Saturday, December 27, 2008

The reviews are in

Greg Lyle, the Con representative on the Globe and Mail's strategist panel, gives his impressions of Canada's political scene following another year of Harper government:
What was the year's most encouraging political trend?

: I am not encouraged.
What was the year's most worrisome political trend?
Lyle: The ongoing triumph of crass political machinations over any type of idealism.

The road ahead

The CP traces the path of Nova Scotia's NDP from third-party status to the brink of government. And it's worth noting how the strategy compares to the federal NDP's current position:
Now retired from the House of Commons, former federal NDP leader Alexa McDonough remembers a time when trying to get elected as a New Democrat in Nova Scotia was every bit an exercise in frustration that it is elsewhere in the region...

"When I ran in '79 and '80 and only got 14 per cent of the vote, people said, 'Well, you know, I'd vote for you if I ever thought the NDP could win,' " said McDonough.

She recalls "stubbornly" running three times, arguing against the "irrationality" of the position put to her by voters. McDonough now believes it was the beginning of a gradual shift in people's attitudes toward the party.

Subsequently, she said, the NDP has been able to build an understanding with voters based on strategies and platforms that have cast the party as a viable alternative in Nova Scotia...

Smith points to the 1997 federal election, in which the NDP won six of 11 ridings, as one of the key events in the rise of the party provincially.

"Reform was running on a neo-Conservative agenda . . . and the Liberal government was in deficit-slaying mode," said Smith. "There were some reasons that this particular region, which was always anxious about cuts to social programs and had high unemployment then, would consider the NDP."

She sees the collapse of the Liberal vote in the 1998 provincial election as the other key to NDP success. The Liberals went from 40 seats to 19 while the New Democrats went from four seats to 19.

"So federally you had this big boost in '97 and then '98 was a critical election for the NDP in Nova Scotia," said Smith.

She said the party has since consolidated its position, leaving it the contender it is today.
The challenges once faced by McDonough still mirror in large part the (however weak) argument still used to try to justify painting the NDP out of the federal picture. But with the NDP now both steadily gaining in seats and demonstrating its ability to contend in areas once considered to be out of reach, the claim can only look less and less plausible with every passing election cycle. And the focus of the 2008 campaign on Jack Layton as a Prime Minister in waiting can only sow the seeds for a longer-term shift similar to the one that's already taken place in Nova Scotia.

Now, that made for good enough news on its own. But the democratic coalition has both set out another path which leads to the NDP being able to convert its principles into results, and signalled the Libs' agreement that the prospect of New Democrats in government is a positive one. And if the federal party can build off that existing base of electoral support and shifting opinions, then it may not be long before the current story in Nova Scotia is matched on the national scene.

Friday, December 26, 2008


When it comes to delicate discussions over the lives of Canadian citizens facing death at the hands of a foreign government, it stands to reason that consistency and clarity of position are about the best resources a country can have on its side.

Unfortunately, though, the Cons have long since decided to throw away any principled position when it came to the execution of Canadian citizens.

For Mohamed and Sultan Kohail and other Canadians whose lives may be on the line, the result figures to be at best a far more difficult set of negotiations where Canada's intervention can only be interpreted as a direct insult to the foreign country involved rather than a stance based on a coherent principle. And at worst, it looks far too likely that the Kohails and others may lose their lives to the Cons' decision to undermine Canada's stance against the death penalty.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


In the comments to this post, Dave Mann points us to a profile of the Tony Clement staffer who apparently threatened a school for disabled children as a result of its daring to allow an opposition MP to participate in a Hanukah event. And Georganne Burke's background may make the story particularly worth following.

To start with, Burke's background features six years of involvement with the Cons prior to being hired into a senior position. As a result, the Cons plainly can't get away with their preferred defence of blaming the inexperience of staffers who supposedly don't know the limits of acceptable conduct.

Instead, they'll plainly have to answer for the fact that whatever perspective Burke offered would be a product of their party's internal mindset under Harper. And it'll only look worse for the Cons that her job title includes "caucus relations", suggesting a regular link to the party's MPs as a whole.

Mind you, one MP and his department also figure to come under particular scrutiny. Given that Burke was hired for "stakeholder relations" based on a resume focused on "outreach to ethnic, cultural and religious communities", there looks to be plenty of room for discussion as to just what Clement expected in hiring her, and to what extent orders to interfere with the Zareinu Educational Centre or other stakeholders might have originated above Burke's position. And of course there's every reason for the communities within Burke's job description to raise the question of whether they'll be next in line for the same types of tactics.

