Saturday, December 20, 2008

Must-read of the day

Rather than spending time trying to summarize or excerpt Gavin M's latest at Sadly, No!, I'll simply point it out as one of the more hilarious yet frightening overviews yet of just what conservatism really stands for on both sides of the border.

On factual deficits

I commented over at CC about the Cons' latest effort at rhetorical sleight-of-hand. But it's worth drawing some more attention to how Harper and company are trying to draw a false equivalence between a federal budget deficit and stimulus spending to boost the economy - and how the media seems to be more than taking the bait.

Here's my initial comment on the problem with the numbers being tossed around for federal budget deficits and stimulus spending (both of which happen to mirror the $30 billion which the coalition has agreed to for stimulus measures):
The starting point is that the Cons have actually created a structural deficit (to use their term for what they'd avoid) over the next few years. Deficit Jim's current number for that is $15 billion including $5 billion next year, but that counts unspecified asset sales and spending cuts - so the business-as-usual number for the next four years probably is in the $30 billion range.

But that's before any stimulus comes into play. And it's by adding, say, $15-25 billion in stimulus that the deficit for next year alone will likely reach a similar number.

Now, Harper's game is to try to link the two numbers as often as possible in order to pretend that the actual deficits over the next few years are solely a result of the stimulus. Consider it his Saddam-9/11 link - he probably won't let himself get caught claiming directly that the deficit is solely the result of the stimulus package, but will do his best to confuse the issue to the point where the general public sees the two as inseparable.
From there, let's take a step back to what Harper has actually said, and how it's being spun in the Cons' favour. I'll be looking mostly at this Globe and Mail article, but there doesn't seem to be any lack of other examples.

Here's Harper explaining the prospect of a federal budget deficit:
In a year-end interview with CTV this week, the Prime Minister offered a broad outline of what his government's stimulus package will look like when the budget is unveiled on Jan. 27.

He said the program would create a deficit “in the $20-billion to $30-billion range,” and would include measures to encourage consumer spending, housing, work retraining for the unemployed and aid for specific industrial sectors like auto and forestry.
Note the conspicuous lack of any mention that a substantial part of the deficit is something which the Cons had already created regardless of whether or not any stimulus spending takes place. Instead, Harper seeks to paint the entire deficit as a product of a stimulus plan in an attempt to weasel out of his party's responsibility for the red ink which already exists on Canada's public balance sheet.

As hinted at in the comment above, it's easy to see the parallel to the deception which eventually led a majority of Americans to wrongly believe that some link existed between Saddam Hussein and 9/11: by using similar numbers under "deficit" and "stimulus" and using the figures for one to represent the other, the Cons seem to be banking on their ability to build a public perception that the two are inextricably linked.

But then, matters only get worse when Harper's words then get spun to the Cons' advantage by the media. The article mentioned above goes out of its way to paint the Cons' proposals as "stimulus" and the opposition's demands as "deficit spending":
Opposition takes credit for planned deficit spending...

Liberals and New Democrats took credit yesterday for Mr. Harper's sudden commitment to deficit spending in areas like job training and housing, but expressed strong skepticism as to whether they can trust the Conservatives.
Needless to say, not a single individual cited actually phrases their preferred outcome in those terms. And in fact, the only other appearance of the word "deficit" is in a false Con talking point:
“Finally, this government is talking about a real stimulus, which is what other countries have been doing for months,” said Liberal MP John McCallum...

In a year-end interview with CTV this week, the Prime Minister offered a broad outline of what his government's stimulus package will look like when the budget is unveiled on Jan. 27...

“He argued strenuously against them up until just a few days ago, and his government's attacked, very specifically, that size of stimulus package in the House of Commons,” (Jack Layton) said...

“As [Liberal MP John McCallum] said, ‘I would point out that the basic reality is that the NDP does not understand the first thing about economics,'” said Mr. Flaherty.

“That is patently clear when we hear they want to run a $30-billion structural deficit in Canada.”
Which means that while Harper's statement twists the facts to try to conflate stimulus with deficits in order to cover up the fact that his party had created the latter in the absence of the former, the Globe and Mail goes several steps further in distorting reality. And conveniently enough, the result is one which enures entirely to Harper's benefit: to the extent readers fail to question the article's classification, he gets to pretend that the opposition parties are happy with Deficit Jim's sea of red ink and looking to expand it, while getting to wear the label of backing "stimulus" which all parties support.

