Saturday, January 24, 2009

Simple answers to simple questions

Robert asks:
Is it really fiscally responsible for the Harper government to have Conservative MPs winging off to various parts of the country on the taxpayer’s dime during an economic downturn in order to make announcements that could just as easily be made in Ottawa?
No. But the Cons are happy to let us pay the price to make sure that the media questioning one minister doesn't have any idea what's being promised by the others.

The Hack Doctrine

In case there was any doubt how the Cons' budget will weight the relative importance of the national interest and Stephen Harper's political future, the Financial Post points out Con insiders and supporters alike looking at the economic crisis as an opportunity to pay off the party's base and make life more difficult for future governments:
"It is a nontraditional time, but there is a traditional opportunity -- and it is in legacy issues," said a Conservative Party insider. "You can also spend money to please Conservative voters, with the public accepting that exceptional circumstances are at play and the global economy is giving you cover for that."...

"Temporary spending and permanent tax cuts fit within the ideology of the Conservative Party," said Henry Jacek, a political science professor at McMaster University in Hamilton (ed. note - and avowed Ontario Con supporter).

Further, Mr. Jacek said tax cuts would act as a poison pill of sorts. Either the Liberals opt to defeat the budget and defend the rationale of rejecting tax cuts, or they allow the budget to go through, but risk being stuck with managing a large deficit should they come to power later.
In sum, the Cons' response to a national recession has been no different from their typical focus since they first took power. Rather than putting any effort into determining what policies will actually benefit Canada the most, they're merely looking for excuses to pay off their current and potential supporters.

But the flip side is that when even the Cons' insiders are publicly trumpeting their intention to use an economic downturn for political advantage, there's little reason to think Canadians at large won't take notice if that message is emphasized enough. And the opposition parties have every reason to agree with the view that any effort to impose Con ideology under the cover of a crisis represents a poison pill which justifies removing Harper and his government from office.

Edit: fixed typo.

The reviews are in

Stephen Maher may use more gentle phrasing than would be ideal, but nicely summarizes a couple of Deceivin' Stephen's latest attempts to avoid reality:
(Harper's claim about capping equalization) sounds reasonable, except that the O’Brien commission did not call for a cap on equalization linked to the growth of the economy, which the Tories are imposing, but suggested the government publish a discussion paper if it unilaterally changed the program. The Finance Department has not published such a paper.

The prime minister’s misdirection here suggests (understandable) discomfort on his part.

In several other recent interviews, Mr. Harper was similarly economical with the truth — in particular on the subject of the government’s shifting response to the recession...

Mr. Harper’s comments suggest that either he has convinced himself that the government has not changed its position, or he is trying to change the record so his government will not seem to have changed its position.

Friday, January 23, 2009

On double-counting

If there was any doubt why the Cons are unveiling portions of their budget early, the first set of reports on today's PR stunts should provide the answer. The apparent game is to present specific funding plans as being tied to a number of mutually exclusive commitments - and from all indications the Cons figure the best way to do it is through multiple announcements which are unclear in their scope.

Let's start with this story, which describes a single fund apparently intended to cover re-training across all economic sectors:
The federal budget will include a $1-billion fund to help workers in hard-hit industries.

Government officials have told The Canadian Press the program -- a centrepiece of Tuesday's federal budget -- will be Canada-wide, and apply to industries ranging from forestry to agriculture to manufacturing...

Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt offered some details of the fund in a speech where she specifically cited forestry workers.

She told a Nova Scotia audience that the new fund will help communities adapt to the changing economic climate...

Other federal ministers are expected to share more details of the fund at events across the country Friday.
But look what happens when a separate article focuses on Raitt's speech:
The federal government will spend $1.15 billion on new initiatives to help the forestry industry.

Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt said the federal budget, to be tabled Tuesday, will contain three new initiatives to help the struggling sector...

Raitt said that she expects the budget will contain a new community adjustment fund worth $1 billion to help rural areas adapt to the changing economic climate...

Raitt also said the budget would set aside more than $100 million to invest in the development of emerging technologies for the forest sector, including forest biomass utilization and the development of next-generation forest products.

