Saturday, September 20, 2008

On stopped clocks

It's not often that I have to agree with Michael Ignatieff - and even in this case, he's right only for the wrong reasons. But his comment when presented with the possibility of uniting Canada's left speaks volumes about why he and his supporters can't be counted on to counterbalance to the Harper Cons' right-wing agenda:
Some commentators have mused on the prospects of some sort of Liberal-NDP-Green coalition should the Tories be re-elected. Mr. Ignatieff, campaigning in Whitby, Ont., on Friday, strongly rejected such a possibility.

I don't think the Liberal Party of Canada is a party of the left. There's no coalition to be done,” he said. “We're a party of the centre and people vote for us because we're in the centre.
Now, the obvious message is that the Libs' #2 figure (who's as likely as anybody to be the leader by this time next year) is going out of his way to distance the party from any defence of anything which might be construed as left-wing. Which likely makes for a far more accurate statement of the Libs' position than most of what their apologists would try to claim - but also sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the efforts of both Barack Obama in the U.S. and Jack Layton in Canada to present a strong contrast between progressive and conservative principles.

That said, the undertone of Ignatieff's message may be even more significant. Rather than presenting the Libs as remotely interested in uniting left-wing opposition to Harper, he's apparently bound and determined to keep his party firmly on the fence. Which means that actual progressives can count once again on getting nowhere trying to advance small-l liberal positions through the large-L Libs - even in the wake of further pushes to the right through another Harper government.

Of course, if that's the kind of treatment the left can expect again within the Libs following the election, there's ever less reason to pretend the Libs can be considered a viable alternative to Harper now. And the sooner that leads to an actual united left backing the New Democrats, the sooner we can begin to repair the damage Harper has already done.

Developing themes

Perhaps even more interesting than the national party polling numbers are Ipsos Reid's polls surrounding the party's campaign message so far. And at first glance, the story seems to be that none of the parties is managing to reach more than about a third of respondents in trying to define themselves:
On the core theme of the Harper campaign, that he would provide "steady leadership in tough economic times," 52 per cent rejected that notion, while 35 per cent agreed.

Respondents kicked the legs out from under Layton's core pitch to voters that he is the leader who "will act on the priorities at the kitchen table instead of the boardroom table," with 45 per cent disagreeing versus 35 per cent who agreed.
Dion's core theme -- that his Green Shift plan makes him the most credible candidate on the environment and the economy -- was rejected by 55 per cent, compared with only 30 per cent that accepted it.
But it's also worth paying attention to how successful the parties have been in defining their competitors. And on that point, it looks like the NDP's framing of Harper has been right on the money:
Meanwhile, while most Canadians agree Harper is a strong leader, a sizable number say they are uncomfortable with his leadership. Fifty-five per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that "Stephen Harper may be a strong leader, but he's not the kind of leader that I'm comfortable with."
Now, that's significant enough in what it means for how Harper is seen by a majority of respondents.

But even more importantly, the number also signals that most respondents are in agreement with the New Democrats' message on what figures to be the main ballot question - which can only give them more reason to take a closer look at where else they may agree with the NDP. And the more Layton can link the consensus view of Harper to the second half of his main theme (that he's in the best position to stand up for the interests of most Canadians), the more likely it'll be that the latter part of the New Democrats' message will gain traction as the campaign progresses.

Burying the story

It probably isn't all that surprising that CTV is bringing back the story about Conservative candidate Sharon Smith's nude pictures as mayor now that the federal election campaign is up and running. But is there really any reason to mention the pictures alone as a point of interest in Skeena-Bulkley Valley while ignoring the real scandal which showed just how much contempt Smith and her party have for democratic representation?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Room for praise

Now this is a huge step in shifting the New Democrats' online presence from a mechanism for top-down message delivery to a means of building connections to and within the party. I'm somewhat surprised to see it apparently go live in the middle of a campaign when there are bound to be some kinks to work out - but kudos to the party for coming up with a new platform which should offer both a mid-campaign boost of energy and a long-term means of linking up NDP supporters.

Time for some answers

Needless to say, Stephane Dion's statement that the Green Shift carbon tax scheme isn't a major part of the Libs' platform - and more damningly, that it's only the media who's attempted to make it so - is one which demands some further investigation.