As a result, the facts reported to date look to be only the outer layer of a story which could prove to be the best present any opposition party could ask for. And what's inside figures to be a huge help to the democratic coalition in highlighting the need for a change in government.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Nothing sacred

For those wondering whether there's anything which the Cons recognize as being above partisan manipulation, the answer is still no.

Burning questions

How long will it take for the Cons to have to relocate Pamela Wallin as well in an attempt to validate an unconstitutional appointment?

And since when did Harper's conditions for appointment include allowing the Cons' PR flacks to determine where one lives?

Surprisingly complicated answers to simple questions

Devo asks:
Will Deficit Jim ever learn his lesson? When will the Conservative Party of Canada figure out that making stupid promises is what leads to broken promises?
At first glance, it might seem easy to simply answer "no" and "never". But there's a bigger issue lurking in the background.

To this point, the lesson the Cons seem to have learned is that they can do more good for their public image by consistently bragging about their latest set of promises than they can do harm by falling short of what they've promised - particularly if they can change the subject from previous broken promises to new ones which could still be fulfilled. And sadly, the theory seems to have worked fairly well among those who don't pay close attention to politics.

But that theory doesn't work so well Cons can only get things done with the support of those who are well aware of their track record. And the fact that Deficit Jim is once again trying to pull the wool over the eyes of Canadians - both by pretending that the structural deficit which he created doesn't exist, and by making promises about how quickly any recovery will take place - can only signal to the opposition parties that the Cons' near-death experience hasn't left them any more likely to be honest or forthcoming.

Tidings of comfort and joy

Let's credit Michael Ignatieff for providing a nice stocking stuffer to fans of the democratic coalition, as his year-end message seems to be hinting strongly toward a non-confidence vote in January:
“The ways in which he makes everything a confidence motion is, in our view, unacceptable,” Mr. Ignatieff said.

“He took the wrong signal from the election. The signal he took was that he could try anything he wanted to and he grievously underestimated the Liberal Party of Canada. We've got our act together, got a leader chosen, and he can't keep making these misjudgments of the mood of the House and hope to survive."

Mr. Ignatieff, installed as Liberal Leader earlier this month, expressed pessimism that the Harper government would unveil a budget in January that his party could support...

“The thing that frankly concerns me is that the autumn statement so failed the test of leadership that Canadians required of the situation, that I'm not optimistic that the government will come up with a budget that meets Canada's needs,” Mr. Ignatieff said.

“But I live in hope, as it were, that Mr. Harper will rise to the demands of the hour.”...

He added that Mr. Harper has not given him an answer on whether Mr. Hill and Mr. Goodale will get together in the new year, but he said Mr. Harper needs to let parliamentary committees do their job.

“He has been told in no uncertain terms there's a problem of confidence that isn't just constitutional, but a question of personal relations across the House,” Mr. Ignatieff said.
Of course, it's worth noting that many of the problems mentioned by Ignatieff are ones which won't be resolved before the budget vote takes place. And it would be shocking if Harper, Hill and others didn't make some effort to project an image of cooperation while themselves setting the stage for their next attack on the opposition (just as they did before the fiscal update).

That said, Ignatieff seems to be doing plenty both to raise the bar as to what's expected in the budget and in Parliament generally, and to indicate his willingness to vote Harper down if he falls short. Which means that if Ignatieff sticks to his current path, then the one gift which Canada needs most this holiday season may be set to arrive in the new year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How Con government works

In the midst of highlighting that Canadians' greatest economic concern is in the one area which the Cons were supposed to have fixed already, Deficit Jim takes an opportunity to attack government in general to deflect responsibility for his own ineffectiveness:
Mr. Flaherty was speaking in Toronto to announce the availability of the Registered Disability Savings Plan, which was included in the 2007 budget.

“You know how government works, here we are at the end of 2008,” he joked.
Now, keep in mind that Flaherty is the minister in charge of both the development of the plan, and the management of the department responsible for implementing it. Which would tend to signal that if there's a serious delay in putting the plan into effect, that falls squarely on his shoulders.

