Saturday, May 31, 2008

On detachment

Based on the abominable fiscal track records of right-wing governments in Canada, the claim that the Cons or other similar parties should be trusted as economic managers tends to be a laughable one at best. But if we needed any more reason to doubt the Cons' competence in even evaluating the country's economic conditions (let alone acting on them), it can be found in this week's headlines.

After all, reports this week indicated that economic perception and reality are both at low points. Yet rather than even recognizing the potential for a problem, the minister charged by the Cons to handle federal finances could only brush off the possibility that there's even a problem with addressing.

Of course, it's entirely possible that Flaherty has been isolated from economic reality by a party determined to believe in its own infallibility. But the larger the gap grows between what the Cons claim to see happening in the economy and what Canadians can observe for themselves, the more reason voters will have to want to replace Harper and company with somebody more attuned to what's actually happening around them.

Friday, May 30, 2008

No surprises

I, for one, couldn't be much less surprised to find out that one of the newest star American political analysts is also one of the leading figures in baseball's sabermetric movement. But is it too much to hope that the minds behind Hockey Analytics or Behind the Net could end up similarly revolutionizing the kind of information available in analyzing Canadian politics?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Contrasting strategies

The Guardian reports that in an effort to boost his image as a leader willing to listen, Gordon Brown has started responding to critical letters from the general public by calling up random writers to address their concerns. In related news, the Harper government is considering answering critical letters from the Canadian general public by calling up random writers to denounce them as Taliban-loving Communist sympathizers who hate Canada.

Properly classified

It's noteworthy enough that the Harper government's public perceptions are in a well-deserved free-fall - with satisfaction levels dropping 13 points over the last 6 months, and two-thirds of respondents recognizing that the Cons have done a bad job when it comes to accountability. But what does it say when even Sun Media can only classify news about the Cons under its "Crime" section?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

On fabrications

The Star reports that the Cons continue to have just as much disdain for facts when it comes to relatively small issues the as they do with respect to their current scandals. This time, it's expense records that look to have been altered without any reasonable explanation to avoid the Star's criticism:
The Conservative government has twice altered expense records for international trips after the Star questioned their high cost.

The records in a publicly available website were changed – thousands of dollars removed in one case and a lengthy journey shortened in another – for trips by then-foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier and Brian Jean, parliamentary secretary to the minister of transport...

In Bernier's case, the Star raised questions about a report on the Foreign Affairs website showing he spent $22,573 on airfare for a trip to Laos via Paris to attend a two-day conference last fall. The Star found he could have travelled there comfortably for $7,000.

Within a few days of the story's publication on May 16, the expense report on the website was changed. The airfare now reads $13,919. It's unclear why it was changed.

Bernier's former spokesperson, Neil Hrab, suggested a previous office manager in the minister's office had made a clerical error. Hrab would not release any documents and said the Star could make a request under the federal access-to-information legislation.

While Bernier's airfare mysteriously dropped, the $18,500 airfares of his "policy adviser" and "senior policy adviser" did not. Bernier resigned from cabinet this week.

Another series of expense reports questioned by the Star involved Jean, the Tory MP from Alberta, who is the parliamentary secretary to Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon. The Star raised Jean's 15-day trip to Paris last September for a five-day conference, the 23rd World Road Association Congress. Jean's flight was listed at $7,515, his accommodation at $4,969 and his meals at $1,412. Jean's assistant travelled with him on a much cheaper flight – $1,848 – and stayed for only eight days. Her expense report was not altered.

Several weeks ago, the Star asked the transport department why Jean took 15 days to attend a five-day conference in Paris. It took a while, but spokesperson Karine White said the "finance department" had made a clerical error. She said four days had inadvertently been added – on paper – to Jean's trip. It was 11 days and one involved an overnight flight.

The records on the website were changed immediately. The airfare remains the same; the dollar value of meals went up slightly; but the main change was that with fewer days on the trip, the per-night hotel cost for Jean rose from $355 to about $500 (hotel rates for Canadian government officials are typically discounted by about 25 per cent).
The most charitable possible interpretation is that the Cons were careless in reporting the listed expenses to the point where it took the Star's attention for them to actually set matters right. Which would itself offer plenty of reason for concern that the Cons' public disclosures are less than accurate at the best of times.

