Saturday, January 31, 2009

Stuck in neutral

Michael Ignatieff's attempt to put a Harper-style muzzle on his party has already received plenty of attention - and at least some Libs are agitating for that theoretical silencing of other voices to be paired with a party-based publicity campaign to build up its interim leader. But as I noted in the comments to BCer in TO's post, there may be a severe limitation on how much Ignatieff is able to control his party's message.

After all, while the Libs' convention in May is largely expected to merely acclaim Ignatieff as the party's leader, there may still be a chance of somebody else launching a competing bid. And that possibility figures to place some strict limits on what Ignatieff can reasonably do in his current interim role.

To the extent there's even a slight possibility of any more candidates joining the race, it could hardly be fair for the party to use any of its resources in support of one candidate in its own leadership race - which presumably explains the lack of any ad campaigns to date. And indeed Ignatieff's caucus communications strategy might have to be toned down as well, since an edict barring any potential competitors from spreading their leadership message publicly would be highly problematic.

Now, there are some conflicting stories as to what deadlines might apply to the leadership race. As best I can tell, the only formal deadline for leadership contestants comes into play 62 days before the leadership vote - or around the end of February.

If that's right, it would leave a substantial amount of time before the Libs know whether or not they'll have to maintain some pretense of impartiality. And if somebody aside from Ignatieff does decide to mount a bid, then the Libs could be effectively hamstrung until May in trying to define Ignatieff publicly.

Mind you, the race may be effectively decided earlier, as Ignatieff will have a huge advantage if he can sign up enough delegates before a February 6 membership deadline to effectively predetermine the outcome of any convention vote. But even if another bid is seen as no more likely to succeed than Sheila Copps' challenge to Paul Martin, one would expect the party to at least try to stay neutral until the outcome is finalized. And indeed there would seem to be no more sure way to start developing a new set of internal fissures than for the Ignatieff wing to use the party's general funds and Ignatieff's interim leadership role to set up an even steeper hill for any competitors to climb.

So the Libs probably don't have much choice but to stay relatively quiet in defining Ignatieff. And that makes it all the more likely that whatever bounce he's managed to achieve since taking over the party will end up being drowned out by competing messages long before Ignatieff is in any position to start responding in kind.

Predictable results

As I noted last week, the corporate media honeymoon over Michael Ignatieff's short-sighted decision to prop up the Cons was never likely to last long. Which brings us to Michael Taube:
Ignatieff’s acceptance of the budget was a poor tactical decision. It enabled Prime Minister Stephen Harper to receive a pass on his questionable analysis of Canada’s economic stability during the federal election, the “now you see it, now you don’t” proposed elimination of political party subsidies, and the constitutional crisis we recently faced. The PM needed cover to rebuild his shattered image (which he’s been doing since Parliament was prorogued last December) and implement an economic stimulus package – and now he’s got it.

Even though Harper will obviously have an incredibly difficult time getting through this economic storm – which hasn’t bottomed out – he can still argue that he’s doing everything in his power to get Canada back on track. He can also regularly meet with world leaders like U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to show that he is helping build a cohesive unit within the international community to properly tackle this global financial crisis.

Meanwhile, all Ignatieff can say is that he got some Liberal-oriented ideas in the budget, and saved Canadians from another election by propping up a government that has supposedly lost the confidence of Parliament. With no disrespect, big deal.
Of course, it'll probably take a little while longer for the same conclusion to spread to the pundits who gave their temporary approval to Ignatieff's actions. But the inevitable consequences of Ignatieff's decision to prop up Harper - whether based on Harper himself turning back to his usual hyperpartisanship, Con mismanagement which a coalition government could have avoided, or internal dissent over continued Harper government - can't help but to lead to a reevaluation of the wisdom of Ignatieff's call this week. And Taube figures to be only the first of many to conclude after the fact that Ignatieff made the wrong call.

More reviews are in: The Aftermath

The first wave of progressive outrage at Michael Ignatieff's decision to support continued Conservative government was documented at the time. But the last couple of days have seen plenty more reason for anger at the Libs' abdication of responsibility - and no lack of commentators continuing to express their frustration. So here's another roundup...