The federal budget will also contain $50 million to promote the forest sector abroad. This had been one of the requests made by the Forest Products Association of Canada.
Now, it looks like one or both of the articles must be off in its assumptions. Indeed, even on Raitt's wording the second is seemingly wrong in counting the entire $1 billion as funding for forestry. And it's possible the first one is wrong as well in taking Raitt's words to apply to the same fund rather than reflecting two separate funds (one for retraining, one for rural communities).

But that may not be the reporters' fault so much as the Cons' design. If Harper wanted his government to set out a clear statement of exactly how much money he intends to commit to what industries and goals, it surely wouldn't be that complicated a task to do so - and indeed one would expect him to be responsible for any unclear messages coming from his sources and cabinet ministers.

Which makes it look likely that the Cons' plan is to spread their ministers out across the country to try to link one or two funding envelopes to multiple different industries and priorities, while hoping that the contradictions inherent in those announcements don't get pointed out until it's too late.

Of course, nobody involved would figure to be happy when they find out that the headline numbers don't actually apply to them. But the Cons are presumably happy to take that risk in the future if it means pushing the Libs to keep them in power now. And the illusion of "$1.15 billion for forestry!" - repeated for every industrial sector - may well induce some businesses to try to put pressure on Ignatieff if they haven't considered the fine print.

Fortunately, there's an easy answer to the Cons' shell game. Surely the opposition parties have every reason to highlight the Cons' misleading announcements as another indication that they're not interested in presenting an honest financial picture. And if Harper's apparent plan receives the skeptical reception it deserves, then virtually everybody who the Cons are apparently hoping to win over to their corner will have reason to want a change in government now.

Well said

James Bow:
(E)ither Ignatieff has an idea of how to get us out of the economic crisis or he doesn’t. If he does, he should be making his suggestions now and, if necessary, working with the constitution to take charge to implement them. If not, then he should get out of the way and cede power to the professionals who do have the ideas. It says nothing good about the character of some Liberals that they’d allow individual Canadians to suffer so as to increase anger at the current governing party, making it easier for the Liberal party to take power down the road.

Say what you will about the merits or morality of Jack Layton and Stephane Dion’s coalition proposal, but these two leaders were still willing to put themselves in charge at a time when it may be very politically inconvenient to be so. That, in my opinion, is an example of two people putting their country before their parties, which is something we should laud.

Documented double standards

Impolitical discusses the latest developments in Conadscam, featuring an attempt by Elections Commissioner William Corbett to unseal millions of pages of documents to which the Cons have denied access based on a sketchy claim to solicitor-client privilege. But it's worth pointing out that the Cons' argument is far weaker than it would be if they were actually claiming that all of the documents in question were privileged:
Elections Canada is asking a judge to unseal up to a staggering five million pages of Conservative party documents tied to allegations the party broke federal election laws with a controversial advertising campaign in the 2006 election...

Elections Commissioner William Corbett and lawyers with the federal public prosecution service have asked the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to review the documents after the party claimed they contained confidential information that is protected by solicitor-client privilege...

“The investigation cannot adequately proceed because the number of documents over which privilege is claimed, and which investigators and our forensic accountants are therefore unable to review, results in potential evidence not being available to investigators,” Ronald Lamothe said in an affidavit supporting the application...

RCMP computer experts cast doubt in the affidavit on Conservative claims that it would be too onerous to review the millions of computer documents to weed out records that might be available to Elections Canada without violating privilege.
So the issue isn't that there's any plausible claim to privilege over the whole lot of documents. Instead, the Cons' argument relies on a claim that some portion of the documents might be privileged - and that since they can't be bothered to determine which ones actually are, the easier solution is instead to deprive Elections Canada of the ability to review the documents which aren't, regardless of how relevant they might be to the investigation.

Which presumably makes for an ideal outcome for the Cons. But consider how the claim would look if it were any other party making the same claim - for example, an individual under investigation for corporate fraud saying that the police can't look at a single file seized from the relevant office because some legal advice might be included.

