Saturday, August 18, 2007

Questionable assumptions

Shorter Gazette editorial on the Security and Prosperity Partnership:
If you assume that not a single important law can be changed without going through Parliament, and that we can count on philosopher CEOs to properly represent everybody's best interests, and that the word of government spokespeople about the process can and should be taken without question, and that Canada is the chosen country of the Flying Spaghetti Monster such that nothing we do can possibly have bad consequences in any event, then there's no reason at all to worry about the SPP.

Friday, August 17, 2007

An unwanted import

One more post on the Cons' efforts to hide the SPP's participants from protesters, as it seems to be confirmed that the media is giving the Cons a free pass on their means of shutting out protesters (as well as the likely source of the idea). From Sun Media's coverage:
Adding a truly Canadian flavour, police and government officials have designated two sanctioned sites outside the fenced compound where demonstrators can air their beefs. A closed-circuit camera and television will allow the leaders to flick on live images of the action from the comfort of their meetings.
Now, the implication of the Sun story is that the designation of a separate protest site is itself a Canadian idea. In fact, it's far from a new concept - and one of the SPP's participants has made more use of the policy than anybody in recent times:
When President Bush travels around the United States, the Secret Service visits the location ahead of time and orders local police to set up "free speech zones" or "protest zones," where people opposed to Bush policies (and sometimes sign-carrying supporters) are quarantined. These zones routinely succeed in keeping protesters out of presidential sight and outside the view of media covering the event.
If there's any difference at all between Harper's means of suppressing dissent and that usually imposed by Bush, it's the existence of the video link which (in theory) makes it slightly more possible for participants to pick up on the messages of protesters.

But for the reasons I'd discussed in my earlier post, there's no reason at all to think that's a meaningful distinction. And sadly, the media's willingness to portray the effective caging of protest as something to be trivialized rather than pointed out makes it far too likely that the voices with reason for concern about the SPP will be heard even less.

Update: A must-see from Alison.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

On bad-faith negotiations

Following up on this post, let's take a look at what the Cons have done to try to shut out any outside message while paying lip service to lessons from past protests:
The leaders of Canada, Mexico and United States have a novel option for dealing with protesters: flip the channel.

Canadian officials who briefed reporters Thursday initially said that protesters would be allowed close to the hotel conference site in Montebello, Que., and would be visible to the leaders attending the North American summit next week.

But when pressed, they acknowledged that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Presidents George W. Bush and Felipe Calderon would actually only be seeing those outside the security fences by video link.

Mr. Harper's director of communications, Sandra Buckler, later said she understood the video-link decision was “in compliance with the court's decision that protesters have a right to be ‘seen and heard'.”
It's worth noting to begin with that even the Cons' choice of standards is based on a lie. According to CanLII, there isn't a single reported Canadian case that has used the phrase "right to be seen and heard". And Can-West's coverage suggests that the actual requirement being referred to is something entirely different than the Cons are claiming:
Officials did not respond to a request to cite a specific ruling. But a four-year inquiry by Saskatchewan judge Ted Hughes into the RCMP’s pepper spraying, strip searches and other bad treatment of protesters at the 1997 APEC summit in Vancouver concluded RCMP (sic) must provide generous opportunity for protestors “to see and be seen.”
It should be obvious just how big the gap is between the actual standard suggested by Hughes J. and the one apparently being applied by the Cons. Instead of allowing for the two-way communication implied by allowing protesters to "see" as well as "being seen", the Cons are making sure that any information goes one way at most.

And even assuming a one-way flow of information were appropriate, the means chosen by the Cons promises to be ineffective to the point of being insulting. After all, there's virtually no reason to think that attendees will actually pay attention to the protests given the choice to simply change the channel - as the very need for protests is based on the complete refusal of those in charge of the SPP process to let anybody but the most like-minded participants in on the discussion.

I'm not optimistic that the Cons' actions will be appropriately recognized as both dishonest and patronizing by Canada's media. But it appears that Montebello's organizers have offered yet more reasons for concern that the entire SPP process is being carried out in bad faith. And in the long run, that's the message which needs to find its way into public knowledge.

Now that says it all

Your transparent government at work:
Senior government officials — who reporters were not permitted to quote — insisted that there is nothing secretive about the SPP process.
I'll deal with the substantive part of the article later on - and indeed the gall of the anonymous senior officials is the least of the problems with the SPP process as a whole. But I've seen few better encapsulations than this of Deceivin' Stephen's obsession with secrecy - and complete inability to recognize how that runs contrary to his own hollow reassurances of accountability.

