Saturday, May 03, 2008

On double-dipping

Following up on this morning's post, let's note that if the Cons did indeed "double-dip" to try to claim both national-level and riding-level rebates for the same polling expenses, expense reports filed with Elections Canada suggest that the Cons would have inflated the riding-level numbers beyond the actual cost of the national polling in the process.

The Winnipeg Free Press identified transfers from candidates' campaigns to the national party totalling $854,000 under the heading of "election surveys or other surveys or research", while the Cons' party return lists only $697,105.00 in expenses under the same category. Which means that if the dollar values refer to the same material, then the Cons would have received rebates totalling $860,952.50 for their initial expenditure: $348,552.50 at the national level, and $512,400 at the riding level. Or in the terms discussed in this morning's post, the Cons would have claimed and received $1.24 in rebates for every dollar spent on surveys and research.

Of course, that kind of return on investment seldom materializes without some significant risk. And it remains to be seen what the Cons' electoral manipulations may wind up costing them.


Plenty of bloggers have discussed the Cons' decision to kill CAIRS, a program which lists the wording of all access-to-information requests made to the federal government. But I haven't yet seen any detailed discussion of how eliminating the program figures to actually change the public's ability to access government information - and it's worth noting that the effect might be slightly different than it seems at first glance.

In particular, the elimination of CAIRS won't do anything to change the federal government's obligation to provide the same information when it's requested. Assuming the Cons won't somehow try to declare that the contents of access requests are now exempt from disclosure in some way (and that may well not be a safe assumption), it'll still be open to the website currently maintaining a public CAIRS database to continue to do the same.

What does figure to change, though, is the difficulty in gathering the same information. In particular, there won't be a central source from which a government-wide list of requests can be obtained. Instead, it'll be necessary to either contact each department for its list of requests then compile that information to make it available, or request government-wide records from a single source who would then be required to contact other government sources for the full information.

Assuming that researchers have found CAIRS to be a valuable tool, I'd expect somebody to keep requesting the information. But what happens once the requests are made?

Remember that a number of federal departments are already under fire for being unable to respond to access to information requests in a timely manner. Now, the employees responsible for information requests will face an extra burden in trying to manage requests based on the information previously recorded in CAIRS - and of course with no hint that the Cons will make up for that extra burden with any added resources.

At best, it would seem likely that federal departments could plan to collect the same information manually in order to have it available once it's requested. But from this angle, it looks like the height of inefficiency to dismantle a centralized and automated system in favour of requiring departments to manually collect the same information based on the virtual certainty that it'll be requested.

And if any department doesn't think ahead far enough to collect the information in advance (or otherwise decides it would rather drag out the process than provide the information), the result will be a delay in making the information available to the public.

As a result, and again assuming that the Cons won't try to break from the past by withholding the wording of access requests, the CAIRS decision seems to fall more in the category of throwing a monkey wrench into the works of the federal government, rather than that of a radical move toward added secrecy. But either way, it looks to be a symptom of Con views which are antithetical to effective government.

On services rendered

It looks like Walkswithcoffee was right on target in commenting on this post about Conadscam, as other in-and-out transactions are being called into question for what looks like good reason. With that in mind, let's note the two major issues raised by the latest allegations.

First, as discussed by Cameron, is the question of substantial transactions being dated after the election itself. It would seem obvious that the intention of allowing candidates time after an election to supply their returns would be to permit the inclusion of transactions legitimately related to the election which were overlooked initially - not to allow them to throw money back and forth to try to change the substance of how money was actually spent.

Indeed, the potential for abuse if the situation were otherwise would be obvious. Remember that each party may only be reimbursed for local expenses in a riding where it obtains 10% of the vote: if expenses could legitimately be reallocated after the fact, then parties would be able to rig up transfers after the vote takes place to make sure all their expenses took place in ridings where that threshold was achieved.

Second is the question of Elections Canada rebates - and it's here that there may be an important distinction compared to Conadscam as discussed so far. To date, the major issue with the Cons' ad expenses was the level at which expenditures were claimed: money which was in reality spent at the national level was claimed at the local level in an effort to circumvent the national expense limits.

In other words, Conadscam involved the Cons pretending that a single transaction took place between riding associations and suppliers rather than the national party and suppliers. That would result in a higher level of rebate (60% at the riding level rather than 50% at the national level), but there's no indication that the rebate was the primary motivating factor - and certainly the potential for rebate abuse is relatively small compared to the dangers associated with exceeding the expenditure limits.

