Saturday, December 22, 2007

On misappropriation

I'll leave aside for the moment John Ivison's willingness to play stenographer for Con spin to the effect that their tax-slashing rampage will rule out any meaningful federal spending in the future. But the background to Ivison's column reveals plenty more about where the Cons' priorities lie in government - and what Canadians should think of the information which Harper chooses to feed to the media:
However, an internal government analysis of Mr. Dion's spending plans, obtained by the National Post, suggests that when Canadians take a closer look at what the Liberals are proposing, they may decide the country can ill afford to be run by a man one of his Liberal leadership rivals once confided "couldn't balance a cheque book."...

(T)he analysis of the Liberal poverty plan calculated that increased funding for the Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB), improved child benefits and a richer Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors would cost upward of $5-billion a year.

"As an illustrative example, very preliminary estimates suggest that a WITB investment of $3-billion per year (current funding envelope is $550-million annually) could lift somewhere in the neighbourhood of 350,000 individuals above the LICO, including 100,000 children. These impacts alone would fall well short of those required to meet the 30-50 plan targets (one million individuals and 400,000 children respectively)," the analysis says.
Now, it seems fairly clear that the Cons don't have the slightest interest in actually implementing an anti-poverty strategy of any sort. Which means that the analysis itself looks to have been based on a direction that public resources be used solely to discredit the Libs rather than for the purposes of actually formulating policy.

And the problem is all the more obvious when the Cons' apparent eagerness to leak a report which could be used for their own political gain is compared with their consistent pattern of stifling the flow of information which could actually lead to meaningful accountability for the Cons' actions in office. (For the latest catalogue of examples, see Stephen Maher's column today.)

Once again, the Cons have left little room for doubt that they consider themselves entitled to use Canada's public resources for partisan purposes, and to reveal only information which they think helps their political cause. And it can only make matters worse if Ivison and others keep encouraging them - both by parroting Con spin, and by refusing to consider the motives behind the creation and leaking of the information.

Update: Steve V has more.

Friday, December 21, 2007

On conflict resolution

As suspected, Deceivin' Stephen is now musing about using the nuclear isotope shortage as an excuse to sell off Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. But thanks to Harper's appointee Michael Burns, that isn't even the least sensible "solution" to go public so far:
Mr. Burns said the system could be improved by the establishment of a mediator who could intervene when the AECL and the CNSC reach an impasse. “There is no other way to resolve that conflict if both parties dig in.”
Now, there are probably many types of relationships where mediation is underused. But this plainly isn't one of them.

After all, remember what parties are involved here. AECL is an entity bound by Canada's laws respecting nuclear safety, while the CNSC is the body responsible for determining and enforcing AECL's obligations. Which means that if there's a "conflict", the question resolves into a simple issue of whether or not AECL is willing to follow the law. And it can hardly be the CNSC's fault if AECL "digs in" by insisting that it doesn't have to do so.

Put another way, Burns' request is roughly the equivalent of suggesting that before going through the "conflict" of arresting somebody engaged in ongoing criminal activity, the police should have to go to mediation to see if there's any way the wrongdoer can be left alone.

Now, it's hardly news that some Cons may see themselves and their cronies as being above the law - or at least entitled to rely on their own opinion of what the law should be. But it's something else entirely to attempt to tie the hands of regulators themselves to prevent them from carrying out their jobs. And the rightful blame falling on the Cons over the Chalk River fiasco has to include their responsibility for putting AECL in the hands of a chair whose top priority was apparently to pick a fight with the very concept of regulation.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Biased foresight

Shorter Michael Burns, former Con-appointed chair of AECL:
Of course the federal government didn't have to push aside the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission temporarily in response to last month's nuclear isotope shortage. In fact, it could have avoided the problem entirely if it had followed my advice to gut the CNSC permanently and long ago.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Today's announcement that provincial leader David Karwacki will step down is a bad enough sign for the state of the Libs in Saskatchewan (if due to the perception of further defeat rather than Karwacki's own stature). But it looks like matters may only get worse, as the two leading figures within the federal party are on a collision course over the impending Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River by-election:
Stéphane Dion's hope of appointing a provincial NDP politician as the Liberal candidate for an expected federal by-election in Saskatchewan is angering supporters of one of his key leadership organizers, David Orchard.

