Saturday, December 13, 2008

On ground rules

In making the case for the progressive coalition over the course of the break from Parliament, it's worth remembering that there were two primary factors behind the push for a cooperative alternative: first, the Harper government's attempts to put off dealing with the economic crisis which continue unabated, and second, the fact that Harper had demonstrated a constant refusal to deal with any of the opposition parties in anything even remotely resembling good faith. And while most of the Cons' current public push seems to be based on pretending to deal with the first issue, there's every reason for the opposition parties to shine a spotlight on the second as well.

As with the economy, the starting point has to be that the Cons have already lost the confidence of the House of Commons. Accordingly, it'll take a massively different position than the Cons have shown to date to justify a change in outlook among parties who have agreed that Harper can't be trusted in office.

And as with the economy, the Cons have shown that there's no value in mere assurances that they intend to be more constructive than they have been. Instead, what's required are mechanisms in Parliament to make sure that the Cons have no choice but to listen to the opposition majority at all times.

With that in mind, I'll suggest a few steps that the opposition parties should be discussing as requirements for government accountability whenever Parliament resumes (and regardless of who holds power). I'm not sure off hand what mechanisms would work best for enforcing these requirements, but I presume there should be some means available based on the standing orders and committee rules which govern the House of Commons.

First, the Cons have continued to get away with holding back their dirty tricks manual. For them to even pretend to be dealing honestly with the opposition parties, they need to make that public - and all parties need to work together in closing the loopholes which would otherwise enable one party to shut down committees which dare to actually examine issues critically.

Second, some measures need to be taken to ensure that no government can stay in power without the confidence of the House. While the power of prorogation may be a constitutional one which can't be negotiated away, a public apology for shutting down Parliament and clear promise never to do so again - along with a similar commitment from the coalition in the event it takes power - would help to make sure there's a serious price to be paid for such actions. And amendments to the House's procedures to lock in the dates of opposition motions would prevent any government from avoiding a confidence vote through the date-switching mechanisms which both Martin and Harper abused.

Third, an information imbalance between government and others should be rectified as well. Rules should be put in place to ensure that all MPs can get accurate information from the civil service where required, rather than having to rely on the word of the government as to Canada's financial picture and state of government operations. And indeed some formal requirements should provide for open communication between civil servants and Canadians generally, rather than allowing the PMO to control and twist all messages from the public service for political purposes.

In sum, the opposition parties should be able to get plenty of mileage out of a vision of cooperation that actually involves informed and reasoned discussions among equals, rather than a control freak PM brow-beating others into submission. And a consistent message about the necessary underpinnings for any respect and trust in the House of Commons should go a long way in turning the Cons' current bleating about cooperation into an impetus to permanently loosen Harper's stranglehold on Parliament and the civil service.

Update: Scott Reid suggests that the NDP should take the lead in defining the type of mea culpa required from Harper. I'd certainly be happy to see Layton front and centre in shaping public expectations, but for the reasons noted above the most important point is that mere words shouldn't be enough - and indeed it's surprising that Reid would implicitly figure otherwise.

Deep thought

It seems to me that the best way to build public support for an idea is to draw attention to its positive features, rather than to hide it in one's back pocket.

The reviews are in

Paul Wells again:
Stephen Harper spent his whole adult life complaining that the state was no good for anything. Now, under him, it is so.

Friday, December 12, 2008

On lawlessness

The Star adds another item to the list of grossly irresponsible panic actions arising out of Stephen Harper's attempt to cling to power. This time, the Cons are instructing the Canada Revenue Agency to treat part of their fiscal update as if it had passed - even though they prorogued Parliament precisely because the fiscal update was set to be voted down.

Now, I doubt there's much disagreement with the concept of some flexibility in RRIF withdrawals to account for the financial crisis. But the place to debate what kind of flexibility is appropriate and seek formal approval is the House of Commons - and it's only the Cons who have prevented the House from dealing with this or any other measure to help struggling Canadians.

