Saturday, January 17, 2009

Misplaced priorities

I've already pointed out one telling passage from Stephen Harper's interview with John Ivison. But let's note that in addition to representing no change at all from the Cons' habits over their past three years in power, Harper's plans apparently also place any desire for effective stimulus behind both ideological considerations and his personal desire to pander for votes:
Harper: ...(M)ake no mistake, that as a Conservative government, we think it is very important that the middle class be part of a stimulus program. Yes, it is very important to help the vulnerable, struggling sectors and help people who are losing their jobs, but you can’t sustain economic activity without having stimulus for the middle class as well. That’s very important. Since the middle class is paying most of the freight, the middle class has to share in the stimulus program and we will be making sure that is the case.
So what's wrong with that passage? From my standpoint, there are two glaring signs that Harper has something other than the best interests of Canada's economy at heart.

First, Harper looks to be confirming the usual Con view that multi-party cooperation means other parties going along with their plans. Rather than presenting a message that he's looking to find common ground that's acceptable to two or more parties, Harper's frame of reference is "as a Conservative government" - with the implication being that he's more concerned with catering to his base by doing what Con governments normally do than he is with putting together a package which will be acceptable to anybody but his own party.

Which is of course exactly what got Harper into his current predicament in the first place, as he wrongly concluded that he was entitled to push typical Conservative attacks on pay equity and union rights into last fall's fiscal update without considering whether anybody else supported them. But evidently any lesson which Harper could have learned from that experience has been long forgotten or put aside - a fact which shouldn't be lost on the Libs in particular in assessing whether the Cons ought to be left with the levers of power.

Mind you, there's a strong case to be made that partisanship of any kind shouldn't be the main concern for a budget which is supposed to set out Harper's plan to deal with a recession over a period of several years. But the question of what policies are best designed to put Canada's economy back on track is a different one from what policies are most popular with the middle class or those who are "paying most of the freight".

Now, an actual leader would figure to be willing to make the case as to what policies will be most effective on their own to relieve the effects of the recession, and put some political capital into getting those who have less need for help to buy in based on the national interest. But Harper's answer states fairly clearly that he's committed to pandering to the latter groups by saying that any package should be conditional on their receiving some handouts as well - rather than to putting together the most effective set of policies possible.

Not surprisingly, Harper has already been rightly criticized by a number of economists for those types of plans which simply don't make sense from an economic perspective:
(S)ome economic tools under consideration — including temporary tax cuts and other incentives to spend — could backfire, say a group of six high-profile economists. Such measures often don't result in extra spending by tight-fisted consumers during tough times. The budget should instead aim to fix employment insurance and other programs that protect the most vulnerable in a recession, they said.

"I'm dead against a temporary GST cut," said Warren Jestin, chief economist at Bank of Nova Scotia, one of the members of the economists' group, which met with The Globe and Mail's editorial board Friday before Mr. Harper emerged from the premiers meeting...

Don Drummond, chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank and a former Finance Department official, said there is still discussion about temporary cuts to the goods and services tax and other federal levies. Another idea being bandied about in Ottawa, Mr. Drummond said, is for vouchers in the range of $500 to $1,000 to induce consumers to make purchases at Canadian retailers within a given time frame.

He dismissed the notion, which he described as being akin to retailer gift cards, as ridiculous. "There's a compact between citizens under which citizens allow governments to take their money to respend on the public good," he said. "This is not a public good."

On other issues, the group of economists said:...

* Support for low-income Canadians may have a greater economic impact than measures for the whole population, because poor people spend more of their income.
But while the economists quoted obviously can't do more than to point out the economic ineffectiveness of Harper's plans, the Libs hold the power to make sure that any stimulus is actually targeted toward ensuring Canada's prosperity rather than serving Harper's political goals. And hopefully they'll recognize that both they and the country at large will be best off if they take that opportunity.

On duress

In case there's any doubt how much (or how little) credence to give to the Cons' attempt to claim support from a number of premiers in the wake of this week's federal/provincial meeting, let's consider a simple question.

Does anybody think Stephen Harper is above threatening to withhold or delay stimulus funding to any premier who hurts his position vis-a-vis the coalition?

I'd think the answer is fairly obvious - particularly in light of the Cons' track record of allocating funding based on politics alone. So in the immediate aftermath of a conference where Harper had a captive audience with which to both promise gobs of money and threaten to pull it back, it's worth taking any declarations of support for continued Harper government with a heavy grain of salt.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Still more of the same

Martin Mittlestaedt highlights yet another example of Stephen Harper's failing state, as yet another supposed Con priority has been stopped in its tracks without warning or explanation:
The federal government made international headlines last year when it added bisphenol A to the country's toxic substances list, but it has quietly stopped issuing new reviews of hazardous chemicals under the program that highlighted the dangers of the plastic-making compound.