Needless to say, under those circumstances the Cons would be the first to wail about a system which coddles criminals rather than allowing investigators to do their jobs. But as always, the same standards to be applied to everybody else are seen as far too onerous when applied to the Cons.

And that's doubly clear when one looks at another of the Cons' arguments. At the same time as they claim that it would be an undue burden to have to identify privileged documents which they've held for over three years, the Cons are also trying to make the case that Elections Canada should have been able to thoroughly review them during the course of a single-day raid. From Canwest's coverage:
Conservative party lawyers say investigators probing the financing of the 2006 election campaign seized documents outside the scope of their search warrant when they raided the party's Ottawa headquarters last spring.

Investigators working for Commissioner of Canada Elections William Corbett took away dozens of boxes of printed documents and hard drives with millions of e-mails and electronic accounting records. The seizure of material was "overbroad" and netted vast amounts of irrelevant records, the Conservatives argue.
Of course, when a party is left making such contradictory arguments, it's usually a sign that it doesn't figure that either position will get far on its own. And hopefully the latest hearing will allow Corbett to determine just who properly bears responsibility for the Cons' spending manipulations - regardless of how loudly the Cons continue to shriek that the rules shouldn't apply to them.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

We have a race

It doesn't come as much surprise based on his earlier hints, but Yens Pedersen has announced his entry into the Saskatchewan NDP leadership contest with a theme of youth and change.

We'll find out before too long how well Pedersen does in selling that message (and from what I've seen so far he looks to be winning over at least a few of his targets). But whatever the result, it's a plus that he's officially thrown his hat in the ring.

On boundaries

Today's revelations that the Cons are planning to gut the Environmental Assessment Act figure to demand plenty of follow-up. But for now, let's note one element of the leaked plan which doesn't seem to have been emphasized elsewhere:
The leaked documents show the Conservatives are planning to rush a watered-down version of the Environmental Assessment Act through parliament as early as March or April. The new rules would exempt from environmental assessment: any Building Canada infrastructure projects under $10 million regardless of the environmental or health risk; any project on federal lands or using federal dollars; and, any project that a provincial government asks be exempted.
Now, we'll have to see the exact wording to know exactly what terms might exist for that type of exemption. But it's not hard to imagine the problems that could arise if Ed Stelmach decides to avoid any discussion of the effect of new oil sands projects, or if Brad Wall concludes that Bruce Power is best served by avoiding a thorough review of the effects of a nuclear reactor.

Moreover, it would seem entirely possible for one province to offload environmental issues onto another by requesting to avoid any assessment of a project whose effects might be felt elsewhere. Which may result in far more risk than opportunity in the Cons' plans for many provinces - and that in turn may lead more than a few provinces to join Canadians who don't see the economic crisis as an excuse to throw the environment out the window in opposing the Cons' plans.

On lesser options

With Michael Ignatieff affirming the possibility of leading the democratic coalition to government while making the case against yet another federal election, the possibilities. But not surprisingly, at least a few commentators have been trying to suggest other avenues which the Libs might take on the budget. So let's take a look at those less-likely options, and how they'd likely turn out for all parties concerned.

One theory suggests that the Libs could repudiate the coalition but still seek the nod from Michaelle Jean to form a single-party government after a vote of non-confidence in the Cons. In effect, the goal would be to take the momentum that the NDP and Bloc have built to remove the Cons from office, and turn it on those parties to force them to back the Libs absent an agreement to do so.

But there are a couple of serious problems with that theory. First, there's the instability of the potential government: having backed out an agreed governing structure, the Libs couldn't expect support from other parties to last long if anybody saw a potential for gain in bringing them down. Which means that unlike the agreed coalition structure, a Lib-only government would face a serious risk of being voted down if another party decided that the political winds had shifted. And it would be the Libs alone left wearing that failure.

In addition, the Libs' limited caucus size would make a single-party government problematic. After all, they'd be looking at having up to half of their MPs in cabinet just to keep the government running - and with the Libs also needing to keep up with their duties in Parliament, carry on constituency relations and work through a party rebuilding process, I can't see how the Libs would want to risk sidetracking that many of their MPs rather than sharing some of the burden.

