Saturday, September 29, 2007

Bloc voting

There's been plenty of talk today about the possibility that the Libs might end up holding back votes on the Cons' throne speech to avoid an election. There doesn't seem to be much doubt that such a move would be utterly disastrous for Stephane Dion - and even the fact that the issue is being publicly discussed can only reflect poorly on an already-embattled party.

However, I'm far from convinced that the Libs will ever be forced into the decision, as the Bloc has even less reason than the Libs to want to topple the Cons immediately.

After all, an election based on the Cons' throne speech would naturally focus strongly on the issues raised in that speech, resulting in a relatively policy-based discussion. And while the Bloc's best hope in that kind of race might be to try to paint itself as Quebec's progressive option, there's little reason to think they'd stand much chance of succeeding.

Remember the Bloc's results in 2000 - when the NDP took less than 2% of the vote in Quebec, and the Libs were playing a game of duelling tax cuts in response to the formation of the Canadian Alliance. With virtually no other progressive presence in Quebec and a relatively scandal- and protest-free election placing the focus on issues more than usual, the Bloc couldn't make any headway on progressive themes, dropping to its lowest-ever seat total at 38.

Now, the NDP is making a serious push into Quebec, while Dion is fighting desperately to try to win some progressive ground as well. And the Bloc surely can't expect to do any better trying to defend left-of-centre territory now that it's so strongly contested - particularly when its own budget votes have helped the Cons to put their most reactionary measures into effect.

In contrast, the Bloc's relatively successful elections have been ones where it has been able to tap into widespread public outrage at the federal government rather than having to fight a battle of ideas. And for all the Cons' missteps - both before and after their election - nothing they've done has yet managed to generate anything close to the anger which arose out of Mulroney's constitutional wranglings or the Libs' scandals.

Which isn't to say that there aren't some areas where the Cons could be vulnerable in the near future, as Conadscam in particular should offer the promise of juicy revelations about Con insiders once it's fully investigated. But the current level of knowledge about the scandal is still extremely low. And if the Cons fall on the throne speech, that would ensure that Parliamentary comittees won't get a chance to grill the Cons publicly about their scheme before a federal election.

As a result, the Bloc is left with the following choice: either toppling the Cons now and facing a campaign on its weakest ground, or backing off now in hopes of a significant Con misstep (whether Conadscam or another scandal) which could allow it to retake its usual posture of outrage. From my vantage point at least, the latter seems to offer the Bloc far more hope of maintaining something close to its current seat total.

But what about the political costs of propping up the Cons? Well, the Bloc alone among the opposition parties already has a lengthy track record of propping up the Cons' budgets - which will only make any attempt to paint itself as the primary Quebec opposition to Harper on policy issues seem less than credible. And one more example on the list of votes supporting the Cons wouldn't figure to do substantially more damage to the Bloc's public perception even if no suitable scandal materializes in the meantime.

As a result, I'd anticipate the Bloc grudgingly voting for a throne speech which meets its demand of promising to curtail federal spending, makes some reference to an Afghanistan extension vote in Parliament, and contains enough fuzzy language on the environment to provide a modicum of political cover. And if the Bloc's ideal conditions never do materialize before the next election cycle, it'll at least save as much of its current level of resources for as long as it can in the meantime.

On misreporting

The Ottawa Citizen reports on yet another example of the Cons' complete disinterest in following Canada's election laws, as the party was forced to amend its 2006 general election return after its initial books listed zero expenses in a major spending category:
The Conservative party had to amend its national campaign expense return for the 2006 election and re-classify nearly $400,000 in advertising expenditures after Elections Canada formally questioned the original return, Elections Canada records show.

The change required the party's auditor, Deloitte & Touche LLP, to withdraw its original opinion of approval for the Conservative election books and submit a new opinion nearly 11 months after the election.

Following the initial Elections Canada review of the return -- which accounted for $18 million the party spent on the campaign over and above candidate expenses -- the Conservatives moved a sum of $388,284 from a column for radio and TV advertising to a separate column for other forms of advertising.

The initial Conservative return, filed with Elections Canada in May, had designated no spending for other forms of advertising, which includes media such as billboards, newspapers and pamphlets.

A Sept. 21, 2006, letter from Elections Canada to Irving Gerstein, chairman of the Conservative Fund Canada, noted that the party reported an expenditure of $1.4 million on non-broadcast advertising for the 2004 campaign and added "we request that you confirm, in writing, that the information reported for the 39th general election for this category of advertising is correct."