All of which means that an underlying reality where the opposition parties have consistently shared a common concern about both the Cons' budget deficit and Harper's lack of any stimulus is now being distorted to almost precisely the opposite effect. And it'll take some significant effort to make sure that Deficit Jim and Recession Stephen ultimately wear the consequences of their own failings.

The reviews are in

Ken Dryden, sending the message that I'd hope many more Libs will pick up on:
A Prime Minister sets the tone of the House of Commons. Respect gets respect. Disrespect breeds disrespect. The Prime Minister is now fighting to stay on to win a battle that need never have been fought in the first place. To preside over a Parliament whose dynamics, whose very relationships, he has poisoned and destroyed. It’s too late. This Parliament cannot work with this Prime Minister. All of us have heard the angry voices every day in the House of Commons, and now across the country. Shout and scream versus shout and scream.

Mr. Harper has scorched the earth of civility and trust for all of us. For him, it is over. He cannot be trusted. He cannot repair what is irreparable.

We need a new Prime Minister.

On pressure points

Following up on last night's post about the problem with passing a budget which allows the Cons to determine how money will (or won't) be spent, it's worth noting that there's in fact an obvious precedent available where the Cons attempted to use the threat of not spending budgeted money as a political hammer.

Back in his first months in office, Harper decided to test the NDP by threatening to ignore spending allocated under the NDP's previous budget deal with the Libs:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with two veteran NDP MPs in February to discuss a deal to prop up his government for two years, according to a report by the Toronto Star.

The article, published Tuesday, said Harper met with Bill Blaikie and Libby Davies and promised in return to make good on the $4 billion budget deal negotiated with the Liberals last year.


Sources told the Star that the NDP turned down the offer. Instead, the party contacted groups counting on the cash to lobby the government to save the money included in the deal, which threatened to expire.

The money had to be allocated by March 31, or it would have automatically been used to reduce the federal debt, as set out under the provisions of a spending bill, known as Bill C-48.
Now, the NDP's response at the time was effective in getting the Cons to apply most of the money without the NDP ever propping up the Harper government. And it still strikes me as odd that the example of Jack Layton's success in standing up to Harper under those circumstances hasn't been followed more frequently by the other opposition parties.

That said, the incident should leave no doubt that the Cons are entirely willing to ignore the allocation of money which has already been approved within the federal budget where it suits their political purposes, or at least to pressure opposition parties based on that threat.

Which raises some important questions for the Libs in particular. If they decide to prop up Harper once again on the January budget, does anybody think that Deceivin' Stephen would have any scruples about gleefully using the subsequent allocation of money to once again twist the Libs' arms? And having backed down and kept Harper in power in order to get some stimulus approved, would the Libs have any choice but to capitulate on subsequent votes in a desperate attempt to get Harper to spend the money on anything even slightly related to economic recovery?

Of course, there's little doubt that the Libs will face plenty of pressure from the Cons and the establishment media to focus solely on the January vote, and to keep Harper in office if he shows even the slightest pretense of cooperation.

But taking any view which recognizes what will happen after a budget passes, it should be obvious that Harper could hardly hope for a better setup to once again force the Libs to their knees. And since we know that prospect will always rank above the good of the country among the Cons' priorities, there's every reason to make sure that Harper is removed from any position to keep manipulating the levers of power.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Deep thought

I wonder how much the members of Deficit Jim's Economic Advisory Council will save in lobbying costs by being able to tell him directly how stimulus can help them most.

Update: Partisan Hobo has much of the answer.

Going through the motions

Senator Elaine McCoy rightly points out that while the Cons' first set of budget trial balloons is largely patterned on parts of the progressive coalition's agreed policy framework, it conspicuously leaves out policies which have the agreement of more than half of the House of Commons. But the bigger issue with any attempt by Harper to posture his way out of a non-confidence vote is one which won't be fixed regardless of how many words the Cons borrow from the coalition's policy priorities.

