Saturday, January 05, 2008

On insider trading

The Cons' latest broken promise on lobbying regulation figures to receive plenty of much-needed attention in the next little while. But let's note that the Cons' action goes beyond merely breaking promises to outright encouraging a culture of cronyism:
(T)he new registry will not require reports on written communications, such as e-mails or letters, between senior government officials and lobbyists. Instead, the registry...will keep tabs on only "oral and arranged communication."

The new regulations would not require lobbyists to report oral communications initiated by federal officials dealing with the development of policy, programs or legislation.
From what I can tell, that type of structure is effectively designed to ensure that lobbyists can in fact cash in on personal access to government officials.

After all, any lobbyist would be able to write to the government at will without any reporting obligation. But it's only those with close personal connections to the government who figure to be able to use that correspondence to ask for the chance to write policy or legislation. And once a friendly government official "initiates" a conversation, there's absolutely no obligation to even acknowledge that any communication has taken place, let alone to make public the nature of the lobbyist's requests.

Which means that any lobbyist with sufficiently close personal connections to the federal government can offer his or her clients the opportunity to carry out sensitive lobbying with no risk of disclosure - and can cash in on that access accordingly. And there will presumably be at least some temptation within the government to also seek some quid pro quo in exchange for the "initiation" which will eliminate any reporting requirement.

In contrast, anybody who the Cons don't want to hear from will face an additional reporting burden in trying to change any minds within the government. So the ultimate effect of the regulations seems to be to ensure privileged access for the Cons' friends, while making it more difficult for anybody else to be heard in Ottawa.

Not that it's much surprise that Harper's main goal is to insulate its government from the pesky views of Canadians who aren't Con cronies. But now that they've tried to make that happen in yet another way, the main question is whether the Cons will be forced back to the drawing board.

A call to submit

Shorter Conservative campus recruiting campaign:
Fight the power by submitting to the will of our Glorious Leader!

Friday, January 04, 2008

Bluff called

For all the commentary about the Cons' decision to use federal funds to congratulate themselves over the GST, it's worth noting how obviously useless the announcement is. And NDP MP Charlie Angus did just that by taking the bold step of calling the number referred to in the ads:
Those who visit the website suggested in the ad will be presented with the headline: "Conservative government fulfills commitment to reduce GST to 5 per cent." It sits above a picture of Prime Minister Stephen Harper announcing the tax cut on New Year's Eve at the same consumer electronics store in Mississauga where he originally promised to cut the GST during the 2005-06 election campaign.

Calling the phone number, which is a general-inquiries line at Service Canada, may cause some confusion among the lower ranks of the federal civil service.

NDP MP Charlie Angus said the young man answering the telephone was "gobsmacked" when he asked how he could get a better deal on his coffee.

"It took him about seven minutes and he came back and he told me that he drank coffee himself and that he had calculated it and - not to worry - I would get 1 per cent off the GST," said Mr. Angus. "If that is costing the taxpayers $650,000, we are getting hosed."
It would appear beyond doubt that if there was actually any need for Canadians to call the number in response to the ads, then the employees responsible for answering the number would have been trained to provide the needed response. Instead, it doesn't seem that Service Canada was given any information at all.

Which makes it clear that the only information which the Cons ever planned to provide through the ad campaign would more properly have been dealt with as party advertising rather than a government expense. And with the Cons now managing to pile an added layer of waste on top of what was already a poor policy choice, there's all the more reason for voters to want to replace them with a government which actually considers whether its actions are the slightest bit useful for Canadians as a whole.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Not to be believed

Shorter Loyola Hearn, trying to take back his claim that the federal government has "eyes and ears" in Newfoundland's cabinet:
Of course you shouldn't believe what I said before. After all, it takes an awfully gullible listener to take a Conservative at his word.

Behind closed doors

The Globe and Mail reports on the latest from the Cons' Information Suppression Squad. And it looks like the squad is placing just as much emphasis on covering up its own tracks as on silencing any inconvenient truths about Afghanistan:
Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence implemented a new process last spring for judging what Canadians could and couldn't know about the Afghan mission – a process that included the creation of a military “investigation support team” that oversaw the release of documents.

At first, the team was supposed to handle just information relating to a number of Military Police Complaints Commission investigations into the detainee-handling process. However, it soon started dealing with virtually all Afghan-related access to information requests from the public...

The extent to which top Canadian Forces brass looked to restrict public information about operations in Afghanistan is made clear in a June 20 e-mail to National Defence's director of Access to Information, Julie Jansen, sent by Brigadier-General Peter Atkinson.

“Any ATI request for information related to DETAINEES, or Battle Damage Assessments (any report, SOP, SIR, sitrep related to IEDs, Vehicle Damage, casualties, protection, armour enhancements) is to be severed in its entirety less the address group at the top of the correspondence,” Brig.-Gen. Atkinson wrote...

In early June of last year, Ms. Jansen voiced her concerns to Brigadier-General A.J. Howard about fully severing two items that were the subject of an information request. “We can't just apply a blanket exemption based on speculations,” she wrote.