The initiative, known as the Chemicals Management Plan, was supposed to issue assessments during November and December of the effect on human health and the environment of about 50 possibly hazardous substances.

Among them are several that European regulators have flagged for their cancer-causing potential, and a group of substances, using silicone, that are widely added to cosmetics and other personal-care products.

Ottawa hasn't issued evaluations of any of them, stoking worries among public-health and environmental advocates that the government is cooling toward the plan...
And lest anybody hope for a straight answer on that or any of the Cons' other failures, those are no more likely now than they've ever been. After all, the Cons are too busy speaking from their all-politics script to acknowledge any of their own mistakes:
Conservatives have been told to communicate the government's intention to run a deficit in the range of $20 billion to $30 billion.

Don't expect apologies for having projected surpluses just two short months ago or for inserting into the November economic update those provocative cuts to public financing for political parties or curbs to public servants' right to strike that sparked the opposition's threat to bring down the government.

And don't expect any acknowledgment that Conservative policies – such as relaxed rules around mortgage financing brought in by the government – exacerbated the economic situation.

Instead, the tone remains defiant.
So once again, the Cons' actions have signalled their complete lack of fitness for office. But once again, they couldn't care less about actually following through on their supposed commitments, instead dedicating their efforts to drowning out that reality with spin.

Fortunately, the decision as to whether or not the Cons can keep exercising power that way isn't in their hands. And the more the Cons keep up their combination of stonewalling and finger-pointing instead of doing anything useful, the more obvious the choice will be for all of the opposition parties to decide that it's time for some positive change.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Nothing learned, nothing changed

With Stephen Harper's political career likely riding on the result of a single confidence vote, it isn't much surprise that he's once again putting on a media blitz. But even in the face of those high stakes, he apparently can't help giving away the fact that he doesn't plan on offering up anything more than his government's standard fare:
Ivison: You’ve talked about the deficit being “very, very large”. I know you won’t put a figure on it but that has the potential to strangle the public finances down the road. Are you worried that the legacy of this will be you will have to cut back program spending dramatically or raise taxes?

Harper: No...We have the financial situation that allows us to borrow money in the short term and spend that money, as long as most of that is time-limited spending. That’s what we’re going to be proposing — programs of one to two years duration for the most part. The key will be for us to resist calls that will be inevitable to extend some of those things indefinitely.

Ivison: So we don’t expect permanent tax cuts, for example?

Harper: I’m saying on the spending side, most of the actions we’ll be bringing forward are of a short-term nature, in terms of their financial impact. We do not have the intention of running a structural deficit or having a whole bunch of long-term spending initiatives.
Note the conspicuous change of subject in the last answer. Invited to suggest that the stimulus package as a whole - tax cuts included - would be time-targeted to deal with the financial crisis, Harper apparently can't bring himself to put an end date on another round of tax slashing. But when it comes to any spending, Harper draws a line in the sand to the effect that his government has no interest in anything but temporary actions.

Which raises an important question: how would a budget along those lines be any different from what the Cons have been doing their entire time in office?

From the beginning, the Cons have coupled low-efficiency tax cuts intended to permanently weaken the federal government with just enough short-term spending to paper over their lack of interest in social issues. And it's that combination which has already pushed Canada into at least half a decade of deficits to come, while securing Harper's image as somebody who's more interested in using the public purse to pursue his ideological agenda than in governing responsibly.

In sum, anybody holding out hope that Harper would take advantage of a last chance to try to put together a budget that's designed for the public interest rather than the pursuit of a right-wing agenda is headed for yet another disappointment. Instead, Harper has again signalled that he only knows how to govern one way - and that the mere combination of a financial crisis facing the country and a coalition waiting to replace him isn't about to take precedence over conservative dogma.

Words of warning

As I've noted before, it's for the best that the NDP is keeping up a positive message toward the coalition rather than threatening the obvious consequences if Michael Ignatieff chooses to match Stephane Dion's most crucial strategic mistake. But lest there be any fear that the Libs wouldn't receive any due warning about the effects of propping up Harper, Gilles Duceppe is rightly highlighting the dangers of propping up the Cons:
Le nouveau chef du Parti libéral du Canada, Michael Ignatieff, pourrait connaître le même sort que son prédécesseur Stéphane Dion et perdre en crédibilité s'il devait appuyer le budget conservateur, qui sera déposé le 27 janvier.

