Saturday, July 28, 2007

Answering the call

I'm not sure if I'm the only one who half expected the Cons to defy their own leaks and set the latest date possible for the impending Outremont by-election in order to delay another shellacking in the riding, particularly based on Deceivin' Stephen's procrastination in actually calling the by-election.

But now that the date for Outremont and Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot is set for September 17, it won't be long before we find out whether the Cons have managed to use their stay in power to improve their standing in Quebec. And from this angle, it doesn't seem likely that Harper will enjoy the answer.

Funnel clouds

There's been plenty said already about the Cons' employee extortion plan. But it's worth remembering the context of the Cons' attempt to funnel staffers' salaries into party coffers.

First, the Cons have gone out of their way to emphasize their advantage over Canada's other political parties in cash on hand. Which signals that the push for staffer contributions can't even be mitigated by declaring them a genuine attempt to meet a need for the Cons themselves.

Second, it (as usual) seems fair to assume that the Cons are being at least somewhat more careful about public perceptions with a tenuous minority than they'd be if they ever managed to exercise majority power. As problematic as it already is for them to be seeking kickbacks from their senior staffers, the smaller extortion plan can only signal a larger Con intention to turn public servants into part of their fund-raising machine generally.

And that suspicion fits particularly well with the Cons' broken promises on public service accountability. Remember that the opposition parties rejected Gwyn Morgan as chair of the Cons' public appointments commission precisely because of his Con fund-raising connections. Now, all indications are that if they can't have one of their fund-raisers in charge, the Cons are unwilling to let any commission cut into their ability to make appointments on solely political grounds - which only increases the likelihood that party contributions will be seen as a job requirement.

Once again, the Cons are only offering the slightest hint at what might be in store if Deceivin' Stephen didn't face the risk of being brought down at any moment - or if the Cons ever had to pursue money from their staffers out of need rather than greed. But even that relatively small first step offers Canadians plenty of reason to want to remove the Cons from power.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Keeping watch

I don't think there was ever much doubt that in light of the Cons' utter refusal to accept accountability for themseves, Democracy Watch was bound to become a critic rather than an implicit supporter (as it was in 2006). But Duff Conacher has stepped up his group's criticism, coming out swinging at the Cons for their broken promises:
The Conservatives lied to voters when they promised a new era of accountability by ending the controversial practice of appointing partisans to federal agencies, boards and commissions, a government watchdog group says.

Since the beginning of the year, the Tories have made about 800 appointments, many of them with close ties to the party, and there is still no sign of an independent public appointments commission, said Duff Conacher, co-ordinator of Democracy Watch, a group advocating government accountability and corporate responsibility.

"To lie to the voters, to mislead the voters during the last election on this issue of government accountability shows a very high level of hypocrisy and dishonesty," Conacher said.
Not that the Cons' lack of honesty should come as news. But with one of the groups which helped push the Cons into power now echoing the opposition's rightful criticisms, the Cons' effort to be believed will only get tougher as time goes by. And hopefully the result will be a more believable government before too long.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

On phony solutions

Shorter Lorrie Goldstein:
I hate it when politicians suggest simplistic answers to gun violence like "banning handguns". Surely they know such a complicated problem calls for a nuanced, thoughtful response - like "lock 'em up and throw away the key".

On dissatisfaction

The Chronicle Herald reports that despite the Cons' efforts to sell Jim Flaherty as a relatively steady hand in Finance (which shouldn't have been that difficult a pitch compared to many of the Cons' other cabinet members), there's now an internal movement to bump Flaherty from that position to try to stop the Cons' bleeding in Atlantic Canada:
Some senior Tories hope Prime Minister Stephen Harper will move Jim Flaherty out of his job as finance minister because of the way he has handled the Atlantic accord dispute with Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

"The finance minister is not safe," a senior government official said Wednesday...

Some believe it might be easier for a new finance minister to resolve the dispute with the provinces, since Mr. Flaherty has repeatedly said he won’t negotiate "side deals" with the two provinces and since he and his department insist the budget did not violate the Atlantic accords.

Some staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office blame Mr. Flaherty’s office for failing to anticipate the political problems the budget would cause on the East Coast.

"They were surprised that the department didn’t foresee how badly this would go over with the two premiers who are whining the most," said a source close to the government. "Work wasn’t done beforehand to signal that it was coming or correct it or whatever had to be done."...

Some Atlantic Tories, who have been under pressure at home over the accord dispute, would be happy to see Mr. Flaherty pushed aside.

"Certainly, the Atlantic caucus have some frustration with him," said one senior Tory.

Public opinion polls show East Coast voters may send those Tory MPs packing if the accord dispute is not resolved before the next election.

