Saturday, October 04, 2008

On inconsistent positions

The comment seems to have largely escaped scrutiny so far, presumably due in part to an impression that Harper and the Cons are going out of their way to avoid saying anything meaningful for the balance of the campaign. But surely I can't be the only one to find it ironic that the same man who's trying to saddle Canada with a U.S.-style elected Senate (with all the resulting gridlock) is now trying to strongarm his way to a majority by decrying the difficulty of getting things done in the U.S. Congress.

On benefits

NDP Outsider raises some good points about the need for the New Democrats' campaign to place more emphasis on the party's child tax benefit proposal. But as important as it is to explain the details of what's included, I'd think the even more vital step at this point is to shine a spotlight on the broader effects of the benefit.

After all, the consensus direction for the balance of the campaign seems to involve a ballot question based on the economy. And while Jack Layton and company have built plenty of momentum by pointing out the Cons' incompetence and highlighting the NDP's provincial track record, the New Democrats' message at this point seems to be veering away from an explanation as to how its platform would help.

Of course, it's still a useful step to present specific examples of what the benefit would do for particular families. But it's even more important to mention at every available opportunity that it's by making sure those families can keep their heads above water that Canada can best secure its economy as a whole. And if that message is able to sink in, then the NDP should be ideally positioned to make sure the benefits of a greater focus on family-level economic stability can come to pass once the campaign is over.

On free passes

Impolitical seems eager to pretend that anybody who criticizes the Libs for propping up the Cons must somehow be approving of Harper's parliamentary tactics. But let's set the record straight as to just what it is that Dion and his party did to keep the Cons and power - and why it's perfectly reasonable to hold the Libs responsible without endorsing Harper's abuses of power in any way.

The first obvious point is that regardless of the exact number of confidence votes, it's clear that some were bound to take place over the past year, particularly on the throne speech and budget bills. And while the number 43 certainly looks even worse for the Libs, it would hardly be to their credit if they'd kept Harper in power to exactly the same extent by merely rolling over and playing dead 10-20 times. Which means that even at best, impolitical's argument is based on attacking form rather than substance.

But then, there's the question of why Harper was able to get away his abuses of parliamentary procedure. And the answer there is obvious, as it's Dion who signalled regularly that he wouldn't vote down the government, meaning that the Cons could pass anything by declaring it a confidence measure.

Of course, it takes a cynical and manipulative PM to take advantage of that situation. And Harper deserves nothing but blame for doing so. But when Dion went out of his way publicly to say that he planned to fold on every hand, it can hardly come as much surprise that Harper became more and more blatant in bluffing his way around the proper use of confidence votes.

Finally, it's worth noting that the confidence votes themselves are far from the only area where the Libs wound up helping out Harper. The NDP's partial list of areas where the Libs supported or facilitated Harper's position includes examples ranging from Afghanistan to anti-scab legislation to electoral reform where the Libs voted on Harper's side even in the absence of any declaration of a confidence vote.

All of which is to say that the "43 confidence votes" line is itself only a useful shorthand for the ways in which the Libs have helped Harper to stay in power and advance his agenda. And if the best the Libs can say to defend themselves is that they don't think Harper should have taken advantage of their weakness, that's hardly a meaningful justification for their work to keep Harper in power.

Friday, October 03, 2008

A choice of targets

There isn't much that could make the Libs look worse in the department of choosing the wrong target than Bob Rae's admonition that his new party should turn its guns from the Cons to the New Democrats. (See for example Chrystal's scathing post.)

But Rae and the Libs may look even worse when that focus on attacking progressives is compared to an NDP strategy of putting the Cons in its crosshairs - which is leading at least some to speculate that the New Democrats are laying the groundwork for a coalition to remove Harper from power:
The New Democrats will spend the last leg of the election campaign homing in on ridings they want to poach from the Conservatives amid persistent speculation that they want to form a coalition with the Liberals after the vote.

In the next couple of days, the NDP plane will land in Newfoundland, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, where Tory incumbents abound.

That's because, politically, it does the NDP little good to rob ridings from the Liberals, said Henry Jacek, a professor of political science at Hamilton's McMaster University.

Mr. Layton “won't admit it, [Liberal Leader Stéphane] Dion won't admit it, but I think their strategy has to be that, between the two of them, they have to have enough seats where they can challenge Harper on a non-confidence motion after the election,” Dr. Jacek said. “I think what he's hoping is that he and Dion will make a deal and that they will put a joint motion together that, if they should win it, they would then form a coalition government with Dion as prime minister and Jack a deputy prime minister.”
Now, as NDP sources note later in the article, Jacek's view is purely a matter of outside speculation. And indeed Jacek's opinion seems to miss the seemingly significant importance of being able to contribute a larger proportion of seats to any coalition that might eventually come about.

That said, there's still a striking contrast between a Lib focus on eliminating competition to the left even if it strengthens Harper's hand, and an NDP strategy which continues to be aimed at taking on the Cons when it counts. And it may be just that contrast in priorities which solidifies the New Democrats' position as the best choice to take on Harper in this election and beyond.

