Saturday, May 26, 2007

Dangerous possibilities

Politics Watch's Legislative Update adds one more element to the list of downsides if the Cons decide to prorogue Parliament in order to cut off the progress of Bill C-288 and avoid ongoing opposition scrutiny, as such a move would leave Parliament unable to quickly respond to any pressing issue which might arise over the course of the summer:
(O)nce you prorogue Parliament it's not as easy to start it up again as it is after a normal recess.

"After you prorogue there is a rather elaborate procedure that includes a throne speech before you can come back into session," Liberal House Ralph Goodale told PoliticsWatch.

Goodale said if the government were to prorogue and there was a crisis this summer, such as a transportation strike, the government could not just call Parliament back on one day's notice.

"They would have to have a throne speech, the official opening of Parliament and the throne speech of (sic) debate before they can get to whatever emergency debate might come up."

With aboriginal groups and now labour groups make (sic) warnings about a summer of protest and discontent, coupled with the normal unforeseen problems that could arise in today's dangerous world, a decision by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to prorogue to put the brakes on his party's rough few weeks in Parliament is a gamble.
It would be particularly rich for the Cons to leave Parliament unable to quickly respond to an emergency at the same time that they're trying to take credit for a "strategy" to better deal with threats.

But then, it isn't yet confirmed that the Cons will actually be so reckless as to prorogue Parliament. And hopefully they'll realize that the potential negatives of prorogation far outweigh any minimal political benefit which the Cons could acquire by shutting down the current session ahead of schedule.

No reason for delay

One more point should be highlighted from last night's article on Canada's greenhouse gas emission record. While data showing that emission levels had stabilized from 2003 to 2005 is far from a credit to the Libs, it surely disproves one of the Cons' favourite excuses for kicking any action down the road:
Canada's greenhouse gas emissions have stabilized in recent years, but the latest numbers are still 32 per cent above Kyoto Protocol targets, according to data sent to the United Nations on Friday.

Canada emitted 747 megatonnes of greenhouse gases in 2005, compared to the 1990 level of 596 megatonnes, according to data sent by Environment Canada to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. But the 2005 emission levels were unchanged from the previous year and only 0.3 per cent higher than in 2003.
Now, it's possible that emissions may have started rising again in 2006. And if so, that would presumably have been helped along by the Cons' lack of interest in the environment on taking office.

But the new data shows that there's absolutely no truth to the Cons' typical bleatings that we need to spend years pondering how to reduce the rate at which emission increases are accelerating before the concept of absolute reductions can even be discussed. Instead, Canada's emissions may well be stabilized already, and at worse could be returned to a stable position through the same policies which were in place when the Cons first took office.

Again, none of the above is to say that we should be satisfied with merely stabilizing the damage, or that the Libs were anything but negligent in allowing emissions to grow to their current level. But the next necessary step is to actually start reducing Canada's emissions - not merely to try to restrain "growth" which isn't even taking place. And voters have no reason to think that a government which has done its best to misrepresent our actual starting point can be trusted to lead Canada forward from there.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Lifting up the barrel

We knew the federal Cons were frantically searching for any new message they could come up with to deflect attention from their own incompetence. But did anybody suspect they were desperate enough to run on Mike Harris' record?

Update: Of course, it could be worse, as the Cons could be trying to run on a fictitious account of Mike Harris' record. But surely even they couldn't be that far off the mark, could they?

On legacies

While it's hard to disagree with Greg's suggested legacy project for Gary Doer, it looks like Doer himself has a highly worthwhile idea as well:
(Doer) intends to continue his plan to make Manitoba Hydro a linchpin of the province’s economic development and to make the province a green economy leader. “I believe the future for Manitoba and the future of my children and grandchildren relies on developing renewable energy for all the people of Manitoba,” he has said.

To that end, he has revived the $5-billion Conawapa hydroelectric project in the province’s north - something he appears to envision as a legacy project.
Of course, it would be all the better if Doer continues Manitoba's leadership on the political front as well as the environment.

