Saturday, April 26, 2008

The future is wide open

Following up on this morning's post, Bruce Campion-Smith's article today nicely discusses how the NDP has offered the true opposition to Deceivin' Stephen and the Cons. But while the choice of message may be somewhat of a gimme in positioning the NDP in the wake of the Libs' dereliction of duty, it's particularly worth noting the NDP's willingness to open up some of the information which the other federal parties would generally keep close to the vest:
Federal New Democrats are enjoying a bump in membership, a rise in fundraising and a spring in their step these days. And they're quietly giving thanks to Liberal Leader St├ęphane Dion.

Dion's decisions to abstain on key Commons votes on immigration changes, climate change and the Tory's big tax cuts have given New Democrats political room to declare they are Parliament's "progressive" party...

The Liberals have been careful in recent months not to oppose the government on key issues, which could force an election they don't want. And while the evidence is anecdotal, the New Democrats seem to be reaping the fallout.

An NDP fundraising appeal that asked, "Who will stand up to Stephen Harper's agenda?" proved a winner for the party.

"We'll stand in our places and vote against him – and face him in an election if we have to," the email read.

That effort won the party donations that totalled five figures, twice as much as other recent fundraising missives.

The party is seeing an uptick in membership, too. In the first quarter of 2008, the NDP added 504 new members – more than double the 180 who joined the ranks last year.

"People are coming and talking to us and appreciating that we're standing up... . I've noticed a difference," Layton said.
Now, my initial reaction is that the numbers themselves are relatively moderate. While the NDP obviously has to be happy to be adding members and discovering a message which seems to offer a fund-raising boost, there's little indication that membership numbers in three digits or financial contributions in five will substantially affect the NDP's position.

But particularly in the face of Harper's culture of secrecy, it's more significant that the NDP taking at least some tentative steps toward a more open form of politics by going public with these internal details in the first place.

When it comes to membership numbers, my quick attempt at research for a post last year didn't turn up anything approaching current totals for Canada's federal political parties. While the NDP's base numbers still aren't clear, it's still interesting to see what type of recruitment can be expected - particularly during what looks to have been a relatively quiet period for the party. And if the NDP is indeed accelerating its membership growth after having already been equal with the Libs last year, then that can only bode well for its long-term prospects.

And it's even more significant that the NDP has made public fund-raising numbers associated with a particular campaign, rather than limiting its disclosure to what's required in quarterly reports to Elections Canada. I've argued before that any political party should be looking at the effectiveness of fund-raising appeals to see what issues best motivate its base. But the NDP has gone a step further by both allowing at least some public insight into how money is normally raised, and what message has been most successful in boosting that number lately.

What's more, the NDP's willingness to put more information in the hands of the public comes at the same time as Elizabeth May's top-down control over the Greens has boiled over again. Given that the Libs have fought accountability tooth and nail and the Cons well known for Harper's micromanagement and secrecy covering virtually everything done within their party and government (not to mention being called out for lies by Canada's leading accountability watchdog), the NDP has a prime opportunity to push to be identified as the only party which values accountability and public information for itself as well as for others.

Now, there's undoubtedly a question to be raised as to whether the NDP plans to do more of the same and indeed expand its range of disclosure in the future, or whether the current openness is based solely on wanting to highlight some immediate good news. And I'll be disappointed if it turns out to be the latter.

But the door is open for the NDP to set itself apart from the top-down, unaccountable style of the other parties. And if it can take that mantle along with the "true opposition" title as its main themes heading into the next federal election, then the NDP's recent gains in the polls and in the eyes of the media should be just the beginning.

Signs of progress

Without much public fanfare, this past week looks to have been a highly positive one for the federal NDP. Two of the party's rising stars have won accolades in the media: Peter Julian from Political Bytes for positioning himself as Canada's leading political voice against the SPP, and Nathan Cullen from Susan Riley as one of the "hidden heroes" of Canadian politics.

And it isn't just the press finding something to like, as the latest Angus Reid poll suggests that the NDP is the only federal party in Parliament to have increased its popularity since the 2006 election. (Now if only the latest leadership polling had included Jack Layton to help draw a contrast against the lead weights currently dragging down the Cons and Libs.)