The battle over who will carry the Liberal banner in a vast northern Saskatchewan riding has developed into a power struggle pitting MP Ralph Goodale, the party's strong man in the province, against Mr. Orchard, the prominent farm activist who twice ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives.

Mr. Orchard has been campaigning heavily for the Liberal nomination in the riding of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, but Mr. Dion is seriously considering overriding the nomination race to appoint NDP MLA Joan Beatty as the candidate, Liberal sources said.

However, Ms. Beatty said yesterday that she has not decided whether she will run in the by-election, and even if she does, she hasn't yet chosen between the Liberals and the NDP.

"I've been approached to run federally for the northern riding by both the Liberals and the NDP. I have some decisions I have to make," she said in a telephone interview...

Mr. Dion's Saskatchewan leadership campaign was essentially the Orchard machine, and Mr. Orchard's organization also delivered delegates in rural Ontario and Alberta, as well as raising funds for the cash-poor campaign. That played a key role in placing Mr. Dion within striking distance on the first ballot at last December's Liberal leadership convention.

Mr. Orchard's senior organizers say they refuse to believe that Mr. Dion will appoint a candidate.

"It would be a colossal mistake on so many different levels," said Marjaleena Repo, an organizer for Mr. Orchard who also served as Saskatchewan co-chair for Mr. Dion's leadership campaign. "It would be very, very offensive."

"I would be anti-democratic and against every understanding and agreement - being asked to run there, and encouraged to run, and doing his damnedest to do a good job, and then somebody appointed over him? It would be just insane."
Now, I'm not entirely sure what party Orchard's organizers think they've joined if they "refuse to believe" that Dion would appoint a candidate rather than allowing riding association democracy to run its course. But this does offer yet another example of the inevitable frustration when a leader does impose candidates by fiat. And it's worth noting that the fracture within the Libs may well affect more than just the party's current members - particularly if a battle does go public before Beatty has made up her mind.

After all, the article notes that Beatty isn't yet tipping her hand as to which federal party she'd prefer to run for. And if the Libs are indeed in the midst of yet another round of internal turmoil which affects the very organization which would be needed to win the seat, then the NDP can only look all the better in comparison.

It remains to be seen whether the Libs will manage to create a perfect storm for themselves by outright driving Orchard and his followers out of the party entirely just in time to have Beatty turn them down as well. But one way or another, it looks entirely possible that the Libs may be left with nothing but yet another self-inflicted wound to show for Dion's musings about appointing Beatty.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Partners in crime

It's hard to disagree with JimBobby's suspicion that there's far more going on at AECL than the Cons have made public to this point. But let's add one more point to the mix which doesn't seem to have received much attention.

In announcing the new chair of AECL, the Cons seem to have gone out of their way to label Glenna Carr as a "a former civil servant in the Ontario government" rather than going into any more detail about her background. But let's take a closer look at her area of specialty.

Prior to her appointment by the McGuinty government, Carr was a consultant specializing in large part in public-private partnerships. And while working as a consultant, she received a National Award from the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships - in part based on the following background:
She championed the formation of PPP's as a Deputy Minister in the Ontario Government, establishing the Board of the Ontario Training Corporation and the Board and agreement for Teranet Land Information Services Ltd. As Vice President of Laidlaw Inc. (1992 – 95), she participated in environmental and community transportation partnerships in North America. She was a founding Board Director and Chair of the Technical Standards and Safety Authority and served on the Board of CCPPP from 1993-2000 and later as President between 1996 and 1998.
Of course, her recent appointment to work for Dalton McGuinty may avoid any particular partisan stench. But from an ideological standpoint, the Cons look to have picked as strong an advocate for privatization (with enough "partnership" to leave the risk in the public sector) as they could possibly have found. Which can only give one more reason to worry that the fix has been in for a cut-rate sale of AECL all along.

No coincidence

The Globe and Mail's story about the Cons' partisanship-over-competence hiring strategy at AECL is definitely worth a read. But there's another point which the Globe apparently misses, as Tony Clement's explanation for the departure of Michael Burns as AECL's chair seems to have changed entirely over the course of a day.

