Saturday, November 10, 2007

On selective ignorance

Just so we're clear about Stephen Harper's idea of integrity in the prime minister's office...

As far as Harper's PMO is concerned, an accusation of prime ministerial impropriety in office which hasn't yet been made public is to be swept under the rug.

But once that accusation is made public and can't be avoided, then and only then is it it time to start feigning concern about the need to "protect the office of the prime minister".

Once again, the real message is that Harper won't stand for an iota more accountability than he can avoid - either for himself or for his mentor. And that pervasive attitude among Harper and his minions poses a far greater danger to the integrity of the PMO than anything Mulroney is alleged to have done.

Friday, November 09, 2007

On non-intervention

A couple of bloggers have pointed out Brad Wall's hints at dropping Saskatchewan's legal challenge to the federal Cons' equalization betrayal. But I'm surprised there hasn't been more attention to Wall's other decision to facilitate Harper's agenda which has already been confirmed:
The battle over the future of the Canadian Wheat Board has taken another turn with the election of a new government in Saskatchewan.

Premier-designate Brad Wall says his government won't pursue intervener status in the legal wrangling between Ottawa, the board and the Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board.

At issue is the federal government's plan to eliminate the board's western barley marketing monopoly.

The previous NDP government had supported the court action, arguing that the federal government does not have the legal authority to make the change.

But Wall says he'll opt out because the Saskatchewan Party supports choice.
Note in particular the contrast between Wall's take on the Wheat Board and that on equalization. After all, Wall's stated plan on equalization is to at least read the province's existing legal opinions before deciding whether or not to drop the proceeding - however unlikely it is that Wall will actually follow through.

When it comes to the Wheat Board, though, Wall didn't bother waiting for any advice about the merits of the case - and apparently couldn't be less interested in considering the possibility that the province should speak up on behalf of the plurality of its barley producers.

Instead, Wall apparently doesn't mind making a statement that he won't even listen to either the law or the province's desires when they conflict with the ideology which he shares with Harper. And the obvious overlap on other ideological matters can only suggest that the Wheat Board may be only the first of many areas where the Sask Party puts Harper's goals ahead of those of the province.

An uncovered agenda

Shorter CanWest chain on the Saskatchewan election outcome:
Of course the NDP shouldn't have been believed when it talked about Sask Party privatization. But that doesn't mean there's any reason to delay the selloff now that the election's done with.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

In motion

Jack Layton's push to abolish the Senate has certainly managed to dominate Canada's political scene over the course of this week. But it's noteworthy that while false impressions about Layton's motion seems to have spread like wildfire, the real strategic context has been largely ignored.

Let's start by correcting the false claim that anti-NDP forces seem to have shouted in unision: there's nothing anti-constitutional or impossible about Layton's proposal. Instead, it's clear under the Referendum Act that a referendum may be held for the purpose of gathering the "opinion" of Canadian citizens (rather than to impose the proposed policy without further action):
3. (1) Where the Governor in Council considers that it is in the public interest to obtain by means of a referendum the opinion of electors on any question relating to the Constitution of Canada, the Governor in Council may, by proclamation, direct that the opinion of electors be obtained by putting the question to the electors of Canada or of one or more provinces specified in the proclamation at a referendum called for that purpose.
As I'd noted from the beginning, the effect of a referendum on abolition wouldn't be to actually abolish the Senate immediately. The effect would instead be to put pressure on the provinces to agree to abolition as a stand-alone issue without getting into the usual wrangling that accompanies constitutional changes.

Another point of confusion seems to surround the nature of Layton's motion. From the above portion of the Referendum Act, it should be obvious that the capacity to call a referendum lies solely with the Governor in Council (i.e. the federal government). If Harper wants a referendum, he can call it without any House motion; if he doesn't, then it would take a legislative amendment passed by all three opposition parties (not to mention the Senate) to impose one against Harper's will.

Likewise, the view of the current Senate is utterly irrelevant to the question of whether a referendum can take place. Layton's motion wouldn't be put before the Senate unless an individual senator chooses to introduce it separately - and even then the Senate's vote would similarly be of no immediate effect.

So what's the point of Layton's motion? From this angle, it seems to be directed far more at putting immediate pressure on the Cons than on the Libs. If Harper and his government vote against the motion, they'll be offering effective support for a body which is despised by a significant portion of their base in its current form; if they vote for it, then they'll have to answer for a serious reversal if they don't follow through and put the question to Canada's citizens.

Which means that absent some other factor, all roads lead either to the Cons losing face, or to a referendum on a longstanding NDP priority.

