by University of Alberta professor Gordon Laxer that Canadians will be left "to freeze in the dark" if the government forges ahead with plans to integrate energy supplies across North America...

The deal, which calls North American "energy security" a priority, will commit Canada to ensuring American energy supplies even though Canada itself -- unlike most industrialized nations -- has no national plan or reserves to protect its own supplies, he argued.

At that point, Tory MP Leon Benoit, chair of the Commons Standing Committee on International Trade, which was holding the SPP hearings, ordered Mr. Laxer to halt his testimony, saying it was not relevant.

Opposition MPs called for, and won, a vote to overrule Mr. Benoit's ruling.

Mr. Benoit then threw down his pen, declaring, "This meeting is adjourned," and stormed out, followed by three of the panel's four Conservative members.

The remaining members voted to continue, with the Liberal vice-chair presiding.

Mr. Benoit's actions are virtually unprecedented, observers say; at press time, procedure experts still hadn't figured out whether he had the right to adjourn the meeting unilaterally.
It's mildly surprising that Benoit was himself taken aback by testimony which shouldn't have come as much surprise given the NDP's legitimate concerns about the effects of ceding Canadian sovereignty. But that aside, Benoit's action seems only to be yet another symptom of the Cons' general belief in a right to shut down any discussion which doesn't suit their political purposes.

Fortunately, the effect of Benoit's snit will likely be to win more attention for Laxer's testimony than might otherwise have been received. And if the opposition parties continue to ensure that information is available despite the Cons' desire to suppress it, it shouldn't be long before the wave of truth washes Harper and company out of any position to dictate who says what.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

On choosing one's battles

While the Libs' response to the arrest of a civil servant for leaking details was a bit dubious from the beginning, I was prepared to let it pass without comment in and of itself. But David Akin notes that not only has Dion taken a traditional strong Lib stand against accountability, but he's also gone out of his way to provoke a battle with the NDP...even when given a golden opportunity to highlight the Cons' policy failures instead:
Reporter: Mr. Layton has just said that he wishes the Conservative government would be as zealous in reducing pollution as it is in reducing leaks.

Dion: Mr. Layton will never govern. I have a responsibility as Leader of the Opposition. I want to become Prime Minister of this country. I need to be respected and I will never encourage this kind of behaviour whether it's from Environment Canada or Finance Canada or whatever. I will not speculate on this specific case. I don't know if I may come with accusations against the government when I don't know what is happening. I will not comment on the specific case. For the principle, I think civil servants must respect the secrecy of their role.
Of course, at the best of times the attitude espoused by Dion can only be described as the kind of arrogance that got the Libs booted out of office to begin with. But this example of it is particularly damning for a few reasons.

First, it seems to have occurred out of a relatively spontaneous exchange. An argument might be available that the Libs' usual attacks on the NDP are the product of strategists or spin doctors. But Dion's knee-jerk dismissal of Layton seems to be his first personal reaction to a mention of the NDP, even when the message from Layton is one that Dion would presumably support at least in part. Which can leave no doubt that for all the effort to present himself as something above politics as usual, his first impulse is to head directly for the gutter.

Second, while showing what Dion apparently believes personally, it also calls into question the honesty and sincerity behind his arrangement with the Greens. After all, if Dion believes that the leader of a party with 29 seats should be dismissed out of hand due to his supposed unlikelihood of forming government, surely that must reflect an even greater contempt for a party which has never won a single one. (Unless, of course, Dion has reason to figure that May will be a part of the Lib fold before too long - but that would reflect even more deviousness behind the alliance.)

And third (and most importantly), it suggests that Dion is so eager to slam the NDP on a relatively small issue that he's willing to ignore a major area of policy agreement just to get in a single shot at Layton. Surely Dion's most obvious apparent goals - to oppose the Cons and to secure environmental action - would be best met by riffing off Layton's statement to discuss the importance of reducing pollution by passing the amended C-30. But Dion's decision to turn away from those ends would seem to suggest either that Dion is awfully easily distracted from his party's main apparent goals, or that his priorities lie elsewhere.

