Saturday, October 20, 2007

On exclusion

The Globe and Mail reports that the Liebermanley Group has made sure to eliminate any danger of actually hearing from any diversity of opinions on Canada's options in Afghanistan. Rather than listening to what Canadians in general have to offer, it's decided to shut out any public input in favour of its own choice of "experts" and political hacks:
The independent panel on the future of Canada's mission in Afghanistan will not hold public hearings but does plan to travel to the war-torn country and to consult widely with experts.

The five-member panel, led by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley, has already rented office space in downtown Ottawa and is expected to have its first meeting this weekend, according to a source close to the panel...

The panel has been asked to finish its work by Jan. 31, 2008, giving it about three months to research, deliberate and write its report, although the legal mandate extends to March 31. The panel has recruited a half-dozen federal officials who have been seconded from Foreign Affairs, National Defence and the Canadian International Development Agency.

The timing of the visit to Afghanistan is still under wraps for security reasons. The panel is also expected to visit NATO headquarters in Brussels and to get advice from academics and non-governmental organizations active in Afghanistan.
Given how slanted the group's composition was to begin with, it's amazing that it feels any need to further direct itself toward the inevitable end result. But the news that the Canadian public is seen as unworthy to participate should offer yet another reason for the Libs to properly denounce the group now, rather than being pressured to accept its conclusions later.

In opposition

A bizarre movement seems to be starting among the Cons, with prominent bloggers floating trial balloons about either formally stripping the Libs of the title of Official Opposition, or simply refusing to deal with Lib questions and issues (though last I checked that was the Cons' typical response to all opposition questions already). And if there's anything more surprising than the effort to push in that direction, it's that Lib bloggers haven't yet offered any apparent criticism of the plan.

With that in mind, let's make this clear from a supporter of the party which would seemingly benefit most.

The Cons aren't entitled to pick and choose their opposition.

Con bloggers apparently don't see the slightest problem in disregarding the democratic allocation of seats in the House of Commons, or going to even greater lengths than the Con government already has to prevent Lib MPs from doing their jobs. And that may be a natural extension of a party which genuinely sees itself as entitled to make government benefits contingent on a partisan gain in exchange.

But the reality is that MPs - regardless of their partisan stripe - have the right to hold the government to account in the House of Commons. And based on the outcome of the last federal election, the Libs legitimately hold the title of Official Opposition, regardless of how effective (or ineffective) they are in that role.

Of course, the NDP will rightly keep pointing out the Libs' weakness as a reason to vote NDP as the effective opposition to Harper and his party. And hopefully that message will lead to a point where Canadian voters recognize and vote for the NDP as a strong future government in the making.

But the Cons have no more legitimate basis to try to cut a party out of the political process entirely than they do to appoint pseudo-MPs to usurp the function of opposition members. And the fact that high-profile supporters honestly see no problem with that kind of scheme only shows the Cons' fundamental contempt for democracy.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A call to assembly

I for one didn't see it coming, but the Saskatchewan NDP has promised to convene a Citizens Assembly if it wins next month's provincial election:
A re-elected NDP government would hold a "citizens assembly" to look at lowering the voting age, introducing fixed election dates and making other changes to democracy in Saskatchewan, party leader Lorne Calvert says.

The assembly would be made up of "randomly chosen" Saskatchewan residents who would make recommendations to the legislature, Calvert said Friday.

They would examine a number of issues, ranging from fixed election dates to voting age to voter turnout.

Calvert said the panel could also discuss the possibility of a new electoral system as an alternative to the first-past-the-post system currently in place.
I'm not sure whether the focus on issues like fixed election dates and voting ages rather than electoral systems is based primarily on Calvert's own preferences, or the (however unfair) conventional wisdom arising out of Ontario's MMP vote. But Calvert's promise itself should help reverse any perception that electoral reform is done for - particularly if the NDP wins the election in part based on the commitment.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the proposal will earn the attention it deserves - particularly given that it was made on the same day that the Sask Party unveiled its entire platform (or at least those parts which hadn't yet been leaked). But it's nonetheless remarkable for a party which has succeeded so thoroughly in the existing structure to be taking the lead in looking for ways to improve how Saskatchewan votes.

And if Calvert's move can push swing votes into the NDP column based on the prospect of an improved electoral system, then both the NDP and the province stand to benefit substantially in the long run as a result.