Moreover, one has to wonder how far the Cons might go in trying to pretend that other parts of their fiscal update should be treated as if they'd passed: does anybody think they'd have any scruples about simply instructing the Treasury Board not to pay out the per-vote party funding set out by law, or the Human Rights Commission to stop dealing with pay equity complaints? And indeed, in light of their desperate power grab, there's no particular reason to think that the Cons' administrative instructions will be limited to matters that have even been brought up for discussion.

One would hope matters would never get to that point. But it seems clear that Harper would rather govern illegitimately by fiat rather than not at all. And every step the Cons take to evade the need for Parliament to pass Canada's laws moves us further from anything that could possibly be described as democracy.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Harper's Separatist in the Senate

Buckets points out a 2001 Andrew Coyne column on the links between the Canadian Alliance and the Alberta Independence Party. And there's one connection which seems particularly striking based on Harper's poor excuses for...well, pretty much everything he's done over the past two weeks:
Question 4: Who said, to which gathering of which separatist party, "I wish you every success." Was it a) Lucien Bouchard, then a minister in the federal government, in a telegram to the Parti Quebecois in 1990, or b) Bert Brown, member of the Canadian Alliance and "Senator-elect" for the province of Alberta, addressing the same Alberta Independence Party meeting that Mr. Thompson attended?

The answer to each, in case you were in any doubt, is b). Which raises a further query: What on earth were Mr. Thompson and Mr. Brown, as well as Darrel Stinson, MP, and Ted Morton, Alberta's other "Senator-elect," doing at a meeting of a party dedicated to the dismantling of Canada?
So while Harper is trying to make excuses for an orgy of patronage based on what seems to be an entirely Con-fabricated rumour about Bloc members being appointed to the Senate, one of his only two appointments so far has already been the Alberta equivalent.

Compare and contrast

With the Libs apparently unveiling their idea of an interactive website, here's a quick set of shorters as to the messages sent by Canada's political parties to their supporters:

Thinking for yourself is hard. So let us tell you what to say and do.

We'll consider listening to your ideas - in exchange for a small fee.

Here's an extra way to share content with us and others. Have fun.

The Harper trifecta: undemocratic, hypocritical, and illegal

Andrew Potter has a long ways to go to atone for his consistent efforts to undermine the efforts of the impending Liberal/NDP coalition. But this isn't a bad start:
(T)here has been speculation that Harper would try to attach conditions to the (Senate) appointments, for example that his appointees would agree to step down after 8 years. Or as Bob Fife reports today, “it appears Harper hasn’t completely backed away from his previous policy. An insider said Harper would ask anyone he appoints to agree to step down and run in a Senate election if new legislation is ever implemented.”

It is worth pointing out that any such agreement qualifies as inducement, and is therefore completely illegal.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

To the trough

So apparently Deceivin' Stephen is planning to take advantage of his temporary reprieve by stacking 18 Senate seats. Which raises the question: if Harper is planning to govern for the next month and a half on the basis that he needs to dole out as much patronage as he can before losing power, won't it be all the more appropriate for the opposition to make sure the "losing power" part of that scenario comes to pass?

The reviews are in

Frances Russell:
Harper runs a wrecking crew, not a government. Parliament's well is poisoned and separatist fires in Quebec and Alberta are stoked. Harper is prepared to use anything -- lies, vicious attack ads and even mob rule (Transport Minister John Baird boasting about "going over the heads of the Governor General and Parliament to the people" -- to get his way).

Peace, order and good government are out. Rage, ideology and raw power are in.

Action and overreaction

The good news is that rumours of the death of the progressive coalition based on Michael Ignatieff's ascension to the Lib leadership appear to be greatly exaggerated.

