Thursday, August 02, 2007

Light blogging ahead

I'm headed out of town tomorrow, so expect little to no blogging until next week. If you're in need of some way to spend the weekend in the absence of reading material, I hear Outremont is lovely this time of year.

Guarding the loophole

So much for the theory that it shouldn't be a problem to fix the multiple-riding-donation loophole in the Canada Elections Act. But while it's not entirely clear what may be motivating the Cons to take a stand against enforcement of the law, it may be worth highlighting one of the obvious possibilities: namely, that they don't want Canadians to be reminded that Stephen Harper broke the law by exceeding donation limits just a couple of years ago. (And if the Dear Leader did something, then it can't really be wrong.)

That said, let's take a look at the Cons' current excuse for doing nothing. From the Globe's story:
The Harper government rejected opposition calls yesterday to give Elections Canada new tools to detect multiple donations to a political party's riding associations that could cumulatively exceed the legal limit by more than $60,000.

"For God's sake, this loophole has to be plugged," New Democrat MP Pat Martin said. "We can't go into an election campaign with this kind of imbalance. It could be happening all over the place."

The Globe and Mail reported yesterday that Elections Canada cannot track or cross-check donations to riding associations of less than $200. As a result, a donor could send dozens of contributions to riding associations that, put together, widely exceed the legal limit of $1,100 a year.

With 308 ridings across the country, a series of $199.99 cheques to each one would total $61,596.92, and could go undetected.

Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan issued a statement yesterday reminding Canadians that exceeding the $1,100 limit is illegal.

"This is no more a loophole than the fact that someone can break the law by fraudulently misstating their income on their income tax," he said. "In both cases the law is broken and individuals are subject to serious consequences for doing so."
Of course, another common thread in both cases is that some method is needed to catch those individuals who do choose to break the law. And in typical right-wing fashion, the Cons seem to think that mentioning the existence of potentially high sentences will somehow deter would-be offenders in the face of a public announcement that they won't be caught in the first place. Indeed, I'm slightly surprised that the Cons haven't come out swinging by calling for higher penalties to show their "seriousness" in dealing with an offence which they refuse to see prosecuted.

Fortunately, the Cons alone can't determine whether or not it's possible for Elections Canada to do its job in enforcing the rules. Whether or not the opposition parties can team up to plug the existing loophole, it still seems possible that an individual exploiting the loophole would leave some suspicious patterns in riding association filings which Elections Canada would find in any event. And in that regard, one has to wonder whether the Cons' trial balloons about provoking an election can be linked to their refusal to close the donations loophole as part of an effort to make use of wrongfully-collected money before anybody can track it down.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The incompetence continues

It's been well-known for some time that the Cons don't value intelligence in potential candidates. But is it really too much to ask that their cabinet ministers have at least enough basic understanding of logic to recognize when they're contradicting themselves?

Here's Gordon O'Connor today:
Mr. O'Connor said there is no discrepancy between his opinion and that of Gen. Hillier.

”I never said that the army units would be trained within six months,” he said. ”I said that over the next six months we will get four or five of these battalions to train. And if you check, my words, word by word, I said that at some time in the future we will be able to go into some reserve state. But we don't know how long that is.”

The Canadian troops are committed to remaining in the country until February 2009 and are shifting their focus to the training for the Afghan army, he said.
So what's the problem? (That is, aside from deciding where to start in finding the questions raised by O'Connor's new stance.) Let's go to the wayback machine to see just what he actually said a week and a half ago:
"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 Afghan 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."
About the only way one could possibly reconcile O'Connor's current position as to the timing of any "reserve status" with his past one is to assume that there's absolutely no relationship between the training of the promised Afghan troops and the reserve status of Canadian troops. Which in turn would of course make the earlier statement misleading in linking the two.

And O'Connor's rationalization that he never stated that the Afghan troops would be trained within six months seems utterly bizarre given his plain statement that the troops would already be operating by that time. Though I suppose if O'Connor wants to defend the position that Afghan troops should be operating without training by February, he'll likely find an eager opposition ready to tear him apart even more.