Striking distance

While it shouldn't come as much surprise that the race in Palliser looks to be a close two-way race between the Cons' Ray Boughen and the New Democrats' Don Mitchell, the appointment of Cal Johnston as the Libs' candidate had seemed to make for slightly more danger of a three-way race. But the release of a poll showing Mitchell within 6 points of Boughen among all voters - with Johnston a distant third, and nearly 19 per cent of voters undecided - should leave no doubt who's in the best position to move the riding out of Conservative hands.

On turnabout

Canada's political parties are back on the campaign trail after debates the previous two nights. And in building on Jack Layton's momentum from last night, the New Democrats are turning one of Gilles Duceppe's most quoted comments against him:
"What I hoped became clear from the debate is that I'm running for prime minister and there's two others that are presenting themselves, one of whom who supported the other for the last year."

Layton made the comments in a working-class Montreal neighbourhood that has traditionally voted Liberal, but switched to the Bloc Quebecois in the 2006 election. He dismissed suggestions that the Bloc has a platform with the same policies as the New Democrats.

"It's not similar, Mr. Duceppe has decided that Mr. Harper should continue on as prime minister and I don't accept that at all."
Now, I'd think there's still ample room to expand on today's theme and tie Duceppe to Harper's first two budgets which his party helped to pass. But it's certainly worth pointing out that Duceppe's comment that he expects Harper to remain in the PMO serves as a sure signal that the Bloc isn't even trying to remove the Cons from power.

As a result, Quebec voters who want to actually stop the Harper agenda can't take the Bloc seriously in claiming to have either the ability or the desire to do so. And with the New Democrats serving as the next choice for a substantial number of Bloc voters, a strong push to sell that message could offer the opportunity for Layton to put a dent in Harper's chances both in Quebec and across the country.


Having already commented on Jack Layton's success in last night's debate, I'll add a few notes on the other leaders' performances.

The reviews for Elizabeth May have largely been positive (and not without reason), but a couple of key points about her performance seem to have been missed in the commentary I've seen so far.

First off, May's preferred type of attack seemed somewhat different than most of the other leaders' lines. While the other national leaders' most memorable lines were in the form of 5-10 second sound bites which would play just as well out of context as within it, May's strength was in heckle-type interjections within the flow of other leaders' longer answers. Which worked well for the time of the debate, but may also make it difficult for May to leverage her most effective moments into ads or clips which would be able to stick for the rest of the campaign.

Second, May's choice of scripted answers was also striking at times. I was pleasantly surprised to see her mention the link between NAFTA and health care, and the choice of PR as her top policy priority was certainly a positive one. But her efforts to test the boundaries of the debate weren't always so successful, sometimes resulting in her removing herself from the conversation around her.

On the whole, I'd have to think May will be happy with her result. But it remains to be seen whether it'll be enough even to get her into contention in Central Nova, let alone turn the Greens into a party capable of winning seats elsewhere. And if she's still around to contest the next federal election, I wouldn't be surprised to see her adopting more of the convention debate tactics.

As mixed a review as that seems to be, it placed May solidly in second place in my books. Behind her would be Dion, who was obviously on guard against the risks of auditioning for the role of opposition leader, but may have managed to lose even that title by weakly defending himself and his party when they did come under attack.

Which isn't to say that he necessarily had any good choices in the matter: in particular, Layton's mention of the Libs' propping up Harper may have been just the kind of thing that would have set off a classic whine about unfairness which would have made Dion look even worse. But Dion had too much to prove to try to stay above the fray - and his actual performance may be just the opening Layton needed to start his push to overtake the Libs as the main counterforce to Harper.

Speaking of whom, I'm not entirely sure how some reports have labeled Harper the winner (though I started watching after his shot at Dion which has proved to be his most-cited line). While Layton and Dion auditioned for the top job in the country, Harper seemed to be applying for a lower-level position on the Cons' third-string rapid-response team, offering little besides nonsensical attacks on the other leaders and "daddy knows best" pablum.

I'd have to figure that the Cons have something up their sleeve for the rest of the campaign. But if they're planning on simply trying to coast from here on their base and turnout operation, Harper's performance only gave the opposition parties plenty of ammunition to portray him as having nothing useful to offer.

As for Duceppe, he largely seemed to mail in his performance, having figured that his performance in the French debate likely sealed his party's standing as the top seat-winner in Quebec. Though kudos to him for using that kind of low-pressure situation to show off Harper's stubbornness in refusing to admit that he personally was wrong even on an issue as toxic as the war in Iraq.

So what impact will the debates have on the rest of the campaign? My impression is that only Layton and May could have benefitted at all from last night's debate - and even for them it'll take a concerted effort to keep some of the positive impressions in the public eye as the media focus turns elsewhere. But we'll find out soon whether anybody will be able to turn the most public events of the campaign to their advantage as the race winds down.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Defining lines

For a general analysis of the English debate tonight, Warren Kinsella nicely pegs how the leaders performed. But it's also worth noting how a couple of the lines may serve to set up the campaign's home stretch.

First off, there's what looks to me to be Jack Layton's best line of the night (if only one among many). And for all Layton's blows on Harper, the most significant one was his declaration to Dion: "You can't do your job as Leader of the Opposition. I don't know what you're doing running for Prime Minister."

Between that type of take-away line and an otherwise unimpressive performance, Dion figures to have lost any momentum he'd managed to pick up during the French debate and more. And of course the last thing Dion could afford was for Layton to be the one to land that type of shot.

