Saturday, August 02, 2008

Silver linings

Having noted this morning the downside of what the fraud charges against Con MP Christian Paradis' official agent Stephane Fortin may have in terms of any hope that the Cons would govern responsibly, I'll take a minute to point out that the charges against Fortin may have some upside when it comes to getting to the bottom of Conadscam. If Fortin wants to cooperate with the Crown, he'd be an obvious source of inside information about how the Cons' campaign finance manipulations took place - and having been cut loose by both Paradis and his father's law firm, Fortin doesn't figure to have much motivation to cover up what happened for the benefit of the Cons.

Mind you, Fortin's word would obviously be difficult to rely on in any prosecution. But to the extent he can point investigators in directions which might not have been obvious from the outside, Fortin may be able to bring even more of the Cons' actions to light than his money management has done already.

On flawed judgment

Following up on yesterday's news that Con MP Christian Paradis' official agent Stephane Fortin has been charged with fraud, let's note how embarrassing it is that the MP who chose Fortin to run his campaign finances has since been handed a cabinet position which requires exactly the kind of attention to detail and judgment which was sorely lacking in Paradis' choice of agents.

In effect, at the time of the campaign, the only judgment which Paradis apparently had to exercise was to find a single individual to serve as his official agent. His choice was somebody who on the Cons' own terms was fired for gross incompetence, and who according to the charges now filed against him was already falsely representing himself to be a qualified lawyer within Paradis' father's firm. And it's in part because Paradis' campaign required blatant manipulation of its campaign books to make up for apparent overspending under Fortin that Conadscam now holds the potential to bring down dozens of Con MPs, candidates and agents from the 2006 election.

For most of us, that kind of track record of decision-making would demand some serious explanation before a person would be allowed to decide anything more important than whether to order soup or salad with a restaurant meal. But in the Cons' desperation to find somebody from Quebec to replace Maxime Bernier in cabinet, they instead decided to hand Paradis responsibility for a department which proudly proclaims that it handles more than $1.3 trillion in cash flow each year. And all this despite what one can only assume to be full knowledge of Fortin's failings in the election campaign, and at least some knowledge of his problems with at least Paradis' father's law firm even as he was trusted with campaign funds.

Needless to say, if a single decision of Paradis' in his ministerial role proves anywhere near as disastrous as his choice of official agents, the result could be catastrophic for Canada as a whole, not only the Cons as a government. And whether the Cons' choice to put Canada's public works in his hands was based more on a genuine belief that the rest of their caucus was even more flawed or a bare political calculation that location matters more than competence, the result should have Canadians eager to take decision-making power out of the hands of Paradis and his party.

Friday, August 01, 2008

On well-founded suspicions

Shorter Tony Clement spokespuppet on the Cons' efforts to hide Health Canada's report on the effects of climate change:
I can't imagine why anybody would get the idea that this government might consider shunting unfavourable reports into a conveniently-timed news dump.

On incompetents

La Presse reports that the official agent for Con Public Works Minister Christian Paradis at the time of the 2006 campaign - who already figured to get plenty of unwanted public exposure due to his apparent role in Conadscam - has been charged with fraud for trying to pass himself off as a lawyer. No word yet on whether further action will be taken against the Cons for trying to pass themselves off as a competent government.

On connections

The Pundits' Guide offers up an interesting comparison of Facebook support among Canada's party leaders, as well as the candidates in the current by-election campaigns.

Now, I'll agree with PG that it's far from clear what exactly the numbers mean: they could conceivably reflect grassroots support, but could equally easily be based more on a concerted effort directed at Facebook in particular rather than other party-building steps which might not be se easily compared. And indeed I'd think that a party is probably at least as well served building its own online infrastructure (with something like Facebook considered primarily a conduit to bring in new supporters), rather than putting a long-term focus on a third-party site whose own impact is likely to wax and wane relatively quickly in political terms.

Whatever the ultimate impact of the Facebook support numbers, however, it's probably safe to say that a party is better off having more support rather than less in nearly any medium. And to the extent the NDP's candidates are ahead of all competitors both nationally and in the two most contentious by-elections, that may offer another measure of strong NDP support that hasn't yet surfaced in national polling.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Shut out

There was never much reason to think that a one-time consultation process would counter the obvious potential for abuse resulting from the Cons' immigration power grab. But the Star points out today that the Cons have started in with arbitrary preferences long before any immigration "instructions" are issued, as even the consultation process was set up to avoid hearing from anybody but the Cons' choice of stakeholders:
Immigration Minister Diane Finley has promised that implementation of her sweeping new powers under changes to the Immigration Act will be "fair, open and transparent."

