Saturday, August 16, 2008

On non-appearances

The Guelph Mercury reports on the Cons' continued strategy of hiding as far away from potential public exposure as possible, as Gloria Kovach is planning on skipping yet another all candidates meeting for reasons which even she can't be bothered to remember:
In Guelph on Tuesday, the Action Read literacy centre will host a public meeting of the byelection candidates.

The Green, NDP, Liberal and Animal Alliance Environment Voters Party candidates will participate but Kovach has a scheduling conflict, Action Read said.

Kovach said she will be campaigning in Guelph before attending the Kitchener rally with Harper that day, but was unaware of which plans would conflict with the candidates' meeting.
Presumably Kovach's staff is hard at work brainstorming and polling what kind of conflict will play best to explain her once again hiding from voters and the media.

But Guelph's voters can't help but to recognize that while every other candidate has done everything possible to participate in a public exchange of ideas, Kovach has done nothing but show contempt for the concept. And that pattern combined with the Cons' track record should make it clear that constituents can only expect similar evasion from Kovach if she were to win the seat.

On base assumptions

I've been holding off on commenting on Harris/Decima's latest issue polling in hopes that they'll release what looks to be some important background data - particularly as to how (if at all) parties and leaders other than the Cons and Libs were included in the polling. But let's take a look at the significance of the numbers made public so far.

Based on the Cons' usual mantra of crime and taxes, it's not too surprising that they've managed to take a fairly significant lead compared to the Libs on those issues. What strikes me as most interesting, though, is a disturbingly strong comparative showing for the Cons on two other types of issues.

First, there are the issues where both the Cons and Libs have delivered relatively consistent competing narratives. Most striking among these is the economy, where the Cons are still somehow managing to defy reality to rate strongly even while simultaneously sinking the Canadian economy and sending the federal budget into the red. But it also seems significant that the Cons have managed to open up a lead on foreign affairs while burdened not only with a set of policy positions which still seems largely out of step with many Canadians, but also the Bernier scandal which directly tied the Cons government to well-known failures in the area.

As significant as those comparisons may be, however, the most telling one may come in health care, an issue which has been largely ignored by both parties. Considering that the Libs spent the better part of the '90s and early '00s winning federal elections based largely on the fear of a Reform or Alliance effort to gut Canada's health care system, the Cons would seem to have had an awful lot of ground to make up to get anywhere near parity on the issue.

Moreover, there's little indication to date that concerns about how the Cons would handle health care were unfounded. After all, the Harper government has shut down any efforts to enforce the Canada Health Act and taken the side of private health care delivery in both British Columbia and Quebec. And the one-time Con "priority" on health care soon turned into little but a giveaway which paid provinces for cherry-picking goals which they had already planned to meet anyway.

But despite their woeful track record, the Cons have somehow managed to take a small lead as being seen as more competent to handle health care. And I can only interpret as a signal that the Cons' stay in power has managed to fundamentally shift one of the foundational issues that was most discussed in the lead-up to the 2006 election.

Whether or not the perception has any basis in reality, it seems that the Cons have managed to get themselves on the right side of the apple cart principle compared to the Libs. At least among Harris-Decima's respondents, it seems that the Cons are assumed to be better equipped to deal with any given issue - unless it's one such as the environment or poverty which the Libs have pushed significantly more than the Cons.

Again, it's worth noting that the poll numbers listed in the article don't seem to include other federal parties. And the distribution of the relatively large numbers unaccounted for in the information released to date could make a world of difference.

If the 40% or so of respondents whose votes weren't mentioned on a particular issue primarily reflect voters who would prefer a different party than the Cons or Libs, then they may signal a significant drop in the Libs' status as a default option. If, on the other hand, the excluded respondents primarily reflect those who are undecided or don't yet have an opinion, then they may suggest that neither the Libs nor the Cons are currently all that well defined in the public's view - leaving the field wide open as a federal election approaches.

Of course, it should be noted that the Libs' consistent role in propping up Harper over the past year has likely done wonders to strengthen the Cons' position on questions such as these. But however public opinion ended up where it is now, any effort to topple the Cons needs to start with a clear message that any undue focus on not disturbing the apple cart now could have disastrous consequences down the road.