But a concerted focus on clean and renewable energy could both secure Manitoba's economic future, and provide a wide swath of Canada with access to ample energy long after the oil sands stop booming. And in the longer term, such a move could ensure that Doer goes from being perceived as a merely a skilled manager, to being remembered for a mammoth contribution to Canadian sustainability.

Just how they like it

The Star reports on the Cons' focus groups to test public reaction to their income-trust turnaround. But it's their reaction after the fact that says all one needs to know about the Con view of the Canadian public:
(A spokesman for Jim Flaherty) said the government was satisfied with the level of knowledge about the issue and its implications that the public had received through media reports "and we didn't need to add to it."

But an account from the focus groups, conducted by Ipsos-Reid, found awareness of the trust issue to be "very low."
Not that it should come as much surprise for the Cons to hold the view that the less Canadians in general know about what they're doing in office, the better off they'll be. But it still takes an added degree of contempt for the Cons to publicly make the statement that a "very low" degree of knowledge is entirely satisfactory. And hopefully voters will surprise the Cons by maintaining full knowledge about their own lack of respect next time they go to the polls - and matching it in kind.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Time for a move

The TILMA has evolved over the past year or so from an issue primarily affecting Alberta and B.C., to one with a broad national interest due to the federal Cons' interest in pushing the agreement. But it now looks like the TILMA has turned largely into a provincial issue within Saskatchewan more than anything else, due to both the first public consultation in the country and the distinct possibility that the next provincial election will be fought largely over the TILMA.

As a result, I'll be posting future material on the TILMA at the Saskatchewan Citizens Federation blog (often with a pointer from here). For the first instalment, see this post on the impact of the TILMA on Crown corporations.

Works in progress

I posted yesterday on why the federal opposition parties should be eager to keep the spring session of Parliament running as long as possible, rather than looking for reasons to accede to the Cons' spin that nothing more can get done before the summer. But as Eugene points out, the Cons do have the exclusive authority to prorogue Parliament themselves. So let's consider some of the bills which the Cons would derail by unilaterally dissolving the current session.

Let's note off the top one of the highest-profile bills whose progress would be stalled: Bill C-288, which has passed in the House of Commons but has not yet received third reading in the Senate. As noted by John Ivison, though, the Cons would be entirely happy to let the undemocratic Senate stall the majority of public opinion when it fits the Cons' ideology - and indeed they may be seeking to do everything in their power to prevent C-288 from becoming law.

Likewise, while the three opposition parties appear strongly supportive of the NDP's Early Learning and Child Care Act which has made it out of committee in the House of Commons, the Cons presumably wouldn't shed a tear if federal child care funding continues to completely lack for any rules, standards or measurable results.

But then, there are plenty of other bills whose fate lies in the Cons' hands which they're presumably far less eager to be responsible for killing. From the index of private members' bills at LegisInfo (as listed today, though the list unfortunately appears slightly out of date):
- Bill C-252, a bill from Con MP Rick Casson which would ensure that a spouse's terminal or critical illness is considered a change in circumstances for the purposes of child custody and access. This bill managed to pass unanimously in the House, but is at the same post-report stage as C-288 in the Senate.
- Bill C-277, from Con MP Ed Fast, which would increase the maximum sentences available for the criminal offence of luring a child. This bill is awaiting committee consideration in the Senate.
- Bill C-343, from Con MP Andrew Scheer, would set minimum sentences for motor vehicle theft. This bill is awaiting committee consideration in the House of Commons.

Of course, the private members' bills are likely the least of the Cons' concerns. But a number of government bills are also in the middle of their journey through Parliament - and it's Harper's choice whether or not to bring all past progress to an end:
- Bill C-6, the Cons' planned revamp of the Aeronautics Act, which is awaiting consideration by a Commons committee after passing second reading with substantial Lib support.
- Several of the Cons' crime bills, which are in various stages of the parliamentary process - but which all stand to be sent back to square one if Harper decides to prorogue the current session.
- Bill C-12, which would set up a federal emergency management system. This bill is awaiting committee consideration in the Senate.
- Bill C-48, which would implement the United Nations Convention against Corruption - if it makes it through third reading in the Senate.