So far, so good. But then we get to Harper's decision to try to change the issue in order to toss the ball into the court of the Libs' senators. And that's where there's some real risk in Layton's motion.

Harper's strategy has obviously been to use the possibility of a referendum as leverage against the Libs' Senate majority. Indeed, his seemingly positive response to Layton was offered only with the proviso that the Libs can avoid a referendum by acceding to his party's demands. And the danger is that if the Libs decide to give in to Harper yet again, Harper will get his gridlock-friendly triple-E version of the Senate before 2009 without any meaningful public input, while the Canadian public will never get to vote on abolition (or even reform).

So does that mean that the NDP should back off? Not for a second.

Harper may be able to try to deflect from the real issue in the media by testing what the Libs' senators will put up with in order to avoid an abolition vote. But he and his party can only spin its own vote on an NDP-worded motion so far. Which means that by pushing forward, Layton can put the pressure squarely back on the Cons for the motion vote now - and hopefully again when it comes time to put the abolition question to the Canadian public in two years.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Post-election notes

A few notes on tonight's election results...

- Obviously the outcome is disappointing for the NDP, if far from the wipeout some were predicting from a party standpoint. But while it's always tough to lose power (and in this case the progressive leadership that came with it), the NDP should have an extremely solid platform from which to put an inexperienced government under the microscope. In particular, with the swing vote apparently having taken Brad Wall at his bare word that he'd avoid doing serious damage to Saskatchewan's public sector and refuse to sign onto the TILMA, the NDP will hopefully be able to hold the Sask Party's feet to the fire to prevent any retreat from those positions.

- As for the NDP's future strategy, my initial reaction is that despite the discussion in some quarters about choosing a new leader, there's no reason at all for Lorne Calvert to step down (or for the party to push him from the helm). If Wall stumbles in office - which wouldn't be the least bit surprising - then the NDP may be best served being able to draw a contrast between an out-of-its-element Sask Party and the effective government that preceded it. And if the NDP decides it needs to renew at the top as well as within the ranks of its caucus, then there's plenty of time to make that call in a year or two to give a new leader time to settle in before 2011.

- The Sask Party seems to have forgotten to tell Wall that the campaign is over with, such that he can take at least a brief break from rapid-fire slogans. Will "Wall. Beats. Hackneyed. Phrases. To. Death." be the overriding theme of the next four years of Saskatchewan politics?

- Finally, a suggested first step for the Sask Party to appear concerned about the environment. At this point, it's long past time to put Saskatchewan Liberals on the endangered species list.

Hypothetically speaking

A quick hypothetical for today's election.

Suppose you've lived in a home for over a decade. It's been a comfortable, secure place to live. You've done some renovations, and have plans to do more - but you're also wondering whether it might be time for a change, and what other houses might be available. So when another house a few blocks away comes on the market with an asking price within your range, you decide to have a look.

The owner greets you at the door and gives you a brief tour of the house. You can tell that there are some elements you like - a somewhat larger garage, a more elaborate security system. There are also some elements that you don't like - the appliances are older, it's less energy-efficient, and the location isn't quite as good. But you decide that those are issues you can deal with, and that if the new house is all it appears to be, you'll want to buy it.

However, you also notice a couple of cracks in the walls, and the basement seems a bit damp for your liking. So you ask the owner if it'll be a problem to bring an inspector in to check the house out thoroughly.

And the owner responds, "I'm selling the house as is, where is. No inspectors, and we have to close now.

"But I don't see why that would be a problem. You want to choose a home based on hope rather than fear, right?"

Now, is that the kind of line that would inspire confidence? Would you react by saying, "The owner has a point, let's close the deal now"? Or by walking away and deciding that you'll revisit the possibility of moving later on?

And which of those above choices seems more likely to lead to a better end result?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

On opportunities

Based on recent history, an election campaign seems to be inevitably dominated primarily by discussion of negatives. And unfortunately, much of the promise held by Saskatchewan's current campaign seems to have been lost in the shuffle. But with the election close at hand, let's take a few minutes to remember the positive choices at stake.

Tomorrow, voters have the choice to place Saskatchewan at the forefront of the evolution of Canada's public health care system through a universal prescription drug plan. Instead of limiting coverage for the fastest-growing component of health care costs to a quarter of the population, our province could lead the way in declaring that all residents have access to a vital aspect of health care at a manageable price - while also making needed investments in new surgical facilities to strengthen an already-improving health care system.