Mind you, the fact that Layton's best attack was directed at Dion doesn't mean that Harper emerged unscathed. Indeed, while all of the other leaders managed to get to him at times, Harper's worst damage may turn out to have been self-inflicted.

I'm sure Harper was trying to pretend to empathize with voters in claiming that he knows what it's like to be out of work. But even on its face, the line is bound to ring hollow in comparing the experience of a Prime Minister who's gone out of his way to insulate himself from the general public (and who certainly doesn't seem to have faced any real danger of lacking a source of right-wing welfare) to Canadians who face genuine uncertainty in their own lives.

What's more important, though, is the riposte it sets up for Layton. Having built his campaign built around the idea of the election as a job competition, Layton can now respond by saying that Harper sorely needs a reminder of what it's like to lose his job - and that the election provides exactly the right opportunity to make that happen.

Of course, both the Libs and Cons have strong incentives to try to take the message in different directions for the next couple of weeks. But both Layton's strong performance and the emergence of themes which fit into a New Democrat-friendly narrative give reason to suspect that the NDP is set to finish the campaign as the party on the upswing.

Rules of evidence

Julie Smyth is right to point out that all of Canada's federal parties seem to have caught on to the tactic of claiming victory following last night's debate. But it's worth noting that of all the examples listed by Smyth, only the New Democrats didn't have to make up their own praise in order to do so:
The NDP issued a news release Wednesday night that was full of blog comments praising Jack Layton's performance. The party lifted favourable comments from the online versions of Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen.
Compare this to the Cons in particular, whose trustworthy, unbiased sources of compliments were...the campaign's own co-chairs:
Meanwhile, the Conservatives issued a news release praising the party and Stephen Harper. It included lengthy quotes from all three Conservative campaign co-chairs. The news release, sent out Wednesday night, carried the headline “HARPER SCORES ON ECONOMY” and was full of flattering remarks from Conservative Senator Marjory LeBreton, Conservative MP David Emerson and former Conservative premier Bernard Lord.
No word yet as to whether any or all of the co-chairs were even informed about the quotes that were sent out in their names.

In turn, while the Libs and Greens weren't quite so blatant as to quote their own party's figures as authorities on who won the debate, they too seem to have been limited to making up their own compliments for their press releases.

Which means that while everybody was obviously keen to declare victory, only the New Democrats bothered to seek any outside evidence to support the claim. And that should speak volumes about how much each party's war room can be trusted as the campaign progresses.


While New Democrats have to be happy with Jack Layton's performance in last night's debate, it does seem fairly clear that Stephane Dion's cry for attention did manage to elevate his profile. But with nobody having apparently answered the Libs' surprise economic announcement in substance, there should be plenty of room for Layton to take the initiative tonight in deconstructing it.

Now, it helps that the plan can be nicely slotted into the New Democrats' main campaign frame. When the economy is raised as an issue, Layton can point out that while Harper's answer is to do nothing at all, the Libs' only concrete proposal is a make-work project for Canada's boardrooms.

From there, Dion's proposal can be analogized to the process south of the border. There, the initial proposal from similarly-positioned regulators would have led to an accountability-free, $700-billion bailout for the financial firms who caused the problems, and not a cent to help families stay in their homes through anything but the remotest of trickle-down effects.

To the extent that the initial U.S. plan has been improved, it can be argued to have happened only because some leaders in Congress were willing to speak up to defend Americans at large against the attempt to push through a corporate-friendly plan. Which can then be argued to signal the need for more political efforts to defend the interests of working Canadians - not more assumptions that the same organizations who would be on the hook for any failures should have the first and last word in resolving them.

There may also some limited room to attack the Libs' focus on diverting infrastructure and manufacturing money to crisis resolution by questioning whether a focus on using those funds now would lead to decisions which are ultimately less effective for those sectors in the longer term. But that kind of attack would likely backfire unless there's some alternative means proposed to pay for the costs of reinforcing Canada's economy.

Of course, some elements of the Libs plan such as an expedited fiscal updated have already (and rightly) been agreed to by the New Democrats and Greens. But with Layton already focusing on the problems with corporatism, it should be an easy step to point out that the answer to a crisis isn't to let Bay Street dictate what solution would be best for itself.

On desired reactions

Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to watch last night's French debate - and have seen nothing but conflicting commentaries on who ultimately helped or hurt their cause the most. But a combination of post-debate and other polling suggests that Jack Layton may have outdistanced the pack on the attributes which Canadians value most.

To figure out what those attributes are, the Globe and Mail points out the following ranking from respondents to an IRG poll:
When asked to rank attributes they value in the Canadian debate, respondents rated empathy, or understanding “people like me,” as No. 1. This was followed by the ability to speak well, thinking quickly on their feet, looking knowledgeable, appearing trustworthy, not looking “like a deer in the headlights,” and a good sense of humour.