Return of the Pod People

In the midst of a week of speculation and analysis of the throne speech and its fallout, the first House of Commons mention of the Cons' Pod People Plan didn't receive any attention in the media. But with all three opposition parties apparently presenting a united front on a story which is starting to come into focus, it may not be long before the Cons find themselves on the defensive.

Not surprisingly, the point of privilege was brought up by Nathan Cullen, who generally summarized what's already known about the Cons' pseudo-MP in Skeena-Bulkley Valley. But two of the points in response add new information to the story.

First, while the Cons previously disavowed any national support for the Pod People plan, they seem to have let the mask slide. Now, their Saskatchewan caucus chair Tom Lukiwski has also tried to defend the Cons' undemocratic appointments. Which should remove any plausible claim that the plan stopped at Harris, and provide a strong suggestion that it's indeed a national policy (contrary to the Cons' initial protestations).

Second, other opposition MPs besides Cullen also had additional examples to offer. Perhaps most interesting was Paul Szabo's statement as to what he's been told while trying to do work for his own constituents:
Mr. Speaker, just this past week I had a case in my constituency office requiring the urgent intervention by a minister to get a family member to come over to attend to a terminally ill child.

We wrote to the minister but we did not get a response within a reasonable period of time. We made the necessary inquiry. We were told directly that the department no longer responds to opposition members' requests for assistance and ministerial intervention.
Now, the prospect that the Cons have instructed federal departments to ignore requests from opposition MPs would be dangerous enough on its face. But it's all the more so when combined with this week's news about the Cons' data-gathering techniques:
CIMS is used not only to track voter allegiance in a given riding -- something every political party attempts -- but also a host of other data gathered in the course of an MP's constituency office duties.

"Any time a constituent is engaged with the member of Parliament, they get zapped into the database," Turner said in an interview. "It's unethical and it's a shocking misuse of data.

"Because once you cotton on to what's going on here, it's not good constituency work at all to allow that data to fall into any kind of hands. But the party is desperate to get more and more data in there because the primary use is fundraising. The secondary use is voter tracking to get out the vote."
Putting the pieces of the puzzle together:
- The federal government won't deal with any constituent issue unless it's brought up by a government MP.
- Government MPs won't deal with any constituent issue without collecting whatever information they can get from the encounter, and using it for Conservative Party purposes.

In sum, under Harper, any benefit from the Government of Canada is contingent on a constituent's giving a quid pro quo (whether knowingly or not) to the Conservative Party.

So what can the opposition parties do about it? The first step is obviously to raise the issue publicly wherever they can. And it's possible for them to do more on that front: while the Ethics Commissioner investigation, point of privilege, and media exposure have helped, it's long past time to use some prime Question Period time to force Harper to answer for his government's patronage.

Second, the opposition parties should be working together on legislation to ensure that neither the Cons nor any other party can misuse personal information about Canadians, and agreeing to use whatever means available to fast-track it through Parliament.

This could be as simple as making political parties subject to the Privacy Act, or it could involve a new set of rules under the Canada Elections Act. But whatever mechanism is chosen, it would both make for good public policy, and put a serious dent in whatever advantage the Cons may be deriving from their misuse of data.

And if the Cons want to make such legislation a confidence matter and fight an election over their ability to use the federal government as the Patronage Distribution and Information Gathering Department of the Conservative Party? Well, that's exactly the kind of ground where a referendum on the incumbent figures to be a losing proposition for Harper.

We'll see if the issue gets as much attention as it deserves going forward. But once again, the problem isn't so much any hidden agenda from the Cons as the one that they've already put in plain sight - and the opposition should be happy to make sure the public pays due attention to what's going on.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Trail blazing

A few notes from the Saskatchewan election campaign today:

- The environment has become such a big issue federally that even Harper's Cons have had to at least try to pretend to care about it. But on the provincial level, it's received little attention from either the Sask Party or the Libs (give or take the odd mention of recycling or parks), while Saskatchewan's Greens have apparently failed to gain even the slightest bit of traction. Which means that the NDP's strong environmental platform could help to cement the environmental vote in Calvert's column.

- Meanwhile, the Libs' Saskferco selloff plan looks like an interesting strategic move. Since the suggestion focuses attention on the idea of selling public assets, it figures to help the NDP more than anybody by reinforcing its message about the Sask Party. That said, it may also shift some anti-NDP votes into the Libs' column if part of the pro-privatization crowd decides to throw in its lot with a party which doesn't hide its desire to dispose of public assets.