Limited credit

Shorter J.L. Granatstein:
If you pretend that Gordon O'Connor was nothing more than a defence industry lobbyist all along, he wasn't such a disaster as Defence Minister.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Lacking in judgment

The convention about giving party leaders a free pass into legislative bodies has always struck me as a bizarre concept - and based on how sporadically it gets applied, it seems that plenty of others agree. But while it's weird enough when parties voluntarily step aside in the first place, Jean Charest is taking the absurdity a step further by trying to score political points based on Mario Dumont's failure to follow suit in immediately standing down for Pauline Marois:
Premier Jean Charest says Action democratique du Quebec Leader Mario Dumont is being immature by trying to block the election of the Parti Quebecois leader to the legislature.

Charest has said he will not run a Liberal candidate against Pauline Marois in a byelection in Charlevoix riding and wants Dumont to do the same. Dumont has said he will leave it up to the local riding executive to decide, adding there is no precedent for allowing the leader of a third-placed party to run unopposed.

"He is lacking in maturity and judgment in wanting to block Mme. Marois," Charest said.
Now, there can be little doubt that the party leaders in Quebec are on the lookout for the slightest point they can make to improve their relative standing. But it still seems amazing that Charest is reaching as far as he is in order to find a difference to criticize.

After all, the aftermath of the last Quebec election was marked by talk of how the ADQ's opposition contingent included a large number of first-time members of the National Assembly (including many who may never have expected to win their seats) - raising the prospect of a regular stream of gaffes. And judging from the party's platform, one would think there's plenty of room for public criticism even when the ADQ stays on message.

What's more, while the issue of stepping aside for Marois is most likely one that people simply won't care about, I'd have to suspect that most voters who actually thought about the question of stepping aside in any depth would prefer to see a leader leave the decision to the riding level - rather than forcing his party to follow convention for the sake of following convention.

Again, the most likely result is that Charest's poor attempt to gain ground will be quickly forgotten. But it's hard not to see it as symptomatic of some serious problems within his government. And if Charest's party really doesn't have anything more to talk about than this, then it may soon be Quebec's Libs looking to extend the convention to their own new third-place leader.

Nothing to see here

Shorter David Emerson and Susan Schwab, trying to minimize media discussion about their NAFTA negotiations:
NAFTA is great - but too dull to be worth reporting on. So please go away and stop asking questions.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

On cabinetry

Since Adam Radwanski didn't quite cover all the notes worth mentioning from the Cons' cabinet shuffle, here are a few more observations...

- The big news of the day was MacKay to Defence. But am I the only one who finds it the least bit surprising that Deceivin' Stephen's choice to try to clean up his party's political mess on Afghanistan is someone who's already contributed to the problem?

It seems beyond doubt that MacKay will find some way to run his mouth and make the Cons' public image on Afghanistan even worse. Which leaves only the question of which group will benefit more from MacKay's appointment: his House sparring partners (Dawn Black and Denis Coderre), or his riding challengers (Louise Lorefice and Elizabeth May).

- One of today's changes may help to signal just how much control is being exercised by the PMO rather than individual ministers. Industry goes from being run by one of the most rabid anti-government ideologues in Maxime Bernier, to a former Progressive Conservative in Jim Prentice - which would seemingly make for a strong chance of a far more moderate direction if the ministers have held any sway. But will anything actually change?

- Gordon O'Connor may have found himself shuffled into what seems to be the safest Cabinet position possible. But it's worth wondering whether the opposition parties find ways to keep holding his feet to the fire - if for no other purpose than to test what aside from a lack of political use (farewell to thee, Carol Skelton) is considered a removal-worthy offence for Harper.

- Speaking of Skelton, while I neglected to note it when she retired, her Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar seat figures to be another juicy target for the NDP in the next federal election - that is, if anybody notices she's gone.

- Finally, the Oda/Verner position swap may have been largely a matter of change for the sake of change. But I have to wonder if the switch is aimed in part at putting Heritage in the hands of a minister who's less susceptible to the (predominatly English-based) citizen media who managed to run Sarmite Bulte out of Parliament for her coziness with the entertainment industry, and figured to cause problems for Oda as well.

