Saturday, March 01, 2008

Bogus analysis

Shorter Jonathan Kay:
While we're at it, Brian Mulroney is a well-connected lawyer, businessman and Prime Minister of Canada. So we can dismiss out of hand the possibility that he would have jeopardized his reputation by taking cash in a paper bag.

Friday, February 29, 2008

On again

The Globe and Mail reports that the Cons have decided to once again start transferring Afghan detainees on the assumption that they can blindly accept the results of Afghan investigations into their own prisons. Which of course comes less than a month after a temporary halt to transfers was the primary reason why the Federal Court declined to order that transfers be stopped.

If there's any good news, it's that the civil liberties groups involved should hopefully be well-positioned to put together another injunction application. But today's news makes it all the more clear that the move to stop transfers last year was merely a temporary measure to enable the Cons to avoid answering for torture concerns in court.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

What lies beneath

The burgeoning Cadman bribery scandal figures to appear at the top of national headlines for quite some time to come. But what's most interesting for now is the Cons' insistence on denying absolutely everything rather than seizing on a seemingly reasonable explanation.

For that, take a look at the comments at one of the few Blogging Tories sites to mention the issue, where a relatively plausible theory has been presented as to what was actually offered. If the Cons' visit was limited to asking Cadman to return to their party's caucus and listing off the benefits attached to that - including a life insurance policy among other standard party benefits - then many of the questions now swirling around would seem to be answered.

After all, as unbelievable as it seems that the Cons would take out a separate life insurance policy for Cadman, it's relatively plausible that they might have been willing to absorb some greater risk within an existing group policy. And it's possible that inducing an MP to join one's party - even for the transparent purpose of being able to whip their vote on an upcoming issue - would be seen as entirely different from actually offering inducements in exchange for a particular voting result.

But the Cons haven't even tried to suggest that's what happened. Instead, Deceivin' Stephen and his PR crew have tried to at least implicitly deny that the visit to Cadman was authorized at all by the party. And all this despite both the word of their own Surrey North candidate, and Harper's own statement to the contrary in Tom Zytaruk's book.

It remains to be seen whether the Cons are simply reflexively lashing out, or whether they're covering up something more - either in the form of additional inducements offered to Cadman, or a list of standard party perks which might not withstand public scrutiny. But the fact that they went immediately into panic mode when a seemingly obvious explanation was available suggests to me that we've only scratched the surface of the story.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Damage done

Plenty of Libs seem to be rightly concerned about the effect of the combination of backtracks, leaks and/or general incoherence on the Libs as a party. But it's worth pointing out that the damage caused by the Libs goes much further than just the party itself.

After all, the Libs have also provided the political press with ready-made stories fit into narratives which effectively write themselves. Based on the natural media tendency to grab the low-hanging fruit, the Libs' machinations have then served to distract attention from plenty of substantive issues which could otherwise have found their way into the public eye, to say nothing of the Cons' misdeeds in office (which surely need to be highlighted for the Libs or any other party to put an end to Harper's reign).

Even if the Libs were going to keep propping up Harper, there isn't any particular reason why they should want to allow their weaknesses and internal disagreements to become the predominant story in the process. But it's hard to see how a party wanting to allow its own turmoil to become a dominant political theme could do better than the Libs have over the past year-plus - and Canada's political scene as a whole is losing out just as much as the Libs' image as a result.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Treasure trove

For those paying far too much attention to this blog, you may remember my political sabermetrics series from last year - and may also have wondered why it didn't go further than it did. The reason is that I was working on putting together just a fraction of the information now available from the Pundits' Guide, which figures to soon become an indispensable resource for those of us looking to base at least some of our political analysis on data rather than spin.

For now, check it out for yourself. And I'll plan to take a look at a few of the angles which I've wondered about in the near future now that the data is so readily available.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

On manipulation

There's nothing like the smell of CanWest spin in the morning:
A big chunk of the Canadian population says the ruling Conservatives should cut taxes to stimulate spending if the economy sours, according to a new national poll that also says a slim majority of Canadians would even accept the government chalking up a budget deficit under those circumstances...

If the government does have to contend with an economic downturn and fewer tax dollars to spend, the poll said almost four in 10 (37 per cent) of those surveyed said the government should respond by "cutting taxes more and try to stimulate consumer and business spending that could generate new revenues." Twenty-six per cent said the government should freeze or cut spending, while 14 per cent said the government should claw back some of the tax cuts...

Canadians also appear to more comfortable with the idea of the government running a deficit, although there remains a strong anti-deficit streak in the country.

The survey said almost two in 10 Canadians (19 per cent) said deficit spending is "not at all acceptable," compared to only six per cent who said it was "very acceptable."

Overall, though, a narrow majority of 53 per cent said the idea of running a deficit would be very acceptable or somewhat acceptable.

Canadians were split on whether the struggling manufacturing sector should get special attention from the federal government, something high on the agenda of Ontario and Quebec. A tiny majority of 51 per cent said yes, while 43 per cent said the federal government should leave it to the provinces to "help their local manufacturers" get through tough times.
It's worth noting that the poll itself seems to have been far from neutral in its seeming treatment of the options. Surely a fair evaluation of the possibility of responding to a deficit with tax cuts would acknowledge at least the possibility that doing so would only increase the deficit without providing the hoped-for stimulus.