Friday, August 15, 2008

On explanations

I'm not sure if the Libs will necessarily see it as good news. But word comes out today that at least one of the candidates whose withdrawal was claimed by some to be a reaction to Dion's policies had entirely different reasons to step down.

Update: Now if only Oledzki were a Con, he'd be up for a patronage appointment by now.

Update II: Count on the National Post editorial board to keep up their earlier spin on Oledzki's departure - complete with an attempt to inflate his individual significance - even after there's better information available.

On clarifications

Is it just me, or does the Cons' latest attempt to confuse matters about Conadscam seem to include an inadvertent confession? Here's the text of their latest statement as reproduced by Kady O'Malley:
Media reports today suggest that Patrick Muttart organized and administered regional media buys for the Conservative Party of Canada in the 2006 federal election. This is false.

Patrick Muttart was a member of the Conservative Party’s national campaign team during the 2006 election. He was responsible for creative and media strategy and not the financing or administration of regional media buys.
Just so we're clear...

The Cons aren't taking issue with this week's testimony that Muttart was the "main contact" for Retail Media during the 2006 election.

But they are going out of their way to state that Muttart's role was purely within the national party structure, rather than as a representative with respect to "regional media buys".

From what I can tell, that can only be seen as a tacit admission that the Cons' main contact with Retail Media - and correspondingly any agreements with respect to the Conadscam ads - was carried out primarily (if not solely) by an individual whose lone role was a national one. But doesn't completely undercut the Cons' claim that the Retail Media ad buys didn't involve the national party?

May vs. Reality II: Grumble in the Jungle

Partial credit goes to Elizabeth May for following up on her earlier false statement by acknowledging the NDP's stance against asbestos mining. But it's hard to give too much praise to a non-apology which devotes far more space to spin and excuses than to the actual correction...which leads to Shorter Elizabeth May:

My failure to fact-check is everybody's fault but my own.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Stranger than satire

After all the Cons' attempts to throw roadblocks in the way of the Ethics Committee this week, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that for all of the Bush administration's illegal activities, the Cons have turned out to be far more successful students of small-time scam artistry than their ideological cousins to the south.

Just last month, I considered it a joking matter to suggest that Bushco would end up trying to avoid its legal responsibilities by dodging service of documents. But after a mere couple of years in office, Harper's crew has already managed to sink to that level - while matching the Bush administration in its belief that even a summons or subpoena properly served can be ignored on a whim. And indeed, the Cons haven't even tried to hide behind "executive privilege" to make the latter claim.

Of course, it remains an open question whether Canadians want their leaders' successes to come in the area of evading legal obligations. And with any luck, the Cons' current leadership will find themselves back in their natural field of snake oil sales before long.

Spreading ignorance

Last week, word came out about the Cons' suppression of a report on the dangers of chrysotile asbestos. This week, Kathleen Ruff points out how the Cons' culture of secrecy only reinforces itself, as their apparent purpose is to avoid having asbestos included in the Rotterdam Convention which requires exporters to notify potential buyers of a product's known dangers:
Increasingly, as the use of hazardous chemicals is banned or severely restricted in the industrialized world, these deadly products are shipped to developing countries and Eastern Europe, where controls are weak to non-existent, workers have few protections and infrastructure to handle hazardous chemicals is lacking.

To address this problem, the Rotterdam Convention gives countries the right to be informed about, and to refuse, extremely hazardous chemicals and pesticides.

After a rigorous scientific and legal process, a panel of experts (the chemical review committee) determines whether a particular chemical is so dangerous that it is a threat to public health and has already been banned or severely restricted by various countries...

The political process of the convention occurs when the recommendations of the expert committee must be approved by consensus at a "conference of the parties" held every two years.

In 2006, Canada brought the convention to its knees by blocking a consensus for chrysotile asbestos to go on the list.
And in another prime example of the Harper government's idea of Canada's role in the world, word is that the convention itself may end up being gutted based largely on the Cons' refusal to accurately label asbestos:
Fearing that Canada will continue its obstruction at this October's conference in Rome, the UN is now circulating to all 120 countries that have ratified the convention a "thought-starter paper" on how to get out of the "unfortunate precedent" (UN diplomatic language for disaster) created by asbestos.