Now, I'm certainly not going to claim that Dion can't or shouldn't criticize Layton, just as it's entirely legitimate for the NDP to focus attention on the Libs when warranted. But if he's eager to turn discussion in that direction even at the expense of letting the Cons off the hook for both their iron-fisted management style and their poor environmental policy, then there's just one more reason to think that the Libs are far from the most effective opposition party in Canada - and that it's long past time to prove Dion's assumptions wrong.

On intelligent coverage

I've noted many times before that one of the largest problems with most mainstream coverage of politics is that it generally fails to distinguish between substance and spin (or even outright nonsense). With that in mind, let's give due credit to Aaron Wherry for contrasting Dawn Black's substantive questions on Afghanistan with the embarrassing non-responses provided by Peter MacKay (and other assorted hijinks):
(W)hile the buffoons were basking in their bons mots, the Speaker called upon the honourable member for New Westminster-Coquitlam and up rose the NDP's Dawn Black.

"Mr. Speaker, Afghans are increasingly concerned with the mounting civilian death toll," she explained. "This week the Afghan senate asked foreign forces to put an end to the hunting and the search and destroy approach. Last week President Karzai said the civilian death toll is something his government can no longer accept. Will the government acknowledge the serious concerns of the Afghan government and change course, just as Afghan officials and the Canadian public are demanding?"

Now, as the New Democrat defence critic, Dawn Black isn't likely allowed much room for improvisation. Her agenda is fairly obvious. But that aside, this seemed a fairly intelligent and well-meaning query.

We can perhaps debate who is or is not being beaten with electrical cords, what the Canadian military has to do with that and what can be done in a foreign country where the issue of jurisdiction and responsibility is the stuff of legal briefs. But it is difficult to dispute that in military conflicts, innocent people - that is to say, those who are not actively trying to facilitate the killing of our guys - are often unduly harmed. And even the most coldly practical among us must concede that unwarranted death and destruction do not generally endear an occupying force to its occupied nation, nor fill the homeside with patriotism. This is, then, a reasonable concern.

So up came Peter MacKay. "With respect to international security assistance force, it is a UN-mandated NATO mission," the Foreign Affairs Minister explained. "We are all aware of that. We know that the operations are conducted with the consent of the Afghan authorities under a democratically-elected government in Afghanistan. NATO operations are conducted jointly, alongside Afghan national forces."

This seemed a fine way of saying, "Hey, we aren't the only ones who periodically blow up women, children and well-meaning old people."

Dawn Black pressed on. "Mr. Speaker, 90 civilian deaths in the last two weeks is something to take very seriously. The Conservative government cannot tell us anything about what is happening with Afghan detainees. It cannot give us a straight answer about the duration of the mission. Canadians have clearly lost confidence in the Minister of National Defence and the government's handling of the war. If the Government of Afghanistan does ask Canada and NATO to change their tactics, will the government do so?"

Setting aside the debatability of several assumptions therein, this too seemed a reasonable question.

Here came MacKay's response. "What we know very well is when it comes to the mission in Afghanistan, the members of the NDP are sheep in sheep's clothing."

One assumes the Foreign Affairs Minister was trying to be smart. One might subsequently suggest that the Buffoon from Bourassa may want to save a chair at the next club meeting.
Now, it could be that the focus (along with a relatively similar contrast the previous day) will be the exception rather than the rule. And indeed, it does seem clear that the story about some MPs providing more substance than others is only being told as a matter of contrast when a real policy discussion immediately precedes or follows the very worst of the worst - thus offering at least equal time and notoriety to those who stand out for their lack of substance.

But the more attention there is to the difference between MPs who are using their public platform to deal with real issues and those who see the House of Commons as a place where, truth, decorum and intelligent thought are all optional, the more likely Canadians are to ask why we don't have more of the former. And hopefully that kind of discussion will be both continued in Wherry's coverage, and picked up by others as well.

(Edit: fixed label.)