C'est la mise en garde qu'a faite hier le chef du Bloc Québécois, Gilles Duceppe, qui était à Québec dans le cadre d'une tournée du Québec avant la reprise des travaux parlementaires. «M. Ignatieff aura une décision à prendre, a-t-il affirmé. S'il accepte les propositions de M. Harper qui sont insatisfaisantes parce qu'il ne veut pas exercer le pouvoir ou qu'il ne veut pas d'élections, il fera la même chose que M. Dion.»
It's worth noting that as pleased as the Libs are with their recent poll numbers, their largest gains have come in the province where the democratic coalition is particularly popular. And while riding that wave of approval to the government benches would give the Libs a chance to lock in and increase Ignatieff's level of support, it wouldn't take long for both the Bloc and the NDP to start eating away at the current numbers if the Libs signal that they're not interested in listening to Quebeckers' concerns about the Cons' fitness for government.

Indeed, the risks for Ignatieff in supporting the Cons' budget may be even greater than they were for Dion: unlike his predecessor, he has an obvious opening in Quebec which he'd stand to lose. And the Libs' decision on the budget may make the difference between their reaping the benefits of frustration with the Harper government where they most need to rebuild their electoral machine, or squandering their best chance to set themselves up for future electoral gains.

Sinking in

It's no great secret that Stephen Harper can't be trusted to deal with the economic crisis. But it may be news to some that Canadians fully recognize that fact.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On non-stories

It's probably true that "MP Peter Stoffer at odds with mischaracterization of leader's position" wouldn't have quite the same ring to it. But that doesn't mean there's any excuse for this.

And it's worth wondering just how many enterprising questioners are calling out the one leader who actually has rejected suggestions before hearing them.

On legacies

Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page confirms that just months after promising balanced budgets no matter what, Deficit Jim Flaherty has ensured that Canada's financial picture will match his moniker for "more than five years" to come. Which leads to the inevitable question: how much more of a monument to incompetence should the opposition parties want to let him build?

Edit: fixed wording & label.

Positive steps

Just as the first musings emerged about the NDP being relatively quiet, both Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair sent a strong message about the coalition yesterday. And there's plenty to like about the general themes:
"I think it's a happy marriage and we had a nice cup of coffee and a good discussion," Mr. Layton said of (a meeting with Michael Ignatieff) during an interview on CTV's On The Hill. "The coalition plan really is that bold plan that we need in this country right now."

Mr. Layton said even if Mr. Harper embraces the opposition demand for measures that provide economic stimulus, Canadians have no reason to believe he will act upon them.

"I hope that the Liberals are going to look at the choice they are facing," said Mr. Mulcair. "It is very simply this one: either we leave the Conservatives there or we replace them. I greatly prefer by far, in the interests of the population, to replace them."
There are two important components worth pointing out. Not surprisingly, Layton and Mulcair are both emphasizing that the ramifications of the budget vote will go far beyond passing a single piece of legislation, implicitly raising the question of whether Ignatieff wants to go on the record saying that the country is better off with Harper in charge than with the coalition.

But equally importantly, that message isn't being conveyed adversarially. Instead, the NDP's focus for now is on Harper's well-known lack of trustworthiness and interest in effective government, coupled with a strong willingness to work with the Libs toward the shared goals of the coalition parties. And that positive message toward Ignatieff should contrast nicely with Harper's continued habit of reflexively bashing the opposition without even hearing its ideas when Ignatieff decides who the Libs should be working with in getting Canada's economy back on track.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

An ounce of prevention

Shorter John Baird:

In the interests of efficiency, we should focus on punishing environmental violations after the fact rather than spending any time preventing them from happening in the first place.

What Greg said

On the Libs' options:
If Liberals allow the Harper budget to pass, they will hear forever, the words "Well, I am just following the budget that was passed with the help of the Liberal Party", whenever Harper is asked about anything to do with the state of the economy. Think about that for a while before abandoning the idea of a coalition. Either way your party is going to own the recession. You might as well be in the driver's seat instead of being tied up in the trunk.

Taking aim

NDP MP John Rafferty's announcement that he'll introduce a private member's bill to scrap the federal long-gun registry has received some comment from a policy perspective. But it's worth noting the political implications of the move as well.

