Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Tomorrow's headlines today

Jan 1, 2009:
Michael Ignatieff stops in at Canadian junior hockey team practice; Harper orders tournament cancelled

On good governance

Robert Silver makes an excellent point about the distinction between "spending lots of money" and "progressive governance" which has sometimes been forgotten in discussions about stimulus spending. Fortunately, the problem is far from universal, and indeed some influential progressives south of the border have highlighted the need for Barack Obama's administration to emphasize good government principles as an essential element of its stimulus strategy.

But the distinction is even more important in Canada, where there's every reason to doubt that Harper's regime has the slightest interest in a similar focus on good government.

For now, it seems safe to figure that the Cons' budget will include an eleven-figure stimulus package. But it seems equally likely that the Cons' actual governing philosophy will stay effectively the same, rather than becoming any less focused on pork-barrelling or any more interested in good use of public money. And it surely can't be taken as a win if the opposition parties manage only to force Harper to funnel billions of dollars toward his own political interests without doing anything to help the broader economy.

As a result, a large part of the opposition message for the next month needs to emphasize that a shiny headline number isn't going to be seen as either a progressive policy, or a solution to anything.

Instead, in order to have any hope of winning back the confidence of the House, the Cons need to make a convincing case that any promised stimulus money will be put to the best uses possible, with a detailed description of how the money will be spent along with a discussion of alternatives. And equally importantly, they need to offer legislative safeguards which can't be undone by executive decree to make sure Canadians can test what returns they've seen on the stimulus - whether or not the result is flattering to Harper personally.

Now, it's possible that the Cons would indeed meet those terms - which would seem to me the absolute bare minimum to justify leaving them in power for a second longer than can be avoided. But if (as expected) the Cons try to pretend that a single large number on paper should force the opposition parties to claim progressive victory and leave, then the response has to be that Canadians have a right to better government than the Cons intend to provide.

(Edit: fixed typos & wording.)

The reviews are in

Janet Bagnall:
Looking back from New Year's Eve, precious little of the Conservative high ground remains. In fact, there seems scant reason to assume that Harper means anything he says...

McGill professor Desmond Morton told the Toronto Star that the appointments - under the parliamentary circumstances - were a scandal. "He has the power to do it, but he shouldn't have the gall," said Morton.

True, but if 2008 has taught us anything about Stephen Harper it's that he has mastered the art of barrelling past his own contradictions, sanctimony to the fore.

This may get interesting

Well, that's one burning question answered, as Pamela Wallin is apparently claiming that appearing in Saskatchewan "monthly" is enough to qualify her as a resident entitled to be appointed to the Senate. But not surprisingly, that position seems to be coming under some serious fire. So let's take a look at the actual residency requirement, as well as how it figures to play out in Wallin's case.

The Constitution Act, 1867 includes the residency requirement for senators:
23. The Qualifications of a Senator shall be as follows:
(5) He shall be resident in the Province for which he is appointed:
As the article notes, there are numerous possible definitions of "resident". But whether one looks at spending the majority of one's time in a jurisdiction, spending the last 6 months there, or an "established habitation", it's awfully tough to see how Wallin can meet them regardless of how the Cons try to paper over a flawed appointment for the next month.

Which leads to the question: just who gets to decide whether or not the Con's senate appointments actually meet the constitutionally-required qualifications? There are two answers - and either figures to lead to some significant potential for dispute.

First, the initial appointment power is predicated on each senator being "qualified":
The Governor General shall from Time to Time, in the Queen's Name, by Instrument under the Great Seal of Canada, summon qualified Persons to the Senate; and, subject to the Provisions of this Act, every Person so summoned shall become and be a Member of the Senate and a Senator.
Presumably, Michaelle Jean will have at least some ability to question whether any particular appointment is "qualified". And if she decides otherwise, the Constitution doesn't apparently provide for any way for Harper to override her judgment.

Mind you, I'd once again tend toward the view that Jean is best off not confronting Harper over matters short of his entitlement to hold office in the absence of the confidence of the House of Commons. But that doesn't mean that Harper's appointees will be off the hook, as the Senate may decide for itself whether or not any of its members are qualified:
33 If any Question arises respecting the Qualification of a Senator or a Vacancy in the Senate the same shall be heard and determined by the Senate.
So presumably it'll be open to the Senate as a whole to look into just what residency requirements apply to Wallin (along with Duffy and perhaps more to come). And to the extent the issue gets dealt with in the near future, there simply won't have been time for either Wallin or Duffy to meet the residency requirement: indeed, the section quoted above is clear in requiring that a senator "be resident" and not merely be in the process of acquiring residence in the province represented.

Of course, it's far from certain how much appetite the existing Senate will have for such a confrontation. But then, there could surely be little better way for the Senate to project insularity, ineffectiveness and disregard for its governing rules than to refuse to deal with possibly-unconstitutional appointments - whether out of fear that the same standards might be applied to the current members in the future, or out of a desire to appease the person driving the unconstitutional appointments in the first place.

All of which suggests that the controversy generated by Harper's trip to the trough is far from over. And it remains to be seen just who will take the worst damage resulting from the fight that Harper has set in motion.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Michael's post on how to adapt the 50-state strategy for the Ontario NDP is definitely worth a read.

But let's highlight as well what may be the most important lesson to be taken from the Dean/Obama experience. The time and money put into reaching every corner of the province (or indeed the country at the federal level) shouldn't be seen purely as a cost: instead, investment in uncharted territory tends to pay off in terms of reaching potential supporters and donors who can ultimately expand the pool of resources available to help in the obvious priority ridings as well.

The reviews are in

You know a right-wing politician is in trouble when he's managed to lose the support of CanWest editorial boards. So let's see what the Leader-Post has to say about Stephen Harper these days:
Harper has fast become the kind of governing politician he once professed to abhor -- one who routinely breaks his word.

Naming 18 Tory senators Monday -- the most ever in a single day -- is just the latest example of a promise made, a promise broken.

Wedge issues

When Rod Bruinooge went public with his anti-choice crusade this week, my first suspicion was that the Cons were merely trying to change the channel from their Senate appointments while trying to set up a false image of moderation for Harper by temporarily highlighting their own more extreme elements. But it's now looking very much like the move was indeed a trap - at least if the Cons planned for this type of storyline in hopes of moving their caucus closer to majority territory:
Fate unclear for Liberals backing anti-abortion cause

OTTAWA -- Federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is unwilling to say whether negative repercussions will befall members of his caucus who oppose legalized abortion...

Most of the Liberal MPs who survived the October election have previously voted against increased restrictions on the controversial procedure. But there is a small faction within the Liberal Party that has been openly supportive of laws that would curtail or ban abortions. Calls to several of those MPs were not returned yesterday.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Ignatieff refused to say whether the new Liberal Leader will allow any of his members to continue to advocate openly for reduced access to publicly funded abortions.

"I don't think we are in a position to answer those questions today. I think they are speculative at this point," said Jill Fairbrother, adding that it is impossible to know if the committee mentioned by Mr. Bruinooge even exists and, if so, whether there are members from parties other than the Conservatives.
Now, it's understandable that Ignatieff doesn't want to jump the gun and send out any strong comments about abortion policy in general which he'll regret later.

But there's also some serious risk in trying to duck the issue as to how he'll deal with anti-abortion members of his caucus. It would seem likely that there are still at least a few paleo-Libs who might perceive a danger that their social views would limit their potential advancement within the party, making them far too likely to be open to Con entreaties to cross the floor. And an effort to bring all anti-abortion MPs under the Cons' tent based on that fear could well be enough to push Harper into a majority in the current Parliament.

Fortunately, Ignatieff doesn't have to look far for a template as to how to handle the situation:
Irene Mathyssen, an NDP MP from London, Ont., said she had not heard about the all-party committee and would be surprised if any of her fellow New Democrats were members.

"We are respectful of people within our caucus," she said, "but ultimately, when someone wishes to run for the NDP, they say they will support the grassroots. And our party policy, our grassroots, is [supportive of] a woman's right to choose."...

But no NDP MP would be expelled from caucus for holding anti-abortion views, Ms. Mathyssen said. "We have a policy where we talk things through," she said.
Naturally, the Libs may want to tweak exactly what their own grassroots position is. And starting with "no MP would be expelled" might not be enough if it's perceived that other punishments would be equally unacceptable within the Libs.

But whatever the Libs' precise message proves to be, the need to keep the Cons from splintering their caucus in advance of the impending confidence votes should be obvious. And hopefully Ignatieff will respond quickly to make sure that the Cons' attempts to divide and conquer prove to be nothing more than a waste of time.

Update: Kady has more, featuring this gem from the NDP's Karl Belanger:
(I)t is easy for Mr. Bruinooge to claim he has a secret club. I could also claim, for instance, that there is a secret club of Conservative MPs ready to support the coalition government.

Monday, December 29, 2008

A friendly reminder

It's understandable to a point that numerous Libs are eager to praise their new leader to the skies and credit him with singlehandedly knocking Deceivin' Stephen down a peg. But in deciding what comes next, let's not lose track of just who and what managed to throw Harper off his game and into panic mode.

Importantly, it wasn't any single leader, Lib, NDP or otherwise. Instead, it's the spectre of a coalition government taking office which forced the Cons onto the ropes - and the fact that Stephane Dion figured to be at the helm of the resulting government didn't affect the Cons' desperation one bit. Which is why it's a huge plus that Ignatieff is still making clear that the coalition is prepared to go forward if the Cons can't both deliver a budget that actually responds to the current economic crisis and rebuild three years worth of burnt bridges in Parliament over the next month.

But if the Libs do pass the Cons' budget, the all-too-likely result would be to take the possibility of a coalition off the table. And that's not just because a vote to prop up the Cons would create nothing but distrust among the other opposition parties: even if the opposition parties could again figure out a suitable arrangement on a future confidence vote, there's a serious danger that the Cons could far more credibly demand another election if they lose a confidence vote only after passing a major policy measure in the current Parliament and holding government for another couple of months.

Which means that if the Libs don't take their current opportunity to vote Harper down, then it's only a matter of time before Harper goes back to exactly the practices which the opposition parties otherwise seem so eager to put behind us: committees and the House of Commons alike shut down whenever they don't suit the Cons' purposes, constant confidence-vote brinksmanship, poison pills inserted into every vote to test the Libs' willingness to fight another election - and a multi-million dollar effort to brand the Libs' new leader with every show of weakness.

Of course, there's no doubt that the Libs will face plenty of pressure to go along with the Cons' budget regardless of what's included. But if the Libs have learned anything at all from the Cons' stay in power, it should be that they need to consider the consequences of their actions past the current media cycle. And if the Libs do decide to leave Harper in power based on the bare hope that Ignatieff's "attitude" is enough to overcome Harper, the Cons' message machine, and the weight of a federal government being used for nothing but partisan purposes, then both they and the country figure to suffer for the miscalculation.

Update: Jeff has more on how the current message from Ignatieff and Layton is exactly what's needed to place the coalition on the best possible footing next month.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

On priorities

There's no time like an economic crisis to highlight just what a government really stands for. And today, we have our answer as to what kind of industry the Cons want to encourage: the delayed delivery of goods from the U.S. military-industrial complex:
The Conservative government has decided that U.S. aerospace giant Sikorsky won't have to pay $36 million in late penalties even though the maritime helicopter it is building for the Canadian Forces is being delivered two years late...

Both Liberal and Conservative politicians, as well as Sikorsky officials, have in the past highlighted the penalties as evidence that there were severe consequences if the firm didn't deliver on time. The clause allowed the federal government to charge the company $100,000 a day for every day it was late. The maximum penalty was $36 million.
But for those worried that the Cons did nothing but to give away a late fee would have been owed to the federal government, have no fear. Instead, they can also be counted on to give away more money for supposed "improvements" that nobody's interested in discussing:
Under the new deal, Canadian taxpayers will now pay Sikorsky $117 million extra for improvements to be made to the Cyclone as well as changes to the long-term in-service support package for the aircraft.

However, the government is not discussing the exact nature of those improvements. The Defence Department and MacKay's office declined to comment, referring inquiries to Public Works and Government Services Canada.
So in total, Canadians will get to pay over $150 million above the original contract price - and all for the privilege of having the promised helicopters delivered two years later than agreed.

Of course, that result is entirely consistent with how the Cons apparently think public money should be used. But for those of us who think taxpayer money has better uses than to pay military contractors for breaking their commitments, today's news should serve as a serious warning signal about the dangers of having the Cons in power at the best of times...let alone when the federal government's direction will determine how quickly (if at all) our economy is able to recover from a downturn.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

On meaningful options

Thanks to the better part of a month dominated by talk of Harper's trip to the Senate trough, public cynicism about the upper chamber figures to be as high as ever - with Cons riled up over the possibility of coalition appointments, and everybody else rightly pointing out the hypocrisy of Deceivin' Stephen making a record number of patronage appointments after promising to make none at all.

Which means that now may be just the time to decide whether voters would prefer to see the Senate abolished rather than preserved or turned into a source of additional gridlock. And without much fanfare so far, Lorne Calvert is offering up a means of doing just that (warning: PDF):
NDP Leader Lorne Calvert has announced he will be bringing forth an amendment to the Sask Party government's legislation regarding Senate elections.

Calvert believes an additional option should be provided to Saskatchewan voters on the issue: the abolition of the Senate altogether.

"The intention of the legislation seems to be to let Saskatchewan people have their say in the makeup of the Senate in the most democratic fashion possible", Calvert said. "The NDP believes that many people in Saskatchewan would rather see the Senate done away with altogether. Providing this option on a ballot is simply the most democratic thing to do."
Of course, the Sask Party will be able to shoot down the suggestion if it wants to limit the options available to voters in an effort to legitimize the Senate. But when even Wall's federal cousins/bosses are once again musing about abolition as one of their options in dealing with the Senate, it would take an awfully tone-deaf government to deny that possibility to Saskatchewan's voters.

So what effect would an abolition option have if included on the ballot? From my perspective, it would dovetail nicely with the current state of discussion about the Senate. There's been at least some talk to the effect that non-appointment might be the best way to get from the status quo to meaningful Senate reform of any kind. And one could hardly ask for stronger evidence that the public favours that path than an election result where "don't bother" wins out over the list of candidates.

All of which suggests that the amendment may set out an important first step toward the type of change long favoured by New Democrats. And if even the worst-case scenario is to force the Sask Party to publicly and deliberately limit the choices of the province's voters, then there's every reason to look forward to the results of Calvert's proposal.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The reviews are in

Greg Lyle, the Con representative on the Globe and Mail's strategist panel, gives his impressions of Canada's political scene following another year of Harper government:
What was the year's most encouraging political trend?

: I am not encouraged.
What was the year's most worrisome political trend?
Lyle: The ongoing triumph of crass political machinations over any type of idealism.

The road ahead

The CP traces the path of Nova Scotia's NDP from third-party status to the brink of government. And it's worth noting how the strategy compares to the federal NDP's current position:
Now retired from the House of Commons, former federal NDP leader Alexa McDonough remembers a time when trying to get elected as a New Democrat in Nova Scotia was every bit an exercise in frustration that it is elsewhere in the region...

"When I ran in '79 and '80 and only got 14 per cent of the vote, people said, 'Well, you know, I'd vote for you if I ever thought the NDP could win,' " said McDonough.

She recalls "stubbornly" running three times, arguing against the "irrationality" of the position put to her by voters. McDonough now believes it was the beginning of a gradual shift in people's attitudes toward the party.

Subsequently, she said, the NDP has been able to build an understanding with voters based on strategies and platforms that have cast the party as a viable alternative in Nova Scotia...

Smith points to the 1997 federal election, in which the NDP won six of 11 ridings, as one of the key events in the rise of the party provincially.

"Reform was running on a neo-Conservative agenda . . . and the Liberal government was in deficit-slaying mode," said Smith. "There were some reasons that this particular region, which was always anxious about cuts to social programs and had high unemployment then, would consider the NDP."

She sees the collapse of the Liberal vote in the 1998 provincial election as the other key to NDP success. The Liberals went from 40 seats to 19 while the New Democrats went from four seats to 19.

"So federally you had this big boost in '97 and then '98 was a critical election for the NDP in Nova Scotia," said Smith.

She said the party has since consolidated its position, leaving it the contender it is today.
The challenges once faced by McDonough still mirror in large part the (however weak) argument still used to try to justify painting the NDP out of the federal picture. But with the NDP now both steadily gaining in seats and demonstrating its ability to contend in areas once considered to be out of reach, the claim can only look less and less plausible with every passing election cycle. And the focus of the 2008 campaign on Jack Layton as a Prime Minister in waiting can only sow the seeds for a longer-term shift similar to the one that's already taken place in Nova Scotia.

Now, that made for good enough news on its own. But the democratic coalition has both set out another path which leads to the NDP being able to convert its principles into results, and signalled the Libs' agreement that the prospect of New Democrats in government is a positive one. And if the federal party can build off that existing base of electoral support and shifting opinions, then it may not be long before the current story in Nova Scotia is matched on the national scene.

Friday, December 26, 2008


When it comes to delicate discussions over the lives of Canadian citizens facing death at the hands of a foreign government, it stands to reason that consistency and clarity of position are about the best resources a country can have on its side.

Unfortunately, though, the Cons have long since decided to throw away any principled position when it came to the execution of Canadian citizens.

For Mohamed and Sultan Kohail and other Canadians whose lives may be on the line, the result figures to be at best a far more difficult set of negotiations where Canada's intervention can only be interpreted as a direct insult to the foreign country involved rather than a stance based on a coherent principle. And at worst, it looks far too likely that the Kohails and others may lose their lives to the Cons' decision to undermine Canada's stance against the death penalty.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


In the comments to this post, Dave Mann points us to a profile of the Tony Clement staffer who apparently threatened a school for disabled children as a result of its daring to allow an opposition MP to participate in a Hanukah event. And Georganne Burke's background may make the story particularly worth following.

To start with, Burke's background features six years of involvement with the Cons prior to being hired into a senior position. As a result, the Cons plainly can't get away with their preferred defence of blaming the inexperience of staffers who supposedly don't know the limits of acceptable conduct.

Instead, they'll plainly have to answer for the fact that whatever perspective Burke offered would be a product of their party's internal mindset under Harper. And it'll only look worse for the Cons that her job title includes "caucus relations", suggesting a regular link to the party's MPs as a whole.

Mind you, one MP and his department also figure to come under particular scrutiny. Given that Burke was hired for "stakeholder relations" based on a resume focused on "outreach to ethnic, cultural and religious communities", there looks to be plenty of room for discussion as to just what Clement expected in hiring her, and to what extent orders to interfere with the Zareinu Educational Centre or other stakeholders might have originated above Burke's position. And of course there's every reason for the communities within Burke's job description to raise the question of whether they'll be next in line for the same types of tactics.

As a result, the facts reported to date look to be only the outer layer of a story which could prove to be the best present any opposition party could ask for. And what's inside figures to be a huge help to the democratic coalition in highlighting the need for a change in government.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Nothing sacred

For those wondering whether there's anything which the Cons recognize as being above partisan manipulation, the answer is still no.

Burning questions

How long will it take for the Cons to have to relocate Pamela Wallin as well in an attempt to validate an unconstitutional appointment?

And since when did Harper's conditions for appointment include allowing the Cons' PR flacks to determine where one lives?

Surprisingly complicated answers to simple questions

Devo asks:
Will Deficit Jim ever learn his lesson? When will the Conservative Party of Canada figure out that making stupid promises is what leads to broken promises?
At first glance, it might seem easy to simply answer "no" and "never". But there's a bigger issue lurking in the background.

To this point, the lesson the Cons seem to have learned is that they can do more good for their public image by consistently bragging about their latest set of promises than they can do harm by falling short of what they've promised - particularly if they can change the subject from previous broken promises to new ones which could still be fulfilled. And sadly, the theory seems to have worked fairly well among those who don't pay close attention to politics.

But that theory doesn't work so well Cons can only get things done with the support of those who are well aware of their track record. And the fact that Deficit Jim is once again trying to pull the wool over the eyes of Canadians - both by pretending that the structural deficit which he created doesn't exist, and by making promises about how quickly any recovery will take place - can only signal to the opposition parties that the Cons' near-death experience hasn't left them any more likely to be honest or forthcoming.

Tidings of comfort and joy

Let's credit Michael Ignatieff for providing a nice stocking stuffer to fans of the democratic coalition, as his year-end message seems to be hinting strongly toward a non-confidence vote in January:
“The ways in which he makes everything a confidence motion is, in our view, unacceptable,” Mr. Ignatieff said.

“He took the wrong signal from the election. The signal he took was that he could try anything he wanted to and he grievously underestimated the Liberal Party of Canada. We've got our act together, got a leader chosen, and he can't keep making these misjudgments of the mood of the House and hope to survive."

Mr. Ignatieff, installed as Liberal Leader earlier this month, expressed pessimism that the Harper government would unveil a budget in January that his party could support...

“The thing that frankly concerns me is that the autumn statement so failed the test of leadership that Canadians required of the situation, that I'm not optimistic that the government will come up with a budget that meets Canada's needs,” Mr. Ignatieff said.

“But I live in hope, as it were, that Mr. Harper will rise to the demands of the hour.”...

He added that Mr. Harper has not given him an answer on whether Mr. Hill and Mr. Goodale will get together in the new year, but he said Mr. Harper needs to let parliamentary committees do their job.

“He has been told in no uncertain terms there's a problem of confidence that isn't just constitutional, but a question of personal relations across the House,” Mr. Ignatieff said.
Of course, it's worth noting that many of the problems mentioned by Ignatieff are ones which won't be resolved before the budget vote takes place. And it would be shocking if Harper, Hill and others didn't make some effort to project an image of cooperation while themselves setting the stage for their next attack on the opposition (just as they did before the fiscal update).

That said, Ignatieff seems to be doing plenty both to raise the bar as to what's expected in the budget and in Parliament generally, and to indicate his willingness to vote Harper down if he falls short. Which means that if Ignatieff sticks to his current path, then the one gift which Canada needs most this holiday season may be set to arrive in the new year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How Con government works

In the midst of highlighting that Canadians' greatest economic concern is in the one area which the Cons were supposed to have fixed already, Deficit Jim takes an opportunity to attack government in general to deflect responsibility for his own ineffectiveness:
Mr. Flaherty was speaking in Toronto to announce the availability of the Registered Disability Savings Plan, which was included in the 2007 budget.

“You know how government works, here we are at the end of 2008,” he joked.
Now, keep in mind that Flaherty is the minister in charge of both the development of the plan, and the management of the department responsible for implementing it. Which would tend to signal that if there's a serious delay in putting the plan into effect, that falls squarely on his shoulders.

Of course, it's less than surprising for a Con to refuse to accept any responsibility for his own failings. But it takes an extra dose of chutzpah for somebody who seems entirely happy to have taken a position of governmental responsibility to take every available opportunity to slam the ability of a government to function.

Moreover, the statement looks all the more out of place considering the timing. If Flaherty really thinks that government can't implement a single savings plan in less than two years and runs his department accordingly, then surely he's the last person Canada wants in charge of its finances at a time when virtually all sides agree on the need for quick and effective stimulus to get our economy back on track. And Flaherty's mindset may offer a strong indication that the time it might take to put a coalition government in place would be slight compared to the delays we can expect if the Cons' anti-government governing philosophy is left in place.

The trough revisited

One of the lesser-noted stories from yesterday's Senate appointments has to do with Harper's future plans for the upper chamber if he's allowed to stay in power. And all indications are that when Stephen Harper breaks a promise, it stays broken:
Conservative Senator Leader Majory LeBreton said in an interview Mr. Harper will fill another 11 vacancies by the end of 2009, bringing the Conservative total to 49. Eight Liberal seats will become vacant by retirements during the year.
Now, I'm not sure anybody else has yet noted the complete disconnect between Harper's current excuses and his apparent future intention.

After all, Harper's supposed reason for further breaking his promise about not appointing unelected Senators has been based on the possibility that the democratic coalition would be in a position to fill the seats instead. But if (perish the thought) Harper were to remain in power to the end of 2009, then it would seem obvious that the prospect of a coalition would be far in the rear-view mirror by that point.

As a result, any additional appointments could only be based on some combination of a desire to provide more citizen-funded goodies to his party's B-list bagmen, and an intention to try to establish Conservative control over the Senate even after he's voted out of office. Yet Harper's point person in the Senate is going out of her way to promise that he'll keep stacking the upper chamber at every available opportunity.

Ultimately, the plan to make regular trips back to the trough from here on in only suggests that Harper has really been looking for an excuse to dole out Senate seats all along even while promising never to do so. And with Harper so obviously focused on using the Senate as both a source of patronage and a possible roadblock against his political opponents, there's all the more reason for the coalition to be equally determined in preventing him from doing so.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Eye on the ball

With Canada engulfed in an economic crisis which the Cons are trying to avoid dealing with, a fiscal crisis which they precipitated then hid, and a political crisis entirely of the Cons' making, it's reassuring to know that our government's efforts are firmly focused on the citizenship of a mythological character.

Monday, December 22, 2008

For lack of any other options

CSR makes a great point that Harper's panicked Senate appointments included another slap in the face to Saskatchewan, who will now have as one of its Senate representatives somebody who hasn't lived in the province for decades and presumably won't start now.

But let's be fair. Presumably the Cons have tried to recruit their best talent to hold the 13 seats now in the party's hands - yet the party's MPs have ranged from utterly useless to downright embarrassing. So isn't it entirely possible that the Cons really don't have a single supporter resident in the province who could do a competent job in the Senate?

A logical conclusion

Joe Jordan raises (warning: PDF) an interesting point about the effect of Michaelle Jean's decision allowing prorogation as a means of avoiding a confidence vote:
(W)hat this decision has done is to pretty much guarantee that the Governor General will enshrine the practice of approaching the leader of the opposition following the loss of a confidence vote. The opposition parties are not really in a position to publicly declare their intentions prior to any vote, if prorogation is now a legitimate blocking tactic.
Now, there's plenty of room for doubt as to whether or not the process actually followed by Jean is the ideal one. Indeed, it's possible that Harper could seek prorogation yet again if the coalition is rightly prepared to keep up its plan once another confidence vote is set to take place - and given the desperation the Cons have shown in clinging to power, I for one wouldn't be surprised if that comes to pass.

But it does seem entirely logical that if the GG's powers have been interpreted to create a disincentive to any declaration of the non-incumbents' position in advance of a confidence vote, then some leeway has to be given to the opposition parties after the fact. And that reasoning, along with Harper's frantic grab for whatever he can get his hands on during his temporary reprieve from democracy, would seem to hint at the result if Harper tries to force another election rather than allowing the coalition to put a stable government in place.

Reflections from the trough

So now that Deceivin' Stephen is done his "I had no choice" moment, a few thoughts on the desperation Senate appointments announced today.

- It's amazing how so much of the "liberal media" seems to fit comfortably into the Conservative caucus.

- On a related note, the most important consequence of the Senate appointments may be less the addition of anybody to the Senate than the removal of Mike Duffy from CTV: surely whoever takes that role figures to have at least the potential to do far more to shape Canada's political scene than any of the appointees.

- Who else is relieved that Harper rushed the appointments to avert the Con-fueled threat of any separatists in the Senate?

- I'd wondered if Harper might try to soften the PR blow of a massive dose of patronage in the midst of a recession by matching PMPM in giving at least a couple of token appointments to supporters of other parties. Apparently even I can still underestimate Harper's degree of blind partisanship.

- Finally, it's worth noting that Harper's messaging today is still based on the real likelihood that the coalition will indeed replace him in government next month. Which should offer a fairly strong signal that however many pundits are eager to declare the coalition to be finished, even the Cons can't deny that it's still a force to be reckoned with.

Partisan above all

Sure, the Cons have driven the country into deficit and are clearing the way to pour millions of public dollars into the appointment of their own partisan hacks to the Senate. But let it never be said they're doing nothing to reduce expenses, as they're apparently making a concerted effort to withdraw funding from ridings who dared not to vote for Con candidates:
The recent election of a Bloc Québécois MP may have cost the Quebec town of Trois-Rivières a $2-million federal subsidy for its 375th anniversary celebrations, Trois-Rivières Le Nouvelliste has reported.

Radio-Canada quotes sources from the office of Tory MP Christian Paradis, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Quebec lieutenant, as saying the Conservative candidate Claude Durand would have had a better chance of netting the subsidy than the current Bloc MP Paule Brunelle.

Radio-Canada reported that a spokesperson for Mr. Paradis confirmed the federal government wouldn't be granting the subsidy.

On a campaign stop in Trois-Rivières during the elections, Mr. Harper told Le Nouvelliste that the grant money had already been allocated and that he "was looking forward to working with a Conservative MP."
It's particularly worth noting that the Cons' campaign message contained two separate elements which they're now trying to resile from. Harper's position during the campaign that the money had "already been allocated" - in a riding which Brunelle had already represented since 2004 - would seem as strong a statement as possible that the money was already approved...such that it should have been irrelevant whether or not it could be construed as patronage to a Con-held riding.

But having misled Trois-Rivières about the status of the funding, the Cons apparently decided to spring two surprises after the election - first, that the money wasn't in fact approved, and second, that they weren't about to listen to a mere democratically-elected MP who isn't of their partisan stripe.

If there's any consolation for Trois-Rivières, it's that in reality, a Con MP would have been as likely as not to fail to deliver funding then blame the riding for his own ineffectiveness. But the combined example should offer ample reason for voters across the country to be glad to see Harper removed from office - and to follow Trois-Rivières' lead in rejecting the Cons next time they do go to the polls.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Deep thought

In the spirit of parliamentary cooperation, now may be a good time to offer Stephen Harper the opportunity to fulfil his goal of making Canada more like Belgium.

On outreach

It hasn't received much public attention due to the steady stream of other political news. But Ontario's NDP leadership race is coming up to an important deadline in the form of the January 5 cutoff for membership in order to vote in the contest - and it's worth pointing out an interesting step the provincial party has taken.

As best I can tell based on discussion surrounding past leadership races, the normal expectation seems to be that recruitment during a leadership race is left to the contestants. And it's not hard to see some reasons for that choice: it saves resources at a time when much of a party's support base is aimed toward the leadership contest, and in principle could be seen as favouring candidates who are better able to sign up supporters rather than persuade undecideds if that's seen as a party's priority.

The Ontario NDP looks to be applying an entirely different strategy. While the party has obviously stayed neutral in the leadership race, it hasn't stayed silent. Instead, visitors to sites such as babble have been treated to banner ads taken out not by any single leadership contestant, but by the party looking to attract members generally by pointing to the leadership race.

And it's an added bonus that the ads focus on a member-based election as opposed to back-room appointments - which helps to highlight one of the NDP's most important principles while tying into current events going on federally.

Now, it's not clear how many more members the NDP will be able to sign up with their general membership drive who wouldn't be reached by the leadership candidates. But the move would seem to be a recipe to attract potential members who are interested in the party generally more than any individual contestant - which should be exactly the pool of potential supporters the party most needs to connect with in the long run. And whoever wins the leadership will surely be glad for the effort.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Must-read of the day

Rather than spending time trying to summarize or excerpt Gavin M's latest at Sadly, No!, I'll simply point it out as one of the more hilarious yet frightening overviews yet of just what conservatism really stands for on both sides of the border.

On factual deficits

I commented over at CC about the Cons' latest effort at rhetorical sleight-of-hand. But it's worth drawing some more attention to how Harper and company are trying to draw a false equivalence between a federal budget deficit and stimulus spending to boost the economy - and how the media seems to be more than taking the bait.

Here's my initial comment on the problem with the numbers being tossed around for federal budget deficits and stimulus spending (both of which happen to mirror the $30 billion which the coalition has agreed to for stimulus measures):
The starting point is that the Cons have actually created a structural deficit (to use their term for what they'd avoid) over the next few years. Deficit Jim's current number for that is $15 billion including $5 billion next year, but that counts unspecified asset sales and spending cuts - so the business-as-usual number for the next four years probably is in the $30 billion range.

But that's before any stimulus comes into play. And it's by adding, say, $15-25 billion in stimulus that the deficit for next year alone will likely reach a similar number.

Now, Harper's game is to try to link the two numbers as often as possible in order to pretend that the actual deficits over the next few years are solely a result of the stimulus. Consider it his Saddam-9/11 link - he probably won't let himself get caught claiming directly that the deficit is solely the result of the stimulus package, but will do his best to confuse the issue to the point where the general public sees the two as inseparable.
From there, let's take a step back to what Harper has actually said, and how it's being spun in the Cons' favour. I'll be looking mostly at this Globe and Mail article, but there doesn't seem to be any lack of other examples.

Here's Harper explaining the prospect of a federal budget deficit:
In a year-end interview with CTV this week, the Prime Minister offered a broad outline of what his government's stimulus package will look like when the budget is unveiled on Jan. 27.

He said the program would create a deficit “in the $20-billion to $30-billion range,” and would include measures to encourage consumer spending, housing, work retraining for the unemployed and aid for specific industrial sectors like auto and forestry.
Note the conspicuous lack of any mention that a substantial part of the deficit is something which the Cons had already created regardless of whether or not any stimulus spending takes place. Instead, Harper seeks to paint the entire deficit as a product of a stimulus plan in an attempt to weasel out of his party's responsibility for the red ink which already exists on Canada's public balance sheet.

As hinted at in the comment above, it's easy to see the parallel to the deception which eventually led a majority of Americans to wrongly believe that some link existed between Saddam Hussein and 9/11: by using similar numbers under "deficit" and "stimulus" and using the figures for one to represent the other, the Cons seem to be banking on their ability to build a public perception that the two are inextricably linked.

But then, matters only get worse when Harper's words then get spun to the Cons' advantage by the media. The article mentioned above goes out of its way to paint the Cons' proposals as "stimulus" and the opposition's demands as "deficit spending":
Opposition takes credit for planned deficit spending...

Liberals and New Democrats took credit yesterday for Mr. Harper's sudden commitment to deficit spending in areas like job training and housing, but expressed strong skepticism as to whether they can trust the Conservatives.
Needless to say, not a single individual cited actually phrases their preferred outcome in those terms. And in fact, the only other appearance of the word "deficit" is in a false Con talking point:
“Finally, this government is talking about a real stimulus, which is what other countries have been doing for months,” said Liberal MP John McCallum...

In a year-end interview with CTV this week, the Prime Minister offered a broad outline of what his government's stimulus package will look like when the budget is unveiled on Jan. 27...

“He argued strenuously against them up until just a few days ago, and his government's attacked, very specifically, that size of stimulus package in the House of Commons,” (Jack Layton) said...

“As [Liberal MP John McCallum] said, ‘I would point out that the basic reality is that the NDP does not understand the first thing about economics,'” said Mr. Flaherty.

“That is patently clear when we hear they want to run a $30-billion structural deficit in Canada.”
Which means that while Harper's statement twists the facts to try to conflate stimulus with deficits in order to cover up the fact that his party had created the latter in the absence of the former, the Globe and Mail goes several steps further in distorting reality. And conveniently enough, the result is one which enures entirely to Harper's benefit: to the extent readers fail to question the article's classification, he gets to pretend that the opposition parties are happy with Deficit Jim's sea of red ink and looking to expand it, while getting to wear the label of backing "stimulus" which all parties support.

All of which means that an underlying reality where the opposition parties have consistently shared a common concern about both the Cons' budget deficit and Harper's lack of any stimulus is now being distorted to almost precisely the opposite effect. And it'll take some significant effort to make sure that Deficit Jim and Recession Stephen ultimately wear the consequences of their own failings.

The reviews are in

Ken Dryden, sending the message that I'd hope many more Libs will pick up on:
A Prime Minister sets the tone of the House of Commons. Respect gets respect. Disrespect breeds disrespect. The Prime Minister is now fighting to stay on to win a battle that need never have been fought in the first place. To preside over a Parliament whose dynamics, whose very relationships, he has poisoned and destroyed. It’s too late. This Parliament cannot work with this Prime Minister. All of us have heard the angry voices every day in the House of Commons, and now across the country. Shout and scream versus shout and scream.

Mr. Harper has scorched the earth of civility and trust for all of us. For him, it is over. He cannot be trusted. He cannot repair what is irreparable.

We need a new Prime Minister.

On pressure points

Following up on last night's post about the problem with passing a budget which allows the Cons to determine how money will (or won't) be spent, it's worth noting that there's in fact an obvious precedent available where the Cons attempted to use the threat of not spending budgeted money as a political hammer.

Back in his first months in office, Harper decided to test the NDP by threatening to ignore spending allocated under the NDP's previous budget deal with the Libs:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with two veteran NDP MPs in February to discuss a deal to prop up his government for two years, according to a report by the Toronto Star.

The article, published Tuesday, said Harper met with Bill Blaikie and Libby Davies and promised in return to make good on the $4 billion budget deal negotiated with the Liberals last year.


Sources told the Star that the NDP turned down the offer. Instead, the party contacted groups counting on the cash to lobby the government to save the money included in the deal, which threatened to expire.

The money had to be allocated by March 31, or it would have automatically been used to reduce the federal debt, as set out under the provisions of a spending bill, known as Bill C-48.
Now, the NDP's response at the time was effective in getting the Cons to apply most of the money without the NDP ever propping up the Harper government. And it still strikes me as odd that the example of Jack Layton's success in standing up to Harper under those circumstances hasn't been followed more frequently by the other opposition parties.

That said, the incident should leave no doubt that the Cons are entirely willing to ignore the allocation of money which has already been approved within the federal budget where it suits their political purposes, or at least to pressure opposition parties based on that threat.

Which raises some important questions for the Libs in particular. If they decide to prop up Harper once again on the January budget, does anybody think that Deceivin' Stephen would have any scruples about gleefully using the subsequent allocation of money to once again twist the Libs' arms? And having backed down and kept Harper in power in order to get some stimulus approved, would the Libs have any choice but to capitulate on subsequent votes in a desperate attempt to get Harper to spend the money on anything even slightly related to economic recovery?

Of course, there's little doubt that the Libs will face plenty of pressure from the Cons and the establishment media to focus solely on the January vote, and to keep Harper in office if he shows even the slightest pretense of cooperation.

But taking any view which recognizes what will happen after a budget passes, it should be obvious that Harper could hardly hope for a better setup to once again force the Libs to their knees. And since we know that prospect will always rank above the good of the country among the Cons' priorities, there's every reason to make sure that Harper is removed from any position to keep manipulating the levers of power.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Deep thought

I wonder how much the members of Deficit Jim's Economic Advisory Council will save in lobbying costs by being able to tell him directly how stimulus can help them most.

Update: Partisan Hobo has much of the answer.

Going through the motions

Senator Elaine McCoy rightly points out that while the Cons' first set of budget trial balloons is largely patterned on parts of the progressive coalition's agreed policy framework, it conspicuously leaves out policies which have the agreement of more than half of the House of Commons. But the bigger issue with any attempt by Harper to posture his way out of a non-confidence vote is one which won't be fixed regardless of how many words the Cons borrow from the coalition's policy priorities.

Instead, the fundamental problem with leaving the Cons in power is that while the budget will surely include large dollar figures nominally directed toward worthwhile goals, it will almost certainly leave the ultimate decision as to how to spend the money allocated in the the hands of Harper and his cabinet.

Now, I'm not sure there's another feasible way to manage the required amount of funding other than to transfer responsibility to cabinet. And with an even faintly responsible government in charge, that step wouldn't be a problem.

But given that the Cons have consistently proven to be far more interested in patronage and partisan calculation than in effective governance, there's no reason for any opposition party to believe that Harper would put the money toward reasonable uses after winning a budget vote. And that goes doubly in light of Harper's eagerness to force another election.

Which means that regardless of how many progressive ideas the Cons start parroting in an effort to cling to power, the only way to make sure that the progressive coalition's agreed priorities actually get dealt with is to follow through on the agreed Lib/NDP government.

Update: Jack Layton makes the same point:
Rather than diluting the reasons for defeating the government, NDP Leader Jack Layton insisted Mr. Harper's comments give the plan credence.

“If he is now accepting that the coalition ideas are the right ones, then I believe the best group to implement that program is the coalition, because Mr. Harper doesn't believe in these ideas,” Mr. Layton said.

“He argued strenuously against them up until just a few days ago, and his government's attacked, very specifically, that size of stimulus package in the House of Commons,” he said.

Conditional returns

I'd figured for quite some time that one of the most important questions about Dwain Lingenfelter's run for the Saskatchewan NDP leadership would be his plans in the event that he didn't win the leadership race: would he stay and help to rebuild the Saskatchewan NDP in a supporting role, or would decide it's not worth the trouble without the prospect of becoming premier? Now, Daveberta may have the answer:
High level informants deep in Calgary's energy sector have heard that Nexen has given Lingenfelter a year-off to contest the NDP leadership, leaving an opening for him to return if his bid is unsuccessful.
In fairness, it's not entirely clear that Lingenfelter would accept the opening to return to Nexen. But if Lingenfelter felt the need to work out a specific time frame for his possible return rather than jumping back into politics with both feet, that has to at least hint at the prospect that he'd do so.

Of course, the point may become moot if nobody else launches a serious campaign. And unless Lingenfelter's campaign has been doing nothing but spinning its wheels throughout this fall, the combination of insider support and an extended head start might make it tough for anybody to catch up.

But if it's now clear that the loyalty which many within the party have to Lingenfelter isn't reciprocated enough for Link to stick around if the leadership race doesn't go his way, then the case for an alternative contender can only become stronger. And hopefully one will emerge before it's too late to present a meaningful choice to NDP members.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Deep thought

In these tumultuous political and economic times, it's reassuring to know that at least some things never change.

Top to bottom

With so many glaring examples of high-ranking Cons misrepresenting the most important facts facing Canada, it's easy enough to lose track of just how far the dishonesty goes. So let's note one seemingly remarkable example of Con MP Mark Warawa doing at the local level what Harper, Flaherty et al. have been doing nationally.

Here's Jordan Bateman at Langley Politics:
Langley MP Mark Warawa has apparently told The Aldergrove Star that the Township never asked him for federal money for the Events Centre.

I can assure you we have asked the federal government (many, many times and in many, many forms) for funding for the Langley Events Centre, and the Township's materials will back that up conclusively.

Over the past two years, there were many meetings and letters with Warawa and other Tory officials--both before and after construction started...

If we weren't asking for money, why did the senior Tory senator from British Columbia tell the mayor-elect on Dec. 1 that no funding would be forthcoming? How would he have known we wanted it?...

I'm sure every MP wishes they could fund every project in their riding, but it's just not possible. But claiming we never asked? Or that there is only one program (which, according to his own timeline, didn't come into existence until after the building was under way) for federal dollars to flow into something like this? Come on.

In fact, I was just reading today that Winnipeg's new stadium will get $15 million in federal money--and NOT from Building Canada (see the bottom paragraph of this story). Where there is a will, Mr. Warawa, there is a way. If you couldn't get the money out of Ottawa, just come out and say it.
Now, there may be one key difference between Warawa's response and the Cons' usual communications strategy. Unlike his party's higher-ups, Warawa isn't in a position to control access to the documentation which can prove him wrong. And it's good to see that Jordan seems eager to get the correct information into the public eye.

But then, Warawa's claim - in effect that a municipality chose to avoid having the federal government fund an infrastructure project, rather than having its request denied due to ineffective MP representation - is one which should be easily dismissed by anybody who puts even a modicum of thought into the matter.

Which points to the Cons' common strategy of lashing out against accurate criticism with no regard for truth or even plausibility, with the sole goal of offering up somebody else to blame for their own failings. And if the problem is indeed just as glaring at the local MP level as it is within the party's inner circle, then merely removing Harper at the top doesn't figure to solve much.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Apparently I need to start checking my ballot more closely

Shorter Lorne Gunter, Andrew Coyne, and a stream of Con-friendly pundits sure to follow:

While nobody voted for a progressive coalition, everybody voted for a Con-Lib corporate coalition.

Deficit Jim's Legacy

The Con government has finally been forced to admit what's been glaringly clear to anybody paying attention, as Jim Flaherty's financial mismanagement has led to a balance sheet that only a red ink manufacturer could love:
According to papers released by the Finance Department, Ottawa foresees annual deficits of $5 billion, $5.5 billion, $4 billion and $1 billion in the next four fiscal years.


The deficits are forecast to occur even if the government proceeds with billions of dollars in asset sales and cost cutting it proposed in the doomed Nov. 27 economic update.

The documents also suggest Ottawa may slip into the red in the current fiscal year -- instead of posting the $2.3-billion surplus predicted in last February's budget.
If anything, the second paragraph above may be the most significant: even accepting the Cons' spin about slashing and selling anything they can get their hands on in a desperate attempt to hide the damage Flaherty has done to Canada's budget, they can no longer maintain the claim that they haven't driven Canada into a deficit. And of course, that trip into the red is a foregone conclusion even before a dime gets put into the stimulus package which Flaherty at last notice recognized to be a necessity. Which should provide ample reason to want to see Flaherty and his party removed from any position to keep up the destruction.

A stunning revelation

Aaron Wherry has a profound insight into the weakness underlying Stephen Harper's bullying:
Perhaps one of the identifiable lessons of this month in politics is that, for all the yelling and screaming and frothing-at-the-mouth and arm-waving and and chair-kicking and name-calling and obviously very manly posturing, those willing to stick a metaphorical finger in Stephen Harper’s chest might find his reputed toughness to be somewhat overstated.
Now if only anybody had noticed that sooner...

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Close, but not quite

While most of the NDP's communications about the democratic coalition have been right on point, I have to wonder whether the party's eCards could have been a lot more effective.

Ideally, one would want an effort like the eCards to be sufficiently creative and entertaining to go viral. But the cards consist of only a slight holiday twist on the NDP's existing message, rather than anything which would seem likely to earn widespread interest. (Which would seem possible even within the actual theme - how about a rewritten version of "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" geared toward Harper's childish behaviour?) In the absence of that type of hook, the work put into a reasonably high-quality set of cards figures to reach far less people than it could have otherwise.

Moreover, even assuming there wasn't much floating around by way of ideas for viral media, the cards still seem to be somewhat off the best possible message for limited person-to-person delivery. As much as the NDP does need to be pushing the coalition message and drawing contrasts against Harper, I'd have to think the card context is more a place for building warm-and-fuzzy associations with Layton and the NDP, rather than directly slamming the Cons' shutdown of Parliament.

Naturally, none of the above is to say that a coalition government would be anything short of the best gift Canada could ask for. But while the NDP certainly needs to make sure that Canadians have positive things to say about the coalition over the holidays, it would seem to have a better chance of doing so with a message which either has a greater chance of reaching more people, or at least fits better into the medium chosen.

A new spirit of openness...

...won't be found within the Harper Cons anytime soon:
CMHC is a federal agency that has been supplying mortgage insurance since 1954, and is currently overseen by Human Resources and Social Development Canada.

In response to a question about its accountability, CMHC said in its statement: “The lines of accountability are very clear, like all Crown corporations CMHC is accountable to Parliament through its minister.”

When The Globe contacted Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, her spokeswoman replied: “We will have to decline and allow CMHC to respond to the questions applicable.”

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Just curious...

A quick musing on the correlation (or lack thereof) between the Cons' public statements and reality. When Stephen Harper or one of his minions proclaims that any particular statement X is true, would readers think that the Cons' declaration:
(a) provides reason to think that X is more likely to be true than if the Cons had said nothing?
(b) provides reason to think that X is less likely to be true than if the Cons had said nothing?
(c) is entirely valueless in assessing whether or not X is true?

And does the Cons' recent spate of complete contradictions offer some reason to move both (a) and (b) answers toward (c) instead?

Update: Calgary Grit offers up plenty of good reasons to gravitate toward (b).

On self-contradiction

Sometimes, one has to wonder whether the Cons' ever-changing, ever-contradictory messages are less a matter of perceived partisan advantage than a simple form of amusement to see just what they can get away with. This is one of those times:
"The projects we undertake as stimulus must be immediate, they must happen quickly, otherwise there's no point in doing them, there's no point in stimulating the economy when the economy starts to recover," Flaherty said.
That's right: the same Finance Minister whose fiscal update last month put off any stimulus until well into next year - and who just days ago was demanding time before he'd even consider making any decisions - is now lecturing Canadians on the dangers of not investing immediately in the stimulus which Flaherty himself is delaying. And even that only manages to rank as the Cons' second-most glaring self-contradiction of the day.

At this point, I'm not sure there's any way for reports on any single issue to accurately capture the sheer gall involved in the Cons' reversals. But there should be little doubt that there's every reason to look forward to a government which won't suffer from the same degree of aversion to reality.

On stability

The main sales pitches for the coalition so far have been its relatively progressive viewpoint, its democratic roots, and the prospect of better management than Harper has shown any interest in delivering. But it's worth noting that stability in government should be an equally strong point - and at least one of the leaders involved is making the case publicly:
Even if the budget is passed, he warned of a period of instability.

"Everyone will be talking if there will be an election. Every month, it'll be a new crisis," said Layton.

On the other hand, the Liberal-NDP coalition, with support from the Bloc Québécois, would offer a stable government, he said.
The point should have plenty of resonance for partisans and non-partisans alike. For those who aren't particularly beholden to any single party, the question is whether or not the Cons will get their way in forcing yet another federal election - either immediately, or whenever they can sufficiently poison a bill to force a non-confidence vote. Given that Harper has already shown that he's more interested in brinksmanship than dealing with the economy, the almost inevitable result would be another trip to the polls as soon as the Cons could arrange it - giving the Cons yet another $300 million do-over while leaving the country with even less pretense of management in the midst of a crisis.

And for partisans within the opposition parties, the appeal of a stable coalition should be even more obvious. The Libs surely don't want to go through another year or more of Harper threatening to pull the pin on Parliament at any moment and forcing through regressive legislation based on their submitting to Harper's will. And while the NDP and the Bloc have managed to avoid that difficulty by signaling their intentions early, they'd presumably be glad for at least a brief respite from the need to be prepared for an election at any moment.

All of which means that there's a solid set of points which should make the coalition appeal to Canadians at large: better, more progressive, more democratic, and more stable. And the more that message can reach the public over the course of the holiday season, the more likely we'll be to be rid of Harper before the winter is over.

Cheering for a depression

The Globe and Mail's article on how Harper's musings about an impending depression can only make the economy worse is definitely worth a look. But in tracing the timeline of Harper's constantly-flailing messages on the economy, the article misses what looks to be his most obvious critique of what he's now doing:
Having stoked the fires of regional alienation, Harper went further, accusing Liberal Leader Stephane Dion of "some of the most irresponsible behaviour of a Canadian political leader I've ever seen."

Harper's complaint? Dion's pointed criticism of Conservative economic policy and its impact on a flagging Canadian economy.

"Some Canadians think that in times of economic difficulties, you need to elect a right-wing government - right-wing governments are supposed to be good economic managers in their minds. But it's not true," Dion said Friday in Toronto.

"Each time you have Conservative governments, the economy is not going well. In fact, Tory times are tough times."

Harper, in turn, accused Dion of "trying to drive down confidence in the Canadian economy without foundation - and quite frankly sitting on the sidelines virtually cheering for there to be a recession."
Mind you, Dion didn't actually suggest for a second that a recession couldn't or shouldn't be avoided. Which is in stark contrast to Harper's current message about a depression - now that the Cons have been forced to admit that a recession was already in the works.

Of course, it shouldn't come as much surprise that Harper is downright eager to sow fear about Canada's economy if it'll help to dissuade the democratic coalition from trying to clean up the mess his government has made. But the fact that the Cons are so obviously making matters worse when government leadership is most crucial should make it all the more clear that the coalition offers Canada its best hope to avoid Harper's dire predictions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On radical concepts

A political leader actually listening to somebody other than political strategists and corporate lobbyists? A party which is willing to take suggestions from the public without asking for money up front? Radical economic ideas like help for seniors and affordable housing? No wonder the Sensible Centrists are shaking in their boots over the idea that the NDP might earn a place in a coalition government.

On comparative support

Following up on this post, it now seems fair to say that any Libs who don't think the coalition can do a better job governing than the Cons must have a lower opinion of their party than Gilles Duceppe.

True on so many levels

The Cons' personnel strategy in a nutshell:
Prof. Laidler, who emphasized he was speaking only for himself, said he thinks Mr. Flaherty should have stepped down after he was forced to withdraw the more controversial items in the face of unanimous opposition party rejection of the update.

"He should have resigned either because they were his policies and they were rejected so firmly he had to withdraw them - or they weren't his policies and he shouldn't have allowed them in his statement."

But one senior Tory aide said that Mr. Flaherty is not likely to lose his job because his office is compliant with the Prime Minister's wishes.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fool me twice...

Shorter John McCallum and Scott Brison:
If Jim Flaherty lied to us last time he presented Canada's financial picture, that's all the more reason to trust that his next set of books will be super accurate to compensate.

On betterment

Via Douglas Bell, NDP strategist Brian Topp makes a point worth repeating about the progressive coalition:
The risks (of putting the coalition in place) are:

(a) Would the new government really do better?

(b) What would a period of cohabitation in government do to the relationships between the coalition partners and between them and the accord signer?

To point (a) my view is that folks who answer "no" should not be making decisions for their parties. If you don't believe in yourself, why should anyone else do so?
The point looks particularly important in light of one of the Libs' current frames that the question will be whether the Cons' budget is a "credible economic plan" or otherwise does the bare minimum to stay in power. After all, that suggests that the Cons merely need to present a bare impression of competence within a single budget document, with little regard for their general ability to govern.

Instead, the question should be whether the coalition can do better - both in order to raise the bar on what the Cons need to present when Parliament resumes, and to provide a stronger rationale for voting the Cons down if they fall short of the mark. And if the Libs decide to send the message that they don't see any problem with continuing to entrust Canada's fate to Harper at a point where every party considers government action to be vital to our economic well-being, then there can be little reason to take their word for it when they argue that they constitute a meaningful improvement at the next trip to the polls.

Choosing one's battles

It's understandable that commentators may want to see checks on the power being illegitimately wielded by the Harper government after it ran and hid from an impending vote of non-confidence. And Norman Spector suggests that the first step should be for Michaelle Jean to reject Harper's impending delivery of 18 Con hacks to the Senate trough. But as much as Harper deserves to be blamed for forcing the choice on Jean, I have to be concerned that her following Spector's advice would only make matters worse on virtually all fronts.

As a matter of constitutional principle, I'm not sure how there would be any basis upon which Jean could decline the Senate appointments after accepting prorogation at Harper's advice. To the extent Jean's state of constitutional knowledge doesn't include the fact that the Cons were and are set to fall, there hasn't been anything in the meantime to change that state of affairs.

At most, it's possible that Jean may have set some conditions privately which Harper is now flouting publicly, which would result in some principled basis for denying the Senate appointments. But even then, Jean would have to determine which decision would be least likely to do harm to her office and to the country. And as much as I normally avoid "keeping the powder dry" types of analysis, this looks to be one of the rare situations where it's worth waiting for a more significant issue to come.

After all, the Cons have made it entirely clear that they were willing to stop at nothing to try to cling to power - including potentially trying to fire Jean before she could let democracy run its course.

Now, they're obviously in no position to slam her initial decision granting prorogation. (Though it's noteworthy how few Cons seem to have actually approved of her judgment rather than assumed that no other choice existed.)

But one has to assume that Harper already has an all-out public assault on the Governor-General ready to be rolled out at a moment's notice. And it would be nothing short of a gift to Harper to allow him to launch that attack on Jean over a series of appointments which, while hypocritical and illegitimate, ultimately don't figure to substantially affect how Canada is governed.

At worst, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see Harper replace Jean with a partisan Con over the Senate appointments as his government hinted at doing over prorogation. And even at best, Jean would face a concerted campaign to bow to Harper's will on the appointments, and would almost certainly wind up being pressured not to decide against Harper the next time a key decision fell into her jurisdiction.

Which is a serious problem, since the real battle is set to run at the end of January when the Cons face the confidence vote that they ducked this month.

At that time, the difference between a GG wounded by a Con negative advertising blitz (or replaced by Harper's choice of partisan foot soldiers) and one whose independent authority is largely intact may determine whether or not the toxic Harper regime remains in power following a vote of non-confidence. And the entrenchment of a few more Harper cronies at the public trough on the minority side of the Senate would prove a small price to pay to preserve the GG's independence - and hopefully move Canada's executive authority out of Harper's hands.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Deliberate misinformation

There's no doubt that the results of Dominion Institute's poll on public knowledge about our system of government are worrisome. But isn't the bigger story the fact that the actual federal government has been trying desperately to convince Canadians at large to believe the wrong answers to the last two questions?

On roadblocks

As one might guess from my post yesterday, I agree with Steve that one of the main lines of attack on the Cons needs to be that they're the main obstacle to a functional government. But it's worth noting that the Libs will have an awfully tough time trying to justify that argument if they're willing to throw the coalition under the bus.

Let's start by looking to the core of what the Cons have done to make it impossible to get anything done in Parliament. Probably the most obvious problem is their complete refusal to acknowledge that the opposition majority of MPs has any right to make use of its greater number of seats and underlying votes to question the executive power wielded by Harper. And that has led to the Cons shutting down committees and legislative processes as well as pushing this month's prorogation.

Before the coalition came about, the Cons' main complaint about any opposition cooperation was based on the idea that the other parties were ganging up on them, with few specific attempts to divide and conquer. But in the wake of the coalition, they've tried to make an explicit argument that NDP and Bloc MPs shouldn't count in determining what gets done in the House of Commons.

Leaving aside for a moment the problems with that position from a democratic standpoint, it also presents a serious strategic issue - and no less so for the Libs than for the other opposition parties.

After all, in trying to send the message that more cooperation is needed in Parliament, it would seem to make sense as a matter of principle that nobody would be arbitrarily excluded from being involved in that cooperation.

And more importantly, the only way for the Libs to cooperate in a way which doesn't involve giving the Cons effectively what they want is to work with the NDP and the Bloc. In contrast, by conceding that cooperation has to involve the Cons, the Libs would ensure that Harper controls the agenda in Parliament.

Which means that it's a serious problem if the Cons' communications machine goes largely unopposed in claiming that NDP and Bloc votes aren't legitimate when it comes to the coalition. Once that seed is planted by the Cons and either left unchallenged or outright endorsed by the Libs, it'll surely bear fruit for Harper when it comes to other votes. And I can't imagine the Libs will be any better off letting Con actions pass because they accept the Cons' assertion that NDP and Bloc votes can't legitimately challenge a government than they were standing down based on excuses like "Canadians don't want an election".

Now, the Libs might theoretically be able to argue for the legitimacy of NDP and Bloc votes generally while at the same time distancing themselves from the coalition. But that would make it awfully difficult for the other opposition parties to see them as trustworthy, more likely leading to a reduction in the ability of Parliament to function rather than an improvement. And moreover, it would still represent a show of weakness which would enable the Cons to make much of their message stick.

In sum, for the Libs to mount any credible case that it's the Cons who represent the greatest obstacle to a functional House of Commons, they need to be willing to stand up for both the idea that the other parties can work together, and the the most concrete example of that collaboration. And if Harper is allowed to define the limits of what type of cooperation is acceptable, the Libs can rest assured that it's Harper alone who will benefit from the definition in the long run.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

On ground rules

In making the case for the progressive coalition over the course of the break from Parliament, it's worth remembering that there were two primary factors behind the push for a cooperative alternative: first, the Harper government's attempts to put off dealing with the economic crisis which continue unabated, and second, the fact that Harper had demonstrated a constant refusal to deal with any of the opposition parties in anything even remotely resembling good faith. And while most of the Cons' current public push seems to be based on pretending to deal with the first issue, there's every reason for the opposition parties to shine a spotlight on the second as well.

As with the economy, the starting point has to be that the Cons have already lost the confidence of the House of Commons. Accordingly, it'll take a massively different position than the Cons have shown to date to justify a change in outlook among parties who have agreed that Harper can't be trusted in office.

And as with the economy, the Cons have shown that there's no value in mere assurances that they intend to be more constructive than they have been. Instead, what's required are mechanisms in Parliament to make sure that the Cons have no choice but to listen to the opposition majority at all times.

With that in mind, I'll suggest a few steps that the opposition parties should be discussing as requirements for government accountability whenever Parliament resumes (and regardless of who holds power). I'm not sure off hand what mechanisms would work best for enforcing these requirements, but I presume there should be some means available based on the standing orders and committee rules which govern the House of Commons.

First, the Cons have continued to get away with holding back their dirty tricks manual. For them to even pretend to be dealing honestly with the opposition parties, they need to make that public - and all parties need to work together in closing the loopholes which would otherwise enable one party to shut down committees which dare to actually examine issues critically.

Second, some measures need to be taken to ensure that no government can stay in power without the confidence of the House. While the power of prorogation may be a constitutional one which can't be negotiated away, a public apology for shutting down Parliament and clear promise never to do so again - along with a similar commitment from the coalition in the event it takes power - would help to make sure there's a serious price to be paid for such actions. And amendments to the House's procedures to lock in the dates of opposition motions would prevent any government from avoiding a confidence vote through the date-switching mechanisms which both Martin and Harper abused.

Third, an information imbalance between government and others should be rectified as well. Rules should be put in place to ensure that all MPs can get accurate information from the civil service where required, rather than having to rely on the word of the government as to Canada's financial picture and state of government operations. And indeed some formal requirements should provide for open communication between civil servants and Canadians generally, rather than allowing the PMO to control and twist all messages from the public service for political purposes.

In sum, the opposition parties should be able to get plenty of mileage out of a vision of cooperation that actually involves informed and reasoned discussions among equals, rather than a control freak PM brow-beating others into submission. And a consistent message about the necessary underpinnings for any respect and trust in the House of Commons should go a long way in turning the Cons' current bleating about cooperation into an impetus to permanently loosen Harper's stranglehold on Parliament and the civil service.

Update: Scott Reid suggests that the NDP should take the lead in defining the type of mea culpa required from Harper. I'd certainly be happy to see Layton front and centre in shaping public expectations, but for the reasons noted above the most important point is that mere words shouldn't be enough - and indeed it's surprising that Reid would implicitly figure otherwise.

Deep thought

It seems to me that the best way to build public support for an idea is to draw attention to its positive features, rather than to hide it in one's back pocket.

The reviews are in

Paul Wells again:
Stephen Harper spent his whole adult life complaining that the state was no good for anything. Now, under him, it is so.

Friday, December 12, 2008

On lawlessness

The Star adds another item to the list of grossly irresponsible panic actions arising out of Stephen Harper's attempt to cling to power. This time, the Cons are instructing the Canada Revenue Agency to treat part of their fiscal update as if it had passed - even though they prorogued Parliament precisely because the fiscal update was set to be voted down.

Now, I doubt there's much disagreement with the concept of some flexibility in RRIF withdrawals to account for the financial crisis. But the place to debate what kind of flexibility is appropriate and seek formal approval is the House of Commons - and it's only the Cons who have prevented the House from dealing with this or any other measure to help struggling Canadians.

Moreover, one has to wonder how far the Cons might go in trying to pretend that other parts of their fiscal update should be treated as if they'd passed: does anybody think they'd have any scruples about simply instructing the Treasury Board not to pay out the per-vote party funding set out by law, or the Human Rights Commission to stop dealing with pay equity complaints? And indeed, in light of their desperate power grab, there's no particular reason to think that the Cons' administrative instructions will be limited to matters that have even been brought up for discussion.

One would hope matters would never get to that point. But it seems clear that Harper would rather govern illegitimately by fiat rather than not at all. And every step the Cons take to evade the need for Parliament to pass Canada's laws moves us further from anything that could possibly be described as democracy.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Harper's Separatist in the Senate

Buckets points out a 2001 Andrew Coyne column on the links between the Canadian Alliance and the Alberta Independence Party. And there's one connection which seems particularly striking based on Harper's poor excuses for...well, pretty much everything he's done over the past two weeks:
Question 4: Who said, to which gathering of which separatist party, "I wish you every success." Was it a) Lucien Bouchard, then a minister in the federal government, in a telegram to the Parti Quebecois in 1990, or b) Bert Brown, member of the Canadian Alliance and "Senator-elect" for the province of Alberta, addressing the same Alberta Independence Party meeting that Mr. Thompson attended?

The answer to each, in case you were in any doubt, is b). Which raises a further query: What on earth were Mr. Thompson and Mr. Brown, as well as Darrel Stinson, MP, and Ted Morton, Alberta's other "Senator-elect," doing at a meeting of a party dedicated to the dismantling of Canada?
So while Harper is trying to make excuses for an orgy of patronage based on what seems to be an entirely Con-fabricated rumour about Bloc members being appointed to the Senate, one of his only two appointments so far has already been the Alberta equivalent.

Compare and contrast

With the Libs apparently unveiling their idea of an interactive website, here's a quick set of shorters as to the messages sent by Canada's political parties to their supporters:

Thinking for yourself is hard. So let us tell you what to say and do.

We'll consider listening to your ideas - in exchange for a small fee.

Here's an extra way to share content with us and others. Have fun.

The Harper trifecta: undemocratic, hypocritical, and illegal

Andrew Potter has a long ways to go to atone for his consistent efforts to undermine the efforts of the impending Liberal/NDP coalition. But this isn't a bad start:
(T)here has been speculation that Harper would try to attach conditions to the (Senate) appointments, for example that his appointees would agree to step down after 8 years. Or as Bob Fife reports today, “it appears Harper hasn’t completely backed away from his previous policy. An insider said Harper would ask anyone he appoints to agree to step down and run in a Senate election if new legislation is ever implemented.”

It is worth pointing out that any such agreement qualifies as inducement, and is therefore completely illegal.