But the better news is that the Cons are headed for a full-on meltdown as a result. And when Canadians realize that the Cons are willing to do to the country what they've already done to Parliament in a desperate bid to cling to power, that temporary boost to the Cons' standing in the polls may be a thing of the past long before Harper finally bites the dust.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

One dollar, one vote

Buckdog has already pointed out that the Cons' efforts to interfere with elections for the Canadian Wheat Board's board of directors proved a failure, as pro-CWB directors once again won four of the five positions up for grabs. But take a look at what the Cons' side in the ongoing Wheat Board battle is proposing to try to tip the balance next time out:
(T)he head of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers contends CWB director elections are “not reliable indicators of farmer opinion." With voters lists drawn from CWB permit book holders, the elections are stacked in favour of single-desk supporters, said Cherilyn Jolly-Nagel, president of WCWG.

Instead of CWB permit book holders who gave delivered board-grains in the past two years, votes should be given to producers based on how much grain they produced.

“We suggested … that farmers should get one vote for the first 500 tonnes of production, then one vote for every additional 500 tonnes," she said.

But the CWB’s Hill wasn’t convinced that the weighted vote was the way to go.

“One producer, one vote is the standard of democracy in Canada,” Hill said.

“You don’t vote in federal elections based on how much income tax you pay.”
Which is true - at least until the Cons present their January budget. But for those of us who define democracy as something other than the rule of those who don't own a lot by those who do, the dispute offers a rare peek at just how far Con-affiliated groups are willing to go to try to rig the playing field against public opinion which doesn't fit their purposes.

On best-case scenarios

evening critic suggests in the comments here that the impending Ignatieff appointment could prove to be a plus for the NDP. Now, I've shared the view for quite some time that Iggy could ultimately help the NDP if he plays to type: in theory he's well-positioned to attack the Cons' left flank while himself being vulnerable to NDP messaging.

Not surprisingly, the coalition only raises the stakes in that respect. Indeed, one could hardly ask for a better election frame than one arising out of Ignatieff tearing up the coalition agreement: not only would the NDP be able to attack the Libs for backing out of a cause which has fired up progressives across the country, but it would also be able to point to the Bloc's lack of interest in being part of a governing coalition as an obstacle to the coalition's success. And that combination could make for the best opportunity the NDP has ever enjoyed to make itself into one of the two primary alternatives.

That said, I'd still have a hard time seeing such an outcome as anything but a distant second-best possibility. For one thing, barring a significant shift in electoral support it would likely leave Deceivin' Stephen in power for the balance of the present Parliament and the one to follow. But even the prospect of removing a power-drunk Harper from the wheel in favour of a government which includes NDP participation may not be the most important reason why a successful coalition would be the ideal end result.

After all, the coalition also reflects the best chance in the near future to demonstrate the viability of cooperative politics. While any attempt to predetermine electoral outcomes looks to have been shot down by the failure of the Red Green pact, there's ample room for the coalition parties to demonstrate that it's possible to work together in governing within a functioning Parliament rather than operating based on the brinksmanship of the previous two minority governments.

In sum, a successful coalition would serve as a strong argument against the usual push for majorities at all costs which currently dominates Lib and Con strategy, and in favour of a move toward proportional representation. And that combination could help to set up about the best bulwark available against any future government making Canada subject to the type of power-mad politics of destruction which have characterized Harper's stay in office.

Of course, the NDP has to be ready for the prospect that the Libs under Iggy won't share that vision. But to the extent the NDP puts pressure on Ignatieff as he ascends to the Libs' leadership, its primary goal has to be to ensure that the Libs live up to their end of the coalition agreement. And I for one would much rather see the NDP succeed in that task.

When all you have is a bag of hammers...

Shorter Canada-U.S. Project:

Having spent the part two decades agitating for deep integration with the U.S. under a number of different names, rationales and structures, we can surely be taken seriously when we say the Obama inauguration represents a unique opportunity to do what we've been demanding all along.

Reaching out

Not surprisingly, Diane Francis' blog post about receiving a request for input from Jack Layton includes at least a couple of predictable shots. But it's worth noting that even Francis seems to have come away impressed at Layton's willingness to seek out a wide range of ideas, particularly compared to Stephen Harper's deliberate decision to listen to nobody:
(W)e talked about the mess made in Ottawa by Prime Minister Stephen Harper (with 38% electoral support) who made an unnecessary, mean-spirited attack against the opposition parties, leading to a coalition to try and unseat the Tories.

