Saturday, August 30, 2008

Signs of desperation

John Baird gives us a hint of just how little the Cons have to offer in an upcoming election campaign, as their plan appears to be to show the public the same contempt which Harper normally applies to Con MPs:
The ad previews some key themes that advisors in the Prime Minister's Office say will be part of an election campaign that could begin as early as Sept. 5.

"We just want Canadians to see the guy we work with every day," Environment Minister John Baird told reporters...
So what can Canadians then look forward to based on Harper's track record? Presumably Canadians can look forward to such unique campaign tactics as being told to shut up if they don't have Deceivin' Stephen's approval and subjected to public shaming if they fail to do so, and having all art which fails to glorify the Dear Leader replaced with suitably fawning portraits.

Now, it may well be that the Cons see that as offering a more likely road to electoral success than anything as mundane as discussing policy. But it surely can't speak well of any of the Cons' other options if they think their best choice is to try to convert swing voters to the cult of Harper.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

A tale of two candidates

Not long ago, Michael Byers was the Libs' first choice as a candidate for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky. But given the opportunity to run instead for the NDP, he decided he could do better than the Libs.

Not long ago, Blair Wilson wanted desperately to run as the Libs' candidate for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky. But after the Libs rejected him for dishonesty, Elizabeth May was more than willing to overlook problems which even her own choice for Prime Minister saw as making him unfit for office - that is, as long as it would raise her party's profile.

Which would seem to nicely summarize the choice facing voters who are understandably frustrated with both the Cons and Libs. Do Canadians who want a change from politics as usual want to cast their votes for a party which can do better than the Libs, or a party which has no qualms about accepting even worse?

More like this

From the NDP's press release about today's meeting with Deceivin' Stephen:
“The prime minister would rather quit his job and break his own fixed election law than get Canada moving in the right direction. If Harper isn’t up for the job – I am,” said Layton.
Of course, the other opposition parties may disagree with the last bit of Layton's message. But the general theme is exactly what needs to be pushed to make Harper wear his decision to force a trip to the polls right up until election day - particularly when the Cons either make excuses about what they've refused to do while in government, or complain about a lack of cooperation on bills which they didn't bother trying to pass.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Frulla me twice...

I'll deal in more detail later with how the news over the last couple of days has signalled a complete lack of confidence in Stephane Dion and his new signature policy even on the part of the party which is putting him forward as its leader. But for now, let's note one very interesting tidbit from the Globe and Mail's coverage of the current Lib infighting:
Mr. Marissen also insisted that the party is ready to bolt out of the starting blocks the moment the election is called.

"We are ready on every front," he said.

Some veteran Liberals disagree, especially when it comes to Quebec where some Liberals remain furious with Mr. Dion's Quebec lieutenant, Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette. They blame her for failing to find candidates for half the ridings in the province while blocking potentially strong candidates, such as former MPs Liza Frulla and Helene Scherrer.
Now, the mere reality of internal Lib problems in Quebec hardly qualifies as news. But the fact that Frulla's name is coming up again is noteworthy considering what happened just last year when the party's electoral committee tried to put her name forward without bothering to check with her:
Adding to the chaos, the Quebec wing's electoral commitee, worried about losing key ridings, decided this week to recommend former heritage minister Liza Frulla be named the Liberal candidate for LaSalle-Emard, Marc Bruneau for Westmount-Ville-Marie and Brigitte Garceau for the southwest riding of Jeanne-Le Ber.

The problem is, Frulla says nobody asked her first and she has no intention of being a candidate at this time.

"I almost died," Frulla said, after hearing the news on radio yesterday morning. She said she hasn't spoken to Dion in a year - and Dion is the person who will choose the candidate to succeed former prime minister Paul Martin in LaSalle-Emard. "No, (I'm not running). I've got a life," Frulla said.
It could be that Frulla has changed her mind in the meantime without that being made public. But at least some coverage from a recently as last week cites her discussing the Cons' arts funding cuts without any indication that she planned to return to politics. And a schedule posted just this Wednesday lists Frulla as one of ex-politicians who has signed on for a weekly current affairs discussion panel for 2008-2009 - which would seem to reflect some intention on her part that she'd be otherwise occupied during a fall election.

Of course, one can hardly blame Dion personally if his intra-party opponents are trying to push Frulla's name forward without her agreement even after what happened the last time that was done. But it would seem to serve as an indication that the anti-Dion forces are no more competent than the Dion loyalists who have already managed to put the party's Quebec strongholds in play. And the Libs' civil war only figures to take even longer to resolve itself if neither side can shoot straight.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A matter of interpretation

Deceivin' Stephen offers up another telling quote hinting at how dishonest the Cons continue to be about Conadscam:
Meanwhile, Harper suggested the Conservatives will continue to use the controversial "in-and-out" financing scheme that has landed the party in hot water with Elections Canada.