Now, that result isn't one that I'd mind seeing by any stretch. But it doesn't seem to fit at all with the Libs' apparent strategy of trying to overtake the NDP as the opposition to a Sask Party government.

- Finally, the Sask Party has announced an interesting test for political judgment, where as long as problems with a party's candidates were publicly known before a campaign, the party shouldn't be criticized for implicitly endorsing them. By this standard, several former cabinet ministers may find themselves right at home in Wall's party.

An alternate route

While it hasn't yet been confirmed, all indications are that the NDP won't vote for the Libs' throne speech amendment. While that's understandable given the wording of the amendment itself, it presumably means that the NDP won't be heading down the most immediate path to an election. But that doesn't mean the NDP can't still take a lead role in bringing down the Harper government.

Remember that prior to the throne speech, the Libs themselves made a series of demands. Obviously Stephane Dion didn't stick to his earlier position that he'd bring down the Cons if those demands weren't met - but that doesn't mean the Libs can afford to abandon them entirely, particularly given that the principles involved (a return of bill C-30, an end to combat in Afghanistan, dealing with poverty) are all areas where the opposition parties are largely in agreement.

In that light, consider what would happen if the NDP's throne speech amendment were to consist generally of those same Lib demands, but with just enough soft wording to avoid thorny questions such as whether Afghanistan withdrawal should take place immediately or in 2009.

With the Libs' confrontational wording out of play, the Bloc would be likely to vote for the amendment. Which would leave the Libs with a choice of either joining in to topple the Cons, or being directly responsible for voting down their own demands.

Of course, it's more likely that the NDP will instead play it relatively straight, using its amendment to correct the public record as the Libs once again try to spin voting against their distorted message as a vote for the Cons. But with the Libs already cowering at the prospect of facing off against Harper, now may well be the time to use the NDP's amendment to force the Libs to fish or cut bait when it comes to their own stated principles.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On internal mistrust

Another telling sign about the current state of the Libs managed to pass largely without notice today, as all indications are that Stephane Dion doesn't trust his MPs' discretion any more than they trust his judgment:
Mr. Dion left his MPs guessing about the potential for a fall election just hours before giving his response in the House of Commons to the government's fall agenda.

Liberal MPs emerged from a caucus meeting saying little, telling reporters that Mr. Dion had not revealed his decision about whether to accept or reject the throne speech.
Given how blatantly the Libs had leaked most of their strategy already, it's surprising that Dion thought anything was in need of protection. But even if there was much of a secret to keep, it can't say much for Dion's view of his own caucus that he didn't consider his MPs capable of holding off on leaking his strategy for the few hours between the caucus meeting and his afternoon speech.

What's more, the situation figures to repeat itself as the Cons put the Libs' backs to the wall in a series of confidence votes this fall. And if Dion really thinks he's best off making his decisions in public first and justifying them to his caucus later, it's worth wondering just what future surprises he'll end up springing on the Libs - and how long it'll take for his MPs to start responding in kind.

On openings

It's interesting to note that even while purporting to want to "make Parliament work", Stephane Dion apparently has no greater strategic goal in the fall session than to try to pressure the NDP. But as John has already mentioned, the Libs shouldn't be so sure the NDP will play along - particularly in the face of a plan so obviously targeted at it:
Instead, Dion said, he would introduce amendments to the speech. If those are rejected, the party would abstain, allowing the throne speech to pass.

Dion introduced an amendment that includes a recognition of past Liberal programs, a call to reverse the income trust decision and a commitment to end the combat mission in Afghanistan in February 2009.

But the NDP have said they want Canadian troops out of Afghanistan immediately and support the decision to tax income trusts, meaning the amendment will likely fall.
Now, it may well be that Layton will simply choose to slam the Libs for their willingness to prop up Harper on the wider throne speech. But it's entirely possible that in the face of such an obvious bluff, the NDP could declare that it's not going to pass up what may be the lone opportunity to bring down the Cons in light of the Libs' plan to roll over and play dead once its motion is dealt with.

The likely result would be a campaign where the NDP could contrast its recent momentum against the Libs' freefall in progress - while also playing up the NDP's role as the real opposition based on the Libs' unwillingness to oppose the Cons' plans. And with Layton having taken the clear initiative in bringing down the Con government, the Libs' steady stream of cries that "those traitors didn't keep us in power!" would be turned on their head permanently.