Most importantly, though, there are signs in another article today that the NDP's current strategy looks to be one which can keep up that momentum. But more about that later.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Your daily Conadscam reading

For those who haven't yet seen them yet, a couple of must-reads on Conadscam came out today.

In the blogosphere, LKO boils down the scandal about as well as I've seen done so far.

And in the media, the Globe and Mail puts a human face on the riding impact by profiling Con candidate Joe Goudie, featuring two points of particular note.

First, as in seemingly every other case, the Cons' national office apparently didn't have the slightest interest in listening to how Goudie's campaign manager actually wanted to spend the money.

And second, it looks like Goudie and his campaign manager and official agent have joined many other Con candidates and campaign managers on the "them" side of the Cons' choice of battle lines. Which only figures to make the Cons' attempts to add any new supporters to their camp all the more difficuly - as when even those who were willing (however unfortunately) to tie their fortunes to Deceivin' Stephen's are being thrown overboard in an effort to feed Con anger, there's no reason for anybody else to believe the Cons won't do the same to them at a moment's notice.

On significant risks

Shorter Con policy on corporate data breaches which affect personal information:
The good news is that corporations will be held to a higher standard of transparency than our government. After all, we're not outright ordering them to cover anything up.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

On victims

There's plenty of discussion today - both in the media and the blogosphere - about the Cons' attempt to paint themselves as victims in Conadscam. But it's worth noting that the effort not only seems doomed to fail and and of itself, but also looks to run contrary to the wider image the Cons have tried to build for themselves.

Let's start by considering just what would be necessary for the Cons to successfully claim victimhood. Any such argument would presumably have to be based on the premise that Elections Canada had gone after the Cons aggressively despite the Cons having reacted reasonably to the initial investigation. And particularly in the case of a party which is claiming innocence, that would require that the Cons actually cooperate with Elections Canada's efforts to get at the truth of the matter.

Of course, the Cons say that they've done so (normally with a conveniently narrow claim along the lines of having provided the documents requested by Elections Canada). But that's at best a self-serving statement if not backed up by enough public disclosure to show just what was requested and provided.

Needless to say, the Cons haven't backed up even their own choice of assertions with evidence. Morover, the public record shows that the Cons ordered its candidates and agents not to talk to Elections Canada. And that kind of coverup makes it awfully difficult for the Cons to claim that Elections Canada could get the information it needed through any other means - or that the truth would reflect well on the Cons.

Perhaps more importantly than the lack of cooperation with Elections Canada, though, are the Cons' own obvious manipulations surrounding Conadscam. As has been pointed out elsewhere, a party who's in the right generally doesn't attempt to selectively leak information, then find itself in the position of running out back exits and hiding behind closed doors trying to avoid revealing facts which it's willing to share with its preferred media conduits. And that goes doubly so for a helpless victim.

As a result, anybody who pays any attention to information from sources other than the Cons themselves should be able to see through the Cons' claim to victimhood in a hurry. But even if the Cons were successful in playing the victim card, it would seem to run counter to the public perception they're generally trying to foster.

After all, the Cons have eagerly built up the narrative of Deceivin' Stephen as a chessmaster, moving with ruthless efficiency to rearrange Canada's political scene to set himself up to win a majority government. But it's implicit in that narrative that Harper would have the ability to observe where the other pieces on the board are headed, and avoid being taken by surprise by an unforeseen move.

In the case of the RCMP raid, there's little reason to think the Cons actually wouldn't have anticipated it at at least some extent. Elections Canada's investigation has been no secret for quite some time, and presumably even the Cons wouldn't be quite so self-deluded as to think that their stonewalling would be perceived as cooperation.

But by feigning shock at the raid, the Cons are ultimately only undermining their own claim to having enough foresight or strategy to accomplish what they've set out to do. And for a party which has plainly shifted its focus from wanting to clean up government to rewarding its supporters with federal largesse, that may be just as damaging as any fallout from the investigation itself.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Out of its shell

It apparently took Brad Wall just half a year in office before deciding to drop any pretense of moderation or responsible government. This week, the Sask Party decided to gratuitously cut social benefits for no apparent reason, claiming that low-income workers can blindly rely on "the economy" to provide benefits with without a shred of reason to believe that to be realistic.