But it doesn't bode well that the promised cross-Canada consultations she is just completing have been closed to the public, the media and a variety of concerned community groups who wanted to attend...

While some groups, such as the Chinese Canadian National Council and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, were included in the list of "key stakeholders" invited to the Toronto consultation session, others were not.

These include the Canadian Arab Federation, the Workers Action Centre (a group concerned about a potential increase in labour rights violations under the government's expanded temporary workers program), and the United Steel Workers (the union that represents many vulnerable immigrant and temporary workers)...

The behind-closed-doors consultations will conclude with a round table involving "national stakeholders" in Ottawa in mid-August. Again, the session will be by invitation only. This is not a government that is open to conflicting views.
Again, the end result figures to be much the same in any event. Regardless of what's said in the consultation process, the Cons have shown a clear intention to prioritize corporate wishes first, potential Con voting blocs second, and anybody else to the smallest extent possible.

But it's still striking that the Cons can't even be bothered to pretend to care what groups on their political write-off list have to say about major immigration changes. And even among those who were granted an audience with Finley this time, the Cons' selective invitations have to be cause for concern for those groups whose votes might not be seen as so important the next time the Cons decide which doors to slam shut.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Can you feel the accountability?

Introducing your friendlier, more accessible Cons - where for once, Maxime Bernier is actually allowed to refuse to say anything of substance for himself.

Weaker in the world

Embassy's Michelle Collins reports on yet another area where the Cons' neglect is putting roadblocks in the way of actors who would have little trouble getting plenty done under a remotely competent government. This time, it's in the operations of international NGOs, who when they haven't been ignored completely have been told to base their funding proposals on standards which the Cons haven't bothered to announce:
While a change of government naturally results in a shifting focus and tweaking of priorities, actors within Canada's NGO community say that across the board, all are facing a much graver situation than in past years, and one from which it will take a long time to recover.

The culprits are strategic reviews of program funding at Foreign Affairs and CIDA, as well as an overhauling of their mandates and dramatic shifts in personnel, which has left organizations outside the government increasingly unsure of the government's changing priorities...

"There is a certain level of concern and a certain level of frustration at the lack of clarity," said Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada. "There's also a concern around the fact that given that lack of clarity, rumors abound and signals are not clear."

While Oxfam is blessed with strong public support, Mr. Fox said the current uncertainty has made a number of organizations "jittery."

Of its own international projects, Mr. Fox said he has been told by CIDA officials that when making proposals to be mindful of CIDA's "priority countries." However, CIDA Minister Bev Oda has yet to identify these countries of focus, as well as its long awaited new aid policy...

Mrs. Armit said the Parliamentary Centre has been waiting a year to hear back from CIDA about renewing its nearly decade-old and highly-regarded parliamentary project in Cambodia, but that they are now losing hope.

Compounding the impact from the top-down, many are also pointing to an overwhelming sense among federal civil servants that ideas contrary to the political direction of the day could cause unwanted headaches. Others say the process of project approval has also become more politicized than in the past, noting that intervention by a politician has increasingly become the solution...

Ms. White said the situation risks bringing about a decimation of the whole sector.

"And this is a sector that gives an incredible return of investment to its country," she said.

In a global context, NGO leaders say that forcing them to the sidelines will have long-lasting consequences for the country's influence — especially at a time when Canada is facing increasing competition from developing nations such as China, India and Brazil.
Now, it wouldn't come as much surprise if the Harper regime is perfectly happy to weaken organizations which would tend to present independent Canadian voices abroad rather than being bound by the Cons' messaging rules.

But any harm done to NGOs today figures not only to limit Canada's ability to project its voice on the international stage in the short term, but also to make it far more difficult to recruit strong Canadian representatives in the future. And if the Cons aren't the least bit concerned about that outcome, then it's long past time for a change in government before the damage becomes irreparable.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On obstacles to change

Shorter Christian Conservative:
I'm deeply committed to fighting rampant political sexism by supporting a female candidate - with just a few exceptions like the two by-elections where non-Con parties have females running. Or the 83% of ridings nationally where the Conservatives' candidate is male.

An exit strategy

Both the Star's editorial board and Linda McQuaig are worth a read in discussing how the U.S. election may affect Canada's role in Afghanistan. But while both seem to look largely at the downside that an increased U.S. focus (particularly under an Obama presidency) might lead to pressure for yet another round of mission creep, it's worth noting that the possibility of the U.S. diverting a large number of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan also presents a significant opportunity for any Canadian government willing to take a stand to end the combat mission.