Of course, the Libs could reverse course themselves in order to avoid the polls. But they'd only be able to do so by backing down yet again - this time by torpedoing their own motion for fear of having to face the voters on their own terms.

Now, it could be that a few more months of Dion incompetence (combined with Cons facing the scrutiny of Parliament again) could put the NDP in an even better position later this fall. But given the potential upsides both for the NDP as a party and for Canada as a whole in the possibility of removing Harper from power, I for one hope Layton and company are seriously considering bringing down the Cons through the Lib motion.

Update: Obviously I'm not the only one thinking along these lines.


There's been plenty of talk about the Libs' state of disarray. But while there's been little doubt about some turmoil in terms of staffing and management, another more important factor seems to have revealed itself within the story:
While Proulx said he's a team player and has no problem with being replaced, sources said he quit after learning that Dion had offered the lieutenant's post to Montreal MP Denis Coderre.

However, Coderre declined. Dion then tried to persuade Pablo Rodriguez, another Montreal MP, to take the post. Late Tuesday, he finally announced that Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette will take the job.
In other words, the Libs have now reached the point where even sitting MPs aren't interested in taking up positions of prestige within the party if it means having to share in the responsibility for what's to come. And if those most closely tied to the Libs' current brand are themselves completely uninterested in trying to help right Dion's sinking ship, there's little reason to think that swing voters on either side will stay on board.

(Edit: see comments.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

On non-opposition

Taking a broader look at the Cons' throne speech, I'd have to agree with the numerous other commentators who don't see it as likely that the Libs will vote down the Cons. But based on the most controversial measures the Cons have put forward, the reason for that likely support is based as much on the policies involved as the Libs' own calculation that they don't want an election.

After all, to the extent anybody has suggested an election trigger in the speech, it's the Cons' plan to put all of their most extreme crime measures into a single bill. But the Libs have already offered to fast-track the Cons' crime agenda, meaning that it wouldn't be anything new for them to back off again.

What about the War on Terror provisions which the Libs voted down? That was of course Lib legislation to begin with - and just a few months before suddenly rediscovering the value of civil liberties, they supported an extension of the same measures in committee.

The Libs got Canada into combat in Kandahar to begin with, and that position was extended to 2009 thanks to Lib votes. Stephane Dion is looking to give the Cons a run for their money in the tax cut department. And Dion said himself during the Lib leadership race that he didn't think he could get Canada to its Kyoto targets - which will make it awfully tough for him to bring down Harper for saying the same now.

In sum, a Lib party desperate to avoid an election indeed shouldn't have the least bit of trouble propping the Cons up on their throne speech. But that's largely because the Libs themselves have agreed with nearly everything the Cons had to say. And that makes it all the more clear that Dion and his party couldn't offer plausible opposition to the Cons even if they weren't distracted by their own internal meltdown.

Update: Alison has more.

One for the junk heap

Based on the Sask Party's total platform leak, Brad Wall probably had no choice but to go public with his promise to eliminate the PST on used car sales. But I have to wonder if the party has thought through the unintended consequences of the move.

After all, it doesn't seem to be a matter of much dispute that newer cars tend to be less environmentally damaging than their older counterparts. And that trend only figures to continue as hybrids and other emission-friendly vehicles become more widely available - particularly since automakers themselves have agreed to work toward more emission reductions.

As a result, by setting up a tax structure which provides an effective tax break for used cars as opposed to new ones, Wall is in fact promising to provide an incentive for Saskatchewan residents to purchase less efficient vehicles. Which means that the costs of Wall's plan would go well beyond the (itself significant) opportunity cost of the money he'd pour into it - and that the contrast to the Calvert government's focus on the environment figures to offer yet another strong wedge issue for the NDP.

Throne away

A first reaction to the Cons' throne speech: so much for my theory that the Liebermanley Group was actually intended to buy the Cons time and deniability on Afghanistan. Instead, by calling for a two-year extension of the current mission without bothering to hear from a panel which he himself appointed last week, Harper himself has made it absolutely clear that he couldn't care less what it has to say.

As a result, it seems that the sole purposes of last week's announcement of the panel were to put temporary pressure on the Libs, and to win a modicum of public perception of having John Manley on the Cons' side. Which in turn adds yet another in the column of misusing public resources for partisan gain.

Party over country

It's been clear for some time that the Harper Cons are looking out for every opportunity to use public funds for partisan gain. But a couple of stories from the last two days offer additional evidence as to their lack of any distinction between campaigning and governing - as well as hints as to how much further they're looking to go in the future.