The options in the paper would, through a complicated process that could take years, rewrite the convention with a dual system so that countries such as Canada, which refuse to allow the listing of a particular chemical, would be exempted and could disregard the convention when exporting that chemical.
It should be obvious how that kind of change would destroy any purpose to the convention. Instead of providing an equal playing field where all hazardous products manufactured in the industrialized world are subject to the same international scrutiny at the time of an order, it would enable countries to pick and choose which parts of an international scientific consensus they want to be bound by. And every country would have a strong incentive to participate in the convention solely for show, while at the same time exempting its own exports from any notice to potential buyers.

What makes the timing all the more galling is that we've just received a stark reminder of how the use of asbestos without regard for future consequences can make a disaster all the worse. But the Cons are still insisting not only on keeping the Canadian public in the dark for now, but on entrenching an international right to do the same around the world. And by this point, it's surely no secret that only a change in government will put an end to the global embarrassment being caused by Harper and company.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

An unfair fight

In this corner, weighing in at 1,387 pounds (warning: weight based on a projection by Jim Harris), Green leader Elizabeth May:
To this day, the Green party is the only party prepared to call for an end to asbestos mining and exports.
And in the opposite corner: reality, in the form of the NDP's readily-available public position:
In light of the World Health Organization’s conclusion that “there is no evidence for a threshold for the carcinogenic effect of asbestos” and that “the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos,” the government should apply the precautionary principle and proceed to a ban on asbestos through phasing out the use and export of asbestos.
One can only wonder how misleading May would be if she hadn't made a personal commitment to "tell the truth all the time, even if it isn't pushing (her) party".

H/t to Mojoroad1 at Babble.

Jumping the gun

Kady O'Malley's latest live-blog from the Ethics Committee hearings features yet another strong indication of just how far outside the law the Cons were operating in how the scheme was put together, as some of their Conadscam expenses were allotted to ridings at a time when no candidate or official agent was yet in place to legally approve any spending:
12:37:50 PM
More one-last-things from Marcel Proulx, including one I was wondering about earlier: how was it that the list of ridings was finalized before some even had candidates? Because it was all about the ridings, Campbell says.
Not surprisingly, the problem with that explanation is that the Canada Elections Act says otherwise.

In fact, under sections 438(4) and (5), no expenses related to a candidate's campaign can validly be incurred or paid except under the authority of the candidate's official agent. And it should be glaringly obvious that nobody would be in a position to authorize expenses under those sections at a point when neither the candidate nor the official agent has yet been named for a riding.

All of which offers yet another damning piece of evidence against the Cons' ever-more-laughable argument that their Conadscam spending should be treated as candidate expenses. And judging from the committee hearings so far, the latest example doesn't figure to be the last.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On organized efforts

Duncan Cameron comments on the potential for online organizing to serve as a great equalizer against corporate media control:
Making appeals for donors is not the same things as engaging the citizenry in debate. Seeking out other others as equals in dialogue and discussion is what digital politics is about. Facilitating spontaneous action to mobilize against cuts to federal funding for artists, or outrageous telecommunications billing is the sort of task that can lead a political party to be a real force for electoral mobilization.

Canada has yet to become a thorough-going democracy, where citizenship is prized and understood as conferring political power. The emergence of a digital left has the potential to even out the balance of power between government and the populace, as Netizens talk to other Netizens, and counter-movements to power form more swiftly than ever before. The extension of communications networks outside corporate control to include ever wider digital participants holds out promise for fostering a more open political process where the left can make its case for democratic renewal, where party and movement can listen together to more people than ever, and where action in the common good becomes not only desirable, but feasible.
Now, I share much of Cameron's optimism as to the potential for electronic organizing to fundamentally reshape how politics are practiced - with an emphasis on sharing and refining diverse ideas rather than merely funnelling power to the centre. But it's worth noting that there's another looming barrier beyond merely the need to discover how best to make use of the online medium.

