Saturday, November 29, 2008

Prorogue elements

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that Deceivin' Stephen will do anything at all to cling to power, regardless of what a democratic vote in the House of Commons might conclude. But it's worth noting just how asinine it would be for the Cons to follow through on their latest delay tactic of once again proroguing Parliament.

After all, prorogation wouldn't do anything substantive to change the reality of an opposition united in its recognition that Harper can't be trusted with power. Which means that the potential upside for the Cons would consist of nothing more than delaying things in hopes that something outside the Cons' control would work to their favour - making for as sure a sign as any of a politician and party in serious trouble.

But prorogation would ensure that Parliament isn't in session to pass any emergency legislation needed to deal with that financial downturn which Harper still claims to be concerned about managing. And if Harper has so far turned some public attention toward the opposition parties through talk of a coalition, he can be sure that he'll be back squarely in the line of fire if he pulls the plug after mere days of a new session.

Which isn't to say that he isn't desperate enough to try it. But it would offer just one more conclusive indication that the Cons are willing to throw Canada's economy under the bus to save their political hides - and all the more evidence that a coalition government figures to be far more responsible in running the country.

On starting points

John raises what looks to be one of the stronger concerns with the prospect of a coalition government - namely, the question of who really wants to be in power at a time when the economy is in such dire straits. But it's worth noting that to the extent a coalition will be judged on how the economy performs on its watch, much of the danger can be alleviated if the opposition parties remind Canadians of where we are already.

Simply put, the situation absent a move to a coalition government includes:
- an economy headed into recession;
- a budget headed into deficit by all reasonable projections (and even by Deficit Jim's cooked books absent heavy cuts and sell-offs); and
- a government which can't be bothered to deal with either of the other problems.

While Canadians may still be accustomed to better times from before Harper took office, the reality is that the progress of Canada's economy under a coalition can only be judged against the situation facing it from the beginning - which means fixing problem #3 as the means of helping to deal with the first two.

Of course, that's in direct contrast to the Cons, who can be held accountable for starting with a strong economy and fiscal situation, and dragging the country into its current mess through two and a half years of mismanagement. And as long as the opposition parties keep the relative performance of the two governments contrast front and centre - assisted by what's sure to be a parallel argument south of the border - there shouldn't be much prospect of their already-underrated economic reputation suffering in the meantime.


Sure, the ability to seek out Harper-approved talking points makes for lots of fun and games. But to ensure due mockery for the Cons' lack of independent thought, shouldn't any spouting of the Con talking points - whether in online comments, letters to the editor or any talk radio that isn't utterly in the tank for Harper - be met immediately with the question of whether the speaker has any actual opinions that weren't programmed in by party headquarters?

Open questions

One more point worth highlighting about the Cons' choice to play politics with the recession rather than dealing with it as a problem worth fixing:
The Tories plan to scrutinize public reaction this weekend. If they don't feel they've persuaded Canadians that a change would be disastrous, sources said, they may consider describing in more detail what kind of spending they would be prepared to offer and under what conditions they would pump stimulus into the economy.
Which leads to a couple of related questions. If the Cons have those kinds of details available already, what excuse could they possibly have for hiding them rather than including them in their fiscal update? And if they don't, then why would Canadians have any reason to trust a government which first can't be bothered to come up with answers to a financial crisis until they've turned it into a political crisis as well, and then scrambles to improvise policy at the last minute?


The Cons are now back to parroting talking points from on high. But a few responses in the wake of this week's failed brinksmanship show that the pieces in Harper's chess game were less than pleasantly surprised to learn their leader considered them so expendable.

First, there are the ones who were so convinced of Harper's strategic genius that it didn't even occur to them that the opposition parties might actually be able to do anything in response:
Tory MPs seemed thunderstruck late Thursday by the possibility that their second term might come to a sudden end. As some of them piled onto a parliamentary shuttle bus, they were heard incredulously asking opposition MPs if they're serious about a coalition.
But more importantly, there's also been plenty of question from within the Cons about whether Harper really thought out the consequences of his actions to begin with. And that sentiment comes from both the party's braintrust...:
(W)hile the Tories remained outwardly feisty, there were several examples of internal nervousness. One Conservative official said it was unfathomable that the government might be heading for a cliff.