First, there's the Globe and Mail's report on the Cons' targeting of ethnic voters:
Select ethnic and religious groups across Canada are being targeted by a previously unknown Conservative team that is bluntly gunning for votes in a bid to supplant the Liberals in multicultural ridings in the next election.

The operation's strategic blueprint, obtained by The Globe and Mail, states the “ethnic outreach team” is largely overseen by the Prime Minister's Office and Jason Kenney, the junior minister for multiculturalism...

Overall, the comprehensive strategy involves targeted mailings, one-on-one meetings at “major ethnic events” and the creation of large databases of immigrants and new Canadians...

The “outreach team” used a Canadian Heritage government computer to create the initial version of a document that was provided at the political training conference in March. A spokesman for Mr. Kenney explained that the final version, including Conservative logos, was modified on another outside computer.

In another presentation, Conservative community relations manager Georganne Burke told Conservatives that outreach calls on them to work beyond their traditional base, even if it means “to look outside your normal comfort zone.”

Concretely, Ms. Burke urged Conservative candidates and organizers to break down each riding's ethnic and religious composition, and directly target potential voters.

She said that Conservatives should use all available opportunities to “build the database” of ethnic voters, by renting or buying lists of names from third parties and by attending events where they can gather business cards and guest lists.
The story doesn't expand on Kenney's weak attempt to deflect criticism by saying that the final draft was done on a private computer. But there doesn't appear to be any reason why the Cons could validly use public resources for the early drafts of their own partisan plans - particularly when they're at pains to say that the final version was completed elsewhere. Which means that there's already one concrete example of the Cons' misuse of public resources.

But the article also hints at another question. It appears clear that the Cons:
(a) have no compunction about using public resources for purely partisan purposes;
(b) are using "all available opportunities" to gather lists of ethnic voters, and
(c) are looking at new immigrants specifically as a target group.

Given that background, there's ample reason to wonder whether the Cons are also using government resources more directly related to their goal - i.e. data from Immigration Canada and other departments who might have useful information for the Cons' database.

Meanwhile, the Hill Times reported yesterday that Con staffers are looking for excuses to use public resources to help the Cons within an election campaign:
Sensing the possibility of a federal election this fall, the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office are working on finalizing "clear and detailed guidelines and rules of conduct" for exempt ministerial staffers who hope to work on the Tories' next federal election campaign, according to Conservative sources.

A Conservative source told The Hill Times that the Treasury Board guidelines are not clear under the new provisions of the Federal Accountability Act in terms of exempt staffers and election campaign work. Some staffers are asking for clarification, the source said.

"The Treasury Board guidelines are very barebones. The Treasury Board guidelines say, 'You cannot go and work on a campaign during working hours.' Does that mean I can email? Could I spin the media sitting here at my desk? How many people from a minister's office could go and work in a campaign? If a ministerial office has 10 [political] staffers, how many of those could go and work on a local campaign? What are the rules for minister's offices, who can do what? Which offices have to stay functional? Which offices have to have which people in them?" said one top Conservative, who added that the PMO decided to work on the new code-of-conduct guidelines for election campaigns because the Treasury Board guidelines do not provide enough details for ministerial staffers...

According to the existing Treasury Board guidelines, "Should a member of the minister's exempt staff decide to become actively involved on a full-time basis in a federal, provincial, or territorial election or byelection, the member is required to take leave without pay or resign his or her position. If a member becomes engaged in campaign activities on a part-time basis, his or her involvement must be on his or her own time and not during regular office hours. No vacation leave or any other leave with pay will be permitted for election purposes."
Now, it says something about the Cons' staffing philosophy that they see a real risk that offices might be completely cleared out during a campaign, rather than being able to plan for enough employees to keep the department running.

But the more striking part of the story is the attempt by a "top Conservative" to look for every conceivable loophole in the existing wording - including one that obviously doesn't exist by claiming the existing guideline refers to "going" rather than "involvement". Based on that stance, it's glaringly clear that the Cons don't recognize any general principle that government resources shouldn't be used for partisan gain. And that attitude suggests that the ultimate wording of the guideline is irrelevant, as the Cons will invent enough loopholes to allow their staffers to perform party work on the public dime.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Growing intrusions

In a story closely related to this afternoon's post on the Cons' likely problems in trying to impose the TILMA on Quebec, the Globe and Mail reports that La Belle Province is already in a fighting mood when it comes to another of Jim Flaherty's plans to impose the Cons' view of markets on unwilling provinces:
The notion of a single national securities regulator for Canada is turning into a politically charged issue with an international twist.