It remains to be seen just how much longer Deceivin' Stephen stands behind his embarrassment of the Defence Minister in light of this and other PR disasters. But any faint hope the Cons may have held that O'Connor would figure out how to handle his department has to be diminishing by the day - and at some point, the spillover effect of O'Connor's incompetence has to be seen as more harmful to the Cons than grudgingly admitting defeat.

A simple fix

The Globe and Mail reports on another serious loophole in election financing enforcement. But it seems like there should be some relatively simple solutions if Parliament is willing to deal with the issue constructively:
Any Canadian could exceed by more than $60,000 the legal donation to a political party under a loophole discovered by The Globe and Mail.

Elections Canada confirmed yesterday that an individual could theoretically contribute $199.99 to each of the party's 308 riding associations across the country - a total of $61,596.92 - without attracting anyone's attention.

That's because parties are required to inform Elections Canada only of individual donations of $200 or more. Smaller donations to riding associations are lumped together, with no breakdown for cross-checking...

John Enright, a spokesman for Elections Canada, said the agency cannot keep track of donations below $200 because "we do not get the receipts" from the individual riding associations...

Mr. Enright also insisted that making donations beyond the maximum limit remains illegal.

"Anybody who gives over and beyond [the limit] is breaking the spirit and the letter of the Canada Elections Act," he said.

Mr. Enright said that riding associations must keep the receipts they issue for all donations over $20 and would have to provide them to Elections Canada in the event of an investigation into a donor's activities.
This particular loophole is strictly one of enforcement rather than legality: for the moment, the data actually provided to Elections Canada doesn't provide it with sufficient information to determine what donations have been made between $25* and $200 in most cases. In principle, though, a systematic set of donations of $199.99 to each of a party's riding associations would hopefully set off some alarm bells (e.g. through a regular .99 showing up in total donations to a disproportionate number of ridings). And I presume there are also some circumstances where Elections Canada would end up reviewing a riding association's receipts for other purposes, which would also offer a strong hint if anybody was circumventing the donation limit.

That said, there's no reason why the issue shouldn't be fairly easily corrected. After all, with every riding association required to keep receipts for all donations over $25 anyway, it wouldn't seem particularly difficult from a legislative standpoint (or onerous for a riding association) to require all those receipts to be submitted to Elections Canada even if the donations don't then form part of the public donor database.

It's worth noting as well that another loophole exists for donations under $25: a party or riding association is required to track only a general description of the event where such an amount is received and the total amount donated, meaning that an individual can conceivably give an unlimited number of $20 donations without anything being traceable. (In principle, a $20 donation in each riding would put an individual well over the annual donation limit - though the more likely scenario would naturally be an individual donating multiple times at a single event.)

And of course, there's also the equally gaping (if more often discussed) loophole surrounding supporter loans.

Unfortunately, the area of political donations is one where both the Cons and Libs have seemed more interested in sniping at each other than in actually fixing obvious problems. But with so many obvious frailties in the current enforcement regime - and with all parties claiming to want to clean up Canadian politics - it will hopefully be possible to agree on how to improve the current system.

*Based on s. 404.4 of the Canada Elections Act as currently posted at CanLII. The Globe's article seems to hint that the standard has been moved to $20, but that change wouldn't affect the issues with the level at which anonymous donations are permitted.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

On reprieves

I'm seldom as glad to be wrong as I am when it comes to the Federal Court's decision striking down the Cons' attempt to abolish the Canadian Wheat Board's single-desk status over barley by regulation. While I'd worried before before that the language of the Canadian Wheat Board Act on its face seemed to leave open the possibility of change by regulation alone, Hansen J.'s decision makes plenty of sense when those words are put in context.