Instead, the fundamental problem with leaving the Cons in power is that while the budget will surely include large dollar figures nominally directed toward worthwhile goals, it will almost certainly leave the ultimate decision as to how to spend the money allocated in the the hands of Harper and his cabinet.

Now, I'm not sure there's another feasible way to manage the required amount of funding other than to transfer responsibility to cabinet. And with an even faintly responsible government in charge, that step wouldn't be a problem.

But given that the Cons have consistently proven to be far more interested in patronage and partisan calculation than in effective governance, there's no reason for any opposition party to believe that Harper would put the money toward reasonable uses after winning a budget vote. And that goes doubly in light of Harper's eagerness to force another election.

Which means that regardless of how many progressive ideas the Cons start parroting in an effort to cling to power, the only way to make sure that the progressive coalition's agreed priorities actually get dealt with is to follow through on the agreed Lib/NDP government.

Update: Jack Layton makes the same point:
Rather than diluting the reasons for defeating the government, NDP Leader Jack Layton insisted Mr. Harper's comments give the plan credence.

“If he is now accepting that the coalition ideas are the right ones, then I believe the best group to implement that program is the coalition, because Mr. Harper doesn't believe in these ideas,” Mr. Layton said.

“He argued strenuously against them up until just a few days ago, and his government's attacked, very specifically, that size of stimulus package in the House of Commons,” he said.

Conditional returns

I'd figured for quite some time that one of the most important questions about Dwain Lingenfelter's run for the Saskatchewan NDP leadership would be his plans in the event that he didn't win the leadership race: would he stay and help to rebuild the Saskatchewan NDP in a supporting role, or would decide it's not worth the trouble without the prospect of becoming premier? Now, Daveberta may have the answer:
High level informants deep in Calgary's energy sector have heard that Nexen has given Lingenfelter a year-off to contest the NDP leadership, leaving an opening for him to return if his bid is unsuccessful.
In fairness, it's not entirely clear that Lingenfelter would accept the opening to return to Nexen. But if Lingenfelter felt the need to work out a specific time frame for his possible return rather than jumping back into politics with both feet, that has to at least hint at the prospect that he'd do so.

Of course, the point may become moot if nobody else launches a serious campaign. And unless Lingenfelter's campaign has been doing nothing but spinning its wheels throughout this fall, the combination of insider support and an extended head start might make it tough for anybody to catch up.

But if it's now clear that the loyalty which many within the party have to Lingenfelter isn't reciprocated enough for Link to stick around if the leadership race doesn't go his way, then the case for an alternative contender can only become stronger. And hopefully one will emerge before it's too late to present a meaningful choice to NDP members.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Deep thought

In these tumultuous political and economic times, it's reassuring to know that at least some things never change.

Top to bottom

With so many glaring examples of high-ranking Cons misrepresenting the most important facts facing Canada, it's easy enough to lose track of just how far the dishonesty goes. So let's note one seemingly remarkable example of Con MP Mark Warawa doing at the local level what Harper, Flaherty et al. have been doing nationally.

Here's Jordan Bateman at Langley Politics:
Langley MP Mark Warawa has apparently told The Aldergrove Star that the Township never asked him for federal money for the Events Centre.

I can assure you we have asked the federal government (many, many times and in many, many forms) for funding for the Langley Events Centre, and the Township's materials will back that up conclusively.

Over the past two years, there were many meetings and letters with Warawa and other Tory officials--both before and after construction started...

If we weren't asking for money, why did the senior Tory senator from British Columbia tell the mayor-elect on Dec. 1 that no funding would be forthcoming? How would he have known we wanted it?...

I'm sure every MP wishes they could fund every project in their riding, but it's just not possible. But claiming we never asked? Or that there is only one program (which, according to his own timeline, didn't come into existence until after the building was under way) for federal dollars to flow into something like this? Come on.

In fact, I was just reading today that Winnipeg's new stadium will get $15 million in federal money--and NOT from Building Canada (see the bottom paragraph of this story). Where there is a will, Mr. Warawa, there is a way. If you couldn't get the money out of Ottawa, just come out and say it.
Now, there may be one key difference between Warawa's response and the Cons' usual communications strategy. Unlike his party's higher-ups, Warawa isn't in a position to control access to the documentation which can prove him wrong. And it's good to see that Jordan seems eager to get the correct information into the public eye.