Most of these bills have received enough support to make it through the House of Commons already. And those that haven't have at least received majority support at second reading - so that their passage is likely if the current session is allowed to continue.

Which means that if the Cons choose to prorogue Parliament, they'll be solely responsible for derailing all of the above bills. And given that any prorogation would be purely for the Cons' political gain - either to cut short the current session to allow the Cons to flee Ottawa for the summer, or to enable another throne speech this fall for marketing purposes - any decision to prorogue the current session will speak volumes about the Cons' lack of commitment to the policies they claim to support.

On collaborative law-making

The Star reports that the NDP (perhaps alone among the federal parties) is still working to improve Canada's public policy rather than planning for an early summer break. And Judy Wasylycia-Leis' plan to deal with corporate crime looks like a winner both on policy grounds, and in its chances of building enough support to pass:
The NDP will call today for all federal parties to draft a joint bill to crack down on corporate crime in Canada.

NDP finance critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis wants rules to force the disclosure of corporate perks for chief executives and prevent non-compete payments to individuals, two issues at the heart of Conrad Black's Chicago fraud trial. The proposed bill would also better protect Canadian investors through independent audits and oversight...

Wasylycia-Leis will ask for the co-operation of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and the two other opposition parties to work together to draft a bill.

Normally, proposed legislation is drafted by either the government or an individual member of Parliament but procedural rules permit a House of Commons committee with members of all political parties to prepare a bill that would later be introduced for a vote in the Commons.

In an era of corporate crime, Canada is the only G8 country that has not toughened its laws on financial breaches, Wasylycia-Leis said.
From a policy standpoint, there's naturally a need to make sure that any added standards and rules serve a concrete purpose. But it should be beyond doubt that additional disclosure and transparency should lead to better results both for investors and for corporations who play by the rules.

As for the political strategy, the call for all-party participation figures first to highlight the potential for cooperation on both sides of the floor - to hopefully turn the current discussion away from a "can't get anything done" narrative. And it should also put significant pressure on all other parties to agree to quick action.

In particular, the Cons presumably won't want the opposition parties to be able to criticize a commitment to law and order that stops short of the boardroom. And if the Cons do go on record in support of the idea, the Libs in turn likely won't see this as an area where there's much to be won by arguing for weaker laws.

Of course, the plan itself is only in relatively early stages. And with Wasylycia-Leis calling for all parties to contribute to drafting the bill initially rather than merely asking for support for a fleshed-out plan, each party then figures to have some stake in making sure that any agreed bill gets passed.

Mind you, it doesn't seem unlikely that the Cons and/or Libs could make a public declaration of support for Wasylycia-Leis' plan and participate in some drafting, while gumming up the works just enough to make sure that nothing passes into law. But enough public attention could force either to at least get out of the way - and help make sure that at least one more positive measure comes out of the current Parliament.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Reason to stay

A number of commentators - see e.g. Susan Riley - have taken the view lately that Canada's MPs should be eager to put an early end to the spring sitting of Parliament. I'll post later on some of the policy implications of an end to the current session...but for now, let's take a moment to consider what an early adjournment would do to the strategy that's recently worked well for the opposition parties.

Throughout the past few months, the Cons have dropped from near-majority territory in the polls to a dead heat with the Libs, while all opposition parties have gained in support in the process. And the reason isn't hard to see: while the Cons were able to take a lead early on in 2007 thanks to free spending and an initially-focused message, they simply haven't been able to stand up to the scrutiny coming from the opposition parties in Question Period and Commons committees. It's those formal structures which have guaranteed the opposition both access to the media spotlight, and an opportunity to force the Cons to either comment on damaging issues or look ridiculous in refusing to do so.