"Jim Flaherty could single-handedly defeat more Conservative MPs from Atlantic Canada than the combined efforts of all Liberal organizers in the region," Canadian Taxpayers Federation spokesman John Williamson said.
Of course, the question in replacing Flaherty is whether any alternative would be seen as having any more credibility. And despite Flaherty's role in breaking two of the Cons' most important campaign promises, there's little reason to think that a change in ministers would make the Cons any more trustworthy when Deceivin' Stephen's fingerprints will still be all over any decisions.

As a result, the only cabinet shuffle likely to make much difference is a change in the party in power. And thanks to the understandable frustrations of the senior Cons cited (as well as Atlantic Canada in general), that may be far closer than the Con sources would like to admit.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A welcome focus

The Cons have kicked off their Outremont by-election exercise in futility by declaring that the vote will be about leadership.

Which would figure to be a winning tactic for the party whose leader is the top choice as PM in the area. Likewise for one whose leader has the highest, and only improving, national approval rating out of the federal party leaders. And it can only help if a party's leader also succeeded in winning over his candidate of choice for the riding. But I'm not entirely sure what the Cons think they're doing - other than trying to pour even more money into an even weaker result than their Outremont flop in the 2006 general election.

On patterns

Yesterday's news: Elizabeth May publicly tried to woo Garth Turner to the Greens, but struck out.

Today's news: Elizabeth May openly tried to convince Bill Casey to join the Greens, but failed.

Tomorrow's news: Beginning with the fall sitting, Elizabeth May's schedule will consist of personally begging every member of the House of Commons to join her party. And she'll still be no closer to having a single MP by the end.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Top to bottom

Just so we're clear that the Libs aren't alone in making their own life more difficult through a top-down approach to politics, CfSR has a great find on the Cons' attempt to impose a star candidate and Harper-friendly riding association in the Quebec riding of Roberval—Lac-Saint-Jean.

As the Cons' reward for taking control of the riding out of the hands of the existing supporters, previous members of the riding association are now flirting with the Libs, while the Cons' candidate from the last two elections (who ran a close second at 37% of the vote in 2006) is looking to make a run as an independent. Which figures to split the Cons' previous support three ways - and it's far from clear where they can make up any losses.

The riding seemed to be one of the Cons' better Quebec pickup opportunities otherwise. But the extra ground they'll have to make up just to get back to their 2006 level of support could give the Bloc the break it needs to hold on - and offer yet another example of the dangers of assuming that leader knows best.

The selloff goes global

It's official: the Cons are looking to sell anything belonging to the federal government that isn't tied down. And if something is tied down, then they're auctioning off the rope as well.

On no-names

Given the choice, I'd prefer not to direct attention to an article which considers "reality vs. Tim Powers" to be a balanced presentation. But the Hill Times' polling this week didn't just show that Canadians are entirely sick of the "Canada's New Government" brand, but also that the Cons have failed miserably in trying to promote themselves through their cabinet ministers:
(Jeffrey) Simpson in his column also criticized the Harper government for its tight control on the Cabinet ministers. He argued that due to this control, with the exception of one or two Cabinet ministers, no Cabinet minister has a high profile. "Beyond Mr. Flaherty, ask yourself this: How many ministers can I name? If you get above three, you receive a medal," Mr. Simpson wrote.

The online Innovative Research poll, which was conducted between July 18-20 with 802 members of a national polling panel, tested Mr. Simpson's theory. It asked, "Thinking of all of the Ministers in the Federal Cabinet, excluding the Prime Ministers (sic), Stephen Harper, which Minister do you think has done the best job?" Forty-nine per cent of the respondents said "don't know," and six per cent said that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty (Whitby-Oshawa, Ont.) was the best Cabinet minister, by writing in their answer with no prompts or lists. Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay (Central Nova, N.S.) followed with five per cent support and the third place was tied between Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice (Calgary Centre North, Alta.), Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day (Okanagan-Coquihalla, B.C.) and Environment Minister John Baird (Ottawa West-Nepean, Ont.) with three per cent support each.

The survey also asked who was the worst minister. Similarl (sic) to the best, 40 per cent responded "don't know," and 10 per cent of respondents opined that Mr. Baird is the worst followed by nine per cent of those who thought Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor (Carleton-Mississippi Mills, Ont.) was the worst and four per cent said that Minister Flaherty deserves this title.

Mr. Graham said that 37 per cent of the respondents came up with the name of at least one Cabinet minister and 14 per cent were able to name more than one Cabinet minister.
Somehow both Powers and poll consultant Justin Graham manage to spin that result as not reflecting too poorly on the Cons. But on a reasonable evaluation, it's hard to interpret the result as showing anything but that the Cons' relentless branding efforts have accomplished little to nothing so far.

For all the Cons' secrecy about their actual decision-making, the Cons' cabinet ministers have seldom been shy about seeking out the nearest camera or reporter willing to allow them to blurt out the party's talking points. But the poll's results suggest that half of Canadians still can't name a single one of them - and barely one in seven Canadians can name more than one, indicating that even a decent number of Con supporters have little or no idea who's currently holding down key posts in the Con government.