Of course, the Cons don't figure to take the ruling lying down...and an appeal could always go the wrong way. But for now at least, the Cons' attempt to undermine the Wheat Board have been stopped in its tracks. And as long as the decision is in the hands of the House of Commons, the odds of the Wheat Board surviving the Cons' attacks are looking very strong.

Weak on defence

Today's news saw another flood of commentary - including some from usually-reliable Con hacks like David Bercuson and Tom Flanagan - calling either for Gordon O'Connor's ouster as Defence Minister, or at least some major rethinking of the current mixed messages on Afghanistan.

Now, one would have to figure that the Cons would want to put forward as credible a figure as they could find to defend a minister whose past lobbying on behalf of the defence industry made him a controversial figure even before he started his mismanagement. So what does it say about O'Connor's future that the only voice apparently willing to try to back him is a current defence lobbyist?

Fuelling distrust

One can always count on the Cons to find some way to make a bad idea worse. And so it is with their laughably inefficient slightly-greener car strategy, which due to the government's incompetence has yet to pay a cent to eligible purchasers:
More than four months after announcing rebates for those who buy fuel-sipping cars and trucks, the federal government has not paid a cent to buyers of 2006 and 2007 models that qualify, and automakers are voicing complaints as 2008 models flow on to dealers' lots.

The ecoAuto feebate program set up in the March federal budget, offers rebates of up to $2,000 and also slaps a maximum levy of $4,000 on gas guzzlers. But it is angering consumers and growing increasingly messy for the auto companies, associations representing the major automakers operating in Canada say in a letter to Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Environment Minister John Baird.

“Our members report they are already receiving numerous letters of complaint and frustration over the fact that no process to apply for the rebate has been established,” David Adams, president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers of Canada and Mark Nantais, president of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers Association , said in a letter to the federal ministers.

No money has been paid out to buyers of 2006 and 2007 models that qualify for the incentives, Transport Canada spokesman Robin Browne confirmed Monday from Ottawa...

(C)onsumers kicking tires on 2008 models, assuming they will get a rebate, may be out of luck because Transport Canada still hasn't announced what vehicles from the new model year are eligible.

No date is set yet to publish the list of which 2008 models are eligible, Mr. Browne said.

“The government has established a program that continues to be bereft of critical details for both manufacturers and consumers,” Mr. Adams and Mr. Nantais said in their letter.
The article doesn't make clear whether the Cons have been as slow in imposing the new tax on less efficient vehicles. But from the Cons' complete failure to put a rebate in place more than four months after it was announced - not to mention to take any steps to include 2008 models in the program - it's obvious once again that Deceivin' Stephen and company see any real accomplishment as secondary to the PR generated by making an announcement in the first place.

Because the program was so poorly designed to begin with, the environmental costs of failing to follow through with the rebates figure to be minimal. But there's still a serious danger that examples like the nonexistent feebates and the painfully ineffective home-inspection regime will serve the Cons' longer-term ideological goal of eroding public trust in the federal government's ability to get anything done - when all indications are that it's Harper's government alone that's the problem.

Monday, July 30, 2007

It's all about E-Me

For all the talk about how self-absorbed Elizabeth May's leadership has been so far, I'm not sure anything can make the case better than the Greens themselves. From their main fundraising page, here's how the party is presenting the options of would-be donors:
Giving to the Green Party is a great way to leverage your money, as the tax credits for donating to a federal political party far exceed those for charitable donations. A $200 donation, for example, only costs you $50. And you can give up to $1,100 each to both the federal party and a local riding association (perhaps Central Nova?).
That's right: rather than trying to encourage donors to build riding associations across the country, the Greens are using their limited fund-raising ability solely to push money toward their leader - who of course is the sole party candidate who doesn't figure to need much financial help in building her profile. (Though in fairness, the recently-deregistered Central Nova riding association does figure to have at least as desperate a need for investment as most Green ridings.)

At best, one could speculate that the Greens are gambling on having a better chance of attracting donations by highlighting the Central Nova race. But even that would be an entirely short-sighted strategy since it's based on the theory that the next election is everything, rather than an effort to actually encourage sustainable and broad-based fundraising for the longer term.