In contrast, today's allegations present the first serious question about double-dipping when it comes to rebates. In effect, the allegation is that the Cons first spent national money on polling from a third-party supplier, presumably claiming that amount at the 50% rebate level. Then, the Cons' national party would bill riding associations for providing the same poll - securing a 60% rebate at the riding level without adding any additional service into the mix.

Which means that if the amount charged to the riding associations matched the amount originally spent, the Cons would receive $1.10 back for every dollar originally spent on polling. (And of course there's no particular reason why the amounts couldn't have been inflated even further by increasing the amount charged at the riding level.)

Now, the issues involved in the polling scheme are largely the opposite of those raised by Conadscam: the scheme would actually boost the amount spent under the election spending caps for the purpose of inflating the available rebates.

But that's where the timing may be particularly significant. A campaign coordinating both kinds of schemes could shuffle money around ala Conadscam to leave itself the ability to spend beyond any limit applicable during the campaign, then transfer money around after the election was done with to maximize the available rebates once the limits were no longer a concern.

We'll see if the new in-and-out scheme is laid out by the same kind of damning evidence already available when it comes to Conadscam. But for now, it looks like the Cons' 2006 campaign was planned to make a mockery of Canada's election rules - which would offer plenty of reason for Elections Canada to keep the Cons under the microscope.

(Edit: typo.)

Friday, May 02, 2008

On serious distortion

Shorter National Post blitz against Statistics Canada's report showing that the lowest-earning quintile of full-time workers have seen a 20% decline in their average earnings since 1980:
It's reckless and misleading to try to discuss national income trends by relying on just one number. That is, unless you rely on the single number which supports our preferred spin.

(Edit: typo.)

On motivating factors

Jane Taber's column on the first quarter fund-raising numbers adds a bit more information about. And what's particularly noteworthy is the type of appeal which seems to work best for the NDP compared to the Cons.

Remember this post from last week, where the NDP mentioned which fund-raising appeal had helped bring in the most contributions:
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.
In contrast, here's what spurred the Cons' base into the most action:
For their part, the Conservatives say a fundraising campaign in which they criticized the CBC drove a significant number of donations into their coffers.

"It was overwhelmingly our single biggest fundraising initiative," said a Tory official. Late last year, party campaign director Doug Finley sent out a letter asking for money after reports that a CBC reporter supplied questions to a Liberal MP during a committee hearing.

"It demonstrates a huge level of suspicion amongst grassroots Canadians about the Liberal Party and the CBC," the official said.
Now, it's striking enough that the Cons' base was most motivated by a narrow gripe about the CBC rather than any agreement or disagreement as to any party's policies. Needless to say, that's in stark contrast to the NDP's appeal based on opposing Harper's broad agenda.

But what's even more significant is the continued gap between the will of the grassroots as expressed in their fund-raising response, and the public face put on by Deceivin' Stephen.

After all, Harper and his inner circle largely stayed out of the public fray in the CBC dispute - presumably in large part because for all the money their party brings in by bashing the CBC, they can't afford to do so personally due to the impact that would have on voters. That disconnect between what the Cons' base wants to see from the party and what the Cons pretend to be in public hints at best at some serious tension within the party, and at worst at what Canadians can expect if the Cons ever win a majority.

In contrast, the message which achieved the most fund-raising success for the NDP is the same one which the party has gladly presented to the public as its central theme ever since the Libs starting propping up the Harper government. Which means that unlike the Cons, the NDP doesn't face a fundamental conflict between its base and the voters it's trying to reach out to. And that can only help the NDP's cause in both raising funds and winning new voters going forward.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

On contributions

While there's been some attention paid to the latest federal fund-raising numbers for the first quarter of 2008, let's point out just how it is that the NDP has pulled into a solid second place in the fund-raising standings.

Previously, the NDP has consistently tapped a fairly large base of support for relatively small donations. (See the 2007 numbers listed at the link.) And that generally led to results such as those in 2007, when the Libs raised more money than the NDP despite having barely 2/3 as many donors.

But for the first quarter of 2008, the NDP has actually managed to pull ahead of the Libs on a per-donor basis ($84 to $83) - in the process also topping its 2007 average of $75 despite each contributor having three more quarters in which to boost their donations. And all that while maintaining a healthy lead in the number of contributors.