Brig.-Gen. Howard replied: “I will not address this any further by e-mail… If you would like to drop by my office so I can explain all of this to your satisfaction I would be happy for you to do so.

“My advice – tread carefully on both of these matters – there are very serious diplomatic and allied issues at stake here.”

It is unclear what the two items are – in the documents obtained by The Globe, they are fully severed.
Now, the information contained in the June 20 e-mail is damning enough: one of the most basic rules of access to information is that a government department is required to review documents to determine what information can be validly released, rather than simply setting blanket policies in order to suppress large amounts of information.

But even more remarkable is the refusal of one of the Cons' special information ops to even put his own reasoning into writing - a decision which obviously has nothing to do with the safety of Canadian troops in Afghanistan, and everything to do with an attempt to prevent the Cons from having to answer for their actions in Canada.

Fortunately, it at least sounds like Jansen is properly concerned about doing her job. Which not only offers hope that at least somebody within the department is pushing back against the secrecy, but should also present some prospect of clearing away the smokescreen just when it'll be best for the Cons' suppression to be placed in plain sight.

Impolitical has more.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Harmonic convergence

When I posted earlier this week about the likelihood that the federal Cons' infiltration of provincial governments will extent far beyond merely "eyes and ears" in Newfoundland, I'd figured it wouldn't take long for the Saskatchewan Party to offer up a prime example. But I'm mildly surprised that even before capitulating on equalization, the Wall government is already allowing Harper to dictate other priorities:
Under pressure from Ottawa, the province's new government will again look at the contentious issue of harmonizing the provincial sales tax with the federal Goods and Services Tax, Saskatchewan Party Finance Minister Rod Gantefoer said Monday...

"It seems to be a fairly major initiative on the federal government's plate anyway. There doesn't seem to be a lot of takers ... however, I think that virtually all of the provinces are probably going to have to look at it," Gantefoer said in a telephone interview from his legislature office.

Gantefoer said the federal government wants provinces to indicate by the time of the spring federal budget whether they are interested in harmonization.

So as part of the province's own budget process, finance officials have been tasked to look at the ramifications for Saskatchewan of merging the five per cent PST with the federal tax, he said.

When the provincial budget is delivered, which is usually at the end of March, the Sask. Party government expects to be able to either say no or indicate it's open to further discussions with the federal government on harmonization.

"By the fact that the federal government has more of an initiative to push on it, it certainly forces the question and forces the timeline," said Gantefoer.
It's particularly noteworthy that Gantefoer doesn't even show enough interest in the matter to make any real comment on the substance of the issue. Instead of bothering to consider whether it should make harmonization a priority, the Wall regime is apparently taking the position that if Stephen Harper has ideas about how Saskatchewan should be run, who's a mere provincial government to argue?

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Gantefoer will end up acceding to the Cons' desire to push forward with harmonization. But from today's story, there's little reason to think that the Sask Party has any intention of resisting federal pressure - and every reason for concern that the result could be even worse decisions than the Sask Party would make on its own.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Aiming high

The West End Chronicle reports on the NDP's plans in Quebec for the next federal election. And while the party's goals and targets may not be quite the ones which would be expected, it looks like Thomas Mulcair and company are looking to pose a serious challenge to the other national parties:
Mulcair, a longtime resident of Beaconsfield and former provincial Liberal Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks, said this was just the beginning for his new party in Quebec.

"We are going to win between six and 12 seats in Quebec," he said, adding that he expects the West Island candidates for the NDP will put up a fierce fight come next election. In Lac St. Louis riding, represented by Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia since 2004, the NDP's candidate will again be Daniel Quinn. As for the Pierrefonds-Dollard riding, Mulcair could not say who would be running for the NDP yet, but he promised it was "a well-known West Islander."...

Despite a traditionally overwhelmingly Liberal-voting population, Mulcair said that West Islanders are ready for change. "The area has a history of following its own beat," he said, pointing out that Conservative MP Gerry Wiener won in Pierrefonds-Dollard in 1984.
At first glance, neither of the additional ridings discussed in the article looks to be among the NDP's most obvious opportunities.

Remember that based on polling from last year, the most readily accessible pool of potential NDP voters consists of current Bloc supporters - which would presumably mean a focus on ridings where the Bloc's existing vote could make a substantial difference in the outcome, not to mention an all-out attack on the Bloc generally. And that formula seems to have been an integral part of the NDP's victory in Outremont, where the Bloc tumbled from a close second in 2006 to a distant third in 2007.

But Lac-Saint-Louis and Pierrefonds-Dollard don't fit that mould in the least. In both ridings, the NDP and the Bloc fought each other for third place in 2006 - with the NDP beating out the Bloc by four points in the former, and the Bloc winning out by just under five in the latter.

More importantly, in both cases even the combined NDP/Bloc vote would have finished third behind the Libs and the Cons. Which means that in planning for a "fierce fight" in these two ridings, the NDP's focus seems to be squarely on taking votes away from the other national parties, rather than on hoping for a Bloc meltdown to send new votes into the Dippers' camp.