Meanwhile, of those who are relatively well-known, it's equally clear that there's far more negative perception than positive. Baird and O'Connor have apparently managed to earn nearly double-digit recognition as incompetent ministers, while even the most-appreciated Con cabinet member only managed to win the notice of 6% of respondents (which is itself counterbalanced by 4% naming him as the worst of the lot).

In sum, Canadians still don't know much about even the highest-ranking members of the Cons' government - and what they do know, they don't particularly like. And while the Cons can spin the truth as much as they want, it surely reflects an utter failure for a government so obsessed with its own image.

Monday, July 23, 2007

On institutional barriers

Shorter National Post, taking a stand for pay inequity:
Because sexism is dead, we can confidently say that women merely choose to earn less than men.

An appointment with disaster

Memo to the Libs' hapless leader: This is why you're better off letting democracy run its course rather than appointing candidates.

If Jocelyn Coulon had faced a nomination meeting, then the apparent split in the local Libs would have been dealt with internally - either resulting in another candidate taking the nomination, or allowing Coulon to claim the support of most of the interested party members in the riding (while Dion himself wouldn't be stuck with any particular blame for the nomination).

But because of the Libs' appointment process, any fallout will be directed solely at Dion himself. And while reversing course now would probably be even worse from a PR standpoint now than simply allowing Dion's mistake to stand, any internal strife among Outremont's Libs can only help Thomas Mulcair's effort to paint the riding orange...and make Dion look like an even less effective leader.

On ineffective treatment

The National Post reports that Health Canada will be trying to make an issue out of counterfeit prescription drugs this fall. But while it's hard to dispute the general merit of avoiding the spread of counterfeit drugs, the timing and context of the Cons' announcement raise a few questions.

First, with the future of Canada's wider health care system set for public debate this fall, are the Cons simply looking for an excuse to say that Health Canada is too busy elsewhere to say a word (or to deal with even more blatant abuses of the Canada Health Act)?

Second, will the Cons take the opportunity to conflate counterfeit drugs with generic ones as an excuse to offer up yet another giveaway to major pharmaceutical companies?

And third, will the Cons try to dupe Canadians into thinking that by dealing with a relatively small problem with counterfeiting as their action on prescription drugs, they can avoid doing anything about the more important problem of prescription drug costs?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Political Sabermetrics III: Notes on Quebec

Much like in my previous post on the Atlantic provinces, let's take a quick look at some of the results from Quebec in the 2006 federal election which may come as somewhat of a surprise - as well as the party spending levels which helped to shape the results that developed.

- Let's start with Quebec's award for Largest Waste of Money, which goes to the Libs' John Khawand. In an effort to unseat the Bloc's Claude de Bellefeuille in Beauharnois—Salaberry, Khawand spent $80,757.87 - the fifth-highest reported total in Quebec, and trailing only Lib Liza Frulla for money put into a losing effort. But for that investment, Khawand finished a distant third...not only failing to take the seat from de Bellefeuille, but also finishing 11 points behind the low-budget ($7,922.81) Con campaign of David Couturier.

- That said, Khawand was far from the only candidate to spend a bundle to no avail...and while the Libs were the worst offenders in that category, the Bloc and Cons got into the act as well. Other candidates who finished third or worse while outspending all of their competition (at least based on the reports so far) included the Libs' Eric Cardinal in Drummond, Lib David Price in Compton—Stanstead, Lib Diane St. Jacques in Shefford, Lib Robert Fregeau in Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, Con Audrey Castonguay in Hochelaga (though the Libs' candidate's report isn't available), and Con Daniel Fournier in Outremont.

- Speaking of which, the Cons' reluctance to call a by-election in Outremont may have been based on more than just a desire to keep a likely opposition seat vacant, as the riding looks to be one of the Cons' more spectacular Quebec failures from 2006. Fournier outspent all of his rivals at $73,903.31, yet took under 13% of the vote to finish in fourth place. No wonder the Cons aren't eager to face the voters again - especially with the third-place finisher from 2006 looking to make a major step forward.

- Meanwhile, the title of best investment out of any Quebec candidate wasn't even close. Andre Arthur ensured himself plenty of public attention as the only independent candidate to win a race in 2006. But what's even more remarkable is that he won Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier while spending next to nothing - only $1,092.74, compared to the $47,506.77 spent by the Bloc's Guy Cote in trying to retain the seat. In contrast, better-funded independents in several ridings that I've reviewed so far haven't come close to Arthur's vote total.