Beijing York:
What really burns is to recognize that neither pay equity nor the failure to address the needs of the most vulnerable was not considered a "poison pill" by the official opposition.

Sadly, I was hoping that Ignatieff would prove me wrong and display some courage. Unfortunately, I was wrong. It seems that vulnerability is an abstract concept for this Ivy League "human rights" expert.
Woman at Mile 0:
My 18 year-old daughter called me last night at 11:06 pm and said she was reconsidering being a Liberal. This had me very concerned as she has always self identified as Liberal and she is a pretty smart cookie currently taking a business/environment studies degree. I asked her why. She said that it’s all over school that the budget gave the biggest tax cuts to the top 8% of Canadians. She believes this budget will cause serious damage and what could Liberals possibly be thinking to support it.

I was shocked and indicated this must not be true because the Libs would not vote for that when we are supposed to be focusing on low income-middle class Canadians. The rich are certainly the last ones to need a tax cut now, blowing us even farther into perilous deficit. Ignatieff said nothing about tax cuts for the highest income earners in his conditions for this budget.

Sure enough I visit the Star this morning and she was right. It does benefit the top 8% the most...I have moved from not supporting this budget to being thoroughly shocked and disgusted at the Conservative’s blatant audacity and complete disregard for the state of the economy, women, children, the environment, science, the unemployed/about to be unemployed, etc. It’s shocking, really shocking.
James Curran:
How refreshing. (Judy Foote) is actually sticking up for (her) constituency. You know. The people that actually sent her to Ottawa to work for them...

She also might want to vote no to the budget for the lack of any support for the equality of women in this country...

...Women's issues? Something our previous leader championed. But that was then. This is now.
Robert McBean:
One day later...

Harper is sneering and calling people names.

Ignatieff looks like an idiot.
A view informed by this earlier post:
The pay equity issue is huge for me and others. Unfortunately Michael Ignatieff has not mentioned it. Is this important to the Liberal Party? Please tell me it is. Denying pay equity resolution shows Harper is small minded, parochial and petty.
The Disaffected Lib:
This guy we've got now, he isn't much concerned about fairness. He's a one man show - he's the decider - and he'll gag his entire caucus to ensure his so very Harperesque iron-hand control of information. Let's face it, no matter whether you think Iggy is a conservative or not, you cannot deny that he likes Harper's style of running a party. We all found that contemptible when Harper did it but suddenly it's become just dandy when Ignatieff does it? Who actually gets the right to turn this Liberal Party of Canada's tap on and off? Did the job specification indicate "strongman" or "leader?" Here's a rule every Latin American knows by heart - never let a strongman in unless that's really what you want and unless you're willing to live with the inevitable outcome.

Now I am, for the first time in a long, long time, absolutely ashamed of the conduct of my party and its Members of Parliament. They've decided it's okay to pursue Harper not just to the right but also into the gutter.

And I guess that's where we part company.
If I'm understanding the current framing correctly, Liberals defending Ignatieff are claiming that he's a strategic genius who's going to hang the recession around the neck of the Conservatives, followed by a triumphant return to power at some unspecified point in the future. Right? Is that the deal?

Then, given this refusal to try to enhance EI payments, eliminate new tax breaks, keep pay equity in place as it is, and so on and so forth -- in other words, actually do things to, y'know, help people -- I think it's quite fair to say that the Liberals also want to make sure that Canadians really suffer through this one. That way, they'll be ever more likely to vote Liberal at that unspecified point in the future.

Montreal Simon:
Ignatieff understands what's wrong with the budget. Yesterday, he detailed some of its main defects – its failure to address the fact that most jobless people don't qualify for employment insurance, its refusal to deal with child care, the strings attached to its infrastructure spending proposals, its gratuitous attack on the principle of paying men and women equally for work of equal value.

Then, having listed the budget's flaws, he said his party would support it anyway...

The Coalition really was the best and most Canadian solution to the enormous and frightening economic crisis our country faces.