Why I asked?

Harper decided he didn’t have to listen to opposition parties because he assumed we were weak, said Layton. “Instead of focusing on the economy he focused on destroying the opposition. He should have done what Bill Davis used to do and said give us your best ideas, publicly and privately, and take one of those ideas from each of the parties,” he said...

It’s interesting to note that Layton called me out of the blue before all this Tory nonsense erupted into a crisis because he wanted to tap into ideas from political across the political spectrum. Like Bill Davis used to do.

“I’ve been calling people around the country. You and I haven’t always agreed, but I want to get advice from everyone as to what levers of state should be used, which shouldn’t and what should policies look like?” he said...

He asked about regulation and the financial chaos and I said I supported global governance because there was a vacuum which led to the meltdown.

Layton listened and we debated some issues unlike, apparently, (sic) Stephen Harper has ever been willing to do with those outside his party.
Now, it's downright embarrassing that Francis could take a story about Layton's willingness to listen and tag it with a title about "Chairman Jack". And that may signal that there's a long way to go for Layton to dispel even the most outrageous myths about the NDP.

But it's certainly for the best that Layton is proving himself to be the national leader most willing and eager to look for the best solutions to Canada's economic difficulties - regardless of where an idea may come from. And the more people he gets a chance to reach out to, the easier time he and the NDP should have in responsibly exercising the power they're able to secure.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Wrongful exclusions

While the mainstream media regularly passes off Con spin as expert opinion, the right tries to put together its own claim to mistreatment at the hands of that noted influence on mass opinion: the University of Toronto Law School. So let's see what complaint is being made by media figures and bloggers alike:
University of Toronto Law School stages pro-Liberal rally masquerading as constitutional "panel discussion"

Last week, the University of Toronto Law School held a panel discussion on the Governor-General's decision to prorogue Parliament. I didn't go. But news reports suggest it degenerated into an anti-Harper bash-a-thon.
Now, anybody with an even remotely sound case to make would follow up with the question of how the panel might have lacked for Con representation. But there's a reason why Jonathan Kay apparently didn't bother asking that question - because the answer would completely undercut any allegation of bias.

For the record, here's a notable name on the list of panelists:
Peter Kent, Conservative MP for Thornhill and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Americas).
So whatever became of Kent's appearance?
MP Peter Kent was to represent the Conservatives, but was delayed.
So the Cons were invited to send a representative, who agreed to appear - but then didn't show up, apparently due to a delayed flight. (I'll even give Kent the benefit of the doubt and assume this wasn't a matter of Harper instructing him not to show up.)

Rather than mentioning Kent's presence on the panel as scheduled, Kay instead presents a misleading impression by blaming the law school for the lack of a Con voice. Which suggests that the story ultimately only signals the usual pro-Con orientation of Kay and his employer, who are always far too happy to misrepresent the facts in order to pretend that the right is hard done by.

(Edit: Corrected name. Is there a functional difference between Kay and McParland to begin with?)

Gimme a break

Last week, I noted that as part of the coalition's response to Harper's attempt to cling to power by locking down Parliament, it would be a "gimme" to make sure that the news today - being the day when the Cons were set to be toppled by the Libs' opposition motion - would be dominated by a gathering of MPs and symbolic vote to confirm that Stephen Harper has indeed lost of the confidence of the House of Commons.

So let's see what the Libs have put at the top of the public agenda. There's an internal leadership dispute, and a declaration of their own failure...rather than anything which could possibly create momentum for the coalition (or even against Harper).

Obviously the Cons' combination of greater financial resources and a compliant media will make the coalition's task tough enough to start with. But that makes it all the more important for the coalition to make use of the opportunities it's given. And today's developments are hard to explain if the Libs plan to do anything of the sort.

Update: In fairness, let's note that Stephane Dion's parting message hits the right notes:
I wish to close by making it absolutely clear that my earlier departure does not change the facts of the situation that the Prime Minister has created in the last two weeks.

