Saturday, June 21, 2008

Timing is everything

The Citizen reports on what exactly the Cons managed to accomplish by filibustering the Ethics Committee in its attempts to investigate Conadscam. And the timing of the hearings figures to offer a strong example of why the Cons' style of obstructionism can easily come back to haunt a party:
A Commons committee plans to hold rare summer hearings into alleged violations of Canada's election laws by the Conservatives after a months-long Tory filibuster of the plan ended before Parliament shut down yesterday.

Opposition MPs, who form a majority on the ethics committee, voted late yesterday to open hearings into a scheme under which the Conservatives allegedly transferred money for advertising in and out of local ridings in the final days of the 2006 election in a bid to get around national campaign spending limits.

New Democrat MP Pat Martin said he expects the hearings to begin in late July with Elections Canada officials as the first witnesses. The committee also wants to hear testimony from ministers and others who are alleged to have been part of the scheme, he said.

"We really can't allow another election to take place until this action is either clarified or stopped because clearly it's a recipe for exceeding the spending limits if it's allowed to continue," said Mr. Martin, a member of the committee.
Now, if the Cons had simply allowed the committee to do its work this spring, it's likely that the hearings would already be done with. And in light of the other activity in Ottawa - including the Libs' capitulations in the House of Commons, the usual flow of legislation, and the news coming from other committees - it seems relatively likely that the hearings could have been lost in the shuffle, or at least subject to relatively limited exposure.

But now, the hearings will take place at a time when the political scene is otherwise silent. By the time the committee starts sitting again in late July, stories about the leaders' time on the barbecue circuit will be growing old, meaning that the Conadscam hearings should be timed just right to become the dominant political story of the summer. And it's hard to see what the Cons could have in their back pocket to deflect attention for more than a day or so at a time.

Mind you, there's always the option of proroguing Parliament before the hearings start. But especially given that any speculation about prorogation has focused on the Cons' desire to hold off on a fall sitting until after their November policy convention, that course of action could leave the Cons and the country in serious trouble if any crisis demands Parliamentary intervention in the meantime - not to mention undercutting the claims of Parliamentary privilege which Con MPs are currently using to avoid having to avoid the courts. And there could hardly be a more sure signal that the Cons are scared to death of Conadscam than for them to put Parliament as a whole on hold solely to avoid having to answer for their actions.

As a result, the Cons' attempt to suppress any talk about Conadscam seems only to have resulted in committee hearings taking place when they'll raise the profile of the scandal the most. And by the time the hearings are done, the Cons may very well end up wishing they hadn't stonewalled when they still had the chance to cooperate.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

On high-risk maneuvers

When word first came out about the Libs' planned carbon tax, my comment was that the Libs would be best served to make it clear that their plan wouldn't in fact claim to somehow benefit everybody (and particularly those who are most affected by increased fuel prices). The strategy with the best chance of dividing and conquering the Cons' territory would have seen the Libs recognize who's likely to gain and lose under their plan, looking to push a large class of clear winners - particularly urban voters who already live a lower-emission lifestyle - into the Libs' column, while setting up the Cons to also lose ground to the NDP by ensuring that those who lose out would be no more pleased with the Cons' stance on current fuel prices than with the carbon tax.

Unfortunately, the Libs are instead pretending to be all things to all people. And the result doesn't look to be a good one for either the Libs as a party, or for the likelihood of taking down the Harper government:
Dion will claim most Canadians – particularly low-income earners, the elderly and rural residents – would get back more in tax savings than they would be paying in higher energy costs under his "green" economic blueprint, sources say...

Sources said the plan will provide special assistance for rural residents, the elderly, natives and others who might feel the impact of higher energy prices disproportionately. To help protect low-income earners from the rising costs of fuel and food, a Liberal government would bring in more "refundable" tax credits, which produce payments for those who don't have enough income to pay taxes.
It's fair enough to say that the plan might have to attempt to account for disproportionately affected Canadians to at least some extent. But the Libs' attempt to claim that Canadians already hard hit by high fuel prices will actually benefit from their plan looks awfully dangerous.

After all, a simpler plan which didn't claim to overcompensate for its own aim at reducing emissions would have led to a far easier sales pitch. Rather than having to deliver what are bound to be contradictory messages to the effect that disparate and contrasting types of voters would all magically benefit from their plan, they'd instead be able to take a consistent stance about what their plan would do.

And it's not as if the Libs couldn't have defended that type of move on principle. Given that the entire carbon tax scheme is based on the premise that greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced, surely the argument could be made that that it's fair to reward those who have made efforts to avoid greenhouse gas emissions at some cost to those who haven't.