After all, how is it that the media managed to hack into the Libs' party site to make the Green Shift the lone policy issue given a heading of its own, on par with "candidates" and "vision" as part of the Libs' public message?

How is it that the media set up a separate site and branding strategy for a policy which isn't different from any other? Or did the media manage to shut down Lib sites set up for the rest of their policies which are on the same, non-major level? Should we be keeping a close eye on, say,,, or (all based on Lib platform announcements today) to see if those sites can be restored?

And how did the media manage to infiltrate Dion's own mind to make the plan alone Dion' basis for celebrating his own "bold vision and courageous leadership"?

Presumably Dion and his team are hard at work trying to work out answers to just these kinds of questions. And if that takes their time away from the ongoing federal election, then all the better for the chances of the rest of the campaign producing a counterweight to Harper who doesn't run away from his principles at the first sign of resistance.


The Cons' claim that their combination of reckless tax cuts and politically-motivated spending hikes somehow qualifies them as responsible fiscal managers has been laughable at the best of times. But can we finally put the myth to rest when even Stephen Harper admits that his government has been throwing around more money than it should?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

In need of explanation

It's come to be seen as accepted wisdom in politics that when you're explaining, you're losing. So what does it say when a politician is reduced to explaining why he's having such a tough time making his explanations stick?

CanWest editorial policy: Con promises UP TO 75% OFF!!!

Wouldn't it be nice if there wasn't a need to follow up on this post. But CanWest apparently can't resist minimizing the cost of Con promises, as multiple articles have taken policies which the Cons themselves say will cost over $420-million per year once fully implemented and value them at "$420 million over four years".

At best, one could figure that CanWest simply assumed (based on little other than the words "by the fourth year", which are themselves limited to one part of the policy) that nothing would be implemented until 2011. But if that were the case, then the obvious way to phrase the cost would be as "$420 million in the fourth year" - not "$420 million over four years" which makes the annual cost appear to be a quarter of what it actually is.

Which means that the Cons once again have an eager media ally in their attempt to mislead Canadians about how much damage they're doing to our federal finances.

Update: And it continues - this time with a full-platform comparison which lists the Cons' annual costs in direct comparison to promises covering up to a 10-year time period.

Decisions, decisions

The respective promises from the NDP and the Cons today suggests an obvious question for voters: does anybody want to take their chances on being able to buy all the home care they need for $150 or less?

But perhaps more interesting is the Cons' strategic choice in trying to sell their scheme. Are they brazen enough to pitch a random tax giveaway bearing no relationship to the price of the care in question a "choice in home care" payment like they did with child care in 2006?

On contradictions

It's easy enough to see the rationale behind the Libs' two latest promises. But could Stephane Dion really not have avoided demanding an audit based on the fear that the Cons have left a massive budget deficit at the same time as he stakes a $70 billion infrastructure plan on little more than idle hope that the concern is wrong?

Foxes and henhouses

For all the talk about what the Wall government has done to influence the federal election campaign, there may be more reason for concern about what they're doing within the province while attention is being paid elsewhere. That's right: in the wake of the listeria outbreak and concern about the federal government similarly abandoning any regulatory responsibility for food production, airlines and other industries - not to mention a U.S. economic meltdown caused by insufficient financial oversight - Wall is putting business interests alone in charge of reviewing the province's regulatory structure:
Establishment of a new advisory council, to make recommendations on how to reduce the burden of governmental red-tape faced by Saskatchewan businesses, was announced Wednesday.

But skeptics were asking questions about whether a single interest group, specifically business, is being given too much control over issues that have broad public interest implications in protecting public health, the environment and avoiding other problems.

The Regulatory Modernization Council unveiled Wednesday will consist of seven people. All seven have senior positions with Saskatchewan businesses or business organizations.
Sadly, it'll be a few years before Saskatchewan gets another chance to replace Wall and company with a more responsible government. But at the very least, it'll have the chance now to try to make sure at least one level of government is willing to do its job rather than simply leaving business to regulate itself.

On reckless spending

It'll be awhile yet before we see the parliamentary budget officer's report on the costs of Canada's involvement in Afghanistan. But it's certainly worth pointing out one major piece of the puzzle, as the costs to the Defence Department alone have been estimated at over $22 billion:
The Afghan war is going to end up costing the Defence Department more than $22 billion, in actual money spent on the mission and future payments to rebuild equipment and provide long-term care for veterans, a military conference heard yesterday...