Of course, it's less than surprising for a Con to refuse to accept any responsibility for his own failings. But it takes an extra dose of chutzpah for somebody who seems entirely happy to have taken a position of governmental responsibility to take every available opportunity to slam the ability of a government to function.

Moreover, the statement looks all the more out of place considering the timing. If Flaherty really thinks that government can't implement a single savings plan in less than two years and runs his department accordingly, then surely he's the last person Canada wants in charge of its finances at a time when virtually all sides agree on the need for quick and effective stimulus to get our economy back on track. And Flaherty's mindset may offer a strong indication that the time it might take to put a coalition government in place would be slight compared to the delays we can expect if the Cons' anti-government governing philosophy is left in place.

The trough revisited

One of the lesser-noted stories from yesterday's Senate appointments has to do with Harper's future plans for the upper chamber if he's allowed to stay in power. And all indications are that when Stephen Harper breaks a promise, it stays broken:
Conservative Senator Leader Majory LeBreton said in an interview Mr. Harper will fill another 11 vacancies by the end of 2009, bringing the Conservative total to 49. Eight Liberal seats will become vacant by retirements during the year.
Now, I'm not sure anybody else has yet noted the complete disconnect between Harper's current excuses and his apparent future intention.

After all, Harper's supposed reason for further breaking his promise about not appointing unelected Senators has been based on the possibility that the democratic coalition would be in a position to fill the seats instead. But if (perish the thought) Harper were to remain in power to the end of 2009, then it would seem obvious that the prospect of a coalition would be far in the rear-view mirror by that point.

As a result, any additional appointments could only be based on some combination of a desire to provide more citizen-funded goodies to his party's B-list bagmen, and an intention to try to establish Conservative control over the Senate even after he's voted out of office. Yet Harper's point person in the Senate is going out of her way to promise that he'll keep stacking the upper chamber at every available opportunity.

Ultimately, the plan to make regular trips back to the trough from here on in only suggests that Harper has really been looking for an excuse to dole out Senate seats all along even while promising never to do so. And with Harper so obviously focused on using the Senate as both a source of patronage and a possible roadblock against his political opponents, there's all the more reason for the coalition to be equally determined in preventing him from doing so.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Eye on the ball

With Canada engulfed in an economic crisis which the Cons are trying to avoid dealing with, a fiscal crisis which they precipitated then hid, and a political crisis entirely of the Cons' making, it's reassuring to know that our government's efforts are firmly focused on the citizenship of a mythological character.

Monday, December 22, 2008

For lack of any other options

CSR makes a great point that Harper's panicked Senate appointments included another slap in the face to Saskatchewan, who will now have as one of its Senate representatives somebody who hasn't lived in the province for decades and presumably won't start now.

But let's be fair. Presumably the Cons have tried to recruit their best talent to hold the 13 seats now in the party's hands - yet the party's MPs have ranged from utterly useless to downright embarrassing. So isn't it entirely possible that the Cons really don't have a single supporter resident in the province who could do a competent job in the Senate?

A logical conclusion

Joe Jordan raises (warning: PDF) an interesting point about the effect of Michaelle Jean's decision allowing prorogation as a means of avoiding a confidence vote:
(W)hat this decision has done is to pretty much guarantee that the Governor General will enshrine the practice of approaching the leader of the opposition following the loss of a confidence vote. The opposition parties are not really in a position to publicly declare their intentions prior to any vote, if prorogation is now a legitimate blocking tactic.
Now, there's plenty of room for doubt as to whether or not the process actually followed by Jean is the ideal one. Indeed, it's possible that Harper could seek prorogation yet again if the coalition is rightly prepared to keep up its plan once another confidence vote is set to take place - and given the desperation the Cons have shown in clinging to power, I for one wouldn't be surprised if that comes to pass.

But it does seem entirely logical that if the GG's powers have been interpreted to create a disincentive to any declaration of the non-incumbents' position in advance of a confidence vote, then some leeway has to be given to the opposition parties after the fact. And that reasoning, along with Harper's frantic grab for whatever he can get his hands on during his temporary reprieve from democracy, would seem to hint at the result if Harper tries to force another election rather than allowing the coalition to put a stable government in place.

Reflections from the trough

So now that Deceivin' Stephen is done his "I had no choice" moment, a few thoughts on the desperation Senate appointments announced today.

- It's amazing how so much of the "liberal media" seems to fit comfortably into the Conservative caucus.