But particularly based on the Cons' refusal to provide any documentation to support either the original numbers or the altered ones, it looks equally possible that they simply revised the reports to include numbers which they figured would appear more acceptable. And if so, then a seemingly systematic policy of throwing poor explanations at the wall in hopes that something will stick would seem to offer ample reason to doubt anything the Cons have to say.

Grounds for dismissal

One of the most interesting questions surrounding Maxime Bernier's resignation is that of just what it takes to get booted out of the cabinet of a PM who seems utterly incapable of acknowledging error. Today, Jane Taber provides the answer - and not surprisingly, there doesn't appear to be any level of ministerial incompetence that the Cons won't accept if they can avoid paying too high a political price for it:
Mr. Bernier submitted his resignation Monday morning, after learning that his ex, Julie Couillard, had given a potentially damaging interview to the French-language TVA network stating that he was careless with confidential documents.

He was told to wait it out. Still, he was pulled out of meetings throughout the day and was absent from a meeting of the cabinet's priority and planning committee, the cabinet's most important and powerful committee.

The powers-that-be wanted to assess just how bad the interview by Ms. Couillard would be. The waiting game was all about media strategy.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was to leave Monday night on a trip to Europe. A Bernier friend said the government didn't want its foreign affairs minister to be forced to step down just before the Prime Minister was about to set out on the world stage. Nor, however, did it want the whole thing to blow up while the Prime Minister was in the air.

"They [senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office] had anticipated that this was coming [the Couillard interview] and Bernier had said, 'Listen, I am ready to resign,' " the friend said. "And they had said to him, 'Don't do it yet. Let's just confirm that this is what is going to happen because we don't want this to blow up before Harper gets on a plane and goes to Europe.' "
In other words, the Cons weren't prepared to view any combination of Bernier's incompetence, his carelessness with classified documents (which Taber discusses in more detail), and the scandal surrounding Julie Couillard as providing sufficient reason to remove Bernier from the cabinet. Instead, it was only the calculation that firing Bernier would serve as better political damage control than continuing to lie in his defence that finally forced Harper to pull the trigger.

If there's any good news, it's that the combination of Bernier's departure and the reemergence of the NAFTA leak scandal looks to be serious enough to make any efforts at damage control ineffective. But the Bernier timeline offers ever more evidence that Harper isn't interested in assessing his cabinet on any basis other than his party's political benefit - which raises reason for suspicion that the scandals which have already gone public may only be the tip of the iceberg.

Update: More from Paul Wells.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On private decisions

Via Rabble, CUPE comments on both the problems with P3s in general, and the National Post's refusal to allow anybody who supports public ownership of public goods to balance out its own pro-P3 stance:
The subject of P3s has garnered increasing media attention in the past few years as more and more projects are pursued and as various concerns mount from all sides. All the while, CUPE has been identified as the country’s most prominent and credible opponent of P3s, by any standard. Yet our voice – and those of countless other P3 critics – is absent from the discourse currently perpetuated by the National Post.

The new justification for P3s is that they transfer risk from the public to the private sector which is the better risk manager, they say. P3 promoters use even more financial chicanery to justify this argument, but downplay the need for public bailouts when P3s fail. The UK government's $4 billion bailout after the Metronet P3 failure should be cause for alarm, but has been all but ignored here in Canada, like so many homegrown P3 failures. Besides, the recent sub-prime financial meltdown and the Asset-Backed Commercial Paper scandal demonstrate just how little faith we should have in the superiority of the private sector’s risk management.

P3s pose a threat to public services – no wonder the private sector is all over them.

But never mind that for now. Mind that any challenge of P3s was curiously kept from the National Post’s ‘report’ – perhaps because when we come after P3s, we come with the very facts the privatization lobby prefers to ignore.
It's worth remembering that it isn't only in the media that any sense of balance is currently lacking. Indeed, the Harper Cons' 2007 budget included over a billion dollars worth of funding specifically targeted for P3s, along with a requirement that other levels of government pay homage to the P3 concept before receiving a penny of federal infrastructure money.