I hate attacking many of them are my friends. Everybody knows that I believe in uniting the left into a common front so we can drive the foul Cons from power FOREVER.

I also suspect that Ignatieff will live to regret his moment of moral cowardice.... his moment of idiocy. And it will be his worst punishment.
April Reign:
Sure the budget wasn’t worth the cost of the paper it was printed on. Sure women received absolutely nothing. Sure ordinary working class Canadians were once again told to stuff it in favour of an estimated 3 billion to paid to those who not only can afford to keep their homes but renovate them too, sure there were reports of infrastructure payments –oh did we mention they got the idea from a spam scam? ya– you put up the money first and then we’ll give you riches…sure the budget held all this and more but Ignatieff voted for it anyway.
Red Tory:
Someone asked me this morning why the Liberals are supporting the government’s budget. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a good answer. When I heard yesterday that the Liberals would be proposing amendments to the budget I didn’t think that “putting the government on probation” (to use Ignatieff’s expression) would be sum total of demands that would be made. Really… is that it? How utterly disappointing...

It’s bad enough that we’re stuck with a government that’s more intent on playing cheap political games than it is in taking care of the nation’s business, the last thing in the world we need is an official Opposition similarly focused that continues to support Tories against the wishes of its own membership.
Watching them "like hawks"

Except apparently Iggie missed this part...

Putting thousands of jobs at risk doesn't sound like good stimulus. And pulling the rug out from under "some of the most promising medical research" doesn't sound like policy calculated to make Canada stronger coming out of the recession than it was going in.
Apparently I've been labouring under a misapprehension. I assumed our so-called "official opposition party" had a responsibility to do more than just ride shotgun and observe the carnage while the Tories drive our country down the highway to hell...

The marketing we're getting from the LPC is simply ridiculous. They have no actual power to leash the government or put them on probation. Without the co-operation and goodwill of the NDP and the Bloc, the Liberals are just as toothless as they've been since Paul Martin fell to defeat. All the Liberals can do is posture and spin and hope Harper screws up enough that they can go up in the polls. Their entire strategy is dependent on Harper failing...

As for the arguement that progressives have no choice but to support the Liberals because they're "better" than the Tories, I have to say that's turning out to be a load of empty spin.

I think it's time for progressives to put the Liberal Party of Canada on probation.
Le Daro:
Michael Ignatieff has a soulmate

Yes, he is a complete doormat to Stephen Harper. They were made for each other.
Thoughts on Climate Change:
What a downer! All of Dion's idealism and coalition-building, all of Ignatieff's bluster, and it has come down to this: support for the Harper's budget, conditional on mere progress reports...

The whole thing was clearly just a face-saving move by a Liberal leader who wanted to avoid bringing down the Conservative government -- while appearing to be tough with empty talk of "Conservatives on probation". Instead of real progress toward a sustainable economy, we will have four more wasted years of Harpernomics HarperIggiocy.

Now that the Liberal-NDP coalition is sadly R.I.P., it is time to take the pro-coalition badge off the sidebar of this blog. The only federalist opposition in Parliament to the new Conservative-Liberal Coalition Alliance Mish-Mash is the NDP.
And one more from Montreal Simon:
Well I can't say I'm surprised. Just disgusted.

Michael Ignatieff had a chance to do the right thing, and stand up for the rights of poor Canadians, women, and children.

But instead he sold us all out. He'll blow Stephen Harper and "swallow hard" for the price of a meaningless amendment...

The Coalition for Change offered us all kinds of new possibilities. A chance to topple Stephen Harper's foul neocons before he damages our country even more and shames us further in the eyes of the world. A chance to unite the progressive left, and reclaim the Canada we've lost.

But instead Ignatieff opted to collaborate with Harper, by putting his Party before his country, and stabbing the dream in the back. So now it's No We Can't.

Instead of Yes We Can...
Update: the Militant Dipper (formerly the Militant Liberal):
(T)here really is no place in today's Liberal party for anyone who leans left. The Bay street wing is firmly in control and really always has been. Michael Ignatieff and his supporters really must be congratulated on reversing the Chretien, Dion coup attempt. They run that pathetic husk of a party now and I say let them have it...