On visions

Mitchell Anderson joins the crowd suggesting that Stephane Dion can help himself, his party and Canada's electoral scene by taking up the cause of a more proportional voting system. But while it would be a huge plus if the Libs heeded that advice, it looks far too likely that they're still in the mindset that a new coat of paint for Dion himself is all the bold strategy they need.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A crime of inconvenience

Shorter "message" from John Baird and the rest of the Cons:
Government sources leak when we tell them to leak, and not a moment sooner.


Update: I'd planned to follow up on Baird's laughable interpretation of the difference between a "whistle-blower" and...well, somebody who doesn't say what the Cons want to hear. But Greg has taken care of it.

On non-confidence

Politics Watch reports that Con MP Guy Lauzon will rightly face a vote of non-confidence from Yvon Godin and the other opposition members of the Official Languages Committee for his sudden cancellation of hearings on the Court Challenges Program:
On Tuesday, NDP MP Yvon Godin held a press conference on Parliament Hill to announce he had given a notice of motion to the clerk of the committee to express no-confidence in Lauzon.

The motion calls for Lauzon to "be relieved of his duties" for the cancellation of Tuesday's meeting on the Court Challenges Program.

"The chair acted against the will of the committee and overstepped his role as chair," Godin's motion reads. "As a consequence, he has lost the confidence of the committee."

Godin said he expects the committee will deal with the motion when it is scheduled to meet next Tuesday. If Lauzon cancels that meeting, too, then committee members could bypass him and have a meeting without the chair's consent within 48 hours if four MPs agree to it. Either way, a vote of no-confidence is expected next week.

Bloc MP Richard Nadeau said Lauzon's actions this week means he's "not fit for the job any more."

"How can we have confidence in someone who's not even man enough to tell us (about cancelling the meetings) in front of us in the committee," the Bloc MP told PoliticsWatch.

Liberal MP Raymonde Folco said Lauzon's actions to single-handedly take control of the committee's agenda were "utterly unethical and unacceptable."

"I will be supporting Mr. Godin and all the members of the Liberal caucus will be supporting Mr. Godin," she told reporters after question period.
If there's anything faintly disappointing about the move, it's that Lauzon will face repercussions for an action less deserving of censure than those of numerous Con members of cabinet who have gone without formal punishment.

But it can't hurt for the Cons to receive a reminder that they can't rule Parliament by fiat any more than they can the country as a whole - and that for all the other parties's differences, they can readily agree not to let the Cons off the hook for trying to avoid any accountability for their actions.

Correcting the record

As I'd feared yesterday, Lib bloggers are out in force in trying to attack the very idea of removing big-money supporter loans from politics. While I'd much rather see a cooperative effort to improve the bill going forward to make sure that the end result is as fair as possible, I'll take a few minutes to debunk a couple of the more glaring pieces of misinformation on the topic.

1. A restriction on loans makes big-money campaigns less important, not more important.

A number of the Lib commentaries have seized on a claim that the effect would be to somehow favour big-money, self-financed campaigns. Suffice it to say that that's a patently wrong interpretation of the ban on loans: indeed, the very nature of the move is to ensure that big-money donations - whether from oneself or from others - don't find their way into the political system as "loans" (with or without a "wink-wink" background).

But what about the question of banks being more willing to loan to a person with money? As it stands, another loophole which would be closed is one related to guaranteeing loans. From the Globe and Mail:
The legislation will allow only banks to lend to political candidates, and places stringent limits on providing guarantees or collateral for politicians.
I'm presuming that the rules would also applying to repaying loans after the fact (i.e. that this would be classified as a "donation"), such that individual wealth will be properly removed from the system. And if the Cons' legislation as phrased doesn't go so far as to cover repayment later such as to result in a benefit to wealthier candidates, the proper response would be to try to amend it to close that last loophole - rather than to demand that nothing be fixed.

2. A system based on commercial loans (if any) makes for a playing field that's more equal and fair, not less so.

Remember that in the Libs' leadership campaign, Carolyn Bennett managed to take out a CIBC loan for $35,000 based solely on their presumptive appraisal of the ability of a lower-tier candidate to make up that amount. It thus seems readily apparent that money is available from financial institutions.