- On a related note, the most important consequence of the Senate appointments may be less the addition of anybody to the Senate than the removal of Mike Duffy from CTV: surely whoever takes that role figures to have at least the potential to do far more to shape Canada's political scene than any of the appointees.

- Who else is relieved that Harper rushed the appointments to avert the Con-fueled threat of any separatists in the Senate?

- I'd wondered if Harper might try to soften the PR blow of a massive dose of patronage in the midst of a recession by matching PMPM in giving at least a couple of token appointments to supporters of other parties. Apparently even I can still underestimate Harper's degree of blind partisanship.

- Finally, it's worth noting that Harper's messaging today is still based on the real likelihood that the coalition will indeed replace him in government next month. Which should offer a fairly strong signal that however many pundits are eager to declare the coalition to be finished, even the Cons can't deny that it's still a force to be reckoned with.

Partisan above all

Sure, the Cons have driven the country into deficit and are clearing the way to pour millions of public dollars into the appointment of their own partisan hacks to the Senate. But let it never be said they're doing nothing to reduce expenses, as they're apparently making a concerted effort to withdraw funding from ridings who dared not to vote for Con candidates:
The recent election of a Bloc Québécois MP may have cost the Quebec town of Trois-Rivières a $2-million federal subsidy for its 375th anniversary celebrations, Trois-Rivières Le Nouvelliste has reported.

Radio-Canada quotes sources from the office of Tory MP Christian Paradis, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Quebec lieutenant, as saying the Conservative candidate Claude Durand would have had a better chance of netting the subsidy than the current Bloc MP Paule Brunelle.

Radio-Canada reported that a spokesperson for Mr. Paradis confirmed the federal government wouldn't be granting the subsidy.

On a campaign stop in Trois-Rivières during the elections, Mr. Harper told Le Nouvelliste that the grant money had already been allocated and that he "was looking forward to working with a Conservative MP."
It's particularly worth noting that the Cons' campaign message contained two separate elements which they're now trying to resile from. Harper's position during the campaign that the money had "already been allocated" - in a riding which Brunelle had already represented since 2004 - would seem as strong a statement as possible that the money was already approved...such that it should have been irrelevant whether or not it could be construed as patronage to a Con-held riding.

But having misled Trois-Rivières about the status of the funding, the Cons apparently decided to spring two surprises after the election - first, that the money wasn't in fact approved, and second, that they weren't about to listen to a mere democratically-elected MP who isn't of their partisan stripe.

If there's any consolation for Trois-Rivières, it's that in reality, a Con MP would have been as likely as not to fail to deliver funding then blame the riding for his own ineffectiveness. But the combined example should offer ample reason for voters across the country to be glad to see Harper removed from office - and to follow Trois-Rivières' lead in rejecting the Cons next time they do go to the polls.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Deep thought

In the spirit of parliamentary cooperation, now may be a good time to offer Stephen Harper the opportunity to fulfil his goal of making Canada more like Belgium.

On outreach

It hasn't received much public attention due to the steady stream of other political news. But Ontario's NDP leadership race is coming up to an important deadline in the form of the January 5 cutoff for membership in order to vote in the contest - and it's worth pointing out an interesting step the provincial party has taken.

As best I can tell based on discussion surrounding past leadership races, the normal expectation seems to be that recruitment during a leadership race is left to the contestants. And it's not hard to see some reasons for that choice: it saves resources at a time when much of a party's support base is aimed toward the leadership contest, and in principle could be seen as favouring candidates who are better able to sign up supporters rather than persuade undecideds if that's seen as a party's priority.

The Ontario NDP looks to be applying an entirely different strategy. While the party has obviously stayed neutral in the leadership race, it hasn't stayed silent. Instead, visitors to sites such as babble have been treated to banner ads taken out not by any single leadership contestant, but by the party looking to attract members generally by pointing to the leadership race.

And it's an added bonus that the ads focus on a member-based election as opposed to back-room appointments - which helps to highlight one of the NDP's most important principles while tying into current events going on federally.

Now, it's not clear how many more members the NDP will be able to sign up with their general membership drive who wouldn't be reached by the leadership candidates. But the move would seem to be a recipe to attract potential members who are interested in the party generally more than any individual contestant - which should be exactly the pool of potential supporters the party most needs to connect with in the long run. And whoever wins the leadership will surely be glad for the effort.