Tomorrow, voters have the choice to endorse a citizen's assembly which could modernize the way Saskatchewan chooses its leaders - and the outcome of that assembly could be felt for many elections to come. Instead of a third party feeling the need to pretend the election has been decided early in the campaign in a desperate bid for relevance, it could enjoy the opportunity to receive seats in proportion to its popular support; instead of being largely ignored, smaller parties could have the opportunity to hold real power.

Tomorrow, voters have the choice to put their vote behind a continued leadership role in the development of wind, solar and other green energy opportunities - both through SaskPower's own investments, and through independent developments which receive credit under a reverse metering system.

Tomorrow, voters have the choice to support investments in infrastructure, research and development which will help to ensure that Saskatchewan's prosperity lasts far past the current resource boom.

And tomorrow, voters have the choice to make sure that the benefits of Saskatchewan's boom are spread to the province's population as a whole - through reduced tuition which benefits all students, tax rebates which benefit all residents, an increased minimum wage to ensure that all workers receive a boost from the province's economic expansion, and the continued provision of the lowest utility costs in the country.

In sum, the election is indeed about opportunities as well as risks, hopes as well as fears. And one of the greatest risks of all lies in the fact that by this time tomorrow, the most significant set of progressive policy proposals offered to Saskatchewan voters in decades may have passed us by.

Fortunately, there's still time for voters to decide to vote for the possibilities in front of them - along with the reassurance that the province will remain in capable hands for another term. And the more voters who take that opportunity, the better off the province will be.

Parallel offences

Shorter Conservative Party president Don Plett:
Of course there's some difference between a Conservative candidate who's charged for smuggling drugs and one whose main offence is that of exercising independent thought. After all, you can be pardoned for smuggling.

A slipping mask

So far in the Saskatchewan election campaign, it's been clear that the Sask Party has taken up the federal Cons' strategy of muzzling its candidates to avoid any unwanted honesty. But even with that already-problematic plan in place, the Sask Party's candidates still haven't been able to avoid some hints at reopening an issue which Wall and company have desperately tried to defuse.

Remember that this summer, Wall surprisingly took a public stand against the TILMA. While he claimed (without any apparent basis in reality) that a less toxic agreement could have been reached if Saskatchewan had been a part of the negotiations, he said in no uncertain terms that he "would not sign on" to the deal as it stands.

During the campaign, however, a couple of Wall's candidates have been suggesting a rather different view.

The most obvious public statement was that of Moose Jaw North candidate Warren Michelson, who said that he doesn't think his party would "say absolutely no to TILMA". But perhaps more significant based on his relative stature is the shift in position from Weyburn-Big Muddy MLA Dustin Duncan, who seems to have edited out any problems with TILMA itself in order to focus solely on the view that Saskatchewan should have joined Klein and Campbell behind closed doors:
In regard to the labour shortage, (Duncan) noted the shortage is being felt all across western Canada, and not too long ago the B.C. and Alberta governments met to discuss ways of dealing with the labour shortage, but Saskatchewan's government wasn't there.
Naturally, Duncan seems to have avoided referring to the TILMA by name. But it seems equally clear that he perceives the TILMA as a "way of dealing with the labour shortage", and figures that the NDP's choice not to participate in the original closed-door negotiations was a mistake which his party would change.

Now, it isn't certain whether Michelson and Duncan fully represent their party's view when it comes to the TILMA. And unfortunately, by suppressing the issue this long, Wall has likely succeeded in preventing a full public debate about the TILMA (and his party's actual stance on it) during the campaign.

But at the very least, it's obvious that there's some strong appetite within the party to reverse one of the party's efforts to become more palatable to Saskatchewan voters. And the more clear it becomes that the image the Sask Party has tried to portray during the campaign isn't what voters can expect once the election is over, the more likely voters are to have second thoughts about taking the Sask Party at its word.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Poll position

SaskVotes reports that the turnout at Saskatchewan's advance polls has been up substantially from that in 2003. And it'll be interesting to see what that spike in early voting means when all is said and done:
If the advance polls are any sign of things to come, election day could break records in Saskatchewan.

Dave Wilkie, the assistant chif electoral officer, says the first four days of advance polls were swamped. Saskatoon Silver - Springs saw over 1100 people turn out, compared to 700 last election during the same time.

Wilkie attributes good weather as one of the possible reasons for a good turnout.
While the good weather may be one factor, there are other possible reasons for a strong advance turnout as well. For one, it could be that more voters are simply finding it convenient to avoid the post-work rush at their regular polling stations.