The Prime Minister and his government refused to lay out a plan to stimulate the economy. The Prime Minister has lost the confidence of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister shut down Parliament to save his job while thousands of Canadians are losing theirs. The Prime Minister has poisoned the well of trust and respect that is necessary for a minority government to work in Parliament - especially in a time of crisis.

Mr. Harper took an economic crisis and added a parliamentary crisis that he then tried to transform into a national unity crisis: this is no way for a Prime Minister of Canada to act.
But I still have to wonder why this couldn't have waited until, say, tomorrow to give the coalition a chance to get its message out first.

More false expertise

When the coalition to make Parliament work first formed, CTV was quick to provide "expert" analysis consisting solely of Con partisans. And it looks like other media outlets are continuing the same pattern of allowing Harper mouthpieces to present opinions and talking points as neutral commentary.

First, there's the inexplicable decision by CanWest to give Garry Chipeur's opinion any credence as a declaration of constitutional convention - notwithstanding both Chipeur's obvious partisan bias, and the fact that his opinion rests on the assumption that the only actual precedents on the powers of the Governor-General should be ignored.

Then, there's the Hill Times' piece on lobbying, which features Tim Powers - yes, the same one who already delivers a steady stream of Con talking points to a Globe and Mail blog - singing the praises of prorogation and bashing the coalition while adding nothing of substance on the topic at hand.

And most glaringly of all, there's Macleans' apparent decision to offer a prime blog spot to the Cons' propagandist-in-chief - apparently out of concern that the informative blogging of Kady O'Malley, Aaron Wherry and others needed to be counterbalanced by unadulterated Con spin.

Needless to say, the Cons couldn't ask for much more generous treatment than to have their talking heads presented as the equal of people who actually offer original points of view and informed commentary rather than merely reading off a Harper cheat sheet. But those of us who would prefer not to see the media turned into a subsidiary arm of the Harper communications department have ample reason for concern.

More like this

Yes, this would be how to draw the strongest possible contrast between the opposition parties' attempt to work together and the Cons' habit of pursuing the most extreme wedge politics they can afford:
NDP spokesman Karl Bélanger said there have not been any detailed discussions about issues such as pooling advertising resources with the Liberals, however he didn't rule it out. He said the NDP would be focusing on engaging third-party supporters, such as the Canadian Labour Coalition, which has launched a radio ad to promote a series of pro-coalition rallies across the country.

"Our plan is to go toe to toe with the Conservative anger machine, and we're going to counter that with a hope machine to give a sense to people that there is hope to be had and there's another way to do politics, and that's what we're part of."

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The reviews are in

It's a shame that we won't have a new federal government to show for the events of the last couple of weeks. But on the bright side, the massive amount of writing about the showdown over the Cons' fiscal update fiasco and parliamentary lockdown should provide us with loads of material for future use in defining Harper and his government - that is, as long as we highlight the best of the choice quotes and keep them in circulation.

I'll suggest that those more technically inclined look at putting together a sidebar piece featuring a "Harper Review of the Day" to better share the material. But I'll do my bit for now by highlighting a few of the reviews we'll want to emphasize - starting with this from Paul Wells:
I hope I have made it clear since the summer that I have come to believe Stephen Harper is turning into a really bad prime minister. He is incoherent, vicious and unserious. His fall update was idiocy on stilts, and when he sent his transport minister out two days later to disown the work of his finance minister, nobody in the country blinked because nobody in the country takes what this government does as a government seriously.

Bloc party

Let's expand on my comment over at Cathie's as to how the Bloc can best force Harper to eat his party's anti-Quebec words from the last couple of weeks.

The starting point - as identified by Greg and Dan - is for the Libs and NDP to signal their intention to vote against the budget, forcing Harper to rely on the Bloc to prop up his government. But the Bloc should do far more than just offer its support; after all, the Cons haven't been shy about depending on Bloc votes before, and can easily say their position hasn't changed as a result.