On productive discussions

Progressive commentators have been ready and able to debunk the right-wing claim that Canada's productivity issues can (and can only) be solved through yet another round of corporate tax cuts. But the National Post reports that one of Canada's most prominent economists is equally of the view that tax cuts, along with other seemingly favourable conditions, haven't done a thing to encourage corporate investment:
An influential Bay Street economist said Tuesday that corporate Canada is partly to blame for the country's dismal productivity record because companies have failed to take advantage of prosperous times to invest in machinery, training and technology.

Don Drummond, chief economist of Toronto-Dominion Bank, said the investment climate - with low interest rates, reduced corporate taxes and a Canadian dollar close to par with its U.S. counterpart - has never been better for companies to invest in the machinery and equipment needed to boost productivity growth.

"The short message is ... Canada is not keeping up," Mr. Drummond said in his report. "The performance of Canadian firms in fostering new investment is not impressive."...

nvestment in machinery and equipment, an important driver in boosting productivity, has also been lacklustre in Canada. As a share of profit, investment in machinery was at an all-time low in 2006, "suggesting that the high level of profits has deterred firms from pushing for productivity growth because the bottom line is already well padded," Mr. Drummond wrote.

High corporate taxes have always been cited as a main reason for companies failing to invest more in productivity-enhancing measures. But Mr. Drummond said the tax regime has had little effect on the corporate sector's after-tax profitability.

The current comparable rates of taxation, between Canada and the United States, suggest that "the corporate tax system can't be blamed for Canada's investment shortfall," the economist said.
Of course, facts have seldom stopped corporate apologists from insisting that the next round of tax cuts will be the one to suddenly spring corporate Canada into action.

But while corporations themselves may have a vested interest in ignoring reality to push for even more breaks, Drummond's report offers yet another important indication that nobody else's interests would be served by more corporate giveaways. And with Canada's lack of corporate reinvestment apparently violating the theoretical expectations which usually underlie the argument for government inaction, there's all the more reason to think that real capital investment and productivity gains will only be reached if Canada's federal and provincial governments are willing to act for themselves to create real incentives for productivity growth.

Monday, August 13, 2007

On fund-raising failures

It remains to be seen whether the much-speculated machinations against Stephane Dion's Lib leadership will amount to anything. But the Libs had best hope not, as all indications are that they're having enough trouble paying off the last leadership race without having to fund another one.

From the Hill Times, here's the Libs' explanation for their trailing the Cons' fund-raising totals:
Elizabeth Whiting, director of communications for the Liberal Party headquarters, told The Hill Times that one of the key reasons for the Liberal Party's low numbers in fundraising is that the former leadership contestants are also trying to raise funds at the same time. The Liberals raised $1.4-million in the second quarter of 2007.

"The second quarter results when you include leadership contestants for the Liberal Party of Canada totals $1.72-million. Elections Canada doesn't include the amount that's contributed to leadership contestants, which is about $257,000. When you include that in for the total amount including to candidates, to registered associations, to the party itself puts it at $1.72-million. That from about 11,000 contributors," said Ms. Whiting last week.
Leaving aside the wider fund-raising numbers, remember that the Libs' leadership candidates wound up with a total of roughly $4 million in debt. And with a total of 6 quarters in which to make up that amount, it seems fairly obvious that the Libs are far behind the pace they'd need to make up their leadership debts.

And it gets worse for the Lib leadership candidates, as it's far from clear that the contributions taken in actually paid down the Libs' leadership debts even to the small amount that the number involved would suggest. After all, the quarterly fund-raising figures to be a gross number which fails to take into account the negligible return on investment for events intended to help raise money for the leadership contenders.

All of which makes it clear that the Libs already have a remote prospect at best of paying back their existing leadership debts. And Libs otherwise inclined to challenge Dion's leadership status may want to think twice about whether the party can afford another leadership race even if it wants one.

On bogus governance

The Cons' apparent disinterest in the consequences of their actions is downright painful to watch based on its impact on the country at large. But CanWest reports that the same problem is apparently affecting their internal political calculations as well, particularly when it comes to their plan for yet another cabinet shuffle:
(R)ecent history shows that federal Cabinet shuffles have almost zero impact on the political fortunes of the governments that make them. If anything, shuffles are counterproductive in terms of popular support.

CanWest News Service and the polling firm Ipsos Reid have analyzed seven Cabinet shuffles in recent history dating back to 1989: three by former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney, and three by former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien, plus last January's shuffle by Mr. Harper himself.

In every case, public support for the government either dropped or remained the same in the months following the shuffles.

One reason is that Canadian voters see Cabinet shuffles for the public relations exercises they often are, says Omar Soliman, an Ontario Tory and a University of Toronto political science graduate who has studied the art of Cabinet making.

"It probably makes sense for polling numbers to fall or remain static following a shuffle," Mr. Soliman said. "The Canadian electorate has an almost 'antibiotic' tendency to spot bogus governance, and then reject it."
Now, it's worth noting that the study is probably a bit simplistic in its assumptions as to cause and effect. Presumably a government which feels the need to carry out a cabinet shuffle for no particular reason is already recognizing some serious threat to its immediate position - meaning that the shuffles may simply have failed to avoid the inevitable, rather than actually precipitating declines in popular support.

But then, it's telling that Deceivin' Stephen has already reached that point twice after barely a year and a half in office. And the more Canadians see that the Cons are already at the point of having nothing better to do than to rearrange their own deck chairs, the more likely the latest rearrangement is to offer yet another example of a government losing support after a shuffle.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Out in front

While the Outremont by-election race is only in its early stages, it's hard to see how the contest could have started off better for the NDP and Thomas Mulcair - with two mainstream media stories this weekend noting that Mulcair seems to have the early momentum on the ground. And the fact that Mulcair is appearing in the headlines as a favourite may be just as important as the internal strength the NDP is showing in the riding.

To see why, keep in mind that at the best of times, political perception tends to turn into reality awfully quickly. And the NDP's history in Outremont shows just how a wider media focus can make or break a party's chances of breaking through.

In 2004, NDP candidate Omar Aktouf apparently polled as high as 25% at one point (though I can't verify the number beyond one comment at Election Prediction)...but on election day, Aktouf dropped to 14% of the vote, seemingly in large part due to a spillover effect from the Lib/Bloc fight across the province. In 2006, Leo-Paul Lauzon was a higher-profile candidate than Aktouf and polled as high as 20% a week before the election. But even with the province-wide picture somewhat less clear - which I'd think played some role in his better vote retention - Lauzon's final total of 17% still left him a ways to go to catch up with the Libs and Bloc.

Of course, the Outremont by-election already figured to offer a bit of a different story, as riding-level news would inevitably be more prominent than would be the case under the usual general-election focus on national leaders and campaigns. But the NDP's strategy in Outremont still had to be to get Mulcair in the news early, and make sure to be included as one of the two main contenders for later "horse-race" coverage. And even Mulcair's name recognition may not have done the job in that regard if the he hadn't hit the ground running in the by-election.

Fortunately, though, all indications are that the press has placed Mulcair as at least one of the top two choices in the race (if not the outright favourite). Which means that if there's going to be a late-race polarization, the NDP figures to be on the right side of it for a change. And that can only further improve what already looked to be a strong chance for Mulcair to come away with the seat.


So much for my theory that even Gordon O'Connor wouldn't try to make the argument that Afghan troops don't need to be trained in order to take over operational responsibility in Kandahar. After all, word comes out today that any claim along those lines would only nicely match O'Connor's apparent theory that it doesn't much matter whether or not Afghan troops receive equipment promised by the Cons:
Toting obsolete equipment and an arsenal dating back to the Soviet era, the Afghan National Army says it’s waiting for modern weapons promised by Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor.

The Afghan army, which Canada is counting on to take over fighting against the Taliban in coming months, still has yet to receive C-7 assault rifles and ammunition the Canadian government pledged to deliver, said Lt.-Col. Sherinshaw Khobandi...

The C-7 delivery delay has slowed the preparation of Afghan recruits and stalled their takeover of combat operations against the Taliban.

For now, Afghan soldiers must rely on Soviet-era weapons, such as the Kalashnikov AK-47.

At best, the AK-47s are not as precise and have a shorter range than the C-7, which is the Canadian version of the American M-16.

Khobandi is waiting for the weapons with impatience.

"I’m hoping and waiting for that day (to) come," he said.
Needless to say, any anticipated change in equipment can only reduce the value of the training now being given to Afghan troops. Which means that the equipment problems make it even less likely that O'Connor's current spin about Canada's role in Kandahar could possibly bear any resemblance to reality.

Unfortunately, the Afghan army appears to be stuck "hoping and waiting" for competence which the Cons have shown no signs of being able to deliver. And now that it's clear that even the Afghan troops who are now at the centre of O'Connor's message are rightly impatient with the Cons' broken promises, there's no reason for Canadians to put up with Con government much longer.