- The lowest-budget riding in Quebec was Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, where nobody spent more than the $30,435.75 put in by Lib Fregeau. (The Greens' spending numbers aren't yet listed, but based on their spending elsewhere I'm pretty comfortable assuming they didn't lead the pack.) While the Bloc's Gilles Perron retained the riding with 53% of the vote, it seems entirely likely that there's a significant vacuum in election-time effort which could make the riding ripe for the picking - assuming that other parties don't also react to the lack of spending by flooding in.

- Turning to a party-by-party review, the Cons' resource management in Quebec seems to have been remarkably poor. The Cons spent a significant amount of money into Montreal with virtually nothing to show for it - managing to finish behind the Greens in one riding, and never coming within 11,000 votes of a seat. Meanwhile, a number of poorly-funded Cons managed to run a strong second around rural Quebec - suggesting that if the Cons had focused their money on what proved to be their most promising areas, they may have taken several more seats away from the Bloc.

Of course, that offers some opportunity for the Cons to expand their seat count in the next election. But it also suggests that the Cons' campaign wasn't anywhere near as flawless as reported - and that their vaunted election machine may have a long way to go in figuring out how to use the party's resources.

- For the Libs, it's clear that the party had a lot more money than public support near the end: while the party's spending totals were far beyond anybody else besides the Bloc, the funding simply wasn't enough to fight against the tide of voter dissatisfaction.

- The Bloc's spending numbers don't reveal much worthy of note: obviously the party didn't lack for ability to outspend its rivals in most ridings, and even the Bloc's money that didn't lead to seats tended to be relatively well-spent in seats where the party had a reasonable chance of winning.

- While I knew the NDP still had building to do in Quebec, I had wrongly assumed that it had been putting enough money into at least a few ridings to support a campaign capable of winning. Of the ridings disclosed so far, the party didn't spend more in any riding than the $28,015.97 invested in Pierre Laliberte's run in Hull-Aylmer. (By way of comparison, only Arthur and Perron managed to win seats while spending less.)

Of course, there's a flip side for the NDP in that there's plenty of room for growth. And indeed, there's probably a case to be made that the NDP's brand was at least as positive as the Libs' in Quebec in 2006. Comparing ridings where the two parties put in roughly equal investments (i.e. apparent non-priority ridings for both, primarily in Côte-Nord and Saguenay, Quebec City, Central Quebec, and Laurentides, Outaouais and Northern Quebec), the consistent pattern is one of the Libs' lead in votes (where one even existed) being significantly smaller than their advantage in spending. In 2006, the Libs' advantage in money and star power gave them a significant leg up - but with those gaps apparently narrowing, the NDP looks to be in great position to go toe-to-toe with the Libs.

- As for the Greens, I was surprised to note that even in the NDP's weakest area of the country, the Greens still couldn't top the Dippers' vote in a single riding - which now makes the five easternmost provinces where that holds true. And while the Greens' generally-lower investments surely played a part, the ridings where the NDP held its ground included several where the NDP itself spent nothing (or barely more than that)...hinting that the NDP's base level of support is simply higher across the board.

On parrots

It was just last week that the Cons were reminded that patterning their message on Afghanistan after Bushco's propaganda on Iraq - in that case the language of "cut and run" - wasn't winning them any points with the Canadian public. But they've already managed to forget the advice entirely, as Gordon O'Connor's latest spin is nothing more than a clunkier version of the equally well-worn "as they stand up, we'll stand down":
During an appearance on CTV's Question Period that aired Sunday, O'Connor said those numbers are largely due to Canadians' lack of clear understanding of Canada's successes in Afghanistan, as well as the challenges faced there.

He said there is reason to believe that the situation in Afghanistan is improving, and Canada's frontline role will soon be reduced.

O'Connor said Canadian troops recently sponsored an Afghan infantry battalion, providing intense mentorship and training, and as a result the battalion is now out conducting its own operations...

"Over the next four or five months were going to be picking up four or five additional Afghan battalions to train and mentor and get them out into the field," O'Connor said.

"We're hoping by the end of this rotation that's going in now, the so called Van Doos rotation, we'll have about 3,000 Afghan army operating within the Kandahar province, and as we train more and more of the Aghan army to carry out their own operations we'll continue to withdraw, put more emphasis on training, and at some stage basically be in reserve."
If there's a bright side for Canada, it's that unlike the U.S.' equivalent message, O'Connor's seems to be paired with some recognition that the combat mission actually will end in the relatively near future.

But it still speaks volumes about the Cons that they still can't seem to come up with anything to say that hasn't already been beaten to death by their ideological soulmates to the south. And if they continue to lack any ideas of their own, it may not be long before Deceivin' Stephen's already-poor approval numbers equally track those of Bush and company.

Update: It turns out that Graham Richardson made a similar point on QP's panel discussion. Now if only he also agreed with me that the suppression of information at the Department of National Defence is worth discussing, as he didn't even bother asking O'Connor about the issue in his interview.