After all, there doesn't seem to be much disagreement among the NATO countries now involved in Afghanistan that Canada's combat role has left us taking a disproportionate share of the international burden. But the absence of anybody else apparently willing to take over the role now played by Canadian troops has been cited as one of the main reasons for extending the mission rather than seeking to disengage from combat and take on a different role.

From that starting point, a planned influx of U.S. troops which dwarfs what Canada could possibly contribute would seem to offer an ideal opening to ask the U.S. (and anybody looking to win favour with the new American regime) to take over. And while the Harper government obviously isn't about to go in that direction, a renewed prospect of ending the combat mission in Afghanistan might well be enough to help topple the Cons in time to take the opportunity.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Ad nauseum

Sure, the untrained eye might see the Cons' typical one-two punch of doubling federal advertising spending then covering up that fact as a problem. But let's be fair: if the Cons keep suppressing enough reports which would inform the public about their own failings in office, the savings in printing costs can surely start putting a dent in the amount they've blown on self-promotion.

The hidden campaign

It's hard to say what's more disturbing about the Hill Times' latest report on the Cons' ethnic strategy: an apparent pattern of hiding Jason Kenney's interactions with community groups from public view, or the fact that Kenney seems to be downright proud to be blurring the lines between government functions and partisan campaigning:
Conservative MP Jason Kenney, secretary of state for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity, says he's attended more than 500 ethnic community events since his party took power in January 2006. And counting.

"I don't have an exact count, but personally it would be in the range of several hundred. I'm sure it will be north of 500," he said in an interview last week, adding that his busiest weekend was last year when he attended an estimated 24 events in three days in the Greater Toronto Area, which is crucial political territory for the Conservatives to win more seats in the next federal election.

A vast majority of the events he attends are not open to the media either on the request of organizers or his party's strategic reasons and therefore not listed on his ministerial website...

Right after the last federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) chose Mr. Kenney (Calgary Southeast, Alta.) as his point man to help woo ethnic minorities by first appointing him his Parliamentary secretary for multiculturalism and later secretary of state for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity...

Mr. Kenney denies his party is strategically targeting the nine ethnic communities.

"We work with all communities. I meet with a very wide array of communities. Essentially, any community group that wants to get its message across to the government, contacts me. I'm available to meet with them and our government is accessible to them. We don't exclude any group," said Mr. Kenney.
Putting together the pieces of the article, this looks like another prime example of the Cons using public positions and resources for purposes which are obviously subordinate to their partisan efforts. From what I can tell, Kenney's strategy for keeping contact with groups looks something like this:

1. Group contacts Kenney to invite him to participate in an event in his publicly-funded capacity as secretary of state.

2. Kenney's secretarial office uses public resources to plan his attendance at the event.

3. Kenney attends the event under rules established by the Conservative Party which not only prevent the media from attending, but also prevent the public from being informed that Kenney ever participated.

Now, there's probably some room for the public to find out just where Kenney has been despite his own lack of disclosure, as a past schedule would seem to be available through a well-targeted access to information request. And there's plenty of reason to think that some interesting stories may be found in such an investigation.

Most obviously, it's worth wondering just how far public resources have gone in supporting Kenney's attendance at these events. Con cabinet members have already been caught several times failing to report or misreporting their travel expenses - and Kenney's secrecy about the events attended might signal a strong likelihood that there's plenty more where that came from.

In addition, it's also worth wondering just what Kenney has been saying to the groups involved. And if word comes out that the Cons have been making private promises to targeted ethnic groups which differ from their public positions - or which misuse federal power such as their newfound ability to arbitrarily categorize potential immigrants - then there will be all the more reason for both the groups involved and Canadians in general to distrust the Cons.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

On electoral calculations

For all the conventional wisdom about what the upcoming by-elections might mean to Stephane Dion's leadership, I'm not sure that any outcome would actually give the Libs much reason to change their apparent push toward a fall election. And what's more, the only outcome which might justify delaying the current conditions for an election would involve the Bloc backing down, rather than the Libs continuing to prop up the Cons.

Let's consider first what the Libs' results in the by-elections might indicate about the party's position. For all the talk about a loss in Westmount-Ville Marie being seen as a disaster, the reality is that the same factors which helped the NDP to win Outremont are still largely in play this time out - meaning that a loss shouldn't be seen as an unprecedented outcome for the Libs so much as the result of a support shift in a relatively distinct type of riding. And that shouldn't be the end of the world for Dion or his party, particularly since the Libs' national polling numbers seem to have bounced back since Outremont.