Of course, a single quarter's fund-raising numbers may only say so much - particularly when the NDP had an even better first quarter last year which didn't carry over to the rest of the year. But the new comparative advantages over the Libs have to bode well for the NDP's ability to compete on other terrain as well.

Clear communication

It hasn't taken long for the Cons to try to backtrack somewhat from their draft communications plan which would force even independent officers of Parliament to have their public communications vetted by Deceivin' Stephen's inner circle. But it's worth noting both that the Cons' clarification still looks to create problems for even the offices which should most obviously be excluded from the plan, and that the proposal still looks seriously problematic even if it's going to apply more narrowly.

First, let's take a look at what the Cons have said with respect to the Auditor General and other offices which would fall under the policy:
Treasury Board officials claim it's a misunderstanding as they try to "simplify" the government's communications policies. And they insist that the statutory independence of these agencies would trump any new guidelines.

"I can assure you that we respect the independence of the officers of Parliament and this government would not do anything inconsistent with the independent role of those officers," Treasury Board President Vic Toews told the Commons yesterday.

In March, he sent a letter to officers of Parliament saying that he accepts that not all Treasury Board policies can be applied to the independent agencies. He said disputes would be handled on a "case-by-case" basis.

His spokesperson, Mike Storeshaw, said that the new communications policy "will respect and maintain the independence of agents of Parliament like the (auditor-general), as they always have."
If there's anything we've learned from the Cons' stay in office, though, it's that the Cons tend to read what they want in the law rather than what's actually there - and Conadscam offers a prime example of the Cons refusing to acknowledge that their interpretation could possibly be fallible.

Based on that background, there's a serious risk that the Cons will handle any "disputes" by sticking to their own interpretation of what an office should be able to say, and forcing independent offices to go to court to affirm their ability to say a single word more. And while it might suit the Cons just fine to mire Canada's independent watchdogs in litigation rather than being able to do their jobs unimpeded, it should be obvious that the effect would seriously affect the ability of those offices to hold the Cons accountable.

Moreover, the Cons' "case-by-case" handling of disputes looks like it could relate to specific communications "products" rather than offices as a whole - meaning that every press release which the Cons would like to see re-worded would be the start of a new battle.

So the Cons' plan still figures to cause problems even for the likes of the Auditor General and the Information Commissioner (i.e. independent entities whose main functions include determining whether the government is hiding information which should be made public).

But let's turn to a broader question which seems to have been missed so far. Even leaving aside offices which are independent by statute, what valid explanation can there possibly be for the Privy Council Office demanding to vet every single press release or public contact coming from every single entity related to the federal government?

From what I can tell, this is the most ridiculous example yet of Deceivin' Stephen's obsessive micromanagement. And it should be fairly obvious that such a requirement will make it more difficult for every branch of the federal government to get anything done - particularly since there's no indication that the Cons have given any meaningful thought to whether the PMO has the ability to handle what would figure to be a significant amount of material.

Of course, it's not entirely clear just how much of the plan is an extension of what the Cons already have in place, and how much has already been in effect for some time. But from Sheila Fraser's testimony, it looks like an already secretive government is trying to put in place wording designed to expand Harper's control even further - and to force even arm's-length bodies to fight for any ability to inform the public. And if the Cons see a need to formulate their communications guidelines on the basis that they can't afford to have any government office speak openly and honestly, there doesn't seem much reason to dispute that conclusion.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On non-accomplishments

With the stench of scandal rapidly enveloping the Harper government, it might be easy to lose sight of just how useless the Cons have been while in power. But the Cons themselves took the opportunity to remind us in yesterday's question period, using one of their allotted questions to try to take credit for the Manitoba NDP's announcement that it will put $92 million of provincial money into creating new child care spaces.

Suffice it to say that the Cons can plausibly claim about as much credit for the spaces as I can for the 'Riders' Grey Cup win. (And even that might be on the generous side, since unlike the Cons I didn't tear up an agreement intended to reach the end result.)