Instead, the Bloc should signal that it's willing to negotiate with the Cons, but won't offer its support unless a package is forthcoming which is acceptable to Quebec in its view. And of course, that view should be informed based on input from Pauline Marois, Jacques Parizeau and others who have been vilified throughout the Con-created crisis.

Moreover, the Bloc should hold the Cons to their rhetoric about no back-room deals. Rather, the Bloc should present its demands publicly, and insist in return that the Cons similarly let the public know exactly what Bloc demands they're willing to give into.

It should go without saying that the Bloc's fallback would be to continue supporting the coalition - giving the Cons the choice between publicly negotiating with Duceppe, or losing power. And indeed, the ideal outcome would be for the Bloc to ultimately reject the Cons' offers - resulting in Harper exposing his own rhetoric as a lie and earning the ire of the anti-Quebec elements which his party is currently inflaming, while receiving his well-deserved comeuppance in Parliament as well.

The prospect of that scenario is probably exactly why the Cons' first priority for now seems to be to try to win Libs over to their side rather than dealing with the only party which has ever supported a Con budget on the merits. But if the coalition parties stay strong, then Harper wouldn't seem to have much choice in the matter - and the result would definitely be worth a few Nelson-laughs.

Lies and the lying liars who tell them

As is usually the case in the wake of a Con public relations blitz, there are loads of outright lies just waiting to be refuted. For now, let's take a moment to deal with one of the more obvious ones.

Here's the claim of Con MP Leon Benoit, which appears to be a fairly standard Con talking point:
Benoit stated that before the election Jack Layton, Gilles Duceppe and Stéphane Dion all had said they were not in favour of forming a coalition government.
Leaving aside the fact that Stephen Harper personally mentioned the possibility of a coalition, let's review what the other party leaders said about it during the course of the campaign.

Jack Layton was asked many times about the possibility of a coalition government. But throughout the campaign he at least left the door open to the possibility:
NDP Leader Jack Layton refused Monday to rule out the possibility of entering an alliance with the federal Liberals to prevent another Harper government.

“I've worked with any other party. I think people have seen that. Maybe it goes back to my days on municipal council – you roll up your sleeves and you try to solve a problem,” Mr. Layton said in an interview with CTV's Canada AM.

“I think right now the problem we have is Stephen Harper and his Conservatives. They're taking the country down the wrong path.”
Only in the world of Con spin could that be taken as a declaration that Layton wouldn't participate in a coalition. (Indeed, the same article features James Moore bashing Layton for having agreed to the idea of a coalition which the Cons now claim was never discussed.) And Layton's position remained substantially the same until election day:
NDP Leader Jack Layton says he will wait until after the votes are counted tonight to talk about coalitions with other parties.

"One has to see what Canadians are going to decide. After that, one can evaluate the situation," Mr. Layton told reporters at a campaign stop yesterday in the Toronto riding of York South-Weston.
In sum, it should be obvious that Layton consistently left open the possibility of a coalition, and equally consistently took that position that the time to discuss the idea would be after the election.

Similarly, Gilles Duceppe plainly signalled his willingness to work with the Liberals if a particular policy or idea proved to be beneficial for Quebec:
Earlier in the day, Mr. (Duceppe) said he is willing to forge alliances with Stéphane Dion on issues such as the environment to advance Quebec's interests...

“We don't mind if it's a red label, a green label, a yellow label, or a blue label…any kind of label. We look at the substance of each proposal and then we look if it goes in the direction of Quebec's interest and Quebec values. If it does we support it, if not we oppose it,” Mr. Duceppe said.
And of course, it's worth highlighting that the Bloc's involvement is limited to having accepted the proposal to bring down Harper's government and support the Lib/NDP coalition. Which would plainly fit within the type of action Duceppe suggested would be appropriate for his party.

In sum, the Cons are flat-out lying about what two of the three opposition parties said during the course of the election campaign - and all in the name of an argument about honesty and legitimacy. And their demand for another election to ratify a concept which was already obviously in front of Canadian voters represents little more than a declaration of entitlement to decide for the opposition parties when and how they can discuss working together.

(Edit: fixed typo.)