But then, Warawa's claim - in effect that a municipality chose to avoid having the federal government fund an infrastructure project, rather than having its request denied due to ineffective MP representation - is one which should be easily dismissed by anybody who puts even a modicum of thought into the matter.

Which points to the Cons' common strategy of lashing out against accurate criticism with no regard for truth or even plausibility, with the sole goal of offering up somebody else to blame for their own failings. And if the problem is indeed just as glaring at the local MP level as it is within the party's inner circle, then merely removing Harper at the top doesn't figure to solve much.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Apparently I need to start checking my ballot more closely

Shorter Lorne Gunter, Andrew Coyne, and a stream of Con-friendly pundits sure to follow:

While nobody voted for a progressive coalition, everybody voted for a Con-Lib corporate coalition.

Deficit Jim's Legacy

The Con government has finally been forced to admit what's been glaringly clear to anybody paying attention, as Jim Flaherty's financial mismanagement has led to a balance sheet that only a red ink manufacturer could love:
According to papers released by the Finance Department, Ottawa foresees annual deficits of $5 billion, $5.5 billion, $4 billion and $1 billion in the next four fiscal years.


The deficits are forecast to occur even if the government proceeds with billions of dollars in asset sales and cost cutting it proposed in the doomed Nov. 27 economic update.

The documents also suggest Ottawa may slip into the red in the current fiscal year -- instead of posting the $2.3-billion surplus predicted in last February's budget.
If anything, the second paragraph above may be the most significant: even accepting the Cons' spin about slashing and selling anything they can get their hands on in a desperate attempt to hide the damage Flaherty has done to Canada's budget, they can no longer maintain the claim that they haven't driven Canada into a deficit. And of course, that trip into the red is a foregone conclusion even before a dime gets put into the stimulus package which Flaherty at last notice recognized to be a necessity. Which should provide ample reason to want to see Flaherty and his party removed from any position to keep up the destruction.

A stunning revelation

Aaron Wherry has a profound insight into the weakness underlying Stephen Harper's bullying:
Perhaps one of the identifiable lessons of this month in politics is that, for all the yelling and screaming and frothing-at-the-mouth and arm-waving and and chair-kicking and name-calling and obviously very manly posturing, those willing to stick a metaphorical finger in Stephen Harper’s chest might find his reputed toughness to be somewhat overstated.
Now if only anybody had noticed that sooner...

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Close, but not quite

While most of the NDP's communications about the democratic coalition have been right on point, I have to wonder whether the party's eCards could have been a lot more effective.

Ideally, one would want an effort like the eCards to be sufficiently creative and entertaining to go viral. But the cards consist of only a slight holiday twist on the NDP's existing message, rather than anything which would seem likely to earn widespread interest. (Which would seem possible even within the actual theme - how about a rewritten version of "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" geared toward Harper's childish behaviour?) In the absence of that type of hook, the work put into a reasonably high-quality set of cards figures to reach far less people than it could have otherwise.

Moreover, even assuming there wasn't much floating around by way of ideas for viral media, the cards still seem to be somewhat off the best possible message for limited person-to-person delivery. As much as the NDP does need to be pushing the coalition message and drawing contrasts against Harper, I'd have to think the card context is more a place for building warm-and-fuzzy associations with Layton and the NDP, rather than directly slamming the Cons' shutdown of Parliament.

Naturally, none of the above is to say that a coalition government would be anything short of the best gift Canada could ask for. But while the NDP certainly needs to make sure that Canadians have positive things to say about the coalition over the holidays, it would seem to have a better chance of doing so with a message which either has a greater chance of reaching more people, or at least fits better into the medium chosen.

A new spirit of openness...

...won't be found within the Harper Cons anytime soon:
CMHC is a federal agency that has been supplying mortgage insurance since 1954, and is currently overseen by Human Resources and Social Development Canada.

In response to a question about its accountability, CMHC said in its statement: “The lines of accountability are very clear, like all Crown corporations CMHC is accountable to Parliament through its minister.”

When The Globe contacted Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, her spokeswoman replied: “We will have to decline and allow CMHC to respond to the questions applicable.”

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Just curious...