After all, it surely can't have escaped notice that corporate interests aren't exactly eager to facilitate the free use of the internet when they stand to make a buck cutting back on how easily information can be spread. And with a battle for access to the possible equalizer set to play out in the very near future, it looks far too likely that the current potential will largely go unrealized.

What thwap said

Go read. This has been the first, but almost certainly not the last, edition of what thwap said.

Update: More Liberal renewal to show just how clean a break the party has made from its past corporatist tendencies.

On poor promotion

It's bad enough that in axing the PromArt program, the Cons had the nerve to ask prominent Canadians to represent the country abroad, then turn around and bash them in the media for accepting. But the fiasco raises another issue which makes the slashing of a single program far less significant than what looks to be some serious underlying mismanagement:
Mr. Dyer told The Globe and Mail that a Foreign Affairs official at the Canadian embassy in Cuba called him and asked him to speak in Havana, promising to cover his travel expenses. He said he was given $3,000 in cash to cover his airfare, hotel and expenses in Cuba, and that he had never heard of PromArt until last week.

"It suggests to me this is the gang who can't shoot straight. My surmise ... is that they didn't have a pot of money that they could easily fit this into, so a little creative bookkeeping was done ... and you take it out of the PromArt budget," he said.
From my standpoint, Dyer is far too generous in merely labeling the Cons' actions as "creative bookkeeping". What his example really signals - along with other PromArt funding for initiatives which don't seem to fit within its mandate - is that the Cons haven't had the slightest interest in what money is supposed to be used for, but have instead simply used whatever pool of money they could get their hands on to do what seemed most expedient at the time.

Now, that kind of behaviour is most obviously a problem for those of us who see the federal government having a meaningful role to play in supporting Canadian culture among other areas. If the Cons couldn't care less whether an arts fund is used for foreign affairs initiatives, do we have any reason to think that money earmarked for any program will actually be put to its intended end?

But the problem should be equally significant for those who want to see government made smaller and more efficient. If the Cons' policy is to ignore whether money is used for its intended purpose, what good could it possibly do to slash a particular program such as PromArt if they can just as easily divert funding from, say, Foreign Affairs to promote Holy Fuck abroad if it suits their political interests to do so?

In sum, the main problem isn't whether PromArt in particular was being used as a slush fund - but rather the fact that the Cons seem to see all public resources as nothing more than that. And it'll take a change in government, not some mere shuffling of program funds, to give Canadians any confidence that their public money is actually being used properly.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Setting the stage

For those who haven't yet seen Kady O'Malley's live-blogging of today's Ethics Committee hearings, it's of course a must-read. But I have to wonder whether Kady missed a major story in the making from this morning's session:
11:23:49 AM
Dean del Mastro takes over questioning, and starts out by rather selflessly stating that he doesn’t see why candidates need a sixty percent rebate for expenses in the first place — I’d love to have seen Doug Finley’s face at that point...
Now, Kady seems to assume that Doug Finley and other members of the Cons' braintrust would disagree with the prospect of eliminating candidate rebates (and potentially other related funding for federal parties). And on a first glance, it might seem that the Cons wouldn't be interested in giving up a significant source of income for their party.

But as I've noted before, the Cons may well have a strong incentive to do just that. True, they'd certainly lose some resources in absolute terms - but their relative position compared to every other federal party would be strengthened significantly if the other parties lost funding which makes for a far larger part of their current operational budget.

Given that choice, I have to figure the Cons would gladly give up a few party staff positions and ad campaigns in the short term if it'll significantly increase their chances of holding power until something dramatic changes in the fund-raising race.

From that starting point, Del Mastro's statement looks to me to be not so much an off-the-cuff remark as part of the groundwork to slash federal party funding. And that could set the Cons up with both a surefire path to an election this fall (since the line between the Libs and bankruptcy is probably the one which even Dion won't cross in order to delay a trip to the polls), and a way of portraying themselves as anti-Ottawa outsiders even after two and a half years in power.

On turf wars

The Guelph Mercury reports on the NDP's environment platform rollout. But most interesting is the response from the Libs and Greens, who are apparently attempting to rewrite history in order to take credit for the NDP's policy proposals rather than working to get them implemented.