In an interview last night, Mr. Perry said he was not surprised at the numbers he found. "We're fighting a war on the other side of the world and that takes a lot of resources," said Mr. Perry, currently in Ottawa.

He said that the number of Canadian veterans of Afghanistan is projected to be around 41,000 by 2010. That far exceeds the estimated 25,000 Canadian veterans from the Korean War, Mr. Perry said.

Officials with Defence Minister Peter MacKay's office did not respond to a request for comment.

The figures don't include the cost of aid to Afghanistan or the cost of the mission for other federal departments such as the RCMP and Foreign Affairs.
Presumably the Cons will need some time to fire up the spin machine in order to explain why this particular eleven-figure expense is entirely different from the much smaller initiatives which Stephen Harper has been trying to label as "mind-boggling".

But with only one portion of the price of Afghanistan dwarfing even the most ambitious social programs on offer during this election campaign, it's apparent that it's Harper and his party who have the worst track record of ignoring the real costs of their pet projects. And when the full picture comes out in the near future, the reckless waste of Canadian resources for a mission which even Harper concedes to be nearing the end of its shelf life should only become all the more clear.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On crisis management

While there have been plenty of comments about Gerry Ritz' mockery of listeriosis deaths under his watch (see Scott's list so far), the comments I've seen so far miss another part of the story which may say more than anything about the Cons' unfitness for office. Here's Ritz' excuse after the fact:
Ritz emailed an apology that he intended to deliver publicly in suburban Ottawa later Wednesday.

"It was a highly stressful time," he said in prepared remarks. "Many people were working countless hours and attending countless meetings to keep on top of the situation. In that context, I made a couple of spur of moment offhand comments. In particular, one about my official opposition critic, whom I have already called to apologize.

"My comments were tasteless and completely inappropriate. I apologize unreservedly."
So what's wrong with that response? Remember that Ritz was one of the MPs who Harper singled out for inclusion in his cabinet - giving him authority to make emergency orders in some circumstances precisely on the assumption that he would be capable of making responsible decisions in the face of a crisis.

Instead, even if one takes at face value that the incident was out of character for Ritz, it shows that he was completely lacking in judgment in the face of exactly the type of situation which can be expected to come with his role in cabinet.

And it only gets worse when one considers Ritz' comment about Wayne Easter. Keep in mind that the other participants in the call included representatives from the Prime Minister's office as well as assistants to Tony Clement - and there's no indication that any action at all was taken until other people on the call went public.

Which can only be taken as a tacit statement that Harper and his party don't think it's a problem for a cabinet minister to respond to a crisis by musing about the death of political opponents. And from my standpoint, that makes it downright frightening to consider what kind of action or reaction we might see from the Cons in the event of a more urgent national emergency.

All of which is to say that while Ritz' comments were indeed tasteless and inappropriate, they're also far more than that in what they say about both his reaction to the listeriosis outbreak, and his party's standard of acceptable behaviour for a cabinet minister. And whether or not Harper does anything now that the matter has gone public, the only appropriate response is to ensure that none of Ritz, Clement, Harper or their party kin is in a position of responsibility next time a crisis surfaces.

A little-known fact

The Conservative word for "crisis" is the same as their word for "opportunity to play Last Comic Standing".

How Stephane Dion Lost the Election

There's been plenty of discussion already about the possibility that the Libs might drop into third place behind the NDP in the upcoming federal election - usually with some recognition that it would require some significant misstep by the Libs to fall out of their longstanding perch as one of the two default options. But Stephane Dion seems to have written exactly the script which could make that happen:
Stéphane Dion is lauding Liberal budget discipline, but refused this morning to categorically state that he would never allow the federal government to go into deficit if the economy slides.

"I will not speculate about how much an economy may go down. I just want to tell you that we need to have strong fiscal discipline. To never overcommit, to come with strong policies that are well-targeted, to never use the money of the taxpayers unwisely," he told reporters in London, Ont.

Asked twice more if he will commit to keeping Ottawa out of deficit even if the economy falls into deep recession, Mr. Dion refused to say the words.
Now, it's obvious enough that Dion's waffling serves to cut him off from the Chretien/Martin Libs' budgeting record, and that the Cons will be able to add even more undeserved heft to their arguments about fiscal management. But the broader ramifications for Dion go far beyond that.