So why did so many Libs choose to make use of private loans instead? Presumably, the main reason is because they were able to get a better interest rate or better repayment terms out of supporters (or themselves) than out of a bank. Or perhaps it's because unlike banks, private supporters were more than willing to see the money converted into a donation if repayment doesn't prove possible.

But that only hints at the fact that it's the current system which involves a need for big-money supporters to provide a candidate with a better financial footing that his or her competitors. In contrast, in a system based on regulated financial institutions, it's the candidate's ability to fund-raise and attract support - so as to offer confidence that the loan can in fact be repaid, rather than serving as a disguised donation - that will determine a candidate's available loan funding. In sum, the proposed change involves a move from a system based on self-funding and/or cronyism, to one where any available loans are based on merit.

Of course, it does bear mention that Bennett's loan was smaller than the ones her competitors received from their supporters. But that only hints at another potential benefit: a need for all loans to be justifiable on a commercial basis would likely limit the amount of money involved in a race, forcing candidates to persuade potential supporters through words and actions rather than dollars to a greater extent. Which only feeds into a shift away from reliance on big money, rather than the move toward it that Lib supporters seem to want to allege.

None of the above is to blame the Libs for operating within the system that existed at the time of their leadership race. But if the party seriously plans on trying to argue that an attempt to remove a loophole which allows for unlimited back-door funding constitutes an "attack (on) democracy", then it's going to be awfully tough to for anybody to believe that the Libs are any less beholden to big-money supporters than they've ever been. And I hope at least some Libs will come around to the merits of trying to improve the plan to close the campaign-loan loophole, rather than stubbornly assuming that any policy which calls into question anything the Libs have ever done must itself be indefensible.

Update: Full credit to Steve for one in separating politics from policy. (And if anything, he seems more supportive of some of the Cons' other plans than I'd be.)

Update II: Now that the original hysteria has died down, Jason (no, seriously) and Jeff have some constructive thoughts on how the Cons' proposal could be improved. In the case of Jason's ideas, I wonder only whether the dollar amounts will take care of themselves under a commercial-loan system (particularly to the extent that a party will itself decide its own nomination costs and procedures), but the possibility of including statutory spending caps is certainly worth discussing. And it's hard to quibble with Jeff's points about making a riding association liable for the acts of a candidate who may well have few long-term links to the riding and/or the party.

On roleplaying

Sure, it looks bad enough for the Cons that another of their MPs - this time Gord Brown - has been caught allowing an assistant to impersonate him. But I suspect it may only get worse: how much more damaging will it be when word gets out that the role of "Question Period Gordon O'Connor" has been played by a paperweight for the last three weeks?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Valuing diversity

The Globe and Mail reports that Canada's exports to Europe have been skyrocketing over the past 5 years, resulting in both a large amount of business and a significant decline in Canada's dependence on the U.S.

Which would seem to be a fairly obvious plus for the country. But somewhere, Canada's most-prominent right-wingers are working to reverse the trend.

Accentuating the negative

It's bad enough that the Cons have as few useful ideas as they do. But it's all the worse when even the rare plan worth supporting is packaged in a way which makes it sound less worthwhile than it is. Which brings us to the Cons' planned legislation on political loans - and the decidedly negative message behind it:
The new legislation will:
- Ban corporations and unions from making political loans.
- Allow individuals to loan or provide loan guarantees only up to the amount of their $1,100 personal donation limit.
- Allow only banks, credit unions and such accredited financial institutions to make loans of more than $1,100, at commercial rates of interest. Parties or their riding associations will also be able to loan funds at commercial rates.

In the case of candidates in an election, the new law will make riding associations responsible for any unpaid loans.

But there will be no similar backstop for loans taken out by leadership contenders.
Now, it's hard to quibble with much in the plan itself. While there will be some room for debate in either direction as to what parties should be able to fund, on the balance there shouldn't be much room for disagreement with the idea that the loan loophole is one worth I've been pointing out since the Canadian Action Party first used it.