From that starting point, it figures to be an uphill battle to point out the obvious problems associated with P3s - particularly when major media outlets are actively shutting out one side of the debate. But with the effectiveness of public services at stake, there's still a substantial need to raise awareness of the issue. And with luck, enough public reminders as to the importance of publicly-owned services will force even the likes of CanWest to acknowledge the serious pitfalls associated with a push toward P3s.

On talent pools

Shorter Jonathan Kay:
Maxime Bernier is living proof that our current elected government includes utterly unqualified and incompetent ministers. And as far as I'm concerned, the obvious solution is a wholesale transfer of responsibility to unelected appointees, rather than electing a government which actually considers intelligence and competence to be important.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Scratching the surface

For all the talk about Maxime Bernier's ignominious and long-overdue removal from cabinet, I'm surprised there doesn't seem to have been much comment on what the reason for his departure might have meant at the time:
Maxime Bernier has resigned as foreign affairs minister, after he acknowledged leaving sensitive government documents out in the open -- apparently at his former girlfriend's home.

Sources told CTV News the documents included classified information for last April's NATO summit in Romania. One sensitive document contained details about NATO's military strategy in Afghanistan.

Bernier learned that he had left behind the documents Monday night, but didn't tell Prime Minister Stephen Harper until Tuesday afternoon. He then resigned from his cabinet post...

Couillard told Quebec broadcaster TVA that the sensitive document had been left at her home in mid-April.

"Maxime came to my house and the document in question was left at my house," she said. "For now, what I can tell you is that the document made me feel very uncomfortable. I was referred to a top lawyer in that field, who told me ... what was the proper legal procedure (to return it)."
Now, it's difficult to take Bernier at face value in his claim not to have had any clue that he'd left the documents behind until this weekend. But it's still worth asking the question about what impact his leaving the documents behind would have had at the time.

After all, for Bernier to be telling the truth now, it would have to be true that in at least one major foreign summit, Stephen Harper's choice to represent Canada's interests was so clueless that he didn't manage to notice that he was lacking of what would seem to have been essential background documents. (Next up on the Wheel of Excuses - "When they said to look at the military strategy for Afghanistan, I thought they meant the lunch menu.")

And indeed, that would suggest that nobody else around him would have been observant enough to notice the problem either - since if anybody had noticed the materials were missing and raised the question of where they'd gone, there'd be no excuse for Bernier or anybody else to claim that today's news wasn't known earlier.

Of course, there's another alternative - being that the problem might have been at least suspected for some time but covered up. But even that alternative would involve at least as much incompetence as dishonesty, given that Couillard apparently had to figure out what to do with the documents for herself rather than being contacted by anybody retracing Bernier's steps.

Either way, it seems clear that the problems within the Cons' government go far beyond Bernier's carelessness alone. And Bernier's resignation should only be the beginning of what needs to be done to check on just how much damage he and his party have done.

Update: As Kady O'Malley notes, the story is in fact that the briefing notes were left at Couillard's home weeks after the actual NATO summit. Which would avoid some of the questions above, but raise an even larger one as to how that sequence of events could possibly be explained.

On alternatives

Leftdog highlights a pattern within the Cons where one MP hires a family member of another MP for constituency or ministerial work using parliamentary funds. And it's worth wondering whether the apparent nepotism is based more a desire to provide additional public funds to MPs and their families, or instead on a lack of other qualified members to fill the positions. Either way, though, the part of the story which most deserves to be pointed out is that at least one federal party doesn't allow the same type of practices within its ranks:
The hiring of family members is not a new phenomenon on Parliament Hill. In the early 1990s, two Progressive Conservative MPs were found to have employed each other's daughters, effectively skating around the prohibition of directly hiring children. An RCMP investigation cleared them of wrongdoing. More recently, then-Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien was accused of nepotism when his daughter, a lawyer, was appointed to a federal position on a 2010 Olympics organizing committee - an allegation his office rejected.

In Opposition, the Harper Conservatives railed against patronage and cronyism they claimed was endemic in the Liberal governments.