Mr. Harper outscores his Liberal, NDP, Bloc and Green rivals on five of seven counts, but trails Mr. Layton on the most important trait – empathy – as well as the least important one: sense of humour.
Now, I haven't yet seen polling on those exact questions from last night's debate. But from the Ipsos-Reid polling mentioned by Andrew Coyne, Layton looks to have ranked at or near the top on the ones which best fit into the top-rated attributes:
Likeability of the Leaders…

Jack Layton scored the best in terms of likeability with 46% of viewers (down 12 points) saying that he was the most likeable and the person they’d most like to go out for a beer or coffee with. Next was Gilles Duceppe (18%, up 1 point), Stephan Dion (14%, up 5 points), Stephen Harper (10%, up 2 points) and finally Elizabeth May (9%, up 6 points).

Impressions of the Leaders…

Subtracting worsened impressions from improved impressions, opinions of Stephane Dion improved (net +56) the most as a result of the debate, while Jack Layton (net +48) also fared well. Gilles Duceppe (net +30) also had a solid performance, according to those who watched the debate, as did Elizabeth May (net +18). Opinions of Stephen Harper plummeted (net -39) among those who viewed the debate.
Of course, the perennial question is how far Layton's continued personal appeal can go in pushing voters to support New Democrats generally. And there's some reason to wonder how much of Layton's success last night will be remembered by election day, as Layton seems to have been largely frozen out of today's headlines despite what was by all accounts at least a solid performance.

That said, the debate polling does suggest that Layton's French debate performance offered voters exactly what they're looking for. And that has to give Layton and his party a strong chance of continuing to build momentum for the rest of the campaign.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Useful guidance

For those who haven't yet seen Alice's post on the dangers of strategic voting, it's definitely worth a look. While I've discussed before the benefits of voting for the party one most agrees with rather than some lesser choice, Alice's post is particularly important in recognizing the types of incentives created when a party is able to successfully convince voters to vote "strategically" as the term is usually understood:
I am sorry to say this, but people who claim to be "voting for the environment" are spending more time poring over past voting statistics (as prepackaged and interpreted for them by others) and daily rolling-polls, than they are actually spending poring over the environmental platforms and proposals of the political parties they are considering voting for. In the Skinnerian world of electoral mandates, these voters are unfortunately and unwittingly rewarding cynically manipulative electoral strategies, rather than thoughtful platform development, in our politicians. And afterwards they'll be more disappointed than ever...

If all a politician has to do to get your vote is convince you they're more likely to win, just think what kind of Parliament you're going to get: an even scrappier place filled with people who've learned the only way to survive is to win at all costs.

On complicity

Following up on this post, let's note what Chantal Hebert says about Jack Layton's goal for tonight's French debate - but also point out just how well it figures to fit into an economy-based theme:
If Harper holds an ace over his Bloc opponent going into tonight's debate, it is the economy. It supersedes every other issue this week and it is more credibly advanced from the perspective of a governing party than from that of a permanent opposition one.

Duceppe will also have to spend some debate time looking over his left shoulder. In this campaign, the NDP has had more prominence in Quebec than ever before and Layton has the potential to emerge from the French debate as the sentimental favourite of many wavering Quebecers. The NDP remains the default choice of too many soft Bloc supporters for Duceppe's comfort.
Now, it's possible (if far from certain) that an economic focus works to the Cons' advantageto the extent the Cons and Bloc are fighting for voters. But Hebert seems to miss the even bigger opening on the left, as the economy is also one of the issues where the Bloc can most easily be tied to the Cons.

After all, it was Duceppe and his party who backed Harper's first two budgets: the first as an inexplicable free pass, the second (long after the first round of Con cuts which the Bloc now criticizes) based on prioritizing federalism issues over social values.

Which means that as much as Layton can paint the Libs as having offered no opposition over the last year, he'll equally be able to criticize Duceppe for allowing the Cons' right-wing agenda to take root before that. And now that the up-front money to Quebec which made those votes palatable to the Bloc at the time is a thing of the past, Duceppe may have an awfully tough time explaining why anybody should believe that he'll have either the ability or the inclination to stand up to Harper in the future.

Harper's little helpers

So far I've avoided commenting on what looks to be the worst example so far during the campaign of media doing the Cons' job for them. (Which is a damning title indeed, considering CanWest's tireless efforts to hide the cost of the Cons' promises.)

But since the Globe and Mail insists on keeping it front and centre in its online election coverage, let's ask the question: why would a media outlet even consider presenting a hypothetical platform based on "putting a party's campaign promises and stump speeches into the perspective of government" when that party can't be bothered to do so?

On leadership

Paul Wells points out the party standings in the latest CROP Quebec polling which shows the New Democrats tied with the Libs at 16% in the party standings. But there's another finding which looks to be far more significant, as Jack Layton is now up to 27% in the "best prime minister" numbers in the province - only five points behind Harper's 32%.

So what makes that important? While regional and national polls alike have consistently shown Layton ahead of Stephane Dion for second place in "best PM" numbers, this appears to be the first poll where Layton is more than a distant second behind Harper. And as long as neither Layton nor Dion moved near Harper's territory, the obvious story to be told was about Harper's lead rather than any race for the position.

Now, Layton is breathing down Harper's neck in Quebec in a poll which mirrors the preferred ballot question for both the New Democrats and the Cons. And he's arrived in that position just in time to get to make his case in tonight's French debate - offering an ideal opportunity to convert positive personal impressions into party support.