“I thought it was ‘The economy, stupid,'” one strategist said.
...and from the MPs who are now regretting staking their political careers on Harper's judgment:
Many Conservatives had been gleeful about the "poison pill" item in the update: the plan to slash $30 billion in taxpayer subsidies for political parties. But as the political fallout takes hold, Harper's move is widely seen as a terrible political miscalculation.

A Conservative government source said yesterday the idea was Harper's.

Sources said "most" of the Conservative caucus is perplexed why the government moved to put such controversial measures in now. "It makes no sense," said one.

"To date, Harper has been a master at dividing and conquering his opponents," said Conservative author Bob Plamondon.

"But by moving to end the subsidy to all political parties, he has given the three opposition parties unity and purpose. It is a rare strategic blunder for Harper and a miscalculation not seen since (former PC prime minister Joe) Clark toppled himself in 1979."

Conservative insiders across the country were flabbergasted.

"It is 1979 bravado with 1985 facts," said one plugged-in Tory, referring to Clark's bungled confidence vote in 1979 and the 1985 Liberal-NDP accord that ended 42 years of Tory rule at Queen's Park. "The government will fall," he lamented.
All of which offers a strong indication that Deficit Jim's train wreck of a fiscal update - complete with Harper's own interference - could prove to be no less significant a turning point within the Cons as within an opposition which has now put aside partisan differences to present a united front. And whether or not the heirs to the Conservative throne are indeed getting ready to start an all-out internal battle for Harper's position, this looks to be a watershed moment in breaking Harper's hold over his party.

Update: Impolitical has more.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Expert manipulations

Call it anti-reality animus or just the result of staff cuts. But take a look at who's actually behind CTV's report which breathlessly claims that "experts" don't think a coalition government can work.

In fact, one of the two sources cited says that the coalition could well work based on the extreme circumstances:
"My gut reaction would be similar to his (Cooper's). However, sometimes, the political parties in Ottawa get themselves into a situation where they can actually create a momentum that is hard to push back," he said.

"It's possible that they (MPs) are all saying we'll defeat the government. But they don't want to force an election and so they will force themselves to make a coalition work."
And the other "expert"? That would be one of Stephen Harper's longtime confidants who, at last notice, was being evasive (in his own words!) over his funnelling of charitable donations into illegal third-party advertising supporting the Conservatives.

Suffice it to say that if CTV can't find anybody less partisan than Barry Cooper to question whether a coalition can work, then Harper truly has created the conditions for his own demise. And it couldn't happen to a more deserving individual.

Deep thought

If the holdup in putting together a stimulus package is the need to coordinate with what the Obama administration plans to do, wouldn't it make sense to ask rather than sitting around playing political games?

First steps

A quick update on the Saskatchewan NDP leadership race, which looks to be showing signs of getting interesting.

First, at least one potential challenger to Dwain Lingenfelter has taken some concrete action to put his name up for consideration, and also started putting forward substantially the type of message that I for one would like to see out of a contender:
Yens Pedersen, the party president who has temporarily stepped down as he contemplates his own leadership run, said recently he's still weighing his own options and seeing who else gets in the race.

But he expressed his dissatisfaction with Lingenfelter.

"Here's my criteria. What I want to see in a leader is someone who is committed to party renewal, I want to see someone who is committed to doing something about the environment. I don't think I really see that in Dwain Lingenfelter.

"I want to see someone who can unify the party, I want to see someone who can connect with young voters and rural voters. And again, in all of those categories, I'm pretty skeptical about Dwain Lingenfelter's ability to do that," said Pedersen, who narrowly lost as the NDP candidate in Regina South in last November's provincial election.
The fact that Pedersen has stepped down as party president seems to have slipped largely under the radar. To my knowledge, the move makes him the first candidate other than Lingenfelter to put any other personal positions on hold based on the leadership race - and it certainly hints that he has some serious intention of joining the fray.