Another theory suggests that the Libs should seek to pass a budget amendment as a way of detaching themselves from the coalition and putting momentary pressure on the NDP and Bloc. But I'm not sure that the theory has been entirely thought through.

After all, the Cons would indeed have the opportunity to take the amendment as friendly and pass it without leaving any risk in the hands of the other parties. Which would result in Harper being able to say that he's literally doing exactly what the Libs want him to, even as a Con government gets to mangle and politicize the actual implementation at every turn.

Which looks to me to be the worst of all possible worlds: full responsibility for the outcome of a budget at a time of economic uncertainty, and exactly zero say in how Harper continues to govern the country.

So how would the Libs change the latter point? That would be through the final possibility of a grand coalition - which has rightly been dismissed to the extent it's been discussed by anybody but Con partisans, but almost looks palatable compared to the above options.

If the Libs were to make a public push for a true Con/Lib coalition to deal with the economic crisis, Harper might have little choice but to go along - particularly given the noises he's made about substantially agreeing with the Libs on the budget.

By putting some Libs at the cabinet table from a junior partner position, Ignatieff would have the opportunity to at least influence how some of an agreed budget was implemented - both through the Libs' ministerial responsibilities, and by eliminating Harper's full control over cabinet discussions. And one would have to figure Harper would have a far more difficult time pushing his usual overtly political agenda with some of his opponents in cabinet.

In addition, the terms of a grand coalition agreement could both rein in some of the Cons' more damaging policies, and provide the Libs with a firm timeline in which they'd likely be able to avoid an election. Which would offer at least some assurances which wouldn't exist under any other structure where the Cons stay in power.

Which means that of the additional options being put forward, the "grand coalition" idea might actually be the least damaging for Ignatieff and his party. But the fact that the Libs' next-best option is to be a junior coalition partner while leaving Harper in power may only serve to highlight just how undesirable their choices are other than pursuing a progressive coalition with the NDP. And that might explain why Ignatieff and his party seem to be stepping up their preparations to move on the coalition as it stands.

Update: Erin has more on the problems with the amendment option.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

On working relationships

Shorter Tim Powers:

It's preposterous to think Barack Obama would be able to get along with a prime minister who disagrees with him on some issues. But a prime minister who disagrees with Obama on the same issues and whose government sabotaged his primary campaign - now that's a bestest buddy in the making.

Grasping at straws

Following up on their previous attempt to rely on glaringly flawed spin as their best hope to saddle opposition parties with Deficit Jim's sea of red ink, the Cons' mouthpieces are now clinging to an obvious omission to try to pretend that the prospect of a coalition has passed. Which raises the question: what does it say about a party when the closest it has to good news is bad journalism?

On openness

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the NDP's open economic roundtable on Monday, particularly based on its apparent success in attracting the media to cover substantive policy discussions:
10:15:02 AM
Okay, I take back my prediction that my fellow reporters would be fleeing in droves by the half hour mark - there are actually more of us here now than when we started. I wonder if anyone is covering it live, or if CPAC is still running highlights from last fall’s total collapse of Parliament.
In related news, the Cons' idea of open government continues to be a consistent message of "off the record, no comment".

Marvels of consistency

Shorter Cons a couple of weeks ago when it was revealed that some of their planned Senate appointments were constitutionally invalid:

Nothing's final until the senators are sworn in, so it doesn't matter who isn't qualified at the time of the announcement.

Shorter Cons responding to sexual harrassment allegations and financial malpractice surrounding Patrick Brazeau well before his swearing-in:

The appointment is a done deal which we're utterly powerless to change.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Deep thought

The Cons' attempts to take advantage of an Obama halo effect won't get them far at all if they're out of office before he arrives in Canada.

Setting the stage

A couple of weeks back, I mused about what different types of public stances from the Libs might mean in determining the likelihood of their voting down the Cons' budget in favour of the democratic coalition. But now that the Libs have had their opportunity to frame a position before the budget is unveiled, let's take a look at what it might mean.