"Our position has been that Elections Canada has changed some of its interpretations since the election campaign - that's our problem, that's why we're in a court dispute," the prime minister said.

"But obviously we will not only abide by the letter of the law, but we will work with Elections Canada to reach a common understanding of the interpretation of the law, and that's what we will follow."
There's plenty worth unpacking within the statement. In particular, it's both comical for Harper to suggest that the Cons have worked with Elections Canada in any way, and amazingly arrogant for a government to demand that Elections Canada shift its interpretation of the law toward a "common understanding", rather than properly requiring the Cons to follow the same rules which apply to everybody.

But even leaving those factors aside, perhaps the most important message to be drawn from Harper's statement is how it undercuts another of the Cons' most tired objections to Elections Canada's investigation.

After all, it wasn't long ago that the Cons repeatedly blustered a change in the candidate manuals published in 2005 and 2007 made all the difference in determining whether advertising was national or local. On that basis, they claimed that Elections Canada was unfairly applying a new interpretation to a past election - in effect, making new rules and then applying them retroactively.

Now, that argument was largely superseded by the later developments about false invoices and central control which made the content of the Cons' ads essentially irrelevant to the picture. But in making the argument at all, surely the Cons have to be taken as having accepted first, that the candidate manual governs what candidates can legally do, and second, that candidates can reasonably be required to follow standards once they've been provided notice.

That is, until now. But Harper's statement today can only be taken as an indication that the Cons have no intention of following the 2007 manual which they once claimed to be so important. Which serves as yet another indication that neither Harper nor his party will tolerate the prospect that rules might apply to them.

Mind you, statements like Harper's may backfire in the long run. Indeed, positions like that may only force Elections Canada to cast even more scrutiny on the Cons, and serve as evidence of the Cons' mental state which may support any prosecution. But it remains to be seen whether Harper's belief that he's above the law will filter down into the public consciousness in time for the Cons to be punished in the imminent general election campaign.

That listeria has got to be here somewhere

A couple of follow-up points on Impolitical's post on Tony Clement this morning.

First, the Globe and Mail link doesn't list any details other than the name of the writer of the letter to the editor. But barring a surprising coincidence in names, the author of what was indeed an excellent letter should be familiar to those paying attention to the race in Wascana.

Second, Tony Clement's joke about food safety seems to remind me of some similarly classless attempt at non-humour where a party tried to make light of an ongoing tragedy for which he bore responsibility. Now if only I could remember exactly what that was...

Update: More from pogge.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Very convenient

Shorter Darryl Hickie and his changing stories on last weekend's Regina jailbreak:
At any given time, I happen to know exactly as much as the media can prove that I knew, and not an iota more. Isn't that a funny coincidence?

On shifting support

For those looking for an indication of how the Libs' carbon tax figures to play out once the novelty wears off, the latest B.C. provincial poll offers a strong hint. There, the opposition NDP hadn't been able to overtake the Campbell government despite years of Lib scandals and mismanagement - but finally pulled off the feat in the latest poll based on an all-out attack against a provincial carbon tax:
For the first time in years, more people say they would vote for B.C.'s New Democrats in an election than for the ruling Liberal party, results of a new public poll show.

Conducted independently by Angus Reid Strategies between Aug. 21 and 25, the online survey puts the NDP ahead of the B.C. Liberals by three percentage points -- a slim lead that falls within the survey's margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

However, it's still a major shift from just one year ago, when the opposition party trailed in popularity by nearly 10 points.

The survey, which comes on the heels of an internal NDP survey conducted in July showing a neck-and-neck race between parties, also reflects a strong public appetite for change, with 58 per cent of respondents saying it's time for a new political party to be in power.

For New Democrats, the numbers were heralded as a sign the party and its leader, Carole James, are on the right path ahead of the May election.
Of course, there are some other factors at play in B.C. - though it's still noteworthy that the "time for a change" numbers have only shifted now as well. And the picture is a bit murkier federally with multiple parties on each side of the carbon tax question.

But it's still striking that even in what may be the most environmentally-conscious province in Canada, a smaller carbon tax than that proposed by the federal Libs seems to have proven politically toxic for the Campbell government. And that gives voters looking for the best option to take down Harper federally yet another reason to see the NDP as the best bet to take votes and seats away from the Cons.

Reason for change

Today's revelations about the Cons' CFIA dismantling and the resulting Maple Leaf recall obviously contradict everything the Cons have said about food safety. But in an interesting sense, they also offer some possible support for the Cons' position on another issue in the news: namely, the Harper government's interpretation of its fixed election date legislation.