Of course, most candidacies come with at least some questions which need answering. And for Pedersen, the biggest question (which may well have a solid answer) looks to be the connection between Pedersen's current words and his actions.

After all, when he won the presidency at the NDP convention earlier this year, he did so based on much the same ideas which he's now putting forward. That being the case, I'd expect Pedersen to speak from experience about what he's already done to bring new members into the party, connect with young and rural voters, and otherwise help to renew the party since he took over that role.

If there's evidence that Pedersen has indeed made strides in those areas, then he would seem a natural choice as the candidate of youth and renewal. On the other hand, if Pedersen hasn't been able to make progress toward the same ends as party president, then it'll be tough to entrust him with an even more important position. Which means that the question of how much Pedersen has done to turn the ideas into practice would seem to be the most important one facing his candidacy.

Meanwhile, Lingenfelter himself seems to be taking halting steps toward the view that other candidates should be stepping up:
Lingenfelter -- who has the backing of nine members of the 20-person NDP legislative caucus -- said he fully expects there will be opposition to his candidacy, as is the case in almost all political contests...

Lingenfelter -- whose campaign theme portrays him as the best bet to take on Premier Brad Wall and the Saskatchewan Party in the 2011 election -- said it's up to those arguing for new blood to get in the race and let the voters decide at the NDP convention next June.
Whatever one's take on Lingenfelter as a candidate, that's a position which NDP supporters should be able to agree with. And hopefully before too long, Pedersen and others will have fully engaged in the race.

Making matters worse

The most immediate response to (Won't Admit To A) Deficit Jim's fiscal update has focused on the Cons' attempt to attack the opposition parties. But it's worth highlighting the fact that by cutting back in the middle of a recession, the rest of the update actually figures to make the existing downturn even worse:
As the rapidly worsening global recession pushes governments around the world to step up spending, Ottawa's first official response is to cut back...

By cutting government spending, limiting its transfers to the provinces and padding its revenues by charging commercial banks to partake in money-market measures, Mr. Flaherty said he will narrowly avoid a deficit.

But his moves are exactly the opposite of what many economists recommend in times of recession. Government spending should not be contracting when the economy could use a boost, they argue. In most other developed countries, governments are ramping up multibillion-dollar programs ranging from infrastructure spending to food stamps for the poor.

"On balance, it's quite the opposite of supporting growth," Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO Nesbitt Burns, said of Mr. Flaherty's update. "Under the current circumstances, it's unusual, to say the least, given that almost every other major country in the world is moving to stimulate the economy."...

"I just can't imagine that this document will have any shelf life at all," said Steve Murphy, an economist at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

His own detailed forecast was central to the federal government's case for showing a surplus, but only because Ottawa took his numbers and changed them to assume government cost-cutting, Mr. Murphy said.

"My cynicism has reached new heights. What else can I say?"
Needless to say, Deficit Jim and Recession Stephen figure to have little company in thinking there's any merit in fudging numbers into the new year to see just how much worse things can get before any effort is made to boost Canada's economy. And the more Canadians realize that the Cons alone out of the world's governments are putting their own ideology over the steps which could actually start to reverse the economic damage, the happier they'll be to see a change in government - whether through a coalition or through another election.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Understatement of the day

Jim Flaherty, offering his personal excuse for not admitting to the deficit which he's already caused:
"No government at any level can guarantee the future," said the text of the speech from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on Thursday accompanying his latest economic and fiscal update in the House of Commons.

"In fact, given so much uncertainty, no one could unconditionally guarantee the fiscal projections contained in today's statement."
Indeed, any Canadians looking for a way out of the financial trouble would be well-advised to put money against the Cons' numbers - if they can find anybody to take the opposite side of the bet.

On projection

Someone is definitely showing a degree of pathological desire to destroy the Liberal Party which seems to override any interest in interacting with the real world. But it's not the NDP by a long shot.