A quick musing on the correlation (or lack thereof) between the Cons' public statements and reality. When Stephen Harper or one of his minions proclaims that any particular statement X is true, would readers think that the Cons' declaration:
(a) provides reason to think that X is more likely to be true than if the Cons had said nothing?
(b) provides reason to think that X is less likely to be true than if the Cons had said nothing?
(c) is entirely valueless in assessing whether or not X is true?

And does the Cons' recent spate of complete contradictions offer some reason to move both (a) and (b) answers toward (c) instead?

Update: Calgary Grit offers up plenty of good reasons to gravitate toward (b).

On self-contradiction

Sometimes, one has to wonder whether the Cons' ever-changing, ever-contradictory messages are less a matter of perceived partisan advantage than a simple form of amusement to see just what they can get away with. This is one of those times:
"The projects we undertake as stimulus must be immediate, they must happen quickly, otherwise there's no point in doing them, there's no point in stimulating the economy when the economy starts to recover," Flaherty said.
That's right: the same Finance Minister whose fiscal update last month put off any stimulus until well into next year - and who just days ago was demanding time before he'd even consider making any decisions - is now lecturing Canadians on the dangers of not investing immediately in the stimulus which Flaherty himself is delaying. And even that only manages to rank as the Cons' second-most glaring self-contradiction of the day.

At this point, I'm not sure there's any way for reports on any single issue to accurately capture the sheer gall involved in the Cons' reversals. But there should be little doubt that there's every reason to look forward to a government which won't suffer from the same degree of aversion to reality.

On stability

The main sales pitches for the coalition so far have been its relatively progressive viewpoint, its democratic roots, and the prospect of better management than Harper has shown any interest in delivering. But it's worth noting that stability in government should be an equally strong point - and at least one of the leaders involved is making the case publicly:
Even if the budget is passed, he warned of a period of instability.

"Everyone will be talking if there will be an election. Every month, it'll be a new crisis," said Layton.

On the other hand, the Liberal-NDP coalition, with support from the Bloc Québécois, would offer a stable government, he said.
The point should have plenty of resonance for partisans and non-partisans alike. For those who aren't particularly beholden to any single party, the question is whether or not the Cons will get their way in forcing yet another federal election - either immediately, or whenever they can sufficiently poison a bill to force a non-confidence vote. Given that Harper has already shown that he's more interested in brinksmanship than dealing with the economy, the almost inevitable result would be another trip to the polls as soon as the Cons could arrange it - giving the Cons yet another $300 million do-over while leaving the country with even less pretense of management in the midst of a crisis.

And for partisans within the opposition parties, the appeal of a stable coalition should be even more obvious. The Libs surely don't want to go through another year or more of Harper threatening to pull the pin on Parliament at any moment and forcing through regressive legislation based on their submitting to Harper's will. And while the NDP and the Bloc have managed to avoid that difficulty by signaling their intentions early, they'd presumably be glad for at least a brief respite from the need to be prepared for an election at any moment.

All of which means that there's a solid set of points which should make the coalition appeal to Canadians at large: better, more progressive, more democratic, and more stable. And the more that message can reach the public over the course of the holiday season, the more likely we'll be to be rid of Harper before the winter is over.

Cheering for a depression

The Globe and Mail's article on how Harper's musings about an impending depression can only make the economy worse is definitely worth a look. But in tracing the timeline of Harper's constantly-flailing messages on the economy, the article misses what looks to be his most obvious critique of what he's now doing:
Having stoked the fires of regional alienation, Harper went further, accusing Liberal Leader Stephane Dion of "some of the most irresponsible behaviour of a Canadian political leader I've ever seen."

Harper's complaint? Dion's pointed criticism of Conservative economic policy and its impact on a flagging Canadian economy.

"Some Canadians think that in times of economic difficulties, you need to elect a right-wing government - right-wing governments are supposed to be good economic managers in their minds. But it's not true," Dion said Friday in Toronto.

"Each time you have Conservative governments, the economy is not going well. In fact, Tory times are tough times."

Harper, in turn, accused Dion of "trying to drive down confidence in the Canadian economy without foundation - and quite frankly sitting on the sidelines virtually cheering for there to be a recession."
Mind you, Dion didn't actually suggest for a second that a recession couldn't or shouldn't be avoided. Which is in stark contrast to Harper's current message about a depression - now that the Cons have been forced to admit that a recession was already in the works.