The Conservative party response to the Elections Canada letter was a new expense return filed on Dec. 9. The party did not respond directly to the letter from the electoral agency.
Unlike the Conadscam scheme, the omission on its face wouldn't affect the legality of any of the Cons' expenditures within the campaign. But it would, at best, reflect another example of the Cons' complete disregard for their legal obligations, as once again the party seems to have simply made up implausible "facts" and forced an outside agency to correct the falsehood. And it's worth asking whether there's another even more serious issue at play in light of the Cons' massive drop in reported "other advertising expenses" from 2004 to 2006 following the correction.

In fairness, it may well be that the Cons indeed decided to slash three quarters of their spending on this type of advertising from 2004. But when the party has already been shown to have falsely reported its spending in the area to begin with, there's no reason to have any confidence in their reported numbers.

As a result, and particularly in light of the Cons' consistent pattern of false reporting and coverups when it comes to campaign expenses and other party financing issues, it's worth wondering whether the Cons may have instead moved most of their "other advertising expenses" off the federal party's books in the same manner as they did with broadcast advertising. If so, that would take the Cons even further past the election spending limits, and offer another strong indication of central plans to circumvent Canada's election laws.

We'll see whether anything surfaces as the matter is dealt with in detail. But there's every reason for the opposition parties to make sure the Cons' campaign spending goes under the microscope this fall - and the results may well help ensure that no amount of spending can save the Cons' chances in the next election.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Kyoto by the numbers

Total federal surpluses announced over the last two days alone: $21.6 billion

Total cost of purchasing enough international greenhouse gas emission credits to meet Canada's Kyoto Protocol obligations in full at the Cons' assumed price of $25/tonne, assuming that emissions stay at their current level of 747 megatonnes per year until 2012 (compared to Canada's target level of 572 megatonnes per year): $21.875 billion

Number of corporate media pundits who figure to stop parroting the Cons' patently false spin that Canada can't afford to meet its Kyoto commitments: All too likely zero

On targets

In my absence, Uncorrected Proofs posted an interesting list of the NDP's likely target ridings in Quebec. While that post is worth a read, however, it's worth adding a few comments on the NDP's odds of success - as well as pointing out a few other types of ridings where the Dippers could mount a serious challenge.

While Uncorrected Proofs is pessimistic about the NDP's chances of pulling out another seat beyond Outremont, it's worth noting that two of the top targets in particular are looking more promising by the day.

As I've noted before, Hull-Aylmer is home to the Libs' Quebec lieutenant in Marcel Proulx. Not only will Proulx face a significant distraction from the Libs' other races within the province, but he also figures to be on the receiving end of some fallout from the Libs' internal turmoil. Which, combined with the NDP's already-solid results in the riding and the nomination of a high-profile candidate in Pierre Ducasse, makes this an extremely strong target.

Then there's Westmount-Ville-Marie - which just happens to be the site of one of the Libs' most significant internal fights as Marc Garneau seethes over Stephane Dion's refusal to name him as the party's candidate. It remains to be seen whether the Libs can attract anybody else with Garneau's profile (which was itself insufficient to win Garneau a seat when he ran in 2006), but if the NDP can put forward a high-profile candidate the riding should easily be up for grabs.

Those two are naturally the NDP's best targets based on the combination of a relatively high vote in the 2006 election and other favourable factors. But while Uncorrected Proofs seems to stick to ridings which were home to a fairly strong Dipper vote in 2006, those aren't the only ones which the NDP could realistically win. (Consider in comparison how far the Cons came to win ridings like Louis-Hebert or Jonquière—Alma in 2006.)

First, there's the possibility that Mulcair's history in Laval could help to bring the NDP into contention there. Mulcair consistently routed his opponents in Chomedey while running for provincial office, and indeed typically put up an extra 15-20 percentage points beyond his Lib predecessor and successor. And if Mulcair is able to persuade a substantial part of that base to put its effort behind the NDP, then it's entirely possible that the NDP could put together a winning effort in one or more Laval seats - particularly if the Libs and Bloc, who currently hold all the city's seats, continue their freefall.

Second, there are ridings which may be sufficiently disillusioned with Duceppe's support of the Cons to put their support behind the NDP as a better progressive alternative. In particular, I'd look for areas where the Cons weren't able to challenge the Bloc in 2006 (hinting at an aversion to Harper's brand of conservatism), including Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques, Trois-Rivières, Brossard—La Prairie, Chambly—Borduas, Longueuil—Pierre-Boucher Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert, Saint-Lambert and Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou in addition to Laurier-Sainte-Marie, Manicouagan and the bulk of Montreal. Not all of these may fit the profile (i.e. the Bloc's total may be based on separatism rather than any progressive bent), but these should offer at least a few more possible targets - particularly if the Bloc does continue to crumble.