The theory:
(According to "various and sundry Conservative pundits, both official and unofficial"), the Conservatives are counting on the NDP eventually coming around to their point of view, on the theory that Jack Layton and company’s almost pathological desire to destroy the Liberal Party forever will override any short-term concern over losing a few million dollars a year.
The reality:
"This is huge. This is so audacious and outrageous," said Pat Martin, an NDP MP from Winnipeg. "This means war."
"They're using the update to hurt their rivals ... it's playing Karl Rove politics - getting people upset against the political class generally," said NDP finance critic Thomas Mulcair, referring to a former adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush.

Rock and a hard place

Not surprisingly, all opposition parties have come out swinging in response to the Cons' attack on political party financing. But plenty remains to be seen as to how the threat will play out - and as is so often the case, it's the Libs who figure to have the biggest decision to make.

Before getting to the actual options, let's note one which is almost certainly off the table. If the Libs were to let the update legislation pass through the House then try to delay or amend it in the Senate, the Cons have set themselves up with a ready response in their intention to include any economic stimulus in an early budget. Given that the Libs are understandably arguing the need for quick and decisive spending already, they wouldn't figure to be able to hold out at that point - meaning that they'd be able to buy themselves a few months at best with delay tactics.

So what might stand a better chance of working? The most obvious possible response would be to emphasize the possibility of a showdown, setting up a staring contest with Harper over the issue. And it wouldn't be the end of the world if Harper refused to blink, particularly if the opposition parties can backstop their position by agreeing on a framework for an alternative government to avoid an immediate election.

About the only problem with that scenario is that it would expose the Libs' rhetoric so far this session as completely devoid of merit: having spent the last month shrieking about how irresponsible the NDP is for even considering voting against the Cons, they'd have to reverse course in a hurry to decide that party funding is worth the potential for an election. And there would certainly be at least some risk that the Cons would try to demand one if they're voted down - meaning that this course of action wouldn't assure the Libs of avoiding the snap election that's surely their worst-case scenario.

That still seems to me to be the best possible option, but there are others which might well come into play. In particular, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Cons are willing to let the matter slide for now in order to bring it up again in the next election campaign - that is, so long as they can inflict some damage on the Libs in the process.

If the Libs figure that's the least of the evils available to them, then they'd likely be best off going directly to the public with a dual message: that unlike the Cons, they want to cooperate to avoid another election; but that public party financing is the one line they won't cross as part of their cooperative effort.

So what's the problem with that approach? By seeking to reach agreement with the Cons, the Libs would in effect put themselves at Harper's mercy.

Remember the heady days of the most recent Afghanistan extension, when Harper's declaration that the eventual vote would be a confidence matter left the Libs negotiating through the media, receiving few responses from the Cons, and desperately hoping that their proposed motion would be accepted?

This option would be much like that, only with plenty more uncertainty added into the mix. In addition to being unsure whether the Cons would pull the rug out from under them anyway, the Libs would also have to start planning alternate election scenarios based on the availability (or lack thereof) of public per-vote funding, and likely have to feed the Cons a list of alternative cuts to justify keeping the party funding in place. And all this while much of the party is already distracted by the leadership race.

Which leads to the capitulation option. While I agree with Northern BC Dipper that it would ultimately be a stupid decision, it's also the one possibility which would arguably give the Libs the most stable base to work from: they'd be able to take the immediate-election possibility out of play, and would know as soon as they made the decision what funding rules they'd have to work with in planning for the longer term.

Now, I'd like to think the Libs are smarter than to gamble their party's solvency on the remote hope that a fund-raising network will spring up where none has existed before. And hopefully the multi-party opposition to Flaherty's move will help steel their resolve. But given the Libs' track record under Dion, I wouldn't want to bank any party's future on their successfully opposing the measure.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Shorter Deficit Jim Flaherty:
In these troubled times, opposition parties are a luxury that Canada simply can't afford.

A shining example

Congratulations to Peter MacKay for offering what may prove to be the definitive statement of the Cons' commitment to openness, accountability and honesty in politics.

Mixed messages

There's been no lack of rightful skepticism about the Cons' poor attempt to change the subject away from their own refusal to do anything about the impending recession. But it's worth highlighting just how thoroughly the Cons are contradicting themselves in trying to do so.