Instead, the Libs are going out of their way to avoid admitting that anybody stands to lose out. And if they're not willing to acknowledge who's going to draw the short end of the stick under what's supposed to be a significant societal shift, then it'll be far easier for Harper to sow doubt that anybody will actually benefit from the plan either - which means that the Libs will have to work harder just to defend their current turf.

Mind you, it's not hard to see what the perceived upside of the strategy might be. After all, any clear dividing line between winners and losers under the plan would likely create enough of the latter to effectively rule out a Lib majority. In contrast, the groups singled out as beneficiaries of largesse under the shifting scheme are ones where the Libs probably do have room to gain enough votes to get near a majority if all else breaks in their favour - and if they're able to deliver a spectacularly effective campaign to avoid the contradictions in their own message.

But there's the rub. There's no apparent reason to think that Dion personally is anywhere near up to the game of political whack-a-mole which he's being asked to play: so far he's had trouble selling even simple messages, which makes it highly doubtful that he can manage to convince contrasting groups of voters that they're all on the right side of the carbon tax scheme. And any failed attempt to do so figures only to test the limits of whether his public perception can fall even further, as his list of faults would expand to include blatantly dishonest pandering.

In sum, faced with a choice between a consistent plan which would present the best opportunity to take down the Cons, and an all-or-nothing gambit which gives Harper a far better chance of both maintaining power and winning a majority, the Libs seem to have decided on the latter. And if that decision proves as dangerous as it looks now, then the Libs' willingness to prop up the Cons over the past year may be the least of the gifts they ultimately wind up giving to Harper's conservative crusade.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On costly generation

It's truly stunning how media coverage of the Wall government's plan to pour its efforts into a nuclear reactor in Saskatchewan has utterly failed to note the likelihood that nuclear energy will actually be far more expensive than alternatives. (A rare exception, though without a clear discussion of the costs involved, is Murray Mandryk's column today.)

With that in mind, let's take a look at how the respective costs look to line up at the moment.

Here's the Globe and Mail's discussion of the expected costs associated with Ontario's next wave of nuclear reactors:
When the government first received advice in 2005 about its power-supply system, the Ontario Power Authority was assuming nuclear construction costs of $2,600 per kilowatt or $2.6-billion for a 1,000-megawatt reactor. It is to dream. Now, a U.S. industry group, the Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute, is saying that the figure is at least $3,500 per kilowatt and this might even be a low ball.

Last fall, for example, Moody's Investors Service said new reactors could cost as much as $6,000 per kilowatt. The company said this was "only marginally better than a guess," but this spring, Florida Light and Power proposed building new units at a cost of up to $8,000 per kilowatt or $12-billion per reactor.
Likewise, here's Salon's coverage of new nuclear power generation in the U.S.:
(B)y mid-2007, a Keystone report, funded in part by the nuclear industry and NEI, estimated overnight (construction) costs at $3,000 per kilowatt, which, with interest, equals $3,600 to $4,000 per kilowatt. The report notes, "The power isn't cheap: 8.3 to 11.1 cents per kilowatt hour." That's not cheap, when you consider that in December 2007, retail prices in this country averaged 8.9 cents per kilowatt-hour.
By way of comparison, let's take a look at Natural Resources Canada's estimates for the cost of wind power production:
Modern wind turbine generators cost between $1500 and $2000 per kilowatt for wind farms that use multiple-unit arrays of large machines. Smaller individual units cost up to $3000 per kilowatt. In good wind areas, the costs of generating electricity range between five and ten cents per kilowatt hour. That cost is somewhat higher than the costs associated with an electrical facility, but wind energy costs are decreasing every year, whereas most conventional generation costs continue to increase.
So even if the Sask Party's ultimate goal were merely to pour its money into as much electrical generation as possible either for export or as a basis for future development, there's little reason to believe that nuclear power would actually be the best way of accomplishing that.

So what else is at play? Well, Mandryk's column also catches another point which seems to have been largely missed elsewhere:
Cheveldayoff announced his government was calling for proposals on private-sector electrical generation because "We believe not every dollar risked in power generation in Saskatchewan should be a government dollar."
While such a statement is misleading in that it ignores co-generation that's already taking place, it likely does reflect the Sask Party's intentions. Rather than making decisions about Saskatchewan's energy future based on cost efficiency, environmental merits, or any other factor which actually should matter, Wall's government is simply looking to turn as much generation over to the private sector as it possibly can. And nuclear reactors figure to be the largest of the possible privately-funded megaprojects.