After all, surely even the most skeptical observer would have to agree that a fixed election date shouldn't prevent a government which has contributed to multiple deaths and a national food panic and then lied to cover its tracks from resigning in disgrace, never to darken the political scene again. So let's offer Harper this much of an out: if he's willing to accept that's why he should put an end to his stay in power, then he has every reason to do so.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

On performance reviews

The description of Stephen Harper as a "quitter" (rolled out by Jack Layton yesterday) is a solid first step in defining the imminent end of Harper's stay in office. But the broader theme is one with plenty of room for further development.

Just imagine a business whose single top manager had managed to significantly damage his employer's balance sheet while holding authority, in no small part because he went out of his way to use company resources for his own private interests.

Suppose that employee had repeatedly ordered his loyalists to sabotage the efforts of co-workers who had different ideas as to how to run the company, then publicly blamed everybody but himself for a dysfunctional workplace.

Add into the mix that the employee consistently picked fights with suppliers, customers, or anybody else who could deflect attention from his mismanagement of the business.

Suppose that one day the employee were to storm into a board meeting and inform his bosses that he was sick of dealing with the people around him, and that they could take his job and shove it - but that he'd be back the next day to interview for a promotion.

How likely would any board member be to even want the employee back, let alone provide him with expanded authority? And if the concept of rewarding a problem employee who storms out of his job seems that far-fetched under any other circumstances, then how could a Harper majority in Parliament - or even another Con minority government - be anything but a disastrous outcome?

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Cause and effect

Following up on my post yesterday about the Cons' diesel tax cut, let's note one more possibility as to how Harper and company could have lost track of how it would affect Canadians at large. Could it be something less than a coincidence that the Cons floated an idea which would potentially give the oil industry a billion-dollar windfall when PMO staffers have been spending more time with oil lobbyists than with their own families?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Ancient history

Sure, those of us who have paid attention to how the Cons operate knew better than to believe that Ken Epp would have introduced a bill as explosive as C-484 without Stephen Harper's approval. But wasn't it just last week that the Harper government pretended to have nothing to do with Bill C-484 since it was a private member's bill? How times have changed...

(Edit: fixed typo.)

A lead balloon

The Cons' latest trial balloon looks to me like one of the more bizarre moves in recent political memory, as the Harper government is apparently looking at countering the Libs' carbon tax plan with a tax cut which makes little sense in political or policy terms:
Senior members of the Conservative government have discussed a possible $1-billion cut to a tax on diesel fuel, sources say...

The tax in question is the four-cent excise tax charged per litre of diesel. In the most recent fiscal year, the levy generated over $1 billion of revenue for Ottawa. Eliminating that tax would benefit the biggest users of diesel fuel, namely city-run bus services, railways and trucking outfits...

(T)he proposal has been met with opposition from the Department of Finance, which is reluctant to give up a stream of revenue, particularly as the economy has lost steam and Ottawa's budget surplus is down significantly from last year. Moreover, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office has denied that such a cut in the works. "It is not true," said Kory Teneycke.
It's worth noting that the article doesn't focus much on the use of diesel fuel by individuals, particularly in rural areas. Which strikes me as odd, since that seems to be the support base which the Cons would be looking to boost by proposing a diesel tax cut - though of course the Cons likely wouldn't want to admit any need to shore up what's been their most reliable source of support.

That said, it's hard to see how the Cons could justify even suggesting the idea otherwise, as a focus on the effects of an incremental change in the price of shipping goods would seem to be a sure loser politically.

After all, any reduction in consumer prices resulting from such a cut would depend on the oil industry, the shipping industry and retailers all choosing to pass along any reduced costs rather than taking profits for themselves - which is what makes such a cut a poor measure from a policy standpoint. Needless to say, there's little reason to think any of them would hesitate to take as much of the gain as possible.

What's more, even if any of the cut did manage to filter through to consumers, the effect would take at least some time to work its way through the supply chain. Which means that any potential benefit for consumers at large would be a remote possibility in both likelihood and time.

Meanwhile, the immediate costs to Canada would be obvious. After a summer where there's been plenty of attention to the possibility that the Cons have already mismanaged the country into a deficit, a move to drain another billion dollars from the federal treasury could only make Harper look even more reckless when it comes to Canada's finances.

So would Harper put forward a low-reward, high-risk strategy solely for the sake of drawing a stronger contrast to the Libs' carbon tax? If so, that can only signal that the Cons are even more bereft of ideas than any of us had already suspected. And even the fact that Con sources felt the need to try the idea out speaks volumes about just how little the Cons have to offer.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Destination unknown

While the possible abuses of a general election call which I discussed this morning might represent serious problems for Canadians at large, they figure to be features rather than bugs for a government as obsessed with political advantage as the Harper Cons. And that means that Harper's posturing about forcing a federal election makes a general election call somewhere between a sure thing, and a possibility depending on how the by-election campaigns turn out. However, let's note that there are a couple of factors which could counterbalance the general increase in the likelihood of a fall election.