Keep in mind that Harper's Cons have done everything they can to minimize the use of the registry as it now exists, adopting an amnesty policy which eliminates any consequences for not registering guns and thus ensures that the registry isn't current or comprehensive. So the actual utility of the registry is significantly lower than it would be if the current law was being enforced - and only gets reduced further with time as information in the registry gets further and further out of date.

Yet the Harper government has also conspicuously declined to do anything legislatively to deal with the registry - even during the period of time when the Libs were allowing the Cons to pass whatever legislation they wanted to. Which would send a strong signal that Harper wants to keep the issue on the table to keep rural ridings in his column as part of a push for a majority.

But what would happen if Rafferty's bill passed? Not only would the Cons lose their ability to hold the registry over its rural supporters, but they wouldn't even be able to take credit for the bill which changed the status quo. Which could only be bad news for the Cons' rural MPs who still rely on the registry as their main source of outrage against urban Canada and the other parties - and great news for the NDP in particular as it seeks to expand its own image and win back some ground in rural areas.

Of course, as long as the Cons stay in power they can at least try to take credit for any change by presenting a bill of their own before Rafferty's can work its way through Parliament. But all indications are that the Cons would prefer not to forfeit their feigned outrage over the gun registry if they can avoid it. And Rafferty's bill may thus serve a valuable purpose in forcing their hand.

Monday, January 12, 2009

On legitimacy

With even Con MPs forced to acknowledge that the democratic coalition is perfectly legitimate from a constitutional standpoint, the closest the Cons and their flacks have to an argument against the coalition has been limited to the claim that it lacks legitimacy as defined by popularity in a couple of public opinion polls.

Now, I don't subscribe to the view that the legitimacy of the actions of democratically elected officials is governed by the latest set of polls. But those who have relied on popular opinion as an argument against the coalition are now facing some strong evidence to undermine their position.

The latest support for the coalition:
Overall: 42%
Quebec - 62%
Ontario - 40%
Atlantic Canada - 40%
Western Canada - 29%
And the latest support for the Cons:
Overall: 33%
Western Canada - 44%
Ontario - 35%
Atlantic Canada - 28%
Quebec - 17%
Now, it's undoubtedly fair to say that the latest polls should be taken as reflecting only a portion of public opinion - as the previous ones should have been as well.

But when more people want to see the coalition in power than the Cons, it would defy belief to try to make the argument that the Cons could have any more democratic legitimacy than the coalition would based on current levels of popular support. And to the extent anybody wants to play the national unity card, it can't escape mention that the greatest regional legitimacy issue would involve the Cons' lack of support in the one region which has actually seriously threatened to separate in the past.

All of which is to say that the number of serious arguments against the coalition is rapidly dwindling. And with any luck, public opinion will keep turning in the coalition's favour just in time for it to come into being.

(This post expands on a couple of comments made at Far and Wide.)

In his own image

Shorter Stephen Greene, one of Harper's impending appointees to the Senate, on the much-trumpeted "pledge" to step down if the Senate is reformed:

I'd like to see you try to hold me to it. Suckers.

Edit: added label.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ground rules

The Saskatchewan NDP leadership race still looks to be stuck in neutral at best, with some significant frustration starting to leak out from those of us who would like to see a genuine contest develop: see e.g. GPM's latest, as well as the most recent Babble discussion thread. But one of the largest problems with potential contenders waiting to get into the contest may have to do with the strategy decisions which might result.

For any underdog with an early start, the blueprint for success is fairly widely available in the form of the Obama model: upbeat messaging from a charismatic candidate, coupled with an organization designed to turn positive impressions into committed support. And the result worked out perfectly for Obama's party as well as for him personally: while a hard-fought primary helped Obama to develop a massive campaign apparatus which boosted his cause tremendously in the general election, the fact that he could win the nomination by building a machine based on his own positives rather than attacks on Hillary Clinton made it far easier for the party to unite behind him once the contest was over.

Unfortunately, it's not clear that the same road will be as open to Saskatchewan's challengers - and it becomes less and less so with every day that goes by without another candidate jumping into the race. With Dwain Lingenfelter enjoying both a significant head start and the bulk of institutional support within the party, it may be extremely difficult for any other candidate to put together a competitive campaign based on an organization-building strategy if Lingenfelter has done even a passable job of using the resources at his disposal.

As a result, the easier path to victory for any challenger might seem to be to bank on a negative strategy to turn current members and new sign-ups against Lingenfelter, rather than working to seek out new blood. But whatever the likelihood of actually winning through those means, the prize would figure to be seriously diminished regardless of who emerged on top. Either Lingenfelter could hold on in the face of a barrage but carry a damaging set of negatives into a general election, or the challenger could try to lead the party into 2011 with irate Link supporters choosing to stay on the sidelines.