Any one who stands opposed to Stephen Harper has only one choice...The Liberal, Conservative coalition government can only be opposed by New Democrats. Left leaning Liberals I implore you, stop taking abuse from your own party, stop apologizing for Gaza and for Afghanistan and join me at my new party. It's great to have a leader who you can agree with once in awhile. The blood is already coming off my hands too.

Edit: fixed wording.

Friday, January 30, 2009

And then there were three

Deb Higgins has joined the Saskatchewan NDP leadership race.

Like Yens Pedersen's recent entry, Higgins' decision to run doesn't come as a particularly large surprise. But the more interesting news may be the announcement that Frank Quennell will serve as Higgins' campaign manager - which would seemingly signal that Dwain Lingenfelter won't be the only candidate bringing some significant caucus support and cabinet experience to the race.

On validation

Brian Topp's final entry in his e-mail exchange with Robert Silver is worth a read generally. But there's one point which deserves to be clarified in the NDP's messaging in light of the events of the last couple of months:
(I)f you're asking me, "why can't the NDP get more than 18% of the vote despite all this?" then I think your answer may be in your preamble. The next tranche of voters our party needs to convince are the ones withholding their support because they have never seen a federal NDP cabinet minister. And that's what they may need to see to pop the soap bubbles woven around them by the interests we try to reason with, as discussed above.

Or maybe not. In current circumstances, it would seem we're going to need to hit the right combination of hope that things really can change, with comfort that nothing foolish will be done, some other way. We've done so in many provinces. Our sister parties have succeeded in Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and many other countries without the planet being destroyed by volcanoes. It can be done.
Now, I'm all for looking at other means of breaking down the all-too-often-repeated assumption that the possibility of the NDP in government should be seen as strange or threatening. But I definitely hope that Topp and the NDP's other strategists aren't leaving behind what should be one of the party's great gains from the progressive coalition.

After all, regardless of their failure to follow through on the coalition, every Lib MP has signed onto the idea that Canada can be governed better by a cabinet that features NDP participation. And that kind of validation - coming from the party which relies most on the assertion that the NDP can't and shouldn't be allowed near power - should offer a powerful counterargument the next time anybody tries to bring up the tired old messages.

Deep thought

Michael Ignatieff's plan to mimic Stephen Harper's stranglehold on his party sure seems to be working out well.

Update: And it's only looking better with time.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Ad infinitum

At first glance, it was somewhat surprising to see the NDP unveil its ad campaign to define Michael Ignatieff yesterday. But the more one looks at the decision, the more one sees reason to think the move may offer huge potential to boost the NDP's standing on the political scene.

How so? Note to start with that the campaign looks to be set up in the form of a positive feedback loop. Every time one of the radio ads plays, it'll accomplish two things: spreading the NDP's framing of Ignatieff, and sending listeners to the NDP website if they agree and want to hear more.

Meanwhile, the website is set up both to provide the party's take on what's happening, and to encourage those who agree to donate money and/or join the party - with an explicit focus on making sure the ads are more widely distributed.

So if all goes as hoped, the ads (which have received plenty of free media attention) will drive traffic to the site, which will drive greater distribution of the ads, which will drive more traffic to the site...and all this with side benefits like additional membership and donor buy-in.

And the party can choose to focus on emphasizing whichever one or more of the positive results it wants to. Indeed, for all the attempts to complain about the NDP spending money on the campaign, it's not hard to see how the party could substantially boost its bottom line if the campaign brings enough donors out of the woodwork.

Now, it may theoretically be possible to create that type of effect at any time. But there's surely no time like the present - when more eyes than usual are set on the political scene, when most progressives had united behind the very cause which the Libs abandoned, and where the Libs and Cons have both demoralized huge chunks of their respective bases. Which means that the NDP looks to have been right on target in recognizing and pouncing on a huge opportunity.

Naturally, there's room to quibble with some of the details. From my perspective, the ads seemed a bit on the boilerplate side rather than containing a lot of attention-grabbing material. And I'd still like to see the website set up to encourage more