First, there's the question of just how fully the Libs believe their own rhetoric. For nearly a year, Dion and his party have tried to justify propping up the Cons by saying they didn't want to go to the polls on Harper's terms. But if the Libs genuinely believe that to be a reason to avoid an election, then surely they have to take a close look at why Harper would be publicly pushing for one now. And it may not be out of the question that they'd bite the bullet once again if they once again decide that they shouldn't accept an election which the Cons want.

Mind you, Harper's shift in focus from brinksmanship on single confidence votes to demanding support for his party's entire agenda might make it more difficult for the Libs to bite. But it may also signal a push toward a more foundational change in the federal political scene.

After all, it's been no secret that the Cons' most likely path to a longer-term majority involves reassembling the Mulroney coalition - including a significant chunk of the current Bloc. And that may make Harper's meeting with Duceppe and the public messaging around it particularly significant.

Consider what would happen if the Cons publicly offered to build their latest parliamentary agenda around concrete mesasures to reduce the role of the federal government and provide increased scope of action to Quebec (in contrast to the window dressing he's provided so far), with little or no focus on the rest of the right-wing agenda.

At that point, Duceppe would face an awfully difficult choice. One option would be to lend his party's support to the new Harper agenda - which would serve best from the perspective of painting the Bloc as able to influence government action, but would also legitimize the Cons as a voting option for soft (and potentially even harder) nationalists and raise the question of why the Bloc would continue to exist as a separate party. The other option would be to reject any entreaty - which would preserve the difference in the parties' purposes, but expose the Bloc to the argument that the Cons could have given Quebec more autonomy if Bloc votes and seats shifted their way.

Either way, the first step of seeking support for the Cons' agenda seems to lead down the road of looking to bring all or part of the Bloc into the Cons' tent. And Harper would surely be glad to hold off on an election this fall if it means going far enough down that path before October 2009.

The fix is in

For all the recent talk Deceivin' Stephen's musings about forcing a general election before Parliament reconvenes, I'm surprised there's been relatively little analysis of how that threat relates to the ongoing by-elections. Which is a shame, since the interaction between the two offers a vivid example of exactly the type of mischief which a fixed election date is supposed to avoid.

After all, it's fairly well recognized that political parties treat by-elections somewhat differently from general ones, primarily due to the greater attention to results within a single riding (as well as the ability to focus resources more narrowly).

And the current set of by-elections is no exception: as many as four candidates would figure to spend at or near their riding limit in Guelph, with at least three likely to do so in both Westmount-Ville Marie and Saint Lambert. Or from a party perspective, the Libs and Cons would seem likely to spend near their maximum levels across the board, with the NDP, Bloc and Greens each maxing out their possible spending at least one riding as well.

Which raises one obvious source of potential for abuse if Harper were to call a general election. The opposition parties, holding no control over whether a general election would be called, have little choice but to run their by-election campaigns on the basis that they'll actually mean something. (I suppose one or more could gamble by reducing by-election organization and spending - but they'd have no assurance that the general election call would come, and would face a serious risk of being seen as having lost ground if the by-election went ahead.)

In contrast, the Cons alone would be able to decide in advance to call a general election. They'd then be able to spend little money on the by-elections, and use the by-election period to get a jump on national organization while the other parties are focused on the by-election ridings. The end result would then be a potentially significant cash and organizational advantage in a general election campaign where national trends would almost certainly overtake the effect of all work done on the by-elections.

Now, that would be the effect if the Cons decided absolutely to call a general election. (And I have to wonder whether Harper's decision to call the Don Valley West by-election makes sense if the Cons hadn't already made that call.) However, there's at least as much potential for abuse if Harper instead uses the path of the by-elections to influence the timing of a general election call.

Presumably the Cons would be happy to let the by-elections run to their conclusion if they see any potential to pick up seats or momentum in the lead-up to a likely fall election campaign. But if local polling doesn't go their way, they'd effectively be able to take a mulligan on the by-elections by torpedoing the process before any vote actually happens.

Needless to say, a government unilaterally cancelling electoral processes which are about to produce unfavourable results would seem more the mark of a tin-pot dictatorship than a democratic regime. But that's exactly what Harper is claiming to be able to do - even after having promised to put an end to manipulations based on election dates.

In sum, the timing of Harper's threat to ignore his own fixed-date legislation raises more than just a broken promise, but also the possibility of serious abuses of power. And the fact that Harper doesn't seem to see the slightest problem with his actions should only reinforce the need to vote that power out of his hands.

Update: Greg highlights how the Cons focused on exactly the above types of problems as their main reason for passing the fixed election date bill in the first place.