Here's Corn Cob Kory's attempt to claim that the Cons have nothing better to do than to tinker with public-sector perks rather than dealing with the economy as a whole:
"You can't just preach from a pulpit in the House of Commons about constraining discretionary spending and then not actually take measures yourself," said Kory Tenycke, a spokesman for Mr. Harper. "We need to lead by example - that is what we're going to do."
So what's wrong with that picture of preaching fiscal restraint and reduce spending? Compare the message the Cons claim to be trying to send about government expenditures with their response as to whether or not they can be bothered to offer any economic stimulus:
"When is this prime minister and this government going to realize that we need action now, not months from now, to help Canadians get back to work and restore confidence in our economy?" Layton said.

The finance minister, in turn, cited the stimulus measures brought in by the previous Conservative government that the NDP voted against, including reductions to the GST, personal income taxes and small business taxes.

Flaherty said those measures provided a stimulus of almost two per cent for next year, which is more than the United States and other G7 nations have offered so far.
Of course, the GST cuts were the largest and most expensive element of the Cons' pattern of tax giveaways so far - making them the bulk of the stimulus which Flaherty claims should be enough to push the economy in the Cons' intended direction. And the obvious effect of the GST cut is to encourage discretionary spending within the private sector.

So if the Cons are right in saying that now is the time for belt-tightening in the country at large, then they're really only conceding that the GST cuts which figure to be the largest factor in an impending budget deficit were downright counterproductive. And the $13 billion per year thrown away to push the public in the wrong direction far outweighs any amount the Cons can hope to save by nibbling away at the edges of public spending now.

On turnout

One final point of interest from Allen Blakeney's appearance last night.

While I haven't heard any final crowd estimates, Blakeney's book launch more than packed the 190-seat RPL film theatre.

Dwain Lingenfelter's campaign launch attracted roughly half that much attendance.

One can explain the difference away at least in part based on the location, time of day, or potentially more broad interest of a book launch. But it still seems noteworthy that a premier who left office two and a half decades ago can outdraw the apparent top contender for the NDP's leadership - and that may hint at some latent public interest which could be tapped into by any contender who takes up Blakeney's call for participatory politics.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Idle musings

As expected, Allan Blakeney's book launch contained plenty of food for thought - including a strong focus on the value of internal party democracy from a public figure who isn't lacking for major policy successes to his name. But perhaps the most interesting element of it from my standpoint was what might otherwise have been seen as a relatively minor autobiographical detail - namely, how Blakeney arrived in Saskatchewan initially.

Rather than finding his way to the province based on family or educational ties, Blakeney arrived precisely because of the the CCF's time in office. As he described it, Blakeney and other key figures were attracted to the province by the prospect of working within a truly innovative civil service which was able to push the boundaries of public policy.

Which leads me to wonder: is there anywhere in Canada which currently enjoys the same status as a magnet for the best and brightest public-sector minds? Or has the idea of civil service been painted as being mundane enough through several decades of attacks on the idea of bureaucracy that a substantial number of today's potential successors to Blakeney have been pushed elsewhere?

Deep thought

It's a good thing the Liberals have already indicated their intention of giving the Cons a free pass for the fall session; after all, we'd hate to see any avoidable delays in passing a stimulus package.

Worth a look

While the Saskatchewan NDP's current leadership race hasn't yet led to much discussion about the party, those looking for some insight into the future of the party and the province will be able to get that tonight from one of the NDP's past leaders. Allan Blakeney is launching his memoir, An Honourable Calling, at the Regina Public Library Film Theatre tonight at 7.

See the RPL's Events Page for more details. And stay tuned to see if a Draft Allen Blakeney movement has launched by the end of the evening.