Once Parliament adjourns, however, the picture figures to change dramatically. The Cons will retain the full apparatus of government to try to boost their public standing - and without the counterweight that comes from a House of Commons where the Cons are both outnumbered, and overmatched on substance. While the opposition may still receive some media attention, it won't be able to ensure that a story which needs highlighting will receive any extended coverage. And that will allow the Cons to simply brush off any new damaging information that comes out during the summer.

Of course, that problem can't be avoided during the summer recess as planned. But the longer a span the Cons are able to win away from opposition pressure, the more distance they'll be able to put between themselves and the rough current session - and the more work the opposition will have to do just to get back to the current status quo this fall.

In that context, it's no surprise that the Cons are trying to paint the current Parliament as unworkable in order to flee at the first available opportunity. And perhaps some commentators can't be blamed for themselves wanting to encourage their subject matter to take off for the summer.

But for the opposition parties, however tempting it may be to get home for the summer, the House of Commons has been by far the most effective means of exposing the Cons for what they are. And it would be a gross strategic error to voluntarily cede the forum which offers the best chance of further eroding support for Harper's government.

Adding to the list

Politics Watch isn't far off what the Cons' general House of Commons strategy would look like if it was put on paper. But let's add one of the more important principles which the Cons have followed consistently:

Truth doesn't matter - what's important is to say what you want heard.

This holds true whether you don't know the facts on a subject, or know what they are when they're against you. Either way, the strategy is to deal with any question or conversation only on ground which helps the party most politically.

If a subject under discussion is one that the party wants to avoid, then simply change the subject entirely - preferably with something inflammatory that will ensure that the headline is on more favourable ground. (See #3 for a specific example with regard to Afghanistan.)

And if it's important to be seen caring about the subject, then make a strong statement of fact which would support Conservative policies if true. At best, nobody will bother to check; at worst, most people will tune out over a factual debate, so that your initial statement will get more attention than anything refuting your claim.

On sales pitches

Thomas Walkom writes that while Harper's latest jaunt to Afghanistan has mostly been evaluated as a photo-op intended to boost his image domestically, there's another significant factor behind the trip as well - albeit one that speaks even more poorly to the viability of the mission:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's surprise trip to Kabul is not just a photo op for domestic Canadian consumption. It's part of a concerted effort by the U.S. and its NATO allies to stiffen the spine of President Hamid Karzai and forestall growing sentiment in Afghanistan for a political settlement with the Taliban...

(P)ublic opinion in Europe and Canada is increasingly skeptical about the value of a war that produces casualties but no definable benefits.

Germany is to review its commitment later this year. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has hinted that he might withdraw his country's troops. And in Ottawa, opposition parties have demanded that Canadian forces be withdrawn from the danger zones in Afghanistan's south by no later than February 2009.

On the other hand, Afghans themselves are increasingly restive about the presence of foreign troops in their country – especially when those troops kill civilians. Air strikes are particularly controversial, leading even Karzai to criticize the U.S. practice of large-scale aerial bombardments.

After recent air attacks, including one in Herat earlier this month that killed an estimated 50 civilians and left 2,000 homeless, protesters demanded that Karzai resign.

The flip side of this Afghan dissatisfaction with NATO is a growing movement for some form of political accommodation with the Taliban. Two weeks ago, the Afghan parliament's upper house voted to end offensive military operations and enter into direct talks with the hard-line Islamists.

The lower house has not yet decided whether to support this move. But in March, it passed another controversial bill promoting national reconciliation that would grant all warring factions, including the Taliban, immunity from prosecution...

None of this is entirely novel. Deal-making among warring factions is an Afghan tradition. In 2001, as U.S.-backed forces were sweeping the Taliban from power, an Afghan official close to Karzai negotiated an accommodation with Taliban chief Mullah Omar that would have allowed him to live freely in Kandahar in return for abandoning armed struggle.

The U.S. scotched that attempt. But Karzai has continued his back-channel relations with Taliban insurgents, a fact he acknowledged publicly last month...

