Saturday, May 24, 2008

On negatives

One follow-up note on this week's leadership polling: as much as coverage of the poll went off course in refusing to mention the two national leaders who are actually viewed positively by respondents, it also seems to have missed one of the more important points involving Stephane Dion as well.

While the decline in Dion's approval rating to a meager 10% received more attention, it's another boost in his disapproval rating which looks to cause more serious problems for the Libs. With 60% of respondents disapproving of the current face of the party, it stands to reason that the Libs will have an awfully tough time even painting themselves as an option for more than the remaining 40% of possible voters - making their margin for error virtually nonexistent in trying to put together enough votes to cut into Con support.

Of course, the Libs' answer will presumably be to try to direct attention toward anything but the party leaders. But that figures to be an uphill battle given the tendency of campaign coverage to focus on the leaders' every move. And based on the obstacles facing the Libs in their attempt to overcome the leadership deficit, Canadians looking for the best chance of toppling the Harper regime may be best served rallying behind a leader who doesn't start on the wrong side of a majority of voters.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Loose lips, sinking ship

I've spent plenty of time commenting and and criticizing the muzzle on the Cons' cabinet (and party as a whole). But let's note that Stephen Harper may have good reason to refuse to let anybody speak for themselves if Maxime Bernier's latest stunt is any indication of the cost of loosening the leash.

Shifting sands

Susan Riley discusses the parties' respective positions on the Libs' planned carbon tax:
The NDP leader has been at pains, lately, to emphasize his plan for tackling climate change - notably, tough caps on greenhouse gas emissions and a carbon trading system. Not that he is changing course. In a speech yesterday on poverty, he added a last-minute swipe at Dion: "Advocates of a carbon tax suggest that by making the costs for certain things more expensive, people will make different choices. ... But Canada is a cold place. Heating your home is not a choice."

That is a time-honoured message...It is also the strongest argument against a carbon tax: It hurts those on fixed incomes, those dependent on fossil fuels to heat their homes, farmers and small town dwellers with no access to public transit. Before you force people to change their behaviour (one of the goals of a carbon tax) you should ensure they have a choice.
Now, the NDP's position shouldn't come as much surprise. But Riley's take on why the Libs have decided to push the carbon tax approach offers an interesting point of comparison:
In fact, the strongest selling point for a carbon tax - one that apparently changed Dion's mind - is that it can be implemented fairly quickly. It could start the tax-shift toward rewarding sustainable, instead of wasteful, behaviour on an individual level, while government works out a regime for big industry. As it is, a cap-and-trade system (which Liberals also support) has been debated for more than a decade. There are already carbon markets in Europe and some experimental projects in North America, but Dion argues it will take years to implement a functioning market here, and that global warming requires urgent attention.
Even leaving aside the obvious point that much of the foot-dragging took place under the Libs and Dion, it's worth remembering that a cap and trade market was also part of the amended C-30 agreed to by the opposition parties, and that Layton's own C-377 also includes the groundwork for a cap and trade system. Which means that it's entirely possible to set up such a market through opposition cooperation even with the Cons trying to stall any progress.

But even accepting the point that urgent action is needed, a plan to influence consumer-level behaviour through massive increases in the price of needed goods looks to have plenty of downsides worth criticizing. And while the NDP's point about the unfairness of putting the onus on those with the least means to make radical changes offers one reason why any benefits are outweighed by the costs of a carbon tax, there's also reason to doubt that a carbon tax would serve its intended purpose in any event.

After all, as Dion pointed out himself during the Libs' leadership race, there's little reason to think that theoretical future price increases caused by a carbon tax would be expected to result in wholesale changes in behaviour where actual increases based on oil prices haven't. And with real fuel costs having gone through the roof in the time since the leadership race, the evidence is only stronger now for the view that price signals alone won't get the job done.

In contrast, a concerted effort toward a more efficient Canada along the lines of the NDP's Green Agenda hasn't yet been tried. And if the focus indeed stays on the parties' respective environmental plans, the NDP will presumably be glad to point out and explain how its solutions would lead to positive results in the short term.

Which isn't to say the Libs can't make some argument for their own carbon tax as a potentially quick fix. But there's every reason for the NDP to both doubt its environmental effectiveness, and point out the social costs of imposing deliberate price shocks on those least able to deal with them.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

On disapproval

While the headlines have focused on Stephane Dion's woeful 10% approval number, the latest Angus Reid poll also shows that a minimum of 58% of all respondents don't approve of the leadership of either Dion or Stephen Harper. So isn't it long past time for pollsters to start offering a few more choices beyond the ones who obviously aren't winning public support?