Of course, it shouldn't come as much surprise that Harper is downright eager to sow fear about Canada's economy if it'll help to dissuade the democratic coalition from trying to clean up the mess his government has made. But the fact that the Cons are so obviously making matters worse when government leadership is most crucial should make it all the more clear that the coalition offers Canada its best hope to avoid Harper's dire predictions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On radical concepts

A political leader actually listening to somebody other than political strategists and corporate lobbyists? A party which is willing to take suggestions from the public without asking for money up front? Radical economic ideas like help for seniors and affordable housing? No wonder the Sensible Centrists are shaking in their boots over the idea that the NDP might earn a place in a coalition government.

On comparative support

Following up on this post, it now seems fair to say that any Libs who don't think the coalition can do a better job governing than the Cons must have a lower opinion of their party than Gilles Duceppe.

True on so many levels

The Cons' personnel strategy in a nutshell:
Prof. Laidler, who emphasized he was speaking only for himself, said he thinks Mr. Flaherty should have stepped down after he was forced to withdraw the more controversial items in the face of unanimous opposition party rejection of the update.

"He should have resigned either because they were his policies and they were rejected so firmly he had to withdraw them - or they weren't his policies and he shouldn't have allowed them in his statement."

But one senior Tory aide said that Mr. Flaherty is not likely to lose his job because his office is compliant with the Prime Minister's wishes.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fool me twice...

Shorter John McCallum and Scott Brison:
If Jim Flaherty lied to us last time he presented Canada's financial picture, that's all the more reason to trust that his next set of books will be super accurate to compensate.

On betterment

Via Douglas Bell, NDP strategist Brian Topp makes a point worth repeating about the progressive coalition:
The risks (of putting the coalition in place) are:

(a) Would the new government really do better?

(b) What would a period of cohabitation in government do to the relationships between the coalition partners and between them and the accord signer?

To point (a) my view is that folks who answer "no" should not be making decisions for their parties. If you don't believe in yourself, why should anyone else do so?
The point looks particularly important in light of one of the Libs' current frames that the question will be whether the Cons' budget is a "credible economic plan" or otherwise does the bare minimum to stay in power. After all, that suggests that the Cons merely need to present a bare impression of competence within a single budget document, with little regard for their general ability to govern.

Instead, the question should be whether the coalition can do better - both in order to raise the bar on what the Cons need to present when Parliament resumes, and to provide a stronger rationale for voting the Cons down if they fall short of the mark. And if the Libs decide to send the message that they don't see any problem with continuing to entrust Canada's fate to Harper at a point where every party considers government action to be vital to our economic well-being, then there can be little reason to take their word for it when they argue that they constitute a meaningful improvement at the next trip to the polls.

Choosing one's battles

It's understandable that commentators may want to see checks on the power being illegitimately wielded by the Harper government after it ran and hid from an impending vote of non-confidence. And Norman Spector suggests that the first step should be for Michaelle Jean to reject Harper's impending delivery of 18 Con hacks to the Senate trough. But as much as Harper deserves to be blamed for forcing the choice on Jean, I have to be concerned that her following Spector's advice would only make matters worse on virtually all fronts.

As a matter of constitutional principle, I'm not sure how there would be any basis upon which Jean could decline the Senate appointments after accepting prorogation at Harper's advice. To the extent Jean's state of constitutional knowledge doesn't include the fact that the Cons were and are set to fall, there hasn't been anything in the meantime to change that state of affairs.

At most, it's possible that Jean may have set some conditions privately which Harper is now flouting publicly, which would result in some principled basis for denying the Senate appointments. But even then, Jean would have to determine which decision would be least likely to do harm to her office and to the country. And as much as I normally avoid "keeping the powder dry" types of analysis, this looks to be one of the rare situations where it's worth waiting for a more significant issue to come.

After all, the Cons have made it entirely clear that they were willing to stop at nothing to try to cling to power - including potentially trying to fire Jean before she could let democracy run its course.