As long as the Libs stood firm in support of balanced budgets (one of the motherhood and apple pie types of principles which typically finds support on all ends of the political spectrum), they could relatively easily brush aside ideologically-based criticisms by claiming their focus was merely on centrist management. But with Dion offering nothing more than platitudes when it comes to handling the budget, the Libs will be ripe for attack as to why they won't promise to keep Canada in the black.

After all, Jack Layton has emphasized his personal commitment to running balanced budgets - which will effectively position him closer to the perceived centre on budget management. Yet he'll also have an ideologically-friendly answer as to how he can promise to do so while Dion can't, since the New Democrats' plan to reverse massive corporate tax cuts makes for far more room to maneuver while allowing for needed social investments.

Likewise, Stephen Harper will also claim to intend to run balanced budgets, arguing that he can make the promise since his party plans to spend less than the Libs within a relatively similar tax structure. Which will make the natural clash for the rest of the campaign the one between the NDP and the Cons as to which priorities are most worth addressing within limited fiscal means.

In effect, Dion's muddled answer when it comes to balancing the budget only figures to make the Libs' everything-to-everyone strategy look far more like nothing-to-anyone. And that could easily be the decisive blow in what had already been a rough campaign for Dion and his party.

(By way of postscript, Dion could easily have evaded the question to his own benefit by noting that Jim Flaherty left Ontario with a hidden deficit, and he can't promise that Flaherty hasn't already done the same federally. But three strikes later, Dion doesn't figure to get another chance to deliver that hit.)

An obvious choice

Embassy reports that a U.S. investor is looking to use NAFTA to launch an all-out attack on Canada's health care system - but is waiting to see how the federal election plays out before taking any more steps. Which would seem to offer an ideal opportunity for Canadians to decide what kind of government they want dealing with the threat.

On the one hand, there's the Harper strategy of happily negotiating away legal victories, excluding Canadian (and Canadian-friendly) interests from discussions, paying off U.S. interests for their nuisance complaints, and then strongarming Canadians into putting up with their capitulation by promising to make matters even worse if anybody dares to resist.

On the other hand, there's the Layton strategy of sticking up for Canada's victories, and rallying allies to fend off any attempts by a hostile party to force a bad deal.

It would seem clear enough that Canada would have been better off with Layton at the table on softwood lumber to begin with. But now that our health care system is the latest target, it's all the more important to have a leader who'll fight to defend Canada's interests rather than being willing to give away anything for the sake of making a deal. And fortunately, now is exactly the time when Canadians get to decide who they want on their side.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

On useless measures

Dave and Wheatsheaf have already pointed out a couple of the problems with the Cons' latest campaign gimmick. But let's note as well just how completely out to lunch are the Cons are in trying to pretend there's anything resembling an economic basis for a tax credit linked to home purchases.

Harper's sole attempt to pretend that the policy is anything but a bribe to potential voters is to mention the remote possibility of a boost to the construction industry. But that speculation doesn't hold up to even the slightest bit of scrutiny.

After all, what percentage of first-time Canadian home buyers can afford to build their own home or buy new, rather than buying one which is already built? And what percentage of those would see a maximum of a $750 tax credit as the difference between building and not building?

That's the sum total of any boost which the construction industry could possibly see. And all for a price tag of $200 million per year.

Which isn't to say that this particular waste of money particularly stands out compared to some of the Cons' previous efforts. But it does highlight the fact that we're currently stuck with a government which is far enough out of touch with reality to argue that a non-existent boost to one of the few industries which doesn't need the help is worth blowing an amount of money which could otherwise be used to train the doctors Canada needs. And the sheer absurdity of that same party trying to claim the mantle of responsible financial management should be setting off alarm bells for anybody who sees the function of government as including more than paying voters off to keep itself in power.

On symmetry

From what I can tell it's purely coincidental. But with Danny Williams set to go national with his Anything But Conservative campaign, the NDP may have managed to reinforce how it fits into that message while pitching its own policy on a completely unrelated subject:
The NDP proposes to invest $100-million annually in an expanded Canadian Training and Apprenticeship tax Credit which Mr. Layton said would create 100,000 new training opportunities.

Mr. Layton's proposal to increase access to training programs was endorsed by a private-sector organization that promotes literacy.