Monday, November 24, 2008

On private interests

There's not much doubt that the financial meltdown has led to proposed solutions based largely on ideological lines. But for those thinking that the lone danger to the public sector is coming from Ton Flanagan's musings about an all-out assault on existing institutions, one of the Libs' more prominent strategists is presenting another extremely worrisome position:
If Harper (or any government) decided today to accelerate infrastructure spending, it would be at least 3-6 months at the earliest before specific projects were lined up. At that point, the projects would (if they're of any significant size) start going through an environmental assessment process and receiving other regulatory approvals - a process that can take anywhere from 6 months to many years (in the case of an east-west transmission line, for example, you are likely looking at a 3-5 year regulatory approvals process, and that may be optimistic). If the project is a public-private partnership, which most of these projects should be, you also need to line up a private-sector partner through some form of competitive process and close-financing.
Now, I'm no fan of P3s in most cases, as the assumed benefits seem to be entirely illusory in practice. But to the extent there's any sensible argument to be made for them, it's normally based on an excess of capital available in private markets compared to a relative lack of available money from governments, such that there's at least a case to be made for using private funding in the short term in exchange for publicly-funded profits down the road.

But that "excess of capital" point is an important one. The reality seems to be to the opposite effect: instead of there being a surplus of investors and private capital looking for projects to fund, we're currently facing a combination of evaporating credit markets and investor reticence. And that's exactly why government stimulus is needed to try to turn around the downturn in the first place.

Moreover, the crash in asset values also means that what capital is out there can follow Stephen Harper's advice by pursuing fire-sale bargains, rather than having to pay normal prices for its returns. So much in the same way that any asset sell-off would result in the federal government taking a cut rate for what it now owns, so too would any process of seeking private partners result in a far worse deal for the public purse than would be available at virtually any other time.

And what's worse, the effect could also be more to divert capital rather than to actually improve the current flow of funding. While there might be some incremental increase in the amount of capital made available under P3 projects, it seems to me most likely that investors in a position to put their money behind large-scale infrastructure development would be equally willing and eager to seek bargain capital investments in the private sector without any government stimulus. Which means that a P3 program would all too probably serve only to provide a publicly-guaranteed profit margin to those who are already willing to invest, rather than actually improving the current level of economic activity.

Based on those considerations, the smart public play would seem to be to use the resources of government to build publicly-owned infrastructure. But those eager to funnel public money into private hands are apparently no less eager to use the economic downturn to their advantage than those who are looking to eliminate government entirely. And both pose a significant danger to our prospects of minimizing the damage and emerging with a functional government once it's over.

Update: As pogge points out, Deficit Jim figures to be entirely on board.

Deep thought

If the Cons are really looking for areas where the federal government should be cutting costs, their $4.7 million ego gratification fund should be a good place to start.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Roads to renewal

NDP Left has a thorough review on the Ontario NDP leadership race, featuring a discussion of the most recent candidates' debate along with how the current leadership efforts fit into the wider party-building process.

Meanwhile, Saskatchewan's NDP blogosphere continues to wait for somebody - anybody? - to actually make a race out of our current leadership contest. Which means that the NDP's appearances in the news lately have been purely in response to Sask Party moves in government, while the possibility of any competing policy vision or public discussion of the NDP's renewal process gets ignored.

It's hard to see how even the most fanatical Lingenfelter devotee could honestly consider the latter to be the better of the two possibilities in building a party. But for now, what might well be reasonable individual choices among the possible contenders within Saskatchewan's NDP seem to be leaving the party as a whole with little prospect of drawing anything positive from the process of choosing a new leader.

On close ties

There's been no lack of crowing from the Cons about how the end of George W. Bush's stay in power in the U.S. will make it more difficult to tie Harper and his government to their thoroughly despised Repulican soulmates.

But there may be ample reason to keep drawing the connection if Harper continues to to help Dubya tie Barack Obama's hands in dealing with the financial meltdown. And it surely can't be an accident that Harper and Bush were the two loudest voices demanding an APEC declaration perfectly timed to try to limit Obama's ability to maneuver by ruling out anything that could be construed as a "trade barrier" once he actually takes the reins.

Update: In fairness, the risk of Obama actually being held to the declaration would seem to be reduced when Harper himself is now slamming the same joint statement which he signed onto on Canada's behalf.