What about Guelph? It's true that the battle there may be more plausibly seen as a microcosm of what the Libs would face in a fall general election. But with the NDP and Cons both running seemingly strong campaigns and the Libs having fought through a contentious nomination battle, there's still reason to argue that its results wouldn't reflect national conditions. And to the extent those factors might not be in play in a general election, a strong could be made that a loss in next month's by-election wouldn't rule out the prospect that the Libs could Guelph and similar seats if they can run a strong national campaign.

As a result, the most important question for the Libs may not be whether they win any or all of the seats now in play, but whether they manage to drop off the radar entirely in one or more of the ridings. As long as they're within striking distance once the by-election ballots are counted, there may be every incentive for the Libs to figure that a successful national campaign will push these types of seats back into their column.

In contrast, if the Libs come in a distant third in both Guelph and Saint Lambert, then one could plausibly say that the party is in serious trouble. That would suggest that the NDP has managed to position itself as the main contrast to the Cons in parts of Ontario which which formerly served as the Libs' firewall, and that the Cons have fully taken over as the federalist alternative to the Bloc in ridings which were held by the Libs as recently as 2004 and which weren't yet within the Cons' area of strength. And that combination would call into doubt whether the Libs can bring enough ridings into play to have any real chance of winning a general election.

Such a result would thus give the Libs reason to think that the national conditions are such as to make a successful election difficult. But even then, delaying any further could still be seen as doing at least as much harm than good.

After all, any possibility that a scandal might explode in the meantime to improve the Libs' position would be at least counterbalanced by the Cons' certain ability to use their financial advantage to blitz the airwaves in advance of a fixed election date - particularly with the Libs demoralized enough for the financial gap to get even worse than it currently is. And a movement to push Dion out the door resulting from also-ran finishes might well see an immediate election as the best way of removing him.

From my standpoint, then, virtually all roads for the Libs lead to their having ample reason to vote down the Cons.

However, the same may not apply to the Bloc. While the Libs (and indeed all of the national parties) can point to the possibility of potential gains in other types of ridings as reason to minimize any disappointing results in these ones, a party whose focus is inherently limited to a few dozen ridings can't help but to see Saint Lambert as a relatively accurate reflection of the type of challenge it will face in seeking to defend its territory.

As a result, if any of the other parties manages to pull out a surprise win there or even make the seat competitive, then the Bloc - which has seemingly relied more on its ability to exploit the scandal of the moment than on more stable factors for its support - figures to be awfully tempted to roll the dice on the possibility that something might stoke the anger of its historical voters over the next year, rather than walking into an ambush this fall.

Which means that much of the current conventional wisdom may well be off not only in terms of how the Libs might respond to any by-election losses, but also in its assumption that the Libs control the timing of the next federal election. And it'll be interesting to see both how the parties' by-election strategies turn out, and how they react as a result.

The mission creep continues

I noted yesterday how the Cons' Afghanistan mission creep is based on dishonesty with the public when it comes to the terms of motions in Parliament. But let's note that the Cons have been equally deceptive when it comes to justifying increased troop levels based on Canada's actual operations, as the Cons' planned numbers run contrary to their own stated reason why the number of Canadians in combat was increased from 2,300 to its current level of 2,500:
Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor says Canada will have to send more troops to Afghanistan if it takes command of NATO forces in the country...

O'Connor says it will mean a larger commitment of troops - but only about 100 more than the 2,300 currently deployed in Afghanistan.
Given that Canada increased its troop levels for the specific purpose of supporting its command role, one would expect that the numbers would then drop back down when another country rotates into the command responsibility. And that's due to take place this November.

But based on David Emerson's comments yesterday, the Cons don't have any intention of reducing the current contingent of 2,500 troops by the first part of 2009, even though the reason for the previous increase will have ended months earlier. Instead, they're apparently planning on ignoring the possibility of reducing troop levels at the end of the command stint, using the 2,500 level as the new baseline, then adding to that in order to reach 2,700 troops in combat in 2009.

All of which goes to reinforce a couple of points which are far too familiar based on the Cons' stay in government. First, the Cons' strategy in Afghanistan is simply to be seen expanding Canada's military role, with no regard for whether there's any link between military commitments and end goals. And second, the Cons still can't be trusted to provide honest information about the mission - which should make it all the more obvious why it's long past time for both Canada's Afghanistan combat role and the Cons' stay in power to end.