It was only Sunday that Clement claimed that there was no link at all between the isotope shortage and Burns' departure:
Clement said Burns had been hired as a part-time chairman and that his resignation was just an "interesting coincidence.

"Some times coincidences happen in politics," Clement said. "There was some indication that this might be coming up down the road."
But after realizing that this explanation didn't pass a laugh test, Clement entirely reversed course without even acknowledging the change in rationales:
Health Minister Tony Clement said in a television interview Monday the departure was related to the shutdown of an AECL reactor that created a worldwide shortage of medical isotopes.

“I think it's fair to say it confirmed our impression that there has to be new management, there has to be better management, at AECL,” Mr. Clement said.
It remains to be seen whether Clement's sudden change in explanations will be pointed out on a wider scale. But the incident offers just one more indication that the Cons don't see themselves as constrained by reality in trying to put a partisan spin on every situation. And as those examples pile up, there's less and less reason for Canadians to take the Cons' word for anything.

Monday, December 17, 2007

On long-range plans

The Globe and Mail reports that corporate Canada is rightly recognizing the need to do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now that the Cons have been shamed into signing onto the Bali agreement:
Canadian corporations can expect growing pressure in the coming years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions beyond what the federal government has already pledged after Ottawa reluctantly accepted new targets at an international climate change conference in Bali...

"Business can expect new demands to reduce greenhouse gas emissions ... There are still a lot of people who thought they could negotiate their way out of the impending regime, but that is clearly not on" (said Christine Schuh, director of sustainable business practices for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP).

Recent surveys of Canadian companies indicate relatively few have allocated budgets to cut greenhouse gas emissions, or had senior management focus on how the climate change issue will affect their business.

Companies say they are waiting for clarity from the federal government in terms of the new climate change regulations.

However, Julia Langer, of World Wildlife Federation, said it is unlikely the current government plan will be the last word...

Ms. Langer said the Conservative policy is unlikely to achieve the government's own targets of reducing emissions by 20 per cent from current levels by 2020.

But the pressure to cut deeper will only grow, she said, particularly if the United States embraces climate change action under a new administration after the 2008 elections.

"Bali is meant to get us to the next round, but we haven't even caught up to the first round" under Kyoto, she said.

Jayson Myers, president of the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters association, agreed the government's current proposals are unlikely to achieve its target for reductions in 2020.
Now, it's certainly good news if Canadian industry is indeed becoming aware of the need for actual emission reductions - and not counting on negotiating its way out of having to do anything at all. But the gap between signing on initially and actually working to meet the Bali target looms large.

After all, we've been down this road before, as investment in greenhouse gas emissions declined when it became clear that the Libs weren't going to make a serious attempt to meet Canada's Kyoto targets. And with the Cons doing everything in their power to claim that their non-targets are more important than the global agreement, it looks far too likely that industry will once again conclude that Canada's follow-up won't match its initial commitment.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

On messages

There's been some discussion of the NDP's decision to pull two of its previously-nominated Quebec candidates. But while the most public criticism of the NDP seems to be misplaced, I do have to wonder about the message sent by the removals:
A lawyer from Quebec City says she was dumped as a federal New Democratic Party candidate because she is transgendered.

Micheline Montreuil alleges she was told by an NDP official that her sexuality hindered party attempts to woo new Quebec candidates into the fold...

In a letter, the party told her she lost the candidacy for statements she made in media interviews, her difficulty maintaining support in the local riding association and for not working in a team, she said.

Ms. Montreuil, nominated last spring to carry the party banner in the provincial capital riding of Quebec, disagrees with the allegations in the letter...

Raymond Guardia, co-chair of the party's Quebec election planning committee, said Ms. Montreuil's removal has nothing to do with her sexuality.

“It is simply not true,” he said Saturday.

“If that was an issue in our party, then she wouldn't have been nominated in the first place.”

Initially, Quebec party members applauded her arrival, but they soon realized she was not a team player, he said.

“The mandate of the planning committee is to prepare for the election and ensure that the team we're putting forward is the best team in the interests of the party and its objectives,” Mr. Guardia said.