So the policy is a huge plus in and of itself. But the Cons' primary message - which has been taken up to at least some extent in the other blog posts dealing with the issue - is based on the premise that the plan is merely a means to embarrass the Libs for their recent leadership race, rather than a meaningful policy idea.

And that kind of message (which was unfortunately picked up to a lesser extent in Layton's response as well) can only poison the general perception of the policy on its own. Not only will the message encourage the Libs to oppose the legislation itself vociferously lest they be seen to agree with the Cons' criticisms, it will also make the legislation itself appear to be more of a partisan shot than anything worth pursuing on its own.

Of course, the good news is that the plan figures to become law before long. And the positive effects of the policy will hopefully far outlast the current politics surrounding it. But it has to be a bad sign that the Con government can't even introduce a meritorious policy without turning the announcement into another mudslinging opportunity.

A crumbling Bloc

Andre Boisclair's resignation as leader of the PQ is grabbing the headlines so far. But while that may have been sufficiently predictable to lead to few lasting implications, there's another story today which seems to have far more potential to damage the separatist movement, as Gilles Duceppe's agreement to apologize to Stephane Dion for libel within the Bloc's 2006 campaign materials should result in serious questions about both the leader and the party:
Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe will publicly apologize to Stephane Dion as part of an out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit after the separatist party published a French pamphlet in 2005 linking the Liberal leader to the sponsorship scandal.

Mr. Duceppe has agreed to apologize for the offending pamphlet, which was distributed to thousands of homes in 22 ridings in Quebec just before the launch of the 2006 winter election. The pamphlet, titled "La route de l'argent" (the money trail), showed arrows pointing to Mr. Dion and other Liberal politicians. In papers served on Mr. Duceppe, Mr. Dion pointed out that the Gomery commission absolved him of any links to the scandal and the pamphlet libelled him by suggesting he benefited financially.

A spokesperson for Mr. Duceppe's office confirmed the separatist leader will sign an apology in a similar pamphlet to be distributed in the same 22 ridings in June.
Given that the Bloc has defined itself primarily in opposition to the Libs in Quebec, it would seem to be a major blow to its credibility to publicly admit that it falsely portrayed its strongest issue in the last election. And the damage would both spill over to the PQ and be amplified if the leader most responsible for the fabrication is then anointed the new face of separatism within Quebec.

Mind you, the federal Libs may not see themselves having much incentive to try to discredit Duceppe or the Bloc. And that likely explains the relative silence about the agreement so far.

But even if Dion isn't motivated to highlight Duceppe's retraction, the issue doesn't figure to go away entirely...particularly if Jean Charest can dismiss criticism of his own government on the provincial level by showing how Duceppe was off the mark federally. And that only figures to send Quebec's political scene into a state of even greater flux - with plenty of room for surprises as a result.

At Crazy Stevie's, no decision is ever final

So how's that strong, decisive government working out so far? In just the last week, word has come out about major backtracks or exceptions to three of the Cons' supposedly most principled actions, including:
- an environmental carve-out for the industry which figures to cause the most damage as it expands;
- a "clarification" which will effectively undo a policy against subsidizing investments outside Canada; and
- discussion of a funding side deal for Nova Scotia, which would be labeled as something other than "equalization" in an effort to claim that a consistent formula was applied.

Somewhere, Brent Fullard is grinning from ear to ear - while he orders his next ad buy.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Unanticipated consequences

Another aspect of the Libs' leadership race beyond the large and unpaid loans has made its way into the news, as Bob Rae is apparently leading a legal challenge to an Elections Canada interpretation that the candidates' deposit to the party can't be returned to them:
As former Liberal leadership contenders scrounge for money to pay off up to $3 million in cumulative campaign debts, Bob Rae has gone to court to recoup the $50,000 deposit each candidate was required to plunk down.

The money is desperately needed by some candidates. At least two of them are finding it so difficult to raise money that they're urging the party to take over all campaign debts for all 11 contenders. Those with knowledge of the discussions say that's highly unlikely to happen.

The party found itself flush with cash after last December's profitable leadership convention and promises were made to refund the deposits as a way of helping candidates reduce their onerous debts.