Here's the candidate response to the NDP's plan for building retrofits and efficiency incentives:
Valeriote said the NDP has borrowed liberally from policies introduced in 2005 in the Liberal's "Project Green" plan, which included a retrofitting program and numerous incentives to help industry embrace green technology.

"It's nothing new," he said. "In fact, I think they are just trying to repackage what we've already introduced years ago."

Mike Nagy said both the NDP and Liberals have stolen directly out of the Green party's playbook, claiming as their own environmental plans that were conceived by his party years ago.

"It's almost laughable to see how many of our policies they have taken and called their own," he said, adding the Greens are the only party with new and original environmental strategies.
Now, I'm probably less of a policy purist than some NDP supporters: to the extent another party wants to implement a good idea, I'd prefer to see a cooperative effort to get the policy implemented rather than an argument over who came up with it first. But with both the Libs and Greens apparently outraged over the idea that the NDP's platform might be similar to plans they've proposed, let's look at some history on retrofitting in Canada.

Naturally, the easiest place to start will be in the more recent past, where Valeriote seems to think that the concepts of retrofitting and tax incentives appeared to Stephane Dion in a vision in 2005.

Here's the problem with that claim, though: two parties made an extensive national retrofitting program part of their environmental platform in 2004. And the Libs weren't one of them.

Which means that to the extent that using another party's policy without credit could be seen as a wrong, the Libs themselves were guilty of it in 2005. And now, in trying to express outrage that the NDP would claim credit for a policy which he apparently sees the Libs as having stolen fair and square, Valeriote can only be seen as just slightly less honest and believable than Krusty the Clown - if perhaps no less laughable.

So what about the Greens? It's entirely true that they were the other national party which had shown interest in the idea of retrofitting by 2004. But can they plausibly claim original ownership of the concept - either in general, or compared to the NDP and its current leadership?

To answer that question in part, let's take a look at how long Jack Layton has been involved in the push for retrofitting:
In 1988, Toronto hosted one of the first major scientific conferences on global warming. Shaken and inspired, Jack Layton set out to build consensus on City Council to respond locally to the emerging global threat.

By 1990, Toronto had set three world precedents. First, it committed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% before 2005. Second, it created a dedicated Energy Efficiency Office to coordinate the response. Third, it created the widely-emulated Toronto Atmospheric Fund (TAF) to finance innovative and effective green projects.

Launched using a $23-million endowment from a property sale, this rotating fund operates at zero cost to taxpayers—projects pay for themselves out of their energy savings. TAF initiatives have already cut 250,000 tonnes of carbon emissions, with annual savings of $2.7-million in the city’s operation costs alone. TAF’s success disproves the stale assumption that a clean environment and a thriving economy are competing priorities...

In 1993, Layton assembled a consortium of companies, unions, city agencies and energy experts to develop the world’s first plan to retrofit an entire city for energy efficiency. BBP projects have so far retrofitted 500 buildings, cut 132,000 tons of carbon emissions, supported hundreds of jobs, saved building owners $19-million in energy costs, and provided healthy returns for investors.
So at a time when the Green Party's vote count across the country wouldn't have been enough to win some ridings, Jack Layton was already putting a retrofitting and investment incentive plan into effect in Toronto. Which makes it seem at best a remote possibility that it was the Greens (rather than any other source of information) who would actually have provided the template. And that's without getting into the sheer improbability that it was the Canadian Greens that came up with the idea in the first place, such that it would be theirs to "steal".

Again, the broader issue isn't so much who actually came up with any particular idea such as retrofitting. But from the Libs' and Greens' response, it's clear that they're far more interested in picking fights with the NDP than in cooperating on policies which all three parties seem to agree on in principle. And the fact that neither can be bothered to bring any facts to that battle should offer plenty of reason for environmentally-conscious voters to pool their support behind the NDP.