Of course, there's never any guarantee as to how well the effort will work. But all indications seem to be that Layton is peaking at just the right time to firm up any soft Quebec support as well as push leaners into the New Democrats' corner. And if he's able to get that done in Quebec tomorrow - and make that the narrative which emerges out of the debate - then that can only set the stage for a similar national push for the rest of the campaign.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Unanswered questions

For obvious reasons, the news that Stephen Harper's speech in Parliament on the Iraq War was largely plagiarized from John Howard has been a major topic of discussion today. But let's note a couple more reasons why the Cons' attempt to place responsibility solely with an aide rings hollow at best.

First, Harper himself made reference to Australia's involvement in the Iraq invasion in question period on March 19, 2003. Which obviously suggests that he and his party were paying attention to what Howard was saying at that time.

Second, March 19, 2003 was also the date of George W. Bush's address to the U.S. to push the war. Which, needless to say, would have made for the major story in the U.S. media which Harper considers his preferred source of news.

So both Australia's involvement and the prospect of a broad public speech were surely both well within Harper's contemplation before he delivered his own address to the House of Commons. With that background, is it even faintly plausible that Owen Lippert alone out of the entire Official Opposition and its staff thought to see whether Howard had also delivered any speeches related to the war before Harper's address to Parliament? Or before Harper had the speech reprinted multiple times in the weeks afterward?

Of course, it would be difficult at the best of times to figure out who else may have had knowledge of the plagiarism - and may be virtually impossible when the culprits are members of a party notorious for closing ranks rather than answering honestly when faced with damaging accusations. But the fact that Lippert has attempted to take all the blame personally looks highly suspect. And the more the Cons try to plead ignorance on behalf of everybody else within their party, the more reason there may be for suspicion that Harper himself was among those who's being protected from responsibility.

Economy sized

Paul Vieira offers one possible criticism of the Cons' call to focus more debate time on the economy, arguing that it's a matter of political opportunism. But am I the only who also thinks the Cons are likely to do themselves more harm than good if they succeed in shifting the focus?

Of course, it's true that the Cons' current branding strength is based largely on their perceived competence on the economy. Which perhaps explains some superficial appeal to their emphasizing it as an issue.

But the more time the debate focuses on the economy, the more opportunity there is for minds to be changed on the issue. And I'd have to think there's some real possibility of that happening.

After all, with just a couple of minutes apiece to talk about the economy under the current format, each opposition party would figure to have to spend more time trying to sell itself rather than taking direct aim at Harper. But given 10+ minutes apiece to work with, each would be able to make its own pitch while leaving plenty of time to develop strong and potentially reinforcing critiques of Harper and his Bush/McCain "fundamentals are sound" position - offering a perfect stage to demolish the myth of Conservative responsibility once and for all.

And while Harper would also get more time personally to discuss the economy, I'm not sure that would do him much good.

After all, economic issues are no exception to the Cons' apparent campaign strategy of attacking their opponents constantly and scrupulously avoiding offering up any meaningful plan in hopes that they can get away with saying nothing. But given more time to deal with the topic, there would be a natural expectation that Harper would actually offer up some details about what he'd plan to do, rather than his usual idle assurances that a Con majority will make everything all right and attacks on the opposition parties. And the pressure would be especially strong on Harper after he'd made the first move to push the debate in that direction.

In sum, the downside risks for the Cons in trying to focus the debates on the economy may far outweigh the benefits of turning more discussion toward the Cons' branding to date. Which means that if Harper wants to suggest an in-depth discussion of the economy, the opposition parties should be happy to take him up on the offer and get to work on their lines of attack.

Update: Mind you, Saskboy's suggestion would be even better.

Edit: fixed link.

Up for debate

With the debates not far away, I'll take a few minutes to address what looks to me to be the most interesting question facing Jack Layton: namely, how to deal with Stephane Dion. There can't be much doubt that Layton will need to spend most of his time attacking Stephen Harper and highlighting the New Democrats' policies - but how should he handle the other leader who'll be claiming to be the main alternative to Harper?

From what I can tell, the best answer can be found in what still strikes me as a significant weakness of Dion's. I've pointed out before that Dion seems determined at times to focus more on perceived slights to himself and his party than on issues which are likely to resonate with voters. And that only seems to have intensified during the course of the campaign, with Dion using up valuable media exposure on such messages as "Canadians want to know me" and "Canadians are dying to vote Liberal" rather than anything which could possibly be relevant to anybody who isn't already a fierce partisan.

From that track record, it seems that Dion's instincts are simply to assume that Canadians generally are just as focused on putting the Libs first as he is. And with Dion apparently looking to be more spontaneous for the balance of the campaign, that's an impulse which Layton should be able to use to his advantage.

What's more, Layton wouldn't need to attack Dion at all to do so. Instead, I'd recommend simply planting the seed of Con "unfairness" or bullying in the context of the policy issues which Layton is talking about anyway - e.g. the decision to trash Bill C-30 after the opposition parties agreed to amendments on it, or the effect the Cons' dirty tricks manual has on the ability of Parliament to function for the benefit of Canadians generally. And crucially, those references should be made in a way that Dion would agree with rather than wanting to refute.