But then, the advance polls may also reflect a strong turnout among party volunteers who want to get voting out of the way in order to accomplish as much as they can closer to election day. If that's the case, then as quiet as the campaign has been so far, the numbers could signal that there's little danger of any party's supporters taking anything for granted. And if Saskatchewan's election machines are indeed fully revved up, it should make for an interesting race to the finish line.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

On voting opportunities

I'd wondered how long it would take the federal NDP to take advantage of the opportunity presented by Hugh Segal's scheme to use a Senate referendum as a means of imposing a Reform-style structure. Now, the CP reports that the wait is over, as Jack Layton is publicly calling for a referendum on Senate abolition:
NDP Leader Jack Layton is calling for a referendum on the abolition of the Senate, an institution he describes as "outdated and obsolete."

"It's a 19th-century institution that has no place in a modern democracy in the 21st century," Layton told party organizers Sunday in Winnipeg...

Layton has long called for the upper chamber to be done away with. The idea for a nationwide vote on the issue was floated two weeks ago by Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, who favours maintaining the upper house. He said a referendum could lead to important reforms if a majority of Canadians voted to keep the upper chamber.

Layton, albeit with different motives, is trying to put Segal's idea on the floor of the Commons. He said the NDP will introduce a motion calling for a referendum in the coming weeks, and is hoping Prime Minister Stephen Harper will allow Tory members to vote freely on the issue.
The article notes correctly that a referendum vote to abolish the Senate wouldn't necessarily put an end to the issue due to the need for provincial consent to any change. But it's likely that a strong vote for abolition would put serious pressure on any provice which tried to hold out.

At worst, Layton's stance should help the NDP to make some further inroads into the Western populist vote: having let its longstanding concerns about the Senate fade into the background in recent elections, the NDP now seems to be in a strong position to win back support from voters who are rightly disillusioned with the Cons. But the upside for Canada as a whole is far greater, as the NDP's push may help to make this the best chance Canada has had to finally put the Senate out of its misery.

An all-consuming Enterprise

The Saskatchewan News Network reports that while there doesn't seem to be much disagreement about the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce's long-term population goal for the province, there's a significant dispute about how to get there. And the difference suggests just how much power the Sask Party would plan to hand to Enterprise Saskatchewan if it gets the chance:
The three major political parties agree that Saskatchewan should try to hit a population of 1.5 million by 2030, but disagree on how to hit the target, says the president of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce...

"All three leaders congratulated the chamber on initiating the discussion of long-term growth in Saskatchewan," said chamber president Dave Dutchak. "While we have received clear commitment, they were not of the same mind as to the process."

Dutchak said the chamber is firm on establishing a task force to lead the process.

NDP Leader Lorne Calvert believes sustained economic and social growth in the province must be a collaborative effort, but noted the role of government is to set parameters for a task force and also to invite participation.

Saskatchewan Party Leader Brad Wall voiced concern that the task force would be a duplication of his economic development authority, Enterprise Saskatchewan, but was eager to work with the chamber to determine the correct process for the strategy.
It's noteworthy enough that the Chamber of Commerce's position better matches the NDP's view than the Sask Party's. But the more important lesson is what Wall's response says about the planned scope of Enterprise Saskatchewan.

After all, a goal based on population growth is one which obviously has multiple implications for the province. While economic considerations are obviously a part of what's at stake, any effort to grow Saskatchewan's population surely needs to take into account both other factors in achieving that growth to begin with, and other effects on the province from an influx of people. Which should mean inviting a different and wider set of parties to the table than might be necessary to deal solely with economic development.

From Wall's response, however, the Sask Party sees things differently. It could be that the party has a myopic enough view not to see how population growth could raise any additional issues. Or instead, the Sask Party could plan to have all additional issues also dealt with by a body whose composition is itself geared toward the Sask Party's corporatist vision over all other considerations. Either way, though, it seems virtually certain that all issues other than how to get the most money into private hands as quickly as possible would receive short shrift.

Moreover, while Wall's answer was aimed toward population growth in particular, it's worth wondering how far the same principle would apply. After all, virtually any issue facing the provincial government has at least some economic component to it. And if Enterprise Saskatchewan were charged with the mandate of dealing with any matter which could affect or be affected by economic development, then Wall's appointed body would usurp virtually the entire role of the provincial government before long.

We'll see if Wall is willing to offer any answers about just how much power he'd devolve to Enterprise Saskatchewan, and what groups would get left out as a result. But it seems far more likely that this is just one more area where Saskatchewan voters are being asked to put their blind faith in the Sask Party. And as those areas keep piling up, there's ever less reason to give the Sask Party the benefit of any doubt.