Now, they're obviously in no position to slam her initial decision granting prorogation. (Though it's noteworthy how few Cons seem to have actually approved of her judgment rather than assumed that no other choice existed.)

But one has to assume that Harper already has an all-out public assault on the Governor-General ready to be rolled out at a moment's notice. And it would be nothing short of a gift to Harper to allow him to launch that attack on Jean over a series of appointments which, while hypocritical and illegitimate, ultimately don't figure to substantially affect how Canada is governed.

At worst, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see Harper replace Jean with a partisan Con over the Senate appointments as his government hinted at doing over prorogation. And even at best, Jean would face a concerted campaign to bow to Harper's will on the appointments, and would almost certainly wind up being pressured not to decide against Harper the next time a key decision fell into her jurisdiction.

Which is a serious problem, since the real battle is set to run at the end of January when the Cons face the confidence vote that they ducked this month.

At that time, the difference between a GG wounded by a Con negative advertising blitz (or replaced by Harper's choice of partisan foot soldiers) and one whose independent authority is largely intact may determine whether or not the toxic Harper regime remains in power following a vote of non-confidence. And the entrenchment of a few more Harper cronies at the public trough on the minority side of the Senate would prove a small price to pay to preserve the GG's independence - and hopefully move Canada's executive authority out of Harper's hands.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Deliberate misinformation

There's no doubt that the results of Dominion Institute's poll on public knowledge about our system of government are worrisome. But isn't the bigger story the fact that the actual federal government has been trying desperately to convince Canadians at large to believe the wrong answers to the last two questions?

On roadblocks

As one might guess from my post yesterday, I agree with Steve that one of the main lines of attack on the Cons needs to be that they're the main obstacle to a functional government. But it's worth noting that the Libs will have an awfully tough time trying to justify that argument if they're willing to throw the coalition under the bus.

Let's start by looking to the core of what the Cons have done to make it impossible to get anything done in Parliament. Probably the most obvious problem is their complete refusal to acknowledge that the opposition majority of MPs has any right to make use of its greater number of seats and underlying votes to question the executive power wielded by Harper. And that has led to the Cons shutting down committees and legislative processes as well as pushing this month's prorogation.

Before the coalition came about, the Cons' main complaint about any opposition cooperation was based on the idea that the other parties were ganging up on them, with few specific attempts to divide and conquer. But in the wake of the coalition, they've tried to make an explicit argument that NDP and Bloc MPs shouldn't count in determining what gets done in the House of Commons.

Leaving aside for a moment the problems with that position from a democratic standpoint, it also presents a serious strategic issue - and no less so for the Libs than for the other opposition parties.

After all, in trying to send the message that more cooperation is needed in Parliament, it would seem to make sense as a matter of principle that nobody would be arbitrarily excluded from being involved in that cooperation.

And more importantly, the only way for the Libs to cooperate in a way which doesn't involve giving the Cons effectively what they want is to work with the NDP and the Bloc. In contrast, by conceding that cooperation has to involve the Cons, the Libs would ensure that Harper controls the agenda in Parliament.

Which means that it's a serious problem if the Cons' communications machine goes largely unopposed in claiming that NDP and Bloc votes aren't legitimate when it comes to the coalition. Once that seed is planted by the Cons and either left unchallenged or outright endorsed by the Libs, it'll surely bear fruit for Harper when it comes to other votes. And I can't imagine the Libs will be any better off letting Con actions pass because they accept the Cons' assertion that NDP and Bloc votes can't legitimately challenge a government than they were standing down based on excuses like "Canadians don't want an election".

Now, the Libs might theoretically be able to argue for the legitimacy of NDP and Bloc votes generally while at the same time distancing themselves from the coalition. But that would make it awfully difficult for the other opposition parties to see them as trustworthy, more likely leading to a reduction in the ability of Parliament to function rather than an improvement. And moreover, it would still represent a show of weakness which would enable the Cons to make much of their message stick.

In sum, for the Libs to mount any credible case that it's the Cons who represent the greatest obstacle to a functional House of Commons, they need to be willing to stand up for both the idea that the other parties can work together, and the the most concrete example of that collaboration. And if Harper is allowed to define the limits of what type of cooperation is acceptable, the Libs can rest assured that it's Harper alone who will benefit from the definition in the long run.