From there, I'd have to think Dion's reaction would be first to agree with Layton in substance, and then to seek to top Layton's examples with what he perceives to be even greater outrages directly primarily at the Libs. Which would have the effect of reinforcing the anti-Harper message which all the opposition parties are looking to sell, while at the same time establishing a gap between Dion's main priorities and those of Canadians generally.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the New Democrats are looking at the debate in terms of that type of strategic opportunity rather than simply using it as a conduit for the party's message as it seemed to in 2006. And if Layton is going for the latter effect, then the obvious choice would be to lump the Libs in as a Bay Street party within the usual themes of the campaign and leave Dion to respond to that.

But once again, it seems to me that the most important effect of the debate is to shape the narrative for the rest of the campaign - whether or not the above strategy is the one the New Democrats choose to go with. And the more Dion gets sidetracked into talking about slights to his party rather than policy, the more likely Layton is to emerge as the consensus winner.

On efficient investments

I'll take a moment to highlight Andrew Jackson's post yesterday on the relative effect of the main business incentives offered by the federal parties, which deserves more attention than it's received so far.

Now, Jackson doesn't even get into the equally important question of whether tax policy is really seen as a more important inducement to business than factors like an educated workforce, well-maintained infrastructure or consumer stability. But even assuming that the federal government's tax treatment of businesses will determine how well Canada weathers the current financial storm, it would seem obvious that the best strategy to minimize any damage is to encourage capital investment rather than profit-taking. And with the New Democrats alone actually seeing that investment as a priority, voters looking for the party most in tune with Canada's fiscal needs have another reason to favour the NDP.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A missed opportunity

Following up on Jack Layton's call for a meeting of federal leaders to discuss the state of Canada's economy, let's note what could reasonably have been accomplished if the country's leaders had heeded the call to work together - and perhaps more importantly, what Stephen Harper apparently considers more important than raising confidence in Canada's financial situation.

To start off, it's highly unlikely that any discussion would have led to immediate agreement on the details of how to handle any crisis. Which makes Layton's idea less analogous to John McCain's efforts to push himself into existing negotiations than it is to Barack Obama's push for a joint statement between the presidential candidates to at least encourage cooperation to deal with the situation.

But even a statement of intention could have been far more significant to ease market fears in Canada - where any final decision would have been impossible since Parliament isn't sitting to work out the terms of any bill anyway - than in the U.S. where it was actually possible to deal with legislation immediately. That is, as long as part of any joint message included some commitment among the parties to work together to address the financial crisis once the House of Commons sits again.

From what I can tell, that's where the Cons figure to have had no interest in getting involved. After all, they're already busy throwing around threats of yet another election if the opposition parties don't roll over and play dead on whatever crime bill the Cons come up with. And in agreeing to cooperate responsibly on the economy, they would effectively be giving up that leverage for the good of the country as long as the crisis still looms.

Needless to say, Harper isn't one to forfeit a potential political weapon over something as trifling as the well-being of Canada's economy. But while his response is hardly surprising, it also surely calls into question whether Canadians share Harper's apparent view that the ability to force legislation through to jail 14-year-olds for life is more important than working to defuse an economic time bomb. And the contrast is only all the more stark in comparison to Layton's effort to lead the federal parties toward cooperation on the issue that Canadians are likely most concerned about.

All-party responses

A series of shorters on the party leaders' reactions to today's market crisis:

Jack Layton: It's all about Canadians' financial security.
Stephen Harper: It's all about the partisan bickering.
Stephane Dion: It's all about the past.
Elizabeth May: It's all a waste of time. But please, PLEASE invite me anyway.

On desperate measures

Adam Radwanski notes what's indeed a curious choice by Stephane Dion to talk himself up in advance of the debates rather than seeking to lower expectations to make his performance look better. But this looks to me to be only another example of something the Libs have done before: namely, engaging in what's typically disastrous strategy in a two-party race in hopes that it'll at least keep them in the #2 position. Just as Dion initially tried to make the election about him rather than the Cons by playing up the Green Shift, he's now telling Canadians to expect the world from him in the debate in an effort to try to hold onto his party's tenuous position in the polls between now and Wednesday.

Of course, the problem for Dion is that the repercussions of the last such move are still reverberating (and doing serious damage to the Libs in the process). And it would be in keeping with the Libs' lack of effectiveness so far if the one thing Dion manages to sell during the course of the campaign is the idea that he should be held to a standard which he can't meet.

Stability from the bottom up

Let's note one more part of the New Democrats' emerging message which both makes plenty of sense on its face, and has the potential to change the debate about effective fiscal management:
(Layton) also responded to accusations from Harper that a NDP government would be bad news for the Canadian economy in a time of global uncertainty.

"If average families are looked after, if they can pay their bills, if they can meet their monthly mortgage payments and keep they jobs, the banks will be just fine," he said.

"Let's get the fundamentals right for Canadian families."
Particularly with the U.S. meltdown threatening to spill over into Canada, it's worth pointing out the factors which led to the current bailout and continued problems. Not only did a combination of upper-class tax cuts and lax regulation give financial institutions both the opportunity and the incentive to focus on short-term profit-taking without much regard for underlying asset values, but a draconian bankruptcy reform also punished consumers who tried to go on paying their bills rather than simply walking away from mortgages.