(T)he capitals of the West are in a tizzy. Leaders like Harper have to convince their own electorates that Afghanistan is worth the candle. At the same time, they have to convince Afghans that their troops are more than ham-fisted foreign meddlers.

The alternative is a deal with the Taliban that ends the war and allows the country to rebuild. The U.S. and its friends want the war to end – but not that way.
In other words, the secondary purpose for Harper's visit (along with a flurry of other diplomatic activity) has been to push for continued and unnecessary conflict. And if that can only happen as a result of Afghanistan's supposedly more-democratic government ignoring both the will of its people and its own better judgment...then presumably we'll be told once again that self-determination only extends so far as we agree with the results.

It remains to be seen whether the latest round of pressure manages to delay any change for at least another FU or two. But whatever the results of Harper's latest visit, Canadians should be asking themselves whether they want their government's foreign policy to be directed toward trying to sell continued war.

Update: Michael Fellman has more about the growing use of militaristic rhetoric in Canada, which ties in nicely with Harper's effort to sell support for military activity abroad. But there's plenty of reason to doubt whether the pitch will succeed on either ground.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

On misinformation

The Hill Times reports (see bottom header link) on the current status of Bill C-31 in the Senate. And it looks like the supposed defense of the bill is getting weaker and weaker, as the Cons are continuing their retreat into obfuscation and fabrication in trying to justify handing voters' birthdate information to political parties:
Because of the stronger provisions to identify voters at the polls under Bill C-31, the Voter ID Bill, Chief Electoral Office Marc Mayrand says birthdates are not necessary to add to the permanent voters' list, as proposed under the bill which the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee is currently studying...

Mr. Mayrand said that Elections Canada could not guarantee that the privacy of individuals would be 100 per cent protected because the list would be distributed to political parties. "The provision in Bill C-31 would allow a wide distribution of that information. Given the scope of that distribution, I am afraid that I could not fully guarantee the security or that it would be used at all times for the intended purpose. That information will be circulated beyond Elections Canada to a wide range of people with whom we do not have any relations," he said, adding however, that he "would ensure that every elector understood what information is being provided and how it will be used."

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan (York-Simcoe, Ont.) told the committee in an earlier appearance however that if the information is abused, there would be consequences for breaching the Privacy Act. "I think it should be underlined that this is information that would be available to Elections Canada and the political parties. It wouldn't be more broadly available than that and there are provisions and penalties for improper use of that information. There are protections in place," he said.
So what's wrong with that claim? Under the Privacy Act, the only bodies which are obligated to do anything in particular with personal information are "government institutions" specifically listed in that Act's Schedules. And not surprisingly, political parties aren't included - meaning that once Elections Canada discloses information as required under C-31, there are absolutely no "protections in place" under the Privacy Act.

In contrast, the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer is listed as a government institution. But section 8(2)(b) of the Privacy Act permits government institutions to disclose information "in accordance with any Act of Parliament...that authorizes its disclosure" - and the Privacy Act doesn't allow any government institution to override its disclosure obligations under other legislation. Which means that nothing in the Privacy Act creates any protection against disclosure of birthdate data as required under C-31 - no matter what negative consequences are anticipated (or already known).

Contrary to Van Loan's supposed reassurances, any "protections" under the Privacy Act are limited to the inability of Elections Canada to disclose information any further than specifically mandated under C-31 or other statutes (including the disclosure provisions of the Privacy Act). But it should be obvious that it's the parties themselves, not Elections Canada, which offer would-be abusers of personal data the clearest path to that information - and Van Loan's attempt to conflate the two only serves to mislead the public about the complete lack of any protection where parties are involved.

Ultimately, the Privacy Act provides neither any protection for personal information once it's disclosed from Elections Canada to a political party, nor any means to stop the flow of information to (or otherwise punish) a party which is known to have misused it. And having already taken the step of recklessly voting for a bill which would lead to that dangerous outcome for voters at large, the Cons are now actively misleading the Senate to pretend that Canadians wouldn't be at risk.