Starting off with the seeming downside, the Libs have conspicuously failed to say much about the actual coalition deal with the NDP, perhaps wasting a significant opportunity in the process.

After all, even assuming that the Libs need to leave open the possibility of voting for the budget in order to ensure that Harper allows a vote to take place, it would seem possible to preserve a full range of options while still working to boost the actual example of how a coalition might work. Instead, the Libs have offered some defence of the idea of a coalition in theory, but with little mention of the one which might actually come into being - which means that the Cons' messaging from December which tried to cut the NDP and the Bloc out of the Canadian political picture hasn't faced the opposition that it could have.

That said, there's plenty of possible good news as well. Perhaps most significantly, the Libs' public discussion of a shadow budget would make little sense if they didn't perceive a significant opportunity to put that budget into place. And the fact that the Libs will have their own budget plan ready for public presentation should help to nudge the Libs toward the more favourable type of decision-making process: rather than merely deciding whether Harper's plan meets some bare standard of adequacy, they'll figure to be able to make their decision based on the question of which plan is actually better.

In addition, more than a few Libs have picked up on the message that Harper has lost the trust of Parliament. And there wouldn't appear to be much way to reconcile that acknowledgment with a decision to keep Harper in power when the opportunity to replace him presents itself.

Finally, there's what may be the most interesting development: the Libs' recent message that they won't approach Michaelle Jean with the coalition, but would serve as a government only if asked.

On its face, that could easily be interpreted as a sign of reluctance about the coalition. But I have to wonder if it might instead serve as both a means of defusing Con-stoked anger about the coalition, and framing expectations in the event that the coalition comes to pass.

On the public opinion side, one of the Cons' most frequent criticisms of the coalition has been to try to paint the parties involved as hungry for power. But that may be a much more difficult narrative to sell if the Libs make it clear that they're not asking the Governor-General for the position.

And similarly, there's probably an argument to be made that a party which makes a clear statement that it wants to take over the reins immediately should face a higher standard than one which takes power only based on somebody else's request in the national interest.

All of which is to say that while the Libs have still been shy about saying much positive about the coalition (presumably to avoid any lingering associations if they do lose their nerve on the budget vote), there's still a strong case to be made that their messaging has nicely kept the option open. Which means that once again, the main question looks to be whether they'll take the opportunity when the time comes.

The reviews are in

Dan Gardner:
(H)ere is the Conservative Party of Canada suggesting, in effect, that people should be scared as jackrabbits about the economy. And that people should support unknown economic policies which are decidedly not before Parliament.

If this misleading and alarmist ad is any indication, Stephen Harper has learned nothing from the debacle in December.

Monday, January 19, 2009

On factual deficits

Not that anybody could possibly have seen it coming. But Con apologists are now trying to take advantage of their own deliberate confusion as to just how Deficit Jim put Canada into the red. So let's remind readers of a few points in terms that even the National Post's audience can understand.

Jim Flaherty has put Canada in a deficit position before a cent is spent on economic stimulus. The opposition parties aren't now, and have never been, happy about that fact.

Independently of that issue, though, economic stimulus is needed to avoid prolonging and deepening the recession which Stephen Harper said would never happen. And that would be equally true whether or not Jim Flaherty was already running a deficit.

Putting those all together, there's nothing contradictory about criticizing Jim Flaherty for his structural deficits while also highlighting the need for economic stimulus. And it's in fact the Cons who are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of Canadians by misleading the public about their pre-existing deficit.

Edit: fixed wording.


Impolitical has largely dealt with the latest report on sketchy practices under Patrick Brazeau's watch, including distributing cash to members at meetings and continuing to make payments on projects which had expired. But let's note as well what the story has to say about the Cons' vetting process or lack thereof:
Health Canada is demanding the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples return up to $260,000 in ineligible expenses after an audit found directors of the native advocacy group divvied up thousands of dollars in federal cash with insufficient evidence of where the money went.

The federal department has suspended all funding to the organization, led until recently by new Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau, until the group comes up with a plan to pay back the money and respond to the government's concerns.