In contrast, the New Democrats' plan figures to ensure that more Canadians will have a financial cushion every month rather than struggling to tread water. Which means in turn that financial institutions will have less need to worry about the kind of widespread non-payment that precipitated the crisis south of the border.

And of course, it shouldn't go without mention that the effect of the benefit money would potentially go far beyond the recipients themselves. After all, the pool of money now in the hands of families would provide a strong incentive for Canadian businesses to develop new or improved goods and services in an effort to win some of the resulting business.

In other words, the NDP's child tax benefit could serve both as a financial stabilizer and a spur to new commercial development - helping to benefit the economy at large as well as the recipient families. And on election day, it wouldn't be at all surprising if voters decide that's a better model for development than simply cutting taxes at the top and hoping families can find a way to make do for themselves.

Classified information

There's plenty of reason for skepticism about the theory behind today's Star article on immigration. But it's worth remembering that immigration is another area where the Cons seem to have conveniently timed the election to avoid having to answer for their most important policy plans.

After all, the main purpose and effect of the immigration changes within the Cons' Bill C-50 - which became law in mid-July - was to allow the responsible minister to act both quickly and arbitrarily in deciding whose applications would be prioritized. And all indications are that a round of closed-door consultations were to have ended in mid-August. As a result, the Cons have had time to present their first set of categories before going to the polls if there was any actual urgency to doing so.

By choosing not to do anything, the Cons have effectively confirmed that their justification for ramming the changes through was false all along. But for those who stand to be affected if Diane Finley or a Con successor does get a chance to start the process later, the failure to act before the election is even more important, as it means the Cons have deliberately chosen not to allow voters to see exactly which kinds of applicant they'd favour and which ones they'd cut off entirely. And the fact that they don't think they can defend a plan which is surely ready to be unveiled at a moment's notice should give voters reason for concern that they won't like what's in the works.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Back to the source

With Karl Rove's brand of destructive, image-over-reality politics seeming to have finally run its course in the U.S., it's certainly worth pointing out when it looms large in Canada as well. But it's worth noting that one of the more glaring examples is coming from one of the parties pretending to run against Rove and his ilk.

After all, one familiar Rove refrain is to try to slam an opponent on one's weakest issues in order to deflect attention. See e.g. Bush's campaign attacking John Kerry's military service, or McCain preemptively trying to link Obama to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in an attempt to hide his own campaign's close ties to them.

With that in mind, does Rove get at least partial credit when a party trying to pay for the election's most expensive platform out of an inherently shrinking revenue source accuses an opponent of basing its fully-costed promises on Monopoly money?

On costing

In addition to what looks like a brilliant policy centrepiece, let's note one other seed that the New Democrats have planted in unveiling their platform today:
The New Democrats say their platform would cost $51.6 billion compared with $94.5 billion for Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion's plan.

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has yet to release a manifesto, but the NDP estimate that his tax cuts and campaign promises would have a $48 billion impact on the federal budget, although that price tag is expected to rise.
From the broad coverage so far, it's not clear what baseline those numbers are being compared to or what time frame it covers. And I'm sure that will be looked at in more detail over the next few days.

That said, the NDP has obviously thought out how to refute attacks about the cost of its promises by presenting a platform which it can argue to be the most affordable one presented by the three major parties. And the difference in cost compared to the Libs in particular could work wonders in making the case that the New Democrats can be trusted to run a responsible federal government.

Riding lessons

Apparently a couple of Lib bloggers are trying to deflect attention from the New Democrats' strength in the polls by challenging NDP supporters to list the ridings which the party could win. In the interest of pushing that commentary into the "careful what you wish for" column, here's a relatively quick list of ridings which the NDP can realistically espect to target in the current federal election based on the current trajectory of the campaign.

Before getting to the list, note that I've mentioned before the pitfalls of relying too heavily on the previous election's results to determine where parties stand now. And to further highlight the point, remember that the Cons' 2006 results included ridings where they went from under 5% of the vote to winning the seat. Which means that the below list of 105 ridings is far from exhaustive - and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the NDP has designs on some additional seats based precisely on their being off the radar at the moment.

That said, for the sake of relative simplicity, I've worked off of the complete 2006 federal election results, and assembled the list as follows.
First, I start with any riding where the NDP's 2006 result plus a reasonable share of 2006 Lib votes (keeping in mind that over half of current Lib supporters are willing to vote strategically to stop Harper) would be sufficient to place the NDP in a position to win. From that, I'll:
- add any riding where there are special circumstances which would justify putting the riding in play even though the 2006 vote totals alnoe wouldn't do so. In these cases, I'll include a brief note as to why the riding is included; and
- delete any riding which 2006 numbers alone would put in play, but where there's another reason to eliminate them. (This would consist of Saanich-Gulf Islands where the NDP's candidate has resigned, as well as ridings which I've assumed to be safe Lib for now.)

Without any further ado, here are the ridings I'd think the NDP can realistically contend in if it can put a reasonable number of current Lib swing voters in its column by the end of the campaign. By my count, this includes a total of 105 ridings - with potential to add more if the Libs really do collapse, since a substantial number of the Libs' ridings in Ontario and Quebec are left off for now.

