Saturday, June 28, 2008

Open issues

The Globe and Mail's coverage of the latest shift in Strategic Counsel's poll of public concerns focuses on the problems caused for the Libs by the fact that the environment has dropped to #3 on the list of the most pressing issues facing Canada. But it's worth noting that the three main concerns seem to offer three different issues of roughly equal concern - each of which can easily be linked primarily to one of the national parties:
As the cost of filling the tank hits uncharted heights – and is predicted to go even higher – a wide-ranging survey conducted by the Strategic Counsel for The Globe and Mail and CTV suggests energy prices are on par with the sagging economy when it comes to Canadians' worries.

The environment, last year's top issue, has been pushed to No. 3, with just 16 per cent of Canadians surveyed saying they now consider it their primary concern...

In Canada, 18 per cent of respondents said the rising cost of gas was the most important issue. That was equal to the percentage in this country who named the economy as their No. 1 concern. In the past three years, gas prices have rarely been mentioned by people surveyed by the Strategic Counsel; the highest number was 4 per cent in July of 2006.
The article doesn't discuss the effect of gas prices and the economy taking over the top two spots. But the difference between respondents more concerned with one rather than the other might also track potential voter pools for the NDP and the Cons.

After all, the Harper government's declaration that it isn't interested in dealing with fuel prices and other increasing costs of living to the extent they're cause by "market forces" would seem to leave the field wide open for the NDP to win over voters who rank gas prices as the primary concern. And given that a similar focus seems to already be working for the B.C. NDP, there's every reason for the federal party to figure it's best served keeping up the same focus.

Meanwhile, all concerns about plausibility aside, the Cons have tried to turn economic management into an area of strength, particularly based on their choice of attacks on the Libs' carbon tax scheme.

All of which suggests that the current parity in the top three issues may be matched by a similar level of opportunity for each of the parties to grab hold of the issue which favours it most. And if we're indeed headed for a fall election, it wouldn't be surprising to see the party which most effectively carries out that task winning the most support as a result.

Mind you, none of the party links will go without at least some challenge. The NDP will of course point its comparative track record on the environment, the "Tory times are tough times" line figures to be a difficult one for Harper to answer in trying to run on economic management, and the Cons have tried at least somewhat to take on the NDP's concern with gas prices.

But there's little indication so far that any of the parties have managed to prevent the others from branding themselves based on the three top issues of concern. And from here on in, the smart play looks to be for each party to push its own issue to the forefront, rather than getting caught up trying to challenge opponents' credibility on the others.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Never enough now

Shorter Macleans response to the Canadian Human Rights Commission's dismissal of a complaint against it:
Sure, it's well and good that we were found to be on the right side of the law. But is it really too much to ask that someone declare us to be above the law altogether?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

On secrets and lies

Shorter Maxime Bernier, trying to explain how a minister responsible for some of Canada's most sensitive information could possibly be ignorant of Julie Couillard's past:
Infiltrator? Why, I hardly even knew 'er!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On notice

Talking Points Memo's David Kurtz points out the latest sign of the Bush administration's habit of running the U.S. government like a small-time scam operation. This time, the White House decided to avoid an analysis which the Supreme Court ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to provide by refusing to open the e-mail which enclosed it - leaving the message in "e-mail limbo, without official status".

What I have to wonder is just how much further Bushco will travel down that path by the beginning of next year. Will attempts to serve habeas corpus applications on behalf of Guantanamo detainees be met with "We're sorry, the United States of America moved and didn't leave a forwarding address"? Or will Bushco decide that its "inherent jurisdiction" includes the ability to refuse to receive news that it's time to leave office in 2009?

A well-defined role

As part of her entertaining live-blogging of the Cons' latest Cabinet shuffle, Kady O'Malley wonders whether James Moore's promotion to a Secretary of State position means that he'll no longer be the Cons' attack dog on the Cadscam file. But I'd think that his new responsibility for Official Languages is entirely in keeping with his Cadscam role. After all, what position could possibly give Moore a better platform to continue his longstanding push to drain the words "financial considerations" of their normal English meaning?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

On soft support

For all the discussion that the Harris-Decima poll on Canadian attitudes toward a carbon tax has spawned, I'm surprised one point seems to have slipped through the cracks. Based on the poll's party breakdown, the second-lowest support for a carbon tax was found...among Green Party voters, with under half indicating their approval.

This after the Greens have been flogging the carbon tax issue for years, and with Elizabeth May calling for three times the level of tax being pushed by the Libs.

Now, I'm not aware of any particular groundswell among the Greens' candidates or supporters to reverse course on the carbon tax itself. So the issue doesn't figure to be one which will actually tear apart what party structure May may have cobbled together.

But it's still striking that the Greens' current "supporters" aren't any more likely than voters in general to agree with its signature policy. And that has to offer reason to think that the Greens' current support levels are based more on vote parking than on any agreement with (or even awareness of) the party's direction.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Worth debating

In the wake of Stephane Dion's challenge to Stephen Harper to a debate over the Libs' carbon tax proposal, it's worth wondering whether the same thing will happen as did last time a similar one-on-one challenge was issued - and if the NDP is developing its reponse accordingly.

Remember that in the 2006 election campaign, Gilles Duceppe demanded a debate with Paul Martin over Quebec sovereignty. But when Martin refused, Harper offered to debate Duceppe instead...which sapped much of the momentum which Duceppe figured to have won from his initial challenge, and likely formed at least some of the basis for the Cons' eventual gains in Quebec.

In that case, I criticized Harper for fanning the flames of separatism - and that assessment holds true even though the greatest downsides of the offer didn't materialize. But on an issue which doesn't carry the same danger of blowing the country apart, there's every reason for Jack Layton to look to take his role in the discussion by offering to speak on behalf of Canadians who don't support the carbon tax in a debate against its leading proponent.