That would be bad enough if it was merely a matter of artificial spending restraint. But in case there was any hope that the Wall government was going to be the least bit fiscally responsible, it's also seeking the power to dole out over a third of a million dollars at a time, with any public notice delayed until the following year's budget. And that early-year reporting date would conveniently ensure that the Sask Party could freely throw money around for nearly a year before its newly-fixed election date without any public knowledge.

It shouldn't come as much surprise that Wall's government is following the right-wing trend of shifting public spending from actual citizen needs to hidden pork-barrel politics. And there's no indication yet that the Sask Party cares enough about being seen to govern reasonably to pay attention to public pressure. But it's still worth pointing out how clearly any change under Wall has been for the worse - and with any luck, the type of hubris the Sask Party is showing now will ensure that it's booted from office in 2011.

On tangled webs

The Cons haven't made any secret of their intention to make use of the Conadscam scheme again in the next federal election unless a court tells them they can't (and regardless of whether Elections Canada or anybody else points out that it's against the law). But let's note that it isn't only the central party which is stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that it's in legal jeopardy, as the Cons' Calgary foundation is also showing signs of rot:
Although the University of Calgary has severed all ties with the Friends of Science and shut down the accounts which were set up in 2004 by political science professor Barry Cooper, the anti-Kyoto group is still using the same charity, the Calgary Foundation, to collect money and issue tax deductible receipts for anonymous donors.

The money is now going through an independent think tank, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg, which has received at least $50,000 since last fall, according to a document released by the Calgary Foundation. The Frontier Centre has indicated that it wants to produce a climate change video for children in schools.
Of course, it's worth pointing out one glaring flaw in the article's discussion.

In case there was any doubt, the new, "independent" recipient of Barry Cooper's largesse would be the same Frontier Centre for Public Policy which was hand-picked by the Cons for a six-figure federal contract to consult about electoral reform - despite the group's acknowledged lack of expertise in the area, and a clear bias against electoral reform in what little material it had disseminated on the topic. Naturally, it didn't take long for the group to be embarrassed when one of its subcontractors decided to put together its focus groups based on word of mouth rather than any process which could possibly lead to a diverse set of viewpoints. And the Frontier Centre was also called on to speak for the Cons' position on the farcical Canadian Wheat Board barley plebiscite.

In other words, after being caught wrongly interfering with the 2006 election, the Friends of Science have simply pivoted from direct political intervention to taking on a role funding a different part of the Cons' right-wing noise machine. Which can only make it clear just how little claim any of the groups involved can have to anything approaching independence - and how little plausibility the Cons themselves having in trying to deny links to or among the groups involved.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Standing up against Canada

Shorter Deceivin' Stephen:
Canada stands to be better off if NAFTA gets opened up for renegotiation. And in keeping with my personal allegiances, I have no intention of letting that happen.

On refusals

Following up on yesterday's post, the Globe and Mail points out some even better evidence that Conadscam was based on spending decisions made at the national level rather than the riding association level:
(T)he documents assembled by the Elections Canada investigators to justify a search of Conservative headquarters last week say the party brass was not pleased when local campaigns refused to take part in what has become known as the in-and-out scheme.

"There were two outright refusals - Beauce and Brome-Mississquoi," Michael Donison, who was then party president, wrote in a December, 2005, e-mail to Conservative officials. "We have discussed and understood Beauce but what is with Brome? Why should they be allowed to just outright refuse?"
That's right: as far as the Cons' central command was concerned, some special dispensation was required for a riding association to decline to participate in the scheme. Which offers yet another example of just how little the riding associations themselves had to do with the spending - and how clearly the spending was controlled at the national level.

Update: And now word comes out that the candidate in question, David Marler, was rejected by the Cons for the next federal election for no apparent reason other than his scruples in questioning Conadscam.

Monday, April 21, 2008

On central control

I wrote yesterday that Conadscam figures to have expanded in scope now that Elections Canada is investigating alleged false and misleading statements within the Cons' financial returns. But let's note as well that the core dispute about the scheme as a whole also looks to have taken a turn toward ground where the Cons are in serious trouble.

Remember that the primary point of dispute before seemed to be whether or not the advertising purchased through Conadscam should be classified as local or national. While the Cons' arguments about listing candidate names in fine print were relatively weak on their face, there's probably a relatively plausible case to be made that a local candidate could choose to pay for advertising which would focus on national leaders or issues rather than ones specific to a riding.