“What we have witnessed since her nomination is that she has been a bit of a lone player, and as we get ready for an election, we need candidates who aren't playing alone.”

Guardia said Riviere-des-Milles-Iles NDP candidate Francis Chartrand was also recently removed from his post.

He said Chartrand's nomination was revoked for statements he made that did not coincide with the “goals and objectives of the New Democratic Party.”
Now, I don't see how there's much room for dispute that Montreuil's claim to gender identity discrimination is on shaky ground. There's simply no plausible reason to think the NDP's view of transgendered individuals has taken a complete about-face, such that the party would go from trumpeting Montreuil's candidacy last year to ending it now. In contrast, Montreuil's actions as the party's candidate would obviously make for new information that would explain her dismissal.

But there's another important question as to the circumstances in which the NDP is willing to remove its own candidates. It appears clear that both Montreuil and Chartrand met the NDP's basic requirements for candidates - and that in both cases it was their actions while campaigning, including some concern about their choice of message, that led to their dismissal.

For Montreuil, the greatest concern seems to have been primarily on the question of being a "team player", with some discussion as well about a choice of message which doesn't fit with that of the wider party.

I'll deal more with the question of message below, but a focus on being a "team player" strikes me as a particularly dangerous ground to dismiss individual candidates. While it appears from other sources that Montreuil didn't get along with the existing riding association, it was presumably that riding association which chose to duly nominate her in the first place.

Of course, there have to be some limits where a candidate is so far out of touch with the "team" as to justify removal. But I'd tend to think that should be limited to cases where the party's machinery is deliberately hijacked for an end inconsistent with the party's broader philosophical view, not merely based on personality and strategy conflicts in the push toward the same goal. And it's hard to find much in Montreuil's publicized actions which falls into the former category.

Meanwhile, Chartrand's dismissal was apparently the result of concern about personal statements (which to my knowledge haven't been reported anywhere). Again, that could well be a valid basis for dismissing a candidate in some circumstances - i.e. where the candidate's actual principles are substantially contrary to those of the party.

But at the same time, I tend toward the view that Canada's political scene is already tilted far too much toward "gotcha" politics. In keeping with the Cons' need to muzzle candidates to avoid letting Canadians know just what lurks in the minds of its government members, the current conventional wisdom seems to be that a perfect party campaign is one where no candidate, organizer or volunteer says anything that isn't taken verbatim from the party's campaign materials.

That said, I'm far from convinced that the NDP's best course of action - either on principle or as a matter of political outcomes - is to engage in a similar muzzling strategy. In the Cons' case, it's precisely the attempt to keep the party's message air-tight that makes it news when a representative goes off message: every controversial statement can validly be prefaced with "even with Harper trying to keep the lid on his party", and the very need for the Cons' media-avoidance strategy can be traced to justifiable concerns about what would be exposed through more public appearances.

In contrast, the NDP's message of diversity and inclusivity should lend itself to the view that stifling differing opinions is a sign of weakness rather than strength. And that starting point would present a natural platform to criticize both Harper's general micromanagement, and the leaks which escape despite the Cons' efforts at message control.

And as an added bonus, an explicit policy of candidate independence could ultimately help to inoculate the NDP against "gotchas" of its own. Rather than having to explain a breakdown in message control, it would be able to point to a record of encouraging candidate independence to avoid having controversial statements reflect on anybody but the speaker.

But that kind of argument only makes sense if the NDP encourages and supports its own candidates in expressing their own messages. Instead, it seems to have gone so far as to remove candidates for refusing to stick to a centralized message and communications strategy - which would leave little principled basis left to criticize Harper for his own muzzling campaign.

Again, in each case there are indeed lines which a candidate shouldn't be permitted to cross - and it may well be that Montreuil and Chartrand indeed crossed those lines such as to justify their removal. But it looks like a worrisome sign that in the wake of a week of unjustified media criticism for an NDP MP's effort to take some individual initiative, the party is apparently signalling that message discipline is paramount. And the NDP will be worse off both at the polls and within its party structure if it winds up driving away strong individual voices as a result.