“We're really heartened by the NDP's commitment to improving skills training programs in Canada,” said Margaret Eaton, the president of the ABC Canada Literacy Foundation.

“Many of these jobs that used to require less than a high school education are requiring more basic skills, and we're concerned with whether or not Canadians are equipped for jobs in the new economy.”

CanWest editorial policy: Cons' promises are ABSOLUTELY FREE!!!!

It was suspicious enough when Kelly McParland's comparison of the parties' respective election promises conveniently left off the price tags of most of the Cons' platform - failing to mention the massive $600 million annual cost of a diesel tax cut, or any cost at all associated with either perpetually increasing capital gains tax exemptions or increased small-business exemptions.

But today CanWest is at it again. Not only does its general coverage describe the three main parties' latest platform planks while including price tags for only the NDP and Lib proposals, but it also misleadingly places the total cost of those plans next to the per-recipient cost of the Cons' house-buying tax credit - making it appear that the cost of the Cons' promise is several orders of magnitude smaller than it is.

Needless to say, the Cons' strategy of pretending to be fiscally responsible (against all available evidence) fits nicely with coverage which distorts or hides the actual cost of their promises. But for voters looking for an accurate comparison of what the parties actually have on the table, there's plenty of reason to doubt that they'll find that in CanWest's coverage.

Update: Here's some improvement - though it's still striking how selective the latest effort is in presenting promises over four-year periods rather than annually.

On catastrophic failures

It's definitely interesting to note that the Libs have finally woken up to the need for a plan to address catastrophic drug expenses. But should it escape notice that the idea was suggested multiple times during the Libs' last stay in office - and ignored by Lib prime ministers in majority and minority governments alike?

Fundamental contradictions

Shorter Stephen Harper:
Canadians don't need to worry that the U.S.' downturn will affect us since we're on fundamentally different economic ground. Which reminds me: who's up for some regulatory harmonization and deep integration?

(See here for more about how Canada's independent financial system has helped to avoid a U.S.-style meltdown.)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Signs of weakness

Stephane Dion's whining about a grand anti-Liberal conspiracy seems to have received surprisingly little comment today. Which is surprising, since it strikes me as the surest sign yet that the Libs' campaign is in a world of trouble.

That's so for two reasons. First, it indicates that Dion and his handlers haven't learned a thing about speaking to voters' interests rather than their own over the course of the last year and a half.

It may be true that Dion and his party perceive any slight against the Liberal Party as an outrage which demands a national call to arms. But anybody who agrees is almost certainly already in the Libs' camp - while few if any swing voters figure to value the greater glory of the Libs over everything else that's being discussed during the campaign.

Which means that Dion's message at best makes for an utter waste of breath and media attention, and at worst sounds like little more than a continuation of the culture of entitlement which turned voters away from the Libs last time Canadians went to the polls.

Second, Dion's attempt to shove others' views of his party into the spotlight reflects how far the Libs have fallen from their apparent upside at the start of the campaign. After all, it wasn't long ago that the conventional wisdom was that either the Libs or Cons would likely form government if they could successfully make the election into a referendum on the other.

But barely a week into a campaign which has focused largely on Harper, the Libs have been forced to reverse course and try to beg for attention. And that can only signal that Dion has recognized the likelihood that the New Democrats rather than the Libs are likely to be the beneficiaries of a campaign whose ballot question consists of the public passing judgment on the Cons.

Of course, Dion's problem is that by gaining attention for himself, he only figures to make his own shortcomings all the more glaring as the campaign progresses. And if the Libs are really as out of touch with voters as today's complaint makes them sound, then they may well have been better off being ignored.

On priorities

Just so we're clear: when the NDP proposes to spend $300 million a year to increase the number of Canadian doctors by 50% and make sure all Canadians actually have access to primary health care, Deceivin' Stephen thinks the idea is "high-priced" and not affordable.

But when the Cons promise to give twice that amount away to oil companies and retailers based on the unsupported assumption that some tiny fraction will trickle down to Canadian consumers, Harper considers that a "modest and affordable" step.

So what do most voters value more: a third of a cent off a loaf of bread, or access to primary health care for all Canadians - plus $300 million a year left over? And doesn't the fact that Harper's on the wrong side of the calculation say everything voters need to know about how much the Cons' priorities differ from their own?