Update: MCG notes in the comments that the full breakdown (note: PDF) includes basic approve/disapprove numbers for the other federal leaders. Layton leads the pack at 34% approval nationally, and is tied with May at a net +3% approval - compared to -10% for Harper and a stunning -50% for Dion.

But let's not let the poll structure off the hook, as Layton and May weren't included in polling in qualities and characteristics, or on the "best PM" measure where "neither" ties the combined score for Harper and Dion.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

On poor information

In just the past couple of months, the Cons' government has voted down mandatory labelling for genetically modified foods, and fought to prevent international labelling standards to include more complete information about a given food's health content. Which makes it glaringly clear that the Cons couldn't care less about putting information in the hands of consumers concerned about what's actually in the food they buy.

But have no fear - as long as you're in the class of consumers more concerned about the standard at which a product can be labelled as "made in Canada" than with the actual contents of their food, the Cons are prepared to require the labelling you want.

Update: Canwest's report adds another twist, as Harper's announcement today is timed so as to undercut what the Commons agriculture committee has already been doing on the same topic:
Mr. Harper's announcement circumvents a process currently underway in the Commons agriculture committee, which launched a study into Product of Canada labelling months ago.

Next week the agriculture committee is scheduled to debate and review its draft report on the Product of Canada label.
Which raises a few serious questions. First, was the committee about to reach a decision which the Cons saw a need to preempt? Or alternatively, did Harper simply want to take all the credit for something along the lines of what the committee would have reached through multi-party work? And either way, will opposition members now have yet another reason to avoid working with Con committee members lest any effort at honest discussion be used against the other parties by the Cons' central command?

On predictable performances

In a stunning plot twist, the federal Cons have announced their support for the Saskatchewan Party's Senate election plan which happens to mirror their own.

Stay tuned for more dramatic episodes of Political Pantomime Theatre, including the federal Liberals' shocking response to Elizabeth May's endorsement of their carbon tax.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A golden opportunity

Others have rightly expressed concerns about Pierre Poilievre's attack on sex reassignment surgery. But let's look on the bright side of Poilievre's asinine suggestion that the federal government should withhold health funding which might be used for a medically necessary procedure based solely on his personal prejudice, as the issue looks to be a perfect one to galvanize all kinds of opposition messages about the Cons.

The article points out two possibilities which are surely worth plenty of discussion: not only does the demand offer another example of bigotry-based social conservatism rearing its ugly head, it can also be cast as the blatant attempt to micromanage provincial spending.

But one can go further based on the health-care context of Poilievre's demand. Remember the ridicule that then-U.S. Senator Bill Frist rightly faced for his attempt to diagnose Terri Schiavo from the floor of the Senate - offering a hint at just what the public thinks about having politicians try to play doctor.

From this angle, Poilievre's demand can only be seen as several times worse. Not only does he (unlike Frist) lack medical training to be able to give any informed opinion about the procedure in question, but he's trying to overrule the medical profession as to the use of a particular procedure for all types of patients without even pretending to consider individual circumstances.

Finally, as an added bonus, Poilievre's bizarre choice of hobby horses can only serve to highlight the Cons' general disinterest in the health system. Remember that the Cons have outright refused to enforce the Canada Health Act as it stands; a demand that they suddenly start finding such ridiculous bases to withhold funding now only offers an ideal opportunity to point out their usual neglect.

And while the Cons' likely response is that Poilievre is merely a single MP mouthing off for himself, that defence doesn't figure to gain much traction. Not only has the Cons' micromanagement of their MPs' every move been well documented, but the message is coming from an MP whose own party insiders have painted him as a useful parrot and nothing more. As a result, the Cons can't plausibly hope to disavow the request (or at least not without giving the demand even more press than it would receive otherwise).

In sum, there's every reason to point out the problems with Poilievre's remarks. But heinous as they are on their face, they may ultimately have a positive effect in reminding Canadians what the Cons really stand for.

Update: As pogge notes, we can also add pointless attacks on Ontario to the list.