North (2): Northwest Territories, Nunavut

BC (21): British Columbia Southern Interior, Cariboo—Prince George (controversy surrounding Dick Harris' pod people scheme), Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, Okanagan-Shuswap, Skeena—Bulkley Valley, Fleetwood—Port Kells, Newton—North Delta, Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge—Mission, Surrey North, Burnaby—Douglas, Burnaby—New Westminster, New Westminster—Coquitlam, Port Moody—Westwood—Port Coquitlam, Vancouver Centre, Vancouver East, Vancouver Kingsway, Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, Nanaimo—Alberni, Nanaimo—Cowichan, Vancouver Island North, Victoria

Alberta (2): Edmonton East (star candidate), Edmonton—Strathcona

Saskatchewan (7): Palliser, Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, Regina—Qu'Appelle, Battlefords—Lloydminster (Gerry Ritz scandals), Blackstrap, Prince Albert (retired incumbent), Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar

Manitoba (7): Churchill, Selkirk—Interlake, Elmwood—Transcona, Saint Boniface, Winnipeg Centre, Winnipeg North, Winnipeg South Centre

Ontario (40): Ottawa Centre, Ottawa—Vanier, Kingston and the Islands, Peterborough, Oshawa, Scarborough Southwest, Beaches—East York, Davenport, Parkdale—High Park, Toronto—Danforth, Trinity—Spadina, Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, Hamilton Centre, Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, Hamilton Mountain, Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, Welland, Brant, Guelph, Huron—Bruce, Kitchener Centre, Chatham-Kent—Essex, Essex, Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, London—Fanshawe, London North Centre, London West, Sarnia—Lambton, Windsor—Tecumseh, Windsor West, Algoma—Manitoulin—
Kapuskasing, Kenora, Nickel Belt, Nipissing—Timiskaming, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Thunder Bay—Rainy River, Thunder Bay—Superior North, Timmins—James Bay

Quebec (11): Levis-Bellechasse (star candidate), Hochelaga (star candidate), Saint-Lambert (star candidate), Jeanne-Le Ber (star candidate), Lac-Saint-Louis, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, Outremont, Westmount—Ville-Marie, Gatineau, Hull—Aylmer, Pontiac

New Brunswick (5): Acadie—Bathurst, Fredericton, Madawaska—Restigouche, Miramichi, Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe

Nova Scotia (8): Central Nova, Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley (Bill Casey vote split), Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, Halifax, Halifax West, Sackville—Eastern Shore, South Shore—St. Margaret's, Sydney—Victoria


Newfoundland (2): St. John's East (ABC, star candidate), St. John's South—Mount Pearl (ABC, star candidate)

So there you have it. But having met the Libs' challenge, let's offer this question back. Will they work to elect New Democrats in these ridings - and any other riding which I may have missed - if the NDP is ahead of the Libs by the end of the campaign? Or does their commitment to stopping Harper end when another party is in the best position to carry out the job?

Update: Note as well that a commenter at Danielle's blog has already pointed out a similar - but not identical - list based on seats where the NDP has won or finished second. Which presumably means we can add those to the list above as well.

Update: Corrected Manitoba list - see comments.

Game changing

With the New Democrats' campaign based largely on a contrast between Jack Layton and Stephen Harper obviously working splendidly, I'd wondered whether the party's platform might wind up erring on the side of caution in order to keep the focus on leadership rather than policy. But instead, the NDP's largest platform plank looks to be an ambitious and ingenious way to ensure that pocketbook voters look to Layton first:
The New Democrats will today unveil an ambitious new $17 billion child benefit plan that will pay families up to $400 a month per child, sources told the Star...

Families with a household income of $38,000 or less would receive $400 a month per child.

Those earning less than $188,000 a household would get $250 a month per child.

And families making more than $188,000 a year would receive $100 a month per child.

Unlike the current Tory "universal child care benefit" policy, the money wouldn't be taxed.

Also, the eligibility threshold would be extended from the existing cut-off when a child turns 6 to 18 years old.
In other words, anybody who might otherwise have seen reason to support the Cons on the basis of their monthly allowance - or the Libs for doubling the exact same structure for some households - now has every reason to rank the New Democrats as the top choice. Factoring in the increased monthly benefit, the change to make the money tax-free (which was a rightful criticism of the Cons' plan which the Libs seem to have mirrored), and the length of time in which the benefit would be available, the effect would seem to be to ensure that every parent in Canada is better off under an NDP government rather than the alternatives.

Now, the Cons' response remains to be seen. The most obvious answer would be to try to simply criticize the plan within their existing campaign framework of criticizing the cost of opposition proposals. But the Cons surely can't argue that child tax benefits aren't a worthwhile use of money when much of their 2006 success was based on the one now in place. And the New Democrats will surely be glad to spend the balance of the campaign arguing whether money is better put toward corporations or children.

Conversely, the Cons could try to alter their strategy to date by throwing together a plan which would favour at least some parents compared to the NDP's proposal. But that raises the inherent dangers of changing direction mid-campaign, undermining the message the Cons have spent months trying to build and forcing them to defend the new plan against their own now-abandoned narrative that they had already emptied out the federal coffers.

Either way, the benefit plan looks to be an ideal means of both pushing some current Con votes toward the NDP, and fighting the rest of the campaign on Layton's preferred policy terms. And we'll find out soon whether Canada's supposed chess master has been thoroughly outmaneuvered.