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Popular revolt

Today's story about how the manipulation of the Cons' Edmonton-Sherwood Park nomination meeting won't likely affect the results in a riding which they won by nearly 27,000 votes in 2006. But it can only combine with past riding-level distortions to reinforce concerns about the Cons' anti-democratic bent:
Voters in Edmonton-Sherwood Park will have their pick of two conservatives this election as a result of an acrimonious split in the Tory riding association's board over former Mill Woods candidate Tim Uppal's nomination victory.

The majority of board members quit after Uppal soundly defeated local municipal councillor Jacquie Fenske for the Conservative nomination, and his team took control of the board...

Noonan believes the party took advantage of a weak local board to put in place its favoured candidate from outside the constituency. "I don't know how many other places they have done this, but I am working like hell for Jim to teach the S.O.B.s a lesson. It's as simple as that. If this is what the Conservative party has become, they should go down into Central America."

He doesn't know if Prime Minister Stephen Harper endorsed the move, but says he and several other board members received a taped phone call from Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day endorsing Uppal before the nomination vote.

Former board member Donna Clarkson says eight of 12 board members quit or left over the issue.

"For these people to come in and tell us how to run our board -- we just had enough of it."

Ford, who assisted Fenske in her nomination bid, says association members weren't given sufficient notice of the nomination meeting. Although most members reside in Sherwood Park and Fort Saskatchewan, the vote was held in north Edmonton, he says.
Now, it's worth noting that the group of dissenters is hardly without its own problems. Indeed, it's the new independent candidate who's apparently using the problems with the Con party apparatus as an excuse to propose legislation to freeze non-citizens out of any nomination process.

But the fact that the Cons are willing to run roughshod over their own riding associations in order to secure the political outcomes they want can leave no doubt that groups who are less friendly to the party are even more likely to see their interests trampled. And that can only highlight the importance of breaking Harper's hold on the country while voters have the chance.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A study in contrasts

Knowing that reporters leaving Jack Layton's campaign plane represented somewhat of a captive audience, the New Democrats gave them autographed copies of Layton's books - encouraging them to gain a better understanding about the ideas which Layton is promoting on the campaign trail.

Knowing that reporters leaving Stephane Dion's campaign plane represented somewhat of a captive audience, the Cons ambushed them with a grab bag of juvenile gimmicks bashing the Libs - encouraging them to view the campaign on the same content-free level as the Cons themselves.

So which of these sounds like the party which Canadians want in charge of the country's most important decisions?

Favourable impressions

This morning, I noted that Jack Layton alone among Canadian political leaders has managed to avoid having his public perception lowered through the rigours of the campaign so far. But it's worth remembering the starting point for any movement during the campaign - which likewise shows Layton outclassing the rest of the field:
The NDP's Jack Layton remained the most popular of the five leaders, with 53 per cent of respondents registering a positive impression and just 33 per cent a negative one.
Needless to say, Layton's combination of the highest starting level of positive perception and the best job of preserving that impression can only strengthen his position in convincing Canadians to put their support behind New Democrats as the campaign progresses. Which makes it obvious why the Cons are beginning to worry about what Layton and the NDP can do to stop Stephen Harper - but also signals the uphill battle that the Cons will face in trying to attack Layton.

On lost support

It shouldn't be much surprise that a government which is actively trying to mimic both Brian Mulroney in both his political coalition and governing tactics would earn the ire of those who left the Progressive Conservatives in disgust over the same strategies. And today one of Harper's former Reform party-mates delivers a scathing critique of the Cons' abandonment of democratic ideals:
With his other attempts at political reform blocked in the Senate, fixed election dates could have been Harper's enduring legacy -- a change in the system. Instead, he will be remembered as an opportunistic, masterful tactician who, in the course of only three years completely purged the Conservative party of its Reform ideals and restored the Mulroney model of government. The concepts of popular control of the party from the grassroots, open government, MPs representing their constituents and fiscal responsibility, were replaced, early on, with total control from the PMO and the broadcast seeding of public funds in vote-rich areas.

Defiance of an inconvenient electoral law is the cherry on the sundae. As we used to say in the halcyon days of Reform, "Liberal, Tory, same old story."

A few days ago, I had a call from a nice Conservative party lady asking for a donation to help fight the election. I responded with a polite, but firm "no" and I expect that many old Reformers will do the same.