But the Star's coverage suggests that rather than having to rely on its interpretation as what the Cons' money was spent on, Elections Canada has also found serious problems in how the money was spent in the first place:
The people acting as the "official agents" for the Tory candidates were given precise, step-by-step instructions in how the transfer would work.

And in every case, Conservative head office first demanded that the local campaign provide bank wire instructions to ensure head office would get its money back.

"The transfer of funds to, and the withdrawal of similar amounts from, participating campaign bank accounts was entirely under the control and direction of the Conservative Fund Canada," the document states.

As a result, the Conservative Party – not the candidates – was obligated by the law to report the spending, Elections Canada says...

One official said the party has never denied its campaigns are "centrally organized... that our national campaigns and our regional organizers were the drivers for this."

All ads contained the necessary local taglines, he said.

But some candidates who agreed to go in on buying advertising time "had second thoughts," and had to be told it was "too late" to later pull out.
In other words, the money which the Cons claim to have transferred to local campaigns was never actually controlled by anybody other than the national party.

By way of analogy, let's consider what a person may - and may not - do in providing money to other people which could be used for a political contribution.

It seems obvious that if a person who has already made political contributions up to his or her donation limit gives money to another person with no strings attached, there's no particular problem if the second person chooses to use the gift to also donate to a political party. And the Cons have tried to pretend that their transfers should be seen as identical to that type of freedom to transfer money back and forth.

Before the warrant was made public, it looked like the Cons had instead given money to their riding associations with an informal expectation that it be used on the ads involved. That could easily result in some liability depending on the intention of the parties. But there would at least be some room for argument that since the recipient had some ability to determine how the money was used, the donor wouldn't necessarily be responsible for the recipient's choices - and a relatively consistent position that no side deal existed might have made it difficult to prove any wrongdoing.

Based on the warrant, however, it looks like the Cons went a step further, seeking formal wire instructions to ensure that riding associations never held any control over the money.

Now, that might have seemed to be the safer course of action if they perceived a real risk that the riding associations would rather spend it on something other than the ads involved. But it's hard to see how the Cons could successfully argue that the riding associations were the ones who spent the money involved under the Canada Elections Act when they neither supplied it, nor had any ability to choose how it would be used.

And it only gets worse when one considers what happened to those who thought better about what was being done. When candidates asked to get out of the scheme, it was the Cons' central command which informed them that they didn't have any ability to back out of the scheme.

Which only offers one more signal of just who was actually spending the money involved. And that would seem to leave the Cons with no way out regardless of whether or not the content also ran afoul of the law.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

False or misleading

The first pieces of information about the search warrant against the Cons have been made public - and they seem to confirm my suspicion that the warrant was aimed largely at putting individual names to acts which are already known to have taken place. But it's worth noting that the warrant suggests as well that the offences currently being investigated go beyond what would have been inherent in the Conadscam scheme alone:
The warrant says that the elections commissioner believes that the Conservative Party of Canada and its official agent, the Conservative Fund of Canada, violated the Canada Elections Act. The party and the fund are separately accused of exceeding the maximum amount allowed for elections expenses. The Conservative Fund is also accused of filing financial returns "that it knew or ought reasonably to have known contained a materially false or misleading statement."
Up to now, it seemed that the issue raised by the Cons' campaign expenses was limited to the differing views as to what should be considered a national expenditure under the Canada Elections Act. But if that were true, then there's no reason why any financial return should have been anything but accurate in portraying what the Cons had done.

As a result, the added charge seems to signal that Elections Canada has also found independent problems with how the Cons reported on their election expenses. Which means that the Cons may be in serious legal trouble even if they manage to defend the in-and-out scheme itself.

Letting loose

I'd planned to post about the Cons' latest attack on reproductive rights in the form of Maurice Vellacott's Bill C-537, but thereginamom has beaten me to the punch.

So rather than commenting on the substance of the bill for now, let's consider the timing involved. With Rob Anders acting up this week as well, could it be that the Cons' crazies have finally decided that they can't restrain themselves any longer? Or was this another attempt to make sure that at least one set of bad news for Deceivin' Stephen - either the Cons' stay on the wrong side of the law or the latest in hard-right pandering - would be drowned out by the other?

(Edit: changed title.)