Since that can hardly be a positive result for anybody involved other than the NDP's rivals, I'll once again encourage challengers to get into the race, but with an exhortation to run with an eye to the long term as well. The ultimate measure of any candidate in the leadership race will be how much good their policy vision and organizational skills can offer the party and the province - and as eager as many of us are for a competitive race, I for one won't hesitate to criticize any candidate (including the one already there) who decides to go negative rather than keeping those factors in mind.

On targeting

Following up on yesterday's post, let's turn to the possible downside to the NDP's moves on financial policy - which is that while an effort to reach out to the financial sector might be a plus on its face, it may also raise questions about what priorities the NDP is pursuing:
Party strategists say they can sometimes face a credibility gap when they engage with Conservatives, Liberals, and business groups over policies affecting the financial sector. They argue it is a difficult handicap to overcome as they have no record of serving in a federal Cabinet to point to, meaning they have to do far more homework to have the same impact as their counterparts.

This political deficit came to the fore in early December when the Conservative government teetered on the brink of collapse and the NDP appeared to be hours from entering government in Ottawa for the first time.

Party strategists say that amid historic turbulence in financial markets, they made an effort to avoid fuelling uncertainty, making it clear the party was not seeking the finance portfolio and assuring the banking sector there would be a period of continuity in implementation of already-promised emergency measures to stabilize the financial system.

But during the interlude that has followed the suspension of parliament, the NDP caucus has been calling on external advisors and allocating more resources to strengthening its research on financial policy.

"There as been an effort to expand the capacity of the caucus," says an aide, who points to meetings with outside economists such as Glen Hodgson, chief economist for the Conference Board of Canada.

The aide says the push reflects both a sense of "responsibility" that comes with the prospect of decision-making power and the wider need for policymakers to become more familiar with "microscopic" aspects of the banking system as they seek a way out of the financial crisis.

A party strategist said while efforts to sharpen the party's financial policy-making had gained pace, it was best viewed as part of a longer-range goal of "changing perceptions of the party over a protracted period of time."
Let's start with the apparent concern about a "credibility gap". Whatever one's criteria for credibility, there's every reason to think that any gap is more a matter of perception (fueled by the other parties who have a vested interest in misrepresenting the NDP's level of knowledge) rather than any justification for treating the NDP with additional skepticism.

By way of comparison, remember that the Cons' near-complete lack of federal cabinet experience doesn't seem to have particularly affected them on taking office in 2006. And to the extent one takes into account governing experience at other levels, the NDP's crop of candidates - featuring former cabinet ministers from multiple provinces as well as a leader with experience on the council of Canada's largest city - similarly stacks up extremely well against the Cons' on taking office.

Once the "no experience" canard is dismissed, the more plausible conclusion is that the issue is one of political positioning: simply put, business will tend to be more receptive to a message which is perceived to maximize its potential profit without any associated social responsibilities. But that feeds into the bigger question, which is whether the NDP is best off committing its spare resources into impressing sectors which are likely to generally put their weight behind other parties regardless of what the NDP does, or into reaching out to Canadians who are more likely to become NDP members or supporters.

In that respect, I'd hope the NDP would have learned a lesson from the 2008 campaign. To my recollection, virtually every media commentary as to which party ran the best campaign pointed in the NDP's direction - suggesting that the corporate press which normally looks for reason to question the NDP was overcome by the party's effort just as some bank representatives seem to be now.

But that positive press didn't seem to do much to influence voters, even when the number of people theoretically open to voting NDP was similar to that for the other major parties. And the end result was a wave of pundits questioning whether the NDP can reach any more voters when it failed to do so while having earned the respect of the media.

Now, the above isn't to say that the NDP shouldn't be looking to improve its perceived and actual knowledge base on the economy (or any other issue), nor that it should want anything other than to be perceived as the best-managed party in Canadian politics. And it may be that the NDP has enough additional resources to pair some deeper internal financial research with a broader appeal to voters at large which has thus far flown under the radar - which wouldn't be a bad combination in making use of the product of an increased seat count.

But in the final analysis, any amount of demonstrated knowledge will be of limited use if it isn't accompanied by further increases in the party's vote and seat count. And I'd think the NDP would be best served countering any perceived gaps by proving its ability to bring in more first-choice voter support to increase the likelihood of its ideas being put into practice, rather than using too many of its resources to try to appeal to the last groups which are likely to ultimately support the party.