Needless to say, Bruce Power has to be happy with that direction. But for Saskatchewan residents in general - particularly those who took Wall at face value in his assurances that the Crowns would at least be permitted to keep carrying out their core functions - this is the clearest indication yet that the Sask Party's goals couldn't be further from their own.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On rough landings

Another prime example of Conservative economic philosophy at work: if you just ignore the law in order to give big business everything it wants, it's sure to reward you with good news in return.

Monday, June 16, 2008

1 Tips on a Better Writing

Pop quiz: choose the best explanation for how the Libs' 50 Tips on a Greener Living was written (yes, that's the actual title):
(a) For lack of original ideas, consists entirely of tips taken from other sources, then translated to and from several other languages using Babel Fish
(b) Written by the four-year-old younger brother of the six-year-old who wrote the Cons' Oily the Splot attack ads
(c) By coincidence, the 11 caucus members capable of proofreading were the same MPs allowed to vote the day it was put together
(d) Editing budget blown on beer and popcorn
(e) Entire document transcribed verbatim from Stephane Dion

Not even trying

It seems so long ago that Stephen Harper's Cons could be bothered to come up with relatively creative (if implausible) excuses when they were caught doing something wrong. But it looks like they've now given up the attempt in favour of simple form responses.

Here's two separate ministerial responses to the Star's investigation into Con travel expenses:
Late Friday, (Gary Lunn's) spokesperson Bernadette Murphy issued this response: "Minister Lunn travels for government business, and taxpayers did not and do not pay for him to attend political events."...

"Minister Hearn travels for government business, and taxpayers did not pay for him to attend political events," Outhouse said.
Which only makes this part all the more comical:
Prentice's staff were asked about several of his trips and said Friday they are working on their response.
Who wants to wager as to what Prentice travels for, and whether taxpayers paid for him to attend political events?

Meanwhile, lest anybody think that's the only example of stock responses being provided to the exclusion of any useful information, let's note that the Cons are once again pulling out the "clerical error" excuse for reports which showed public money being improperly spent.

While the Cons may once again be refusing to actually answer for what they've done, though, neither that fact nor the use of public money for partisan purposes deserves to go unchallenged. And based on their track record so far, no amount of scripted messaging should be able to prevent the Cons from facing the consequences of their actions.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

On promising choices

The Pundits' Guide is back up and running with updates on candidate nominations. And the NDP's latest nomination - that of Richard Marois in Saint Lambert - looks like a positive sign for a few reasons.

First, as Pundits' Guide notes, Marois is merely the latest addition to a group of NDP candidates with extremely impressive environmental credentials. While it's enough of a plus just to have another strong voice on the issue, though, the timing is particularly significant.

After all, the Red Greens have spent the bulk of the past couple of weeks pretending that the NDP's recognition that a carbon tax isn't the only way to combat greenhouse gas emissions should affect its standing among environmentally-inclined voters. And there's little indication that they'll stop the mantra anytime soon. But Marois' addition to an already-strong slate of candidates offers a clear signal that those most concerned with the environment recognize that the NDP not only a viable option, but still the best choice to get their message out.

Second, the linked article from Point Sud notes that Marois was approached by "other political parties", but rejected both those advances and his own past involvement with the Bloc in order to run for the NDP.

From the wording of the article, it's not clear whether the Bloc itself was one of the parties which approached Marois. (That would make for a particularly striking choice, as Marois would then have chosen the NDP over a party which won the seat by over 20% in 2006.)

However, it does seem beyond doubt that multiple other parties tried to recruit Marois as well. And the NDP's success in bringing another sought-after figure into the fold can only bode well for its efforts in persuading both other star candidates, and ultimately voters.

Finally, there's Marois' own statement of why he chose the NDP over the competing parties:
(I)l a affirmé avoir fait son choix et considère que le seul moyen pour le Québec d'affaiblir les Conservateurs est de voter pour un parti qui peut aspirer au pouvoir.
While the message of needing to oppose the Cons is obviously one which the NDP will be looking to push in the province, it's especially interesting that Marois mentions the NDP's aspirations to form government as a specific reason to prefer it over other alternatives. And the more candidates decide that the NDP's potential to win power in the future is in fact a point in its favour, the more difficult it will be for other parties and the media alike to pretend Canadians don't have any choice beyond Harper's Cons and the party which has propped them up.

Of course, there's only so much that an individual candidate can do beyond a party's base level of support and degree of organization at the riding level. And while the NDP has obviously made strides in those areas as well, it remains to be seen whether it will be enough to win significantly more seats. But Marois' addition to the slate of candidates offers yet another indication that the NDP is gaining momentum.