But Elections Canada vetoed the move as an illegal cash transfer.

The watchdog agency considered the deposits to be entry fees, not refundable deposits. And while the law allows candidates to pay for services from the party, Elections Canada ruled that it does not allow the party to transfer cash to candidates.
Just so there's no doubt, the action doesn't appear to involve any conflict between Rae and either the Libs as a whole or anybody within the party.

But it does call into question whether the Libs had fully thought through the ramifications of their leadership process at the time, or whether this is another case of the Libs' party structure being asleep at the switch. And the Libs' trouble raising money can only become all the more damaging if a lack of advance planning results in the party's most prominent figures having to raise larger-than-anticipated amounts for themselves.

Room for cooperation

The CP reports on the NDP's call to modernize the Canada Elections Act to account for the new fixed-election-date system. And based on the issues now in play, it's not hard to see where there's room for cooperation to fix some of the current holes in our electoral regime:
The NDP wants comprehensive electoral reforms before the next federal vote, not the "piecemeal" approach it says is being taken by the Conservative government...

New Democrat MPs Paul Dewar and Pat Martin say the Tories appear fixated with partisan concerns and not with a comprehensive overhaul.

Now that Canada is committed to fixed election dates every four years, the New Democrats believe electoral cycles will be fundamentally altered.

All parties will begin gearing up well before the writ is dropped, when current rules for campaign spending kick in.

So the NDP wants rules on political spending between campaigns. That way, they say, no one party will be able to dominate political advertising "just by virtue of the size of their bank account."
None of the issues appear to be particularly new ones. But the timing may be right to allow for far more progress than the other parties were willing to work toward last year.

On the issue of loans, the NDP has been calling for action for some time already. Which means that even if the Libs want to try to defend the system that effectively funded their leadership race, there's every reason to think that some needed controls will be put in place. At the same time, though, the NDP may need to team up with the other opposition parties to ensure that commercial loans remain an option, such that the Cons' cash-on-hand advantage doesn't translate into a radical difference in campaign resources.

As for non-campaign spending, it shouldn't be a particularly difficult job to sell the need for such reforms to the other opposition parties. Not only is the idea an easy one to support on principle once the election date is set in stone, but the Libs' and Bloc's self-interest will clearly dictate that the Cons not be allowed to spend at will in the months leading up to an election campaign.

In sum, the types of electoral reforms currently under discussion should allow the NDP to broker a number of different agreements. And even if neither the Cons nor the Libs are willing to work toward the most important possible reform (a switch to a more fair voting system), the end result will hopefully be an electoral system which better emphasizes ideas over dollars.

Stuck in neutral

Following up on last week's Star report, the Hill Times discusses the opposition parties' options in bringing the amended C-30 before the House of Commons. (See final headline link.) But unfortunately, it doesn't look like there's yet much commitment to move the issue forward:
Mr. Cullen said the Conservatives have lost credibility on the environment and will work to implement stronger targets. He said the NDP will negotiate with the other parties at the Environment and Sustainable Development committee and work through legal parameters to include parts of C-30 in C-377. "This one has been accepted by the House in principle and that allows us to have some certainty as to when it will be delivered back and compel this government who's lost what little credibility they had, [to act]. Canadians just don't trust them on this file. So that means we have to find another route to get there."...

Liberal MP David McGuinty (Ottawa South, Ont.), his party's environment critic, said the Liberals are also looking at possible ways to bring C-30 back to the House. "We will not let the government walk away from Bill C-30," he said.
Unfortunately, one of the more obvious possible routes - namely a private member's bill based on the agreed C-30 framework - still doesn't appear to have surfaced either before Parliament or in the discussion from either Cullen or McGuinty. And one would think that this and other possibilities would at least be worth mentioning as examples of the "routes" or "ways" which the opposition parties have presumably been looking for since C-30 was first amended.