(Edit: fixed link, wording.)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

On animal instincts

The CP reports on this week's Ethics Committee hearings looking into Conadscam. And for all the justified talk about how the Cons still haven't come to terms with the fact that they're not currently in opposition, Lib MP Dominic LeBlanc offers a strong indication that the Libs still haven't come to terms with their change in roles either:
(D)espite Prime Minister Stephen Harper's recent warning about "Kangaroo court" committee inquiries in the Commons, Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc says the opposition is prepared to go as far as it can in questioning the Tories over $1.3 million in questionable advertising expenses from the 2006 election.

LeBlanc noted Harper didn't object when one of his opposition Conservative MPs chaired another Commons committee during a highly charged inquiry into the sponsorship scandal under a Liberal government.

"When the chief kangaroo was the chair of the public accounts committee then, they didn't mind going to the zoo," said LeBlanc.
So what's wrong with LeBlanc's phrasing? Consider that it would have been at least as accurate for LeBlanc to do that by drawing a similar equivalence to the previous investigation of the Libs but on positive terms: "when they were in opposition, they were able to use the committee procedure to investigate government wrongdoing. Now, it's similarly in the public's best interest for us to do the same".

That would have the effect of reinforcing the opposition's role of holding the government to account, while highlighting the Libs' commitment to doing just that for Harper as the Cons did for them. But instead, LeBlanc's phrasing unconditionally accepts the "kangaroo court" description, hinting at apparent bitterness over the fact that the Libs were caught while in office. And his means of justifying an unfair process (as any actual kangaroo court would be) is the tired refrain of "but they did it too".

All of which serves not only to delegitimize next week's hearings, but also to signal to Canadians that the Libs still think they should be both in office and above the "zoo" of parliamentary investigation. And the fact that the Libs have managed to live through over two years of Deceivin' Stephen without even slightly cluing into the fact that holding the government to account is an essential function of opposition rather than a matter of entertainment shows that they're a long way from being fit to take power themselves.

Rider pride

Without much fanfare, the NDP has been promoting its climate change plan over the past week, focusing particularly on transit funding. And the NDP's push raises some interesting questions about how best to get municipalities to invest in public transportation.

From the Globe and Mail link above, here's how the NDP's plan is being described:
Mr. Layton said the NDP's plan to take 1 cent of the federal excise tax applied to gasoline and dedicate it to public transit across the country - distributed on a per-rider basis that favours big cities - would see Toronto receive $452-million over four years.

Under his party's cap-and-trade green plan for businesses, in which "big polluters" would be forced to buy and trade carbon emissions credits, much of the proceeds would be put into public transit, Mr. Layton said, producing $388-million over four years for Toronto.
It's not clear from the article whether money coming in from the carbon trading system would be distributed on the same basis as the portion funded by the excise tax. But it's interesting that the former at least would be distributed on a per-rider basis - and it seems like the Globe's coverage largely misses the significance of that choice by assuming that it primarily favours big cities.

Roughly speaking, the decision as to how to apply funding intended to support transit might be based on one of three principles. A government could follow the Cons' usual system of doling out money on a per-capita basis with no regard for where money would be best used; it could choose to reward past behaviour by providing incentives for desired results; or it could direct money toward investments with the highest apparent incremental value in improving the desired outcomes in the future.

My initial inclination would be toward the third type of funding formula. And that could differ in important ways from the second: while it's possible that some cities (of whatever size) which have high ridership might be able to put added funding to extremely good use, it's also possible that the best immediate results might come from putting money into cities where few people use transit precisely because basic investments haven't been made.

Instead of creating that type of system, the NDP's plan first rewards municipalities for what they've already done, as a city which has made transit enough of a priority to have a proportionately larger ridership will see greater funding as a result. But for the future, it largely puts the onus on municipalities to make investments for themselves, with the promise that an increase in ridership will boost their return on that investment later.

Again, that kind of after-the-fact incentive isn't my first choice as to how to get the best possible return in the near term. But it does offer the benefit of bypassing the need for what might be a lengthy process to compare the impact of different proposed projects - and it could well be just as effective if the money available for distribution is enough to make it worth municipalities' while in making new investments for themselves.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not that will be the case. But one way or another, a significant push toward improved public transit figures to be a vital step in reducing Canadians' dependence on less-efficient forms of transportation - making it a positive step simply to bring the issue back into the public eye.