Quebec's Finance Minister accused the federal government Monday of pressuring the International Monetary Fund to back Ottawa's campaign for a single, countrywide regulator.

Alluding to the coming release of an IMF study that recommends the creation of a single watchdog in Canada, Monique Jérôme-Forget said the only way to explain such “intervention” in the country's internal affairs is that Ottawa put pressure on the world body.

The “close ties between the [federal] finance ministry and the International Monetary Fund are certainly one of the reasons,” she told a financial markets luncheon audience.

“Pressure was probably exercised by the federal government to encourage this interference in our internal debates,” she said.

The charge is the latest salvo in an increasingly bitter set-to between Ms. Jérôme-Forget and federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty over the need for a single national regulator...

Ms. Jérôme-Forget is an ardent proponent of the so-called passport system that would create a virtual national regulatory system for Canada, thus avoiding shifting power to a central body in Toronto or Ottawa.

All of the provinces except Ontario support the passport idea, which would allow companies or individuals to get regulatory approval in their home jurisdiction with the other provinces or territories automatically accepting the decision.
I commented last year on the Cons' efforts to link artificial limitations on federal spending to the provinces' willingness to tie their own hands. In effect, the Cons have long been offering to trade the promise of ineffective federal government for ineffective provincial government, in hopes that provinces would be happy enough with perceived non-intervention from Ottawa to limit their own freedom of action.

Now, Flaherty's patience seems to have reached an end - leading to an attempt to instead force unwanted restrictions on the provinces through both federal action and outside pressure. But it's not surprising that Quebec and others aren't interested in playing along. And if the federal push to neuter provincial governments gets the attention it deserves, then it wouldn't be surprising to see a strong push headed in the opposite direction to make sure the Cons can't impose their agenda on the provinces.

Failed controls

There's been plenty of discussion today about the Cons' plan for their own personal Pravda, led of course by Kady O'Malley's rant.

But the discussion so far has missed one important point (which is only confirmed by Deceivin' Stephen's hurried denial of any plan to follow through). For all the talk of Harper's supposed victory in his cold war against the (relatively) mainstream media, it seems awfully clear that the Cons were sufficiently afraid of the possible public reaction to back off their most extreme reported press control plans. Which would suggest that the balance of power never swung anywhere near as far in Harper's favour as most reports suggested.

Indeed, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if the Cons would have preferred to unveil their means of controlling their coverage in a citizen-funded form, rather than having to pay for their own explicitly partisan equivalent. And while the Cons' large amount of cash on hand presumably played a role in their going the latter route instead, it seems entirely likely that a rightful fear of a serious backlash also played a major role.

What's more, thanks to the Star's report, the Cons may now face that backlash anyway. While O'Malley may represent a particularly strong voice, it's entirely likely that a significant chunk of Canada's media will start wondering just what else Harper had in the works to try to control any reporting on his government. And that could well help to ensure that Harper loses his chosen war with the media as well as this particular battle.

Costly trade

The Cons are apparently perfectly willing to match Stephane Dion in the corporate pandering department, matching the Libs' call for tax cuts while promising yet another attack on mythical "internal trade barriers". But there's a strong possibility that the Cons are miscalculating in trying to force the latter issue at the national level:
Mr. Flaherty (said) on Monday (that) taxes are still too high, and the federal government is committed to lowering them.

Ottawa also wants to knock down trade barriers within Canada so provinces can trade more freely with each other, he said.
Now, it certainly isn't news that the Cons are eager to see the TILMA imposed nationally. But any inclusion of the issue in the throne speech nonetheless figures to raise the stakes considerably.

Remember that just this summer, the provinces agreed to include a dispute-resolution mechanism in the existing Agreement on Internal Trade. And it seems a reasonable assessment that the actual agreement on a relatively limited expansion of corporate privileges hinted at a lack of consensus on anything more.

Presumably, the Cons wouldn't be bringing up the issue if they were satisfied with that outcome. Which strongly suggests that Flaherty's path will be to attempt to impose the TILMA on a national scale - whether by direct legislation, or by pressuring the provinces into accepting it.