Of course, that strategy will carry some risks - particularly in ridings where the NDP has two parties ahead of it and a significant amount of ground to make up. But it should be clear from Outremont that the other parties underestimate the NDP at their own peril. And if the NDP is sufficiently well-organized to give the national parties a run for their money in Lac-Saint-Louis and Pierrefonds-Dollard, then that should indeed only be the beginning of the party's Quebec successes.

On growth opportunities

It would be tempting to look at another year of cronyism from the Cons and figure that there's reason to put yet another mark in the "broken promises" column for Harper's regime.

But let's look on the bright side of the news. If the Cons keep up their current rate of growth in federal appointments, Canada should be able to boast an entirely patronage-based economy within less than 20 years - making for a significantly more realistic means of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental damage than the Cons have otherwise offered.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Cause and effect

Shorter Wally Oppal:
Shame on Canada's justice system for sometimes working slowly. After all, it's not as if those involved have ever had to deal with reckless budget cuts which keep cases from being resolved in a more reasonable time.

Seen and heard

Plenty of others have commented on Loyola Hearn's announcement that the Cons have "eyes and ears" within Newfoundland's provincial government. But it's worth going into a bit more detail about what the Cons' declaration means for their relations with provincial governments - and perhaps other organizations across the country as well.

Let's start by noting that while some bloggers have questioned whether or not Hearn had to break Harper's muzzle in order to make the statement, there's little reason to think it hadn't gone through the Cons' usual vetting. After all, the Cons are obviously familiar with the year-end interview process. And given their insistence on tight message control, it defies belief to suggest they wouldn't have discussed what was obviously going to be the thorniest issue in Newfoundland politics with their lone minister from the province.

So whatever inferences might be drawn from Hearn's threats can likely be attributed to the Harper government generally. But it's worth going beyond Hearn's actual admission to examine some of the questions raised by the Cons' actions.

For example, what are the odds that the federal Cons would proudly use future federal candidacies as an inducement for provincial officials to divide their loyalties in Newfoundland, but would refuse to do so elsewhere?

As far as I can tell, there's little reason to think the strategy would stop in Newfoundland. Which raises the question of where else the Cons are looking to reward provincial politicians for putting Harper's interests over those of their own government - and what kind of information is being fed to the federal Cons as a result.

(Interestingly, this may offer a rare substantive reason why voters would want to adopt a strategy of voting for provincial governments with the strongest possible ideological contrast to the federal government. After all, the danger of federal moles has to be far lower in a provincial party where nobody would likely see the federal Cons as an option, rather than a right-wing provincial government with more links to Harper's regime.)

It's also questionable that the flow of information would only be one-way. After all, how likely is it that a controlling leader such as Harper would settle for having only "eyes and ears" within a provincial government, rather than seeking to have a mouthpiece as well? Which means that the issue may extend to provincial decision-making, rather than merely the federal government's ability to try to stay "a step ahead".

Finally, there's the admitted mixing of political inducements with governmental functions. Again, Hearn himself acknowledges that the prospect of running for the federal Cons is being used as a carrot to divide the loyalties of provincial actors for the benefit of Harper's government. But is even remotely plausible that a party which refuses to draw a distinction between party and government in that direction would be above mixing the two in other ways?

Of course, the Cons aren't likely eager to divulge any more details than they already have now that they've presumably made their point to Danny Williams. But the subject seems likely to deserve far more attention - and the more Canadians learn about the subterfuge and deception which the Cons have outright bragged about, the more likely they are to apply needed scrutiny to Harper when it counts.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

No reason to brag

Shorter Loyola Hearn to Newfoundland voters:
You are powerless to stop us, for we have successfully infiltrated your provincial government. And I can't for the life of me see how that could sound the least bit sinister.

On interested parties

For those interested in seeing a bite taken out of Canada's new stenographers, recent posts by skdadl and Dave are definitely worth a look.

But as I noted in a comment on Dave's post, the problems within Canadian media goes far beyond journalistic concessions to Harper's desire to control the immediate message. Indeed, one could hardly find a better example of the contrast between merely sucking up to a particular government and an insistence on imposing a corporatist worldview than the National Post's admonition that Harper's already-reckless tax slashing has only whetted its appetite for another wholesale attack on the federal government.

Of course, that kind of message likely serves Harper's ideological interests in the long run as well. But it also serves to highlight the gap between the Cons' short-term political calculations - which have to take into account at least some of the obvious desire to provide more than just tax cuts - and the forces which can't get rid of effective government soon enough.

It's worth keeping in mind that in the long term, the media still does call the shots to a significant extent: its prominent figures are likely to occupy prominent roles far longer than most politicians, and it's able to take a longer-term view which tends to fall by the wayside in a four-year (or less) electoral cycle. Unfortunately, though, far too many of Canada's loudest voices are eager to see Harper and future governments go even further than the Cons already have in demolishing collective values.

Granted, some increased willingness to stand up to Harper would be a positive first step in moving toward a more reasonable balance in the interests represented within Canada's media. But the problem of concentrated corporate media can't be solved anywhere near that easily - and that's the battle which will have a more far-reaching impact on Canada's long-term direction.