Since the Cons have cleared out federal coffers to the point where they can't can't afford to spend money on meaningful new initiaties, they don't figure to have much more to run on than what they've done to date. But even the Cons apparently recognize that they have so little to their credit as to need to latch on to a provincial NDP government's accomplishments. Which signals that while the scandals may offer plenty of reason to doubt the Cons' fitness for office, it's the track record in office that offers the most pressing need to remove Deceivin' Stephen from power.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

On opportunities

Last weekend, I noted that there's some reason to suspect that the NDP is taking steps toward a more open form of politics than we currently see on the federal scene. Crawford Kilian is less hopeful, but offers an analysis of what any party could stand to gain by moving past narrow scripting:
If Canadian politicians study Obama too, they must realize that becoming a two-way, interactive democracy will require big changes -- and probably the biggest will be personnel changes at the top.
Canadian politicians will eventually figure out how to apply Obama's armoury of communication skills to our own battles. Some party will realize it needs a new leader -- not a web-savvy Trudeau or Mulroney, but a person of our own time who understands both us and the media we use as a communicating community.

That party will stay in power in this century the way Mackenzie King's stayed in power in the last.
The lack of any strong moves in the direction of a more interactive political model strikes me as especially surprising in the context of the current federal stalemate - which should seemingly leave every party looking for the next great possible advantage, rather than clinging to a status quo which nobody's particularly happy with.

Particularly with the Cons and Libs clinging to their nominally risk-averse strategies in hope that the other will stumble in an election campaign, though, the door is wide open for the NDP to present a stark contrast to the one-way messaging of Harper and Dion. And the opportunity is one which the NDP should be happy to take.

On crisis management

JimBobby is right to point out that the global food crisis deserves more attention than it's getting. So let's note a couple of facets of the story which seem to have passed largely without comment so far.

First of all, from the Globe and Mail story pointed out by JimBobby, it's worth pointing out just what it took for the U.N. to take note of the need for action:
The United Nations plans to establish a task force to tackle the global food crisis to avert "social unrest on an unprecedented scale," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday.

Mr. Ban, who will lead the task force, said its first priority will be to meet the $755-million (U.S.) shortfall in funding for the World Food Program.

"Without full funding of these emergency requirements, we risk again the spectre of widespread hunger, malnutrition and social unrest on an unprecedented scale," he told reporters in the Swiss capital, Bern, where the UN agency chiefs have been meeting.
Obviously the anticipated increase in starvation may make the stakes higher than usual. But as JimBobby notes, the pre-crisis situation already involved 24,000 deaths every day due to starvation. And given that that number apparently wasn't seen as deserving of special attention, it seems that the possibility of "social unrest" is serving as a greater motivator than any agreement that hunger should be tackled in general.

Even once it's acknowledged that there's some need for action, of course, it still falls to individual countries to determine - if at all - they plan to improve matters. And the indications from Canada don't look promising at this point, as only the NDP appears willing to discuss whether proposed regulations on ethanol might make matters worse:
Concerned about the widening food shortage, the NDP has introduced an amendment seeking to have Bill C-33 sent back to committee where issues such as food scarcity, and whether or not ethanol is helping the environment, can be considered before the law is passed.

"We need to take a breath here and think about this," said Nathan Cullen, NDP environment critic. "Politicians need a little humility, and sometimes they need to say that it's time to think before we act, especially in light of recent events."
Which would seem to be an eminently sensible suggestion as to one means not to make the problems worse - particularly if coupled with discussion about contributions to the World Food Program and other ways to help.

But even Lib David McGuinty responded by trying to shout down any discussion of whether the impact of biofuels on food supplies should be considered. And given the Cons' connections to the industry group which pushed for an ethanol plan based on foods rather than other inputs, there's little prospect that Canada's possible role in contributing to the diversion of food will receive the attention it deserves.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Excuses, excuses

Shorter Pierre Poilievre, delivering the Cons' latest pathetic attempt to justify Conadscam:
If somebody once wrote that Canada's election laws were ineffectual, then that means we can safely ignore them.

Time to change course

The CP notes that the Cons' economic management figures to be a serious issue in any federal election campaign in the near future. But it's worth noting that it isn't just the Cons' probable "stay the course" response to the economic downturn that figures to come under fire.

Instead, the more important issue is the Cons' role in exacerbating the downturn to begin with. Even having come into power just as the U.S. economy was starting to collapse under the weight of corporatism and irresponsible tax slashing, Deceivin' Stephen's government has done nothing but to try to replicate that pattern in Canada. And whether or not it was possible to outright avoid the effects of the U.S.' downturn, it should be obvious that following the same flawed blueprint would only make matters worse for Canada.

Which means that regardless of how the Cons actually respond to any downturn, they and their governing philosophy can't escape blame for its arrival in the first place. And that should be the more important factor in any decision as to whether or not the Cons are fit to manage Canada's economy.