Monday, May 19, 2008

On regression

So much for the Sask Party pretending to have evolved past its Elwin Hermanson phase, as it's now planning to take up the cause of electing senators. Needless to say, that plan was conspicuously absent from any of the party's stated policies or intentions until they had a majority to impose it on the province - leaving plenty of reason for concern just where else Wall and company plan to operate out of old Reform/Alliance platforms rather than their own.

Though I suppose one can look on the bright side: if the Sask Party keeps up that trend, it'll surely be an interesting experience to see a provincial referendum on whether to change Wall's first name to "Brick".

Sunday, May 18, 2008

On chopping blocks

The Cons' stay in office has been marked by a combination of dubious cuts to valuable programs, and irresponsible funding practices which make it tougher for programs to keep running. Now, the Canadian Press reports that the Cons are offering the worst of both worlds when it comes to funding for HIV/AIDS support initiatives - as they've not only declared an intention to cut existing programs, but also can't be bothered to at least give reasonable notice of what they plan on continuing to fund:
Community organizations that support people with HIV or AIDS say they're being kept in the dark about federal government plans to cut millions of dollars in funding.

Groups worried about having to lay off staff and ditch programs have been asking the government for months to provide a firm amount — province by province — on how much will be cut, said Susan Cress, chairwoman of the Alberta Community Council on HIV.

The government has announced that a total of $26-million will be redirected from HIV-AIDS initiatives to efforts at developing an HIV vaccine, but support groups don't know when those cuts are coming or how much may be taken from them...

Ontario's funding was slashed by 30 per cent last year, while Quebec organizations stand to lose 24 per cent of their funding this year, he said. Alberta's money has only been extended for six months and support groups have been told that some type of cut will follow when it runs out...

While front-line AIDS workers are dismayed at the thought of cutting important prevention programs, they say they're more shocked at how the government has handled the matter.

“I have been in this field, doing this work, for 23 years. And we have never been handled this way, or managed this way, or treated this way,” said Michael Sobota, who has been executive director of AIDS Thunder Bay since it was created in 1985.

“The continued delays in decision-making make us all very, very worried about the existing grants that we have — that the clock is ticking on them.”
Needless to say, it's as true for social programs as it is for infrastructure development that the Cons' strategy is only ensuring that programs are less efficiently delivered in the end. Instead of being able to either plan to try to replace funding, or at least transfer responsibilities from programs losing federal support, Canada's AIDS workers are instead left under a general cloud of uncertainty. And that can only make it tougher for every group affected to plan past any existing funding agreement, or to hold onto staff who have any option to move to a more secure position.

Which means that the Cons have found a way to make matters worse even beyond their already callous decision to slash funding for HIV/AIDS programs. And both community organizations and anybody else who might have to rely on the Cons' ability to provide predictable support have every reason to see a more responsible government in power at the earliest opportunity.

On fixes

I've noted before that the Libs' carbon tax plan leaves plenty of room for the NDP and the Cons to each stake out their own territory on energy prices. But while the Ottawa Citizen goes out of its way to pretend that the Cons' do-nothing stance is effectively the only option, it can't help but to report that the NDP's position looks to have a lot more resonance with voters:
A large majority of Canadians -- 70 per cent -- believe either the petroleum sector or OPEC illegally fixes prices, according to a Compas poll for the Citizen. The poll is deemed accurate to within 4.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The numbers suggest one clear winner, said Compas president Conrad Winn. "For the NDP, it's loud and clear: They can't lose by attacking oil companies."
Again, the article appears critical of the prospect that any voter or party would have anything less than total faith in oil producers or laissez-faire economic theory. But whether or not oil producers manage to avoid outright illegal activity, there's little room for doubt that Canadians are duly skeptical when they're told that there's no choice but to believe the parties whose profits and political influence have both been skyrocketing thanks to higher prices. Which means that there's every reason for the NDP to frame its message around the ability of those actors to shape the cost of energy.

Meanwhile, a Con party still firmly rooted in the oilpatch can't hope to pass a laugh test with a similar tactic. As a result, its range of options is likely limited to either outright backing the status quo, or perhaps taking up Taxpayer Federation-style stunts surrounding the taxes which make up a small portion of current prices and are entirely independent of the factors driving price increases.

Either way, it looks to be the NDP whose solutions both fit better with where Canadians see responsibility falling, and make more sense in having the potential to lead to sustainable cost containment. Which means that if the Cons succeed in making gas prices into a ballot question against the Libs, it's the NDP that stands to benefit the most.