The unpopularity of the TILMA itself offers reason enough to think of that as a problematic strategy. But there's an even more significant danger in trying to impose the TILMA from the federal level.

Remember that the main force against any additional national agreement has been Quebec's refusal to cede any sovereignty to national pressure and corporate interests. For Harper to force on Quebec what it's already rejected for itself - and thereby limit the province's scope of legislative action - would reek of unwarranted intrusion into provincial jurisdiction, offering Gilles Duceppe just the kind of issue that could reverse the Bloc's recent slide.

And even if one assumed the Cons are willing to take the minority side of an issue where the opposition parties will then split the majority position, it's far from clear that TILMA would offer that opportunity. With the Libs obviously seeking to reclaim their title as the party of corporate Canada (and generally unwilling to fight the Cons' priorities), they'd be at least as likely as not to simply play along with the Cons' plan. Which would eliminate any benefit in the big-business buyoff department, which making the Cons extremely vulnerable to the NDP and the Bloc.

Of course, it's possible that any talk of internal trade barriers in the throne speech will be limited to more of the relatively noncommittal language which the Cons have already spouted through most of their time in office - making the declaration merely meaningless rather than reckless. But if the Cons do plan to try to impose government barriers on unwilling provinces, they have little to gain and much to lose in doing so.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Undeserved benefits

In fairness to the Libs and Stephane Dion, they aren't the only ones who seem utterly willing to ignore all available evidence to give Stephen Harper the benefit of any doubt. After all, the Cons' own riding association in Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley seems to have kidded itself into thinking that Harper might care about internal democracy, despite all evidence being to the contrary:
A Conservative riding association in northern Nova Scotia is defying Stephen Harper and standing behind renegade MP Bill Casey, leaving the prime minister with the choice to either reverse course or brush aside the wishes of local Tories...

(T)he Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley riding association's board voted Sunday to reinforce Casey's nomination, putting the longtime MP's future as a Conservative candidate back in Harper's hands.

"There is a democratic process in place, they nominated me once, they reinforced that tonight," Casey said in an interview following riding association's two-hour meeting in Truro, N.S.

"If (Harper) believes in the democratic process, then that decision will hold."

Casey and riding association president Scott Armstrong acknowledged that Harper has the final say on candidate nominations, but they remained hopeful the prime minister would change his mind.
Now, the riding association deserves credit for standing up for its own principles. But it's hard to believe that it was completely unaware of either Harper's stated refusal to countenance independent thought like Casey's, or the Cons' track record of suppressing anything approaching internal democracy - making its appeal to some "belief in the democratic process" look utterly naive at best. And the more Harper's chosen opponents (whether within the Cons or the Libs) continue to pretend there's reason to assume the best of him, the less likely Canadian voters are to be skeptical enough of Harper to avoid writing him a blank cheque in the next federal election.

Universal agreement

Based on Murray Mandryk's Week 1 recap from Saskatchewan's election campaign, it looks like my theory as to the most likely battleground may be right on the money, as the Sask Party seems eager to base its message on narrowly-focused programs rather than universal ones:
At Calvert's election announcement Wednesday night, the buzz among New Democrats was that voters' minds would be made up in the first few days of the campaign. We now know that the NDP was talking about its universal drug plan that was designed to solidify the vote.

However, Wall said Friday that the difference between Calvert's drug plan and his own may "already be the turning point" but one that has turned in his party's favour. Voters have a clear choice between the NDP's slashy, costly and unnecessary plan and the Saskatchewan Party's targeted, moderate and costed-out approach, Wall contended at his announcement.

One Saskatchewan Party insider privately acknowledged Friday the party's smaller-announcement approach -- including its alternative prescription drug plan policy that was actually reported last spring -- has come from policy pre-election focus group testing.
Of course, a focus-group test may not tell the whole story when it comes time to defend a policy choice as part of an election debate. And the Sask Party's position will leave the NDP with plenty of ammunition as well - both to defend the value of universality in its own policy proposals, and to question whether Wall would later seek to narrow the benefit from other popular programs as well in keeping with the same arguments he's making to defend his prescription drug policy.

It remains to be seen which view will in out in the end. But whatever the outcome, it looks like both the NDP and the Sask Party are more than willing to agree that the question of universality will be the main issue for Saskatchewan voters to decide at the polls.

Update: GPM has another example, pointing out the contrast between Sask Party's all-but-declared proposal to offer tax credits for children's activities and the NDP's plan to make sports and arts programs more accessible in the first place.