This election will mark the first time in more than 50 years that I won't be supporting a small "c" conservative party. So much for the new way of doing politics in Ottawa.
For now, Harper may not be all that concerned about losing a single former colleague and supporter - particularly with current polls suggesting that his patronage politics have produced more gains than losses.

But one of the most obvious weak points in the current Con coalition has always been the potential for former Reformers to decide once again that they're not prepared to put up with dishonest top-down politics. And if those looking for a change from the "same old story" put their efforts behind the party which is offering just that, then it may not be long before Harper's legacy also comes to match Mulroney's in seeing his party decisively booted to the curb.

Leading the pack

CanWest's coverage of the latest Canadian leadership polling focuses primarily on the fact that Stephen Harper managed to fare the worst of the lot over the past week despite the Cons' efforts to smooth out his rough edges. But it's worth noting as well that the other campaign centred on leadership fared far better, as Jack Layton managed to post both the highest level of improvements and lowest level of declines in public perception out of all the party leaders:
The Ipsos Reid poll, conducted for Canwest News Service and Global News between Sept. 9 and 11, shows Canadians' impressions of the leaders slipped instead of strengthened, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper had the worst week of them all.

Thirty-six per cent said their impression of Harper had "worsened" since the start of the campaign on Sept. 7, compared with 32 per cent for his main opponent, Liberal Leader Stephane Dion.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe also failed to impress -- 23 per cent said they had a worse opinion of him--and 15 per cent said New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton fell in their eyes...

While Harper and the other leaders failed to gain support among some voters, not all was lost in the first week of the campaign, the poll indicated. Fifteen per cent said their impressions of Harper and Layton improved, 13 per cent for Dion and 10 per cent for Duceppe.
Now, it makes sense that in the midst of a campaign where each party has had to deal with attacks from four different sides, it will be difficult for any party or leader to present enough of a positive vision to improve how Canadians see them. And the numbers bear that out for most of the leaders.

Harper ranks worst of the lot at -21 in comparing improvements to declines. And it's hard to take that as anything but a stunning indictment of the Cons' strategy in trying to centre their campaign around a plush-toy version of Deceivin' Stephen. Meanwhile, Dion at -19 and Duceppe at -13 (while presumably being seen by less voters) weren't much further ahead.

Against that backdrop, Layton alone among the leaders mentioned in the poll has managed to hold his ground in terms of public perceptions. And the fact that the NDP's focus on leadership has succeeded where the Cons' has failed should send a strong signal that Harper can indeed be beaten on the battleground of leadership - as long as Canadian progressives choose the right leader to rally behind.

Targeted words

Kady and Cameron have already discussed the Cons' dishonest attack on Jack Layton. But it's worth noting that a second obviously false part of the Con press release seems to have gone largely undiscussed.

The focus so far seems to have been on the concept of insulting Canadian troops generally, as well as the Cons' conflation of Canadian troops and coalition ones. But there's another piece of the Cons' claim which may be the least explicable of the lot:
NDP Leader Jack Layton made the disturbing suggestion yesterday that coalition troops are targeting and recklessly killing Afghan civilians.
Pay close attention to the use of the word "targeting". There's a readily seen difference between raising the possibility that civilians have been harmed as a side effect of carrying out another task, and accussing somebody of "targeting" civilians such that the actual goal of a mission is to cause harm to them. And indeed the Cons' inclusion of the two separate concepts makes it clear that they recognize the distinction.

So why does that matter? As Kady points out, the line refers to the following quote from Layton:
Yesterday in Newfoundland Layton said the following about Canadian troops: “This horrific practice of coming in with planes and strafing villages and having civilians killed, it’s turning the civilians against the mission,”
It couldn't be much more obvious that Layton doesn't suggest that civilians are targeted in any way. Instead, his criticism is that the tactical choice of strafing villages results in civilian deaths as an unintended side effect - with the further consequence that Afghan civilians are turned against the coalition's mission.

Now, the Cons could have met that criticism by limiting their focus to what Layton actually said. But instead, they apparently felt the need to add a lie about Layton's statement to try to paint him as unreasonable.

Of course, the Cons are likely counting on being able to make the lie stick with enough of their supporters to turn it into a political benefit. But the action really only suggests that when it comes to debating the truth of the matter, even the Cons recognize that Layton occupies the higher ground.