Health Canada launched an audit in late 2007 to find out what happened to $472,900 it transferred to the congress for projects aimed at improving aboriginal health in areas such as early childhood development and diabetes.

Auditors discovered a long list of problems, including improper per diem claims, the hiring of consultants without contracts or competition and the handing out of large sums of cash to directors with little explanation...

The department said it will not finalize and publish the audit until it is repaid by the congress. Health Canada's comments were in response to questions from The Globe, which obtained a draft audit report dated March 28, 2008.
Now, it would seem fairly likely that the audit report would have been seen by the higher-ups at the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, particularly given how quick the organization was to come up with excuses and explanations once the Globe and Mail started investigating.

Which raises the question about just how much the Cons knew when they first announced their intention to give Brazeau the cushiest patronage appointment in Canadian history. And it doesn't look like any answer will be a positive for the Cons.

On the one hand, it could be that the Cons did so little vetting that they didn't so much as check with Brazeau or any of the people he's worked with in the role which set him up for his impending appointment about the existence of financial impropriety while he was in charge. Which seems entirely possible given the Cons' haste to stack the Senate, but looks to be going even further than the lack of preparation which was already known. (And it's worth wondering as well whether Brazeau and his entourage were fully forthcoming in answering any questions which the Cons might have posed.)

Or on the other hand, the Cons could have known about the problem and decided to appoint Brazeau anyway. Again, that wouldn't come as much surprise given how brazen they've been about ensuring that none of their own face meaningful consequences for their actions. But it would surely serve as a damning indictment of the standards of any government to state that misuse of public funds is seen as grounds for a lifetime promotion.

Not surprisingly, either problem would only be amplified in the context of a recession where the government which has shown either gross incompetence or disinterest in financial accountability now plans to manage a multi-billion dollar stimulus package. And regardless of what the Cons knew or should have known earlier, the more stubborn they are in ramming through their Senate appointments in the wake of public revelations like these, the more impetus the opposition parties should have to make sure the Brazeau appointment is one of Harper's last mistakes.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

On omissions

Aaron Wherry asks one interesting question arising out of Diane Finley's signature turning up on a petition against OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino. But I'd see a couple more worth tossing into the mix.

Did the Cons somehow miss "signing petitions" on their list of actions which MPs can't take without the PMO's approval?

And if so, what's the over/under on the number of minutes after the CP story went public before that changed?

Publicity hounding

Jane Taber's latest "hot and not" column rightly criticizes the Harper government for attempting to take sole credit for the provincial labour mobility agreement signed last week. But it's worth noting that the events of the first ministers' conference only scratch the surface of how Harper's attempt at branding the agreement conflicts with the reality of how it was reached:
Mr. Harper's staff wanted their boss, and only their boss, to be in the spotlight for the photo op when an agreement on trade mobility was signed at the first ministers meeting yesterday. The PMO, according to sources, wanted the premiers to sign the agreement behind closed doors and then in public have the PM sign for the cameras. The premiers would stand behind him. Loud shouting ensued as the provincial officials pushed back. They won: The PM and premiers all sat together at a long table and smiled for the cameras.
What Taber doesn't mention is that the process in question has been in the works for years - and with provinces rather than the federal government taking the lead at every step.

As far back as 2006, Manitoba premier Gary Doer had been working on getting an interprovincial labour mobility agreement in place. In recent meetings, Jean Charest and Shawn Graham had joined Doer as the leading public backers of the move. And the signing this weekend merely involved formalizing terms which the provinces had agreed to in principle last July at a Council of the Federation meeting which (as best I can tell) didn't include federal participation.

In other words, the fact that Harper was even in attendance when the final agreement was signed can best be classified as a coincidence or a contrivance. But that apparently didn't stop Harper from trying to position himself to take sole public credit for the work the provinces had done.

All of which serves to highlight that once again, the Cons' main commitment is to perception rather than reality. And with Canada facing a recession which demands effective federal action, there's no reason to settle for a government whose sole plan is to take credit for others' accomplishments.