Yet even that seems too generous an interpretation. Instead, it seems more likely that the fund-raising scheme merely matches the party's spending strategy. And indeed it hardly seems matter whether money gets put toward the national party or the Central Nova riding association when it'll all be used for the greater glory of May in any event.


Not surprisingly, I'm no fan of the Cons' plan to move Parliament's food-preparation operations to a privately-constructed site. But based on one Con MP's response, the plan may serve as an effective litmus test as to whether politicians who see no problem in outsourcing and privatizing functions which affect Canadians as a whole are willing to tolerate the same for themselves:
Ottawa Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, like other MPs, had no idea the plan was in the works.

"What?" he asked, surprise written all over his face.

Mr. Poilievre, upon hearing a description of the journey Parliament Hill meals will eventually take from the kitchens in the food plant, expressed diplomatic skepticism about taste and quality upon arrival.
Naturally, Poilievre soon changed the focus to cost (though as he notes, the construction of a new facility and added transportation of food may itself make the plan all the worse). But it still says plenty that at least one relatively prominent Con can see the problem with sacrificing quality in order to privatize when he himself stands to be affected by a change. And if a few more within the pro-privatization crowd start to see the same issue for themselves, the less strong the push figures to be.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

A continued embarrassment

The CP reports that Jim Prentice is pushing forward with plans to keep the Kashechewan reserve on the flood plain where the federal government first forced it to move half a century ago, rather than moving it to higher ground:
Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice will sign an agreement Monday toward rebuilding, but not moving, the flood-prone Kashechewan First Nation, The Canadian Press has learned.

The remote northern Ontario reserve, near the coast of James Bay, is on low-lying land that has flooded twice in the last three years.

Residents were also evacuated in 2005 because of a dirty water crisis that made international headlines.

A report produced by consultants hired by Kashechewan to survey the community said most people want to move to higher ground within their traditional territory. They say it's just a matter of time before their homes flood again.

The former Liberal government promised to relocate Kashechewan over 10 years, at an estimated cost of $500 million. The Conservatives said the Liberals never officially budgeted that cash, and that it's too expensive to move the reserve.

Instead, sources say the new agreement will establish a working group to assess the First Nation's long-and short-term needs, but will not move it off the flood plain.
It's especially rich that the Cons will go to the trouble of trying to "assess (Kashechewan's) needs" in a way that deliberately rules out the most obvious one - that being some reason to believe that the community won't wind up getting flooded yet again due to federal negligence.

If there's any reason for hope, it's that the working group itself sounds like a classic delay tactic - which could well put off any definitive action until after the next federal election. And if that happens, then there's a strong chance that the Cons will be replaced with a government which wants to do more than the bare minimum (or less) before anything gets finalized.

On mixed messages

Impolitical theorizes that the effect of a few recent statements on continued combat in Afghanistan is to isolate Rick Hillier against military and civilian leaders. But while I'd agree that there are some mixed messages on the future of Canada's stay in Afghanistan, the split looks to me to be somewhere else entirely.

Specifically, in the public appearances cited by Impolitical, Hillier, Lt.-Gen. Michel Gauthier and Brigadier-General Tim Grant all take the position that there's little prospect of training Afghani troops to take over the combat role now occupied by Canada. It's only the consequences of that premise which are in dispute among the military officials who have commented publicly: Hillier takes a strident "Canada must stay" position, compared to Gauthier's message that "troops from other countries" can handle Canada's current role and Grant's openness to reshaping Canadian involvement.

Now, I certainly don't agree with Hillier's attempt to spin the lack of progress to date as reason to stay in combat indefinitely. But at the very least, all three military officials appear to want Canada's debate about Afghanistan to be based on a realistic assessment of how much slack can be taken up locally over the next year and a half.