Of course, Harper hasn't yet provided a direct response to Dion's challenge. But Harper hasn't shown any interest in the concept of "adult" debate in any event, and there isn't much reason to think he'll want to take on a debate where he - like Martin during the election campaign - would have virtually nothing to gain and everything to lose by accepting the offer. Which means that the hints that Harper isn't interested figure to accurately reflect the likely response.

In contrast, if Layton were to offer a debate with Dion, both parties would obviously have plenty to gain. The Libs would win public exposure for their policy centrepiece, and indeed be able to do so in a debate against an opponent which wouldn't tend toward the Cons' strategy of distortions and distractions. And Dion would also receive sorely-needed training for election debates to come.

Meanwhile, the NDP would both get to defend its own environmental bona fides against the current wave of Red Green attacks, and receive an ideal opportunity to contrast itself against the Libs as the main opposition to Harper. And of course the media attention surrounding the debate wouldn't hurt either.

But what if the Red Greens tried to turn the tables on Layton? Even if the Libs declined and the Greens were to try to take the same process a step further by offering up their own challenge, that could well be something the NDP will be willing to accept to win some media coverage for its policies which don't often receive the attention they deserve.

Of course, there are risks involved in any debate. But for the NDP, this looks to be an example where the upside would far outweigh the dangers...making this one challenge that Layton should be eager to present.

Update: As Cameron points out, Dion has pre-emptively declared that he isn't interested in debating anybody other than Harper. While Cameron describes it as a sign of arrogance, I'll suggest it's more a matter of weakness: apparently Dion doesn't think his green credentials can stand up to a challenge from anybody but a party where climate change denial is still probably the majority view.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

On dangerous mining

The CP reports that as part of their effort to challenge a salary increase for federal judges, Rob Nicholson's Justice Department required the Canada Revenue Agency to provide tax return information about judges appointed since 1995. But while today's story is disturbing enough on its own, I have to wonder whether this is anything but the tip of the iceberg in what information the Cons have squeezed out of the CRA to further their political agenda.

The CP describes the Cons' rationale for demanding the information as follows:
To buttress its position that salaries for federal judges are generally higher than the income they earned as lawyers in private and public practice, the Justice Department took the unprecedented step of giving the Canada Revenue Agency a list of the names of 627 judges the federal cabinet appointed to the bench between 1995 and 2007.

The agency was able to match 567 of those judges to their tax records as lawyers, and provided the Justice Department with an aggregated version of the information, with no names attached. A consultant used the data to calculate what the department claimed was an indication of the average increases in salaries and benefits lawyers received after they became judges.

Darren Eke, a spokesman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, issued a brief statement Sunday insisting the government had done nothing wrong.

"Our government respected the independence of the commission in its work and surely did not interfere at any point," said Eke. "To imply otherwise is simply false."

The conclusions reached by the federally hired consultant who analysed the tax information were vociferously challenged by Bienvenu and the judges' data expert.

In letters and submissions during the final stages of the salary deliberations, prominent lawyers the Justice Department retained to settle the conflict argued it was impossible to link the aggregated version of the tax data with the identities of judges whose income was scrutinized.

"The government, outside of CRA itself, and in particular the Department of Justice for purposes of this commission, had no access to the underlying data (the income tax returns)," wrote Neil Finkelstein and Catherine Began Flood.

They acknowledged access that could identify taxpayers is "prohibited by law." The two lawyers, and assistant deputy attorney general Donald Rennie, argued CRA routinely provides anonymous information about professional groups or occupations of taxpayers on an aggregated basis.
From the story, it seems clear by implication that the Cons don't see any problem at all with ordering the CRA to provide them with aggregate information. But let's consider how that kind of information could be misused.

Even to the extent that any request is limited by profession, it's not hard to see how the Cons could use information about income levels to their advantage by similarly demanding aggregated data. Think how useful it might be for the Cons' political operatives to target their fund-raising drives with insider information about which professions are seeing increased income, or a drop in average political donations which might signal room to donate more money.

And the problem only gets worse if the Cons see themselves as entitled to submit any list of names to the CRA for a similar aggregate report, rather than being limited to professions. Want to know whether patronage in a riding is hitting the mark? A simple printout of aggregate income information for all party members within that riding would answer that question in a second. Or aggregate reports could work wonders in further refining a set of demographic classifications - while again providing far more relevant information about who has money available, and who's most likely to be interested in contributing to a political party.

What's worse, it's worth being at least somewhat skeptical as to whether personal information in general - or particularly the type of information being dealt with in this case - is necessarily as anonymous as it seems. While the CRA's data wouldn't itself disclose names or even individual data, it's not at all unlikely that the information can be linked to other data to identify the individuals involved.

For an obvious example in this case, consider what would could be done with aggregated information about how much money the judges in question donated to political parties. The Cons would be able to cross-check the donations by those same judges which have been publicly disclosed against the total amount reported by the CRA to figure out with at least some certainty which ones were - and weren't - included in the report. And enough linked requests using some or all of the same pool of names could theoretically enable a party to reverse-engineer the full tax returns involved without ever technically receiving "identifiable" information in a single report.

Of course, it's not clear that the Cons have indeed crossed the line between information being used for governmental purposes and that which is made available for their partisan use. But in light of their efforts to get there in the past, it's awfully difficult to give them the benefit of the doubt. Which means that both the affected judges in particular and Canadians in general may have yet another reason to worry about how the Cons are using the trappings of power.

On national interests

Shorter John Ibbitson:
As far as I'm concerned, Canadians should see a third Bush term as the best hope of reducing the border paranoia stoked by Bush and his party during the previous two.