Meanwhile, it also seems that the Bloc has already missed one opportunity to bring C-30 to the forefront, and nobody else has given any indication of doing any better:
The NDP wrote a letter to both the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois on April 27 asking them to use their opposition days to try to force the government to call the report of the legislative committee on Bill C-30 for debate. The Liberals had an opposition day last week, but used it to call on the House to apologize to aboriginal Canadians who suffered in residential schools. This week, the Bloc have their opposition day on Tuesday and will use it to discuss the rising gas prices in Quebec. Mr. Bigras said he had put in a motion to call on the House to debate the C-30 report, but the party chose gas prices as their supply day topic. The Liberals have a supply day on Thursday, but it's unclear what the party will choose to debate. Mr. Cullen said the NDP's opposition day is still too far away to commit to a topic.

None of the opposition parties said they were willing to use their opposition day to try to defeat the government on the environment.
The latter point is understandable given the potential for other means of getting results from the current Parliament. And indeed brinksmanship probably isn't the best way of moving the issue forward.

But even if a confidence vote isn't in the cards just yet, there doesn't seem to be much reason for any opposition party to hold off on a motion calling on the Cons to bring C-30 forward. And the longer the opposition parties let the issue slide without even a preliminary step toward keeping the environmental focus in Parliament, the more likely the Cons will be to get away with nothing more than their own sad excuse for a plan.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Poll error

Most of the discussion about the Cons' ever-more-rank stench of corruption has surrounded Jean-Pierre Blackburn's hidden airplane rentals. (Suggested motto: "Secret flights: not just for extraordinary rendition anymore!")

But the story which figures to be more interesting in the longer term is the news surrounding the Cons' multiple-language polling. And even there, I wonder whether the most important issue hasn't been missed in the discussion so far. From the CP:
(A) $117,000 research project completed for the Privy Council Office, entitled "Exploring the Views of Canada's Multicultural Communities," does not appear in public records. The report was issued last September, meaning it should have been publicly listed no later than March.

Asked about the non-compliance, a PCO spokeswoman said officials were working to fulfil disclosure requirements. No explanation was given for the delay...

Government guidelines only specifically prohibit polling subject matter such as voting intentions and perceptions about party leaders. Departments routinely do polls to gauge public reaction and knowledge as they move forward with their policies.

However, the auditor general reported early this year that there are still problems with departments failing to provide a rationale for the research they commission.

The main objectives described in the Ipsos-Reid research were "understanding the views of Canada's multicultural communities as to issues facing the country and immigrant communities," and "awareness of the government's agenda, their views on government's performance."
It's hard to see how a prohibition against polling on "perceptions about party leaders" would leave much scope for asking about "views on government's performance": surely polling doesn't suddenly move from being illegitimate to legitimate simply because it asks about only the governing party rather than all parties.

And indeed, in some ways it's even more objectionable to limit the polling to one party. In particular, it's worth wondering whether the poll amounts to a modified push poll by injecting the Cons' message into communities which otherwise don't seem particularly interested in listening to it.

That said, may be that the poll itself managed to remain within the strict letter of the existing guidelines. But even if the Cons didn't break the current rules, it seems glaringly clear that they're pushing as far toward using the government apparatus for party gain as they think they can get away with. And it shouldn't take much polling to figure out that few Canadians - whether or not within the Cons' targeted ethnic communities - want a government which thinks the public purse is nothing more than its own political research and development fund.

Message received

I've discussed on numerous occasions my theory that the Cons' supposed commitment to accountability was based their interpretation of the term as "inflicting punishment on one's political enemies". But even I didn't think the Cons would be crass enough to publicly (if implicitly) admit that definition:
An official from the Prime Minister's Office recently followed a journalist off Parliament Hill, then approached the reporter to challenge a story about the PMO's refusal to disclose how Harper's travelling hairdresser is being paid.

The official told the reporter three times that accountability measures are for crooks, not honest people.
I'll look at the substantive issues in detail later. But for now, it's worth emphasizing that all the visible cracks are nothing more than a symptom of the Cons' general belief in a divine right to avoid scrutiny of their actions, based on nothing more than their belief in their own rightness. And while the Cons surely aren't about to admit it, that kind of structure can only ensure that crooks are able to thrive in their midst.