In contrast, Deceivin' Stephen and his embattled lackey are claiming that Afghani troops can be trained to be just as effective as Canadian ones over the next year and a half (and indeed sooner in order to enable Canada to take a "reserve" role in the meantime). Once again, the message is "as they stand up, we'll stand down", accompanied by a claim that a substantial number of Afghani troops will have "stood up" on those terms by 2009.

Now, I don't think for a second that the Cons actually believe the claim. Instead, they likely figure that they have a better chance of winning an extension vote which supposedly involves only training and reserve status, rather than one which is premised on continuing combat as a first option. And once they have that vote to extend the mission, they can claim that the scope of the extension includes the ability to continue combat as usual, based on the shocking realization that the training hasn't gone as "planned".

In sum, the real difference in message right now is between honest military officials who are willing to acknowledge the implausibility of the government's plan, and Con partisans who see the truth as an acceptable casualty if it means furthering their political goal of winning an extension vote. And in that contest, it's the Cons who deserve blame for undermining both the troops and the truth.

Update: The Globe and Mail discusses the Cons vs. troop split as well. But it looks like the Libs are being far too generous to the Cons, as Ujjal Dosanjh is merely talking about a "need to know who's in charge" rather than the sheer implausibility of the Cons' position or its likely strategic purpose.

The other battle

Most of the talk about Quebec' impending by-elections has focused on Outremont based on how competitive the riding looks to be. But with Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot also going to the polls, there's another opportunity for each party to try to show that it's improved its standing since the 2006 general election. So let's take a look at where the parties now stand, and what they may hope to accomplish.

In 2006, the Bloc's Yvan Loubier won the riding with 56.02% of the vote, with the Cons' Huguette Guilhaumon ranking second at 24.8%. Stephane Deschenes of the Libs came in third at 9.83% of the vote, followed by the NDP's Joelle Chevrier at 5.48% and the Greens' Jacques Tetrault at 3.87%.

The riding doesn't seem to have been a target of much investment from any of the parties: the Bloc spent roughly $41,000 defending it, and the only other expenditures reported so far were those of the Libs who spent less than $15,000.

From the above, it's easy to see why nobody seems to expect the riding to change hands. Not only did the Bloc win it handily last time with a candidate whose personal appeal wasn't enough to win him a provincial seat, but they also left plenty of room for added spending if they need to invest more to hold the seat. But that doesn't mean the other parties don't all have some potential to make a statement in either direction depending on the byelection results.

As focused as the Cons are on short-term political calculations, they surely have to have at least some interest in improving their long-term chances as well...which could be boosted immensely if they can get within striking distance of the Bloc in seats like this one.

In contrast, the Libs will surely be looking to reclaim their mantle as the main alternative to the Bloc. And since the Libs managed to double the Cons' vote total in 2004 (with the vote percentages roughly flipping in 2006), it's far from impossible that the Libs could push their way back into second place.

Yet they can hardly be sure of holding their ground either. The NDP in turn would surely see an opportunity to make up the few points now separating it from the Libs, and perhaps eat into the Bloc's left-wing support to position itself as a longer-term option in the riding.

And finally, the Greens could see a chance to capitalize on the attention paid to other ridings by seeing if a concerted push can get them past any of the other federalist parties.

What'll be most interesting to see is how the parties choose to allocate their resources - and whether it leads to unexpected results in Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot. Might the Bloc pay so much attention to defending Roberval—Lac-Saint-Jean as to put its lead in jeopardy, or at least let another party within striking distance? Will the Cons hold their vote, or the 2006 result this an example of some of the Libs' election machine having put its weight behind Harper solely out of spite against PMPM? And if the Libs and/or NDP put their focus almost entirely on Outremont, do the Greens have a realistic chance of passing one or the other in Quebec for the first time?

Based on the lack of attention paid to Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot so far, I don't expect these stories to be the subject of much media attention. But they may certainly lead to at least some party bragging rights. And even if none of the parties puts its full effort into Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot based on the outcome seeming to be preordained, that may in turn only make the riding a key barometer of the parties' baseline support in Quebec.