"They've been touters of public virtues and they do have that burden of having to be purer than Ceasar's wife," said Parliamentary expert Ned Franks, professor emeritus at Queen's University...

Manitoba New Democrat Pat Martin said his own son landed an eight-week summer job for another NDP MP in 1998. Two years later, then-leader Alexa McDonough intervened to stop an MP from hiring a colleague's relative and created a party policy against the practice, Martin said. He says he agrees with the approach.

"Nepotism and patronage are two of the same species," he said. "It's that who-you-know kind of politics that makes Canadians gag." While hiring other MPs' relatives may be allowed under House rules, it "doesn't pass the smell test," he said.
In other words, while the Cons railed against the Libs' cronyism in opposition, they've once again lost any concern for the misuse of the spoils of power now that they stand to enjoy them. And indeed at least a couple of their supporters have tried to draw specious distinctions as to why Con nepotism is entirely appropriate, or even criticize the fact that the story was even reported.

But while anybody hoping the Cons would do better than the Libs in the ethics department may have reason to be bitterly disappointed, that doesn't mean they have to be resigned to that level of politics.

After all, the NDP hasn't only pointed out the problems with funneling money to family members when other parties have done, but has also set the bar for itself at the level which it demands from its competitors. Which means that Canadian voters rightly cynical about the Cons and Libs can take heart that one federal party both stands by its ethical principles, and does more than than the bare minimum to keep its operations clean.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Truth in labelling

I suppose it was inevitable that some Con-friendly media outlets would try to pretend that Stephen Harper's labelling announcement this week would accomplish more than it actually will. Enter the Calgary Herald, which tries to argue that consumers should use country of origin as a proxy for safety in deciding what food to buy:
Imagine a parent who goes to a grocery store, picks up baby food labelled "Made in Canada," only to later discover the bottle was made in Canada, but the contents were provided and processed in a Third World country known for egregious health and safety violations.

Parents would be aghast to find out that the product fed to their child was from a region where food safety was nowhere near the Canadian standard, especially given one main reason they purchased the product was because they thought it was safe.

The reality of vastly different food inspection and safety standards around the world then means it makes perfect sense for the Stephen Harper government to update requirements on what food can be labelled as a product of Canada...

The new standards require that any label claiming a food product is a "Product of Canada" necessarily needs to have all or virtually all of its contents be Canadian. That includes ingredients, the processing and the labour used to make the product; an exception has been made for some foreign content to be included in a Canadian product and labelled as such if minor additives or spices are not available in Canada.
Now, it's worth noting the danger that the exceptions might substantially undermine the rule even on the Herald's own terms. Surely if an additive isn't available precisely because it doesn't past muster in Canada, then the fact that a product can be labeled as a "product of Canada" anyway based on a lack of domestic availability can't lead to any great amount of consumer comfort.

But the problems with the Herald's take go far beyond that. In effect, the Herald seeks to give the Cons a pass on the lack of any meaningful effort to monitor products coming into Canada for inspection or safety standards. Instead, it wants to place the onus on consumers to look for a single designation which on its face has nothing to do with food safety as their lone signal that a product is safe for their consumption.

Yet even that system could only be effective to the extent one assumes the Canadian regulatory system is able to do its job of both inspecting Canadian production effectively, and bringing to light any problems. Which is problematic in light of the Cons' consistent attempts to exercise political control over regulatory agencies: can any Canadian consumer feel entirely assured that an agency facing a government which has eagerly declared war on civil servants who come to inconvenient conclusions, or whose communications are under the thumb of the PMO, is able to ensure that Canada's products are as safe as they should be?

In sum, this week's announcement offers at best a poor attempt by the Cons to be labelled as consumer-friendly. But no reasonable standard could justify applying that label to a government which has worked both to suppress product information, and to undermine Canada's ability to provide the level of regulatory effectiveness that the Herald considers so important.

On target audiences

Shorter BigCityLib:
If one assumes that corporations (a) don't pay taxes, (b) can't effectively be regulated and (c) don't have any greater ability than individuals to make large capital investments, then a carbon tax that hits individual consumers the hardest makes perfect sense. And in the name of winning the crucial Fraser Institute vote, I highly recommend that the NDP accept those assumptions without question.