Finally, there's the possibility of recruiting additional star candidates who will bring their own electoral machinery to the table. While Mulcair was able to win in new territory, Political Bytes noted that the Cons' by-election success seems to have been based entirely on recruiting candidates with municipal electoral experience and an existing base of operations to match. And with a number of Libs having apparently turned their support toward the Cons in 2006, there's no apparent reason why a disgruntled riding association or two couldn't decide to put its strength behind the NDP instead.

With the NDP's star obviously on the rise in Quebec, there's a far better chance of attracting star candidates and/or former supporters of other parties. And there are awfully few seats where the NDP (or indeed any other one of the four main parties) couldn't at least mount a challenge with a strong existing machine behind it.

Of course, the NDP can't take anything for granted in Quebec or elsewhere. It may well need a couple of the above factors working in its favour to win any of the ridings where its 2006 support was relatively limited - and maybe none of the possibilities will pan out. But at this point, there are far more than just a couple of Quebec seats where the NDP could realistically come away victorious in the next election cycle or two. And hopefully Mulcair and the party's Quebec team are well on their way to making more than a few come to fruition.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Misplaced demands

In the past, I've been critical of both the Bloc and the Libs for their all-too-frequent strategy of leaving full responsibility for developing policy in the hands of the Con government, rather than seeking to improve legislation through cooperation and/or public demands. Unfortunately, it looks like both have utterly missed the point of trying to use Parliamentary levarage to improve policy, as both have inexplicably made an atypical move toward public demands when it comes to a throne speech which will have no substantive policy impact - in the process increasing the risk of an election which neither likely wants.

Let's start with the track record of the two parties. It didn't take long after the Cons took power for the Bloc to rubber-stamp the Cons' first budget on the assumption that Deceivin' Stephen somehow deserved the benefit of the doubt. And in the time since then, the Bloc has likewise fallen into line on softwood lumber and on the Cons' second budget - at times criticizing the resulting effects and cuts, but never making even the slightest effort to change the Cons' choices before casting votes in favour of the Cons' legislation.

The Libs' budget strategy has been similar. When the Cons' budget was set to come out this year, for example, the Libs did nothing but decline to comment until the budget was released rather than suggesting what elements could earn their support. Which meant that rather than influencing the slate of issues to be discussed around the budget - as the NDP properly did by setting out a clear set of demands - the Libs simply allowed the Cons a free pass.

And the same pattern has played out on other issues as well. For example, it took the NDP forcing a committee review of bill C-30 to push the Libs to demand anything on greenhouse gas emissions other than a Con plan for opposition review - while the Libs' preferred strategy (as exemplified in Bill C-288) has been to simply restate Canada's Kyoto obligations and demand that the Cons figure out how to meet them. And any effort by the NDP to actually suggest what could be done was routinely slammed as support for Harper rather than for positive action.

Of course, the Libs finally came around to the idea of cooperation on C-30. And hopefully it isn't too late for the opposition parties to team up and pass the plan which they all agreed on.

But that brings us to the Cons' upcoming throne speech - in advance of which the Libs and Bloc have both suddenly reached the conclusion that it's time to start making very specific demands.

So what's the problem with that strategy now? Unlike a bill before Parliament, the throne speech is non-binding, and has absolutely no chance of accomplishing anything if passed. Which means that after consistently refusing to try to influence the Cons' substantive decisions, the Libs and Bloc are now using whatever political capital they have left on a purely symbolic matter.

What's worse, on the two issues which seem most likely to provoke disagreement from the Cons, the Lib and Bloc demands only stand in the way of the opposition parties getting something done. On Afghanistan, if the government is toppled on the throne speech as a whole, then the House of Commons will never consider the issue of a mission extension on its own - when it's obvious that if it works in tandem on the appropriate wording, the opposition should be able to pass a motion to definitively reject an extension once Parliament is in session. And likewise, if the opposition puts its weight behind a private member's bill in substantially the same form as the amended C-30, then it can get some real emission-reduction measures in place even without the Cons seeing it as part of their own agenda.

Which isn't to say the opposition shouldn't be willing to vote non-confidence in the Cons in the meantime, or indeed on the throne speech itself. But if it's time to go to the polls, then the Lib/Bloc strategy makes even less sense: the Cons' mere willingness to mouth some desired throne speech wording without any concurrent action wouldn't offer any reason to keep them in power, particularly given the Cons' track record of mouthing support for child care, health care and the environment while implementing policies which directly undermine those programs.

We'll see how the current gamesmanship of the Libs and Bloc plays out. But their strategy shows all too clearly that the two largest opposition parties are no less prone to prioritizing facades over substance than the Harper government. And that should leave Canadian voters with yet another reason to want a more effective alternative to the Cons no matter when the next election takes place.