Even with that starting point, however, the number of respondents who favour such cuts is lower than the combined total of those who want to hold the line or reverse the Cons' cuts to date. But apparently that's of no particular concern to CanWest: instead, both the headline and the article lead-in trumpet the supposed popularity of tax cuts.

And that narrative is boosted by the decision to label that 37% which supports CanWest's usual tax-cutting line as a "big chunk" and trying to inflate the number by labeling it as "almost four in ten". Which is in stark contrast to the treatment of other options which were supported by far more respondents, as actual majorities in favour of both helping manufacturers and running a deficit if necessary are minimized as "slim", "narrow" or "tiny".

Ultimately, the poll doesn't tell us much that couldn't have been predicted about Canadians' preferred budget options. But CanWest's slanted coverage says plenty about the continuing gap between actual public opinions and the spin applied to them by the corporate media.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Too harmful

The Libs' choice of triggers for an election on the Cons' upcoming budget - that they'd vote the budget down only if it was "too harmful" to the economy - was at best an odd one on its face. (Why would Dion feel the need to change from his previous message of deciding based on whether he thought Canadians wanted an election, or decide that only one of the "three pillars" which seemed so important to his leadership campaign matters enough to justify an election now?) But the choice may be even worse than it looks if the Libs decide to once again prop up the Cons...and I have to wonder whether that signals a complete lack of foresight, or instead a plan to vote down the budget.

In figuring out what the Libs have done with their choice of messages, remember that their most plausible excuse for a strategy at this point is to try to contrast themselves against the Cons in terms of the the parties' respective fiscal management. Ideally, that would culminate in an election taking place in the middle of a recession which the Libs could pin on Harper and Flaherty.

From that starting point, it would only make sense to try to avoid directly approving of the Cons' economic management. But with no provocation whatsover, the Libs have put themselves in a position where any choice to avoid the polls has to be based on their publicly stating that the Cons' budget isn't going to do much damage. And however the economy turns out in the meantime, that end result would limit the Libs' ability to gain any traction on economic management.

After all, if the economy doesn't hit a downturn, then the hoped-for benefit would never materialize...leading to no gain at best, and probably some cost if the Cons make an argument that the Libs have endorsed their fiscal management.

And that's the better of the two results: if the economy does plunge into a recession, a vote in support of the Cons now would completely undermine the Libs' planned message.

Having publicly declared that the Cons' plan wasn't one which would trigger any economic hardship, the Libs would have little defence to an argument that the Cons either couldn't be blamed for the downturn, or at worst shared responsibility with the Libs themselves. And the NDP would have a field day pointing out that neither the Libs nor the Cons were responsible enough to foresee the dangers arising out of the Cons' budget.

In effect, if the Libs end up voting for the budget, they'll be in exactly the same position as they are on Afghanistan in the wake of the post-Manley machinations, having undercut their own ability to criticize Harper's performance while giving the NDP a golden opportunity to paint the other two parties as twins. But this time Harper won't even be able to take credit for maneuvering the Libs into a corner, as they'll have done it all by themselves.

Now, it's not out of the question that the Libs' choice of election triggers could be a successful one. If the Libs actually do plan on voting down the budget, then there could be little better way to set the stage for an election based on economic decision-making than by spreading the message that they had to vote down the government due to an impending downturn caused by Harper. That would allow the Libs to run their campaign on the theme that tough Tory times are coming, creating a background assumption that the Cons are only making things worse and turning any damaging economic news during the campaign into a boon for the Libs.

Based on Dion's track record, however, it's hard to give he and his entourage credit for thinking up that possibility - particularly with the Libs making noises that they're planning on sitting out yet another confidence vote. And if the Libs are indeed sufficiently clueless to have voluntarily given up what looks like their best issue for absolutely no gain, then there's little reason to think they'll ever get their act together in time for an election.

(Edit: filled in first paragraph.)

Looking forward

It's no great surprise that the federal parties are paying plenty of attention to ridings which were won by relatively small margins in 2006 (as reported by the Hill Times).

But it's worth noting that while such ridings may make for the most obvious battlegrounds, there's plenty of room for movement in ridings where there's far more ground to be made up as well. Indeed, if the parties had applied a 5% standard to the federal by-elections which have taken place since 2006, neither Outremont nor Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean - both of which actually did change hands - would have been seen as a priority riding.

Naturally, it makes sense to consider the 2006 results as a relevant factor in allocating resources. But any party which relies unduly on 2006 alone as its baseline figures to miss a significant portion of both the risks and the opportunities facing it next time out.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A message worth repeating

I'm a bit surprised that none of the federal opposition parties has yet picked up on the Cons' habit of grabbing media attention for their own ads by putting together and promoting a compilation of stories and commentary about Harper's lies, secrecy and broken promises. But if any of them plan on doing so, Randall Denley once again offers up exactly the kind of message which they should be looking to include:
Although I follow the federal government closely, I couldn't tell you a single inspirational national goal Harper has identified. In fact, it seems his only goal is re-election.

Rather than point the country in the right direction and encourage Canadians to achieve, Harper runs a grim command-and-control regime that wouldn't be out of place in the Kremlin. Even the most innocuous information is ruled secret, even the most straightforward question ducked. One could argue that Harper's attempt to micromanage the government and his insistence that most everything come through his office is the opposite of leadership. Far from empowering Canadians to act, our PM isn't even empowering his own cabinet.

Toughness might be one characteristic of a leader, but if that's all you've got you'd better hope you're leading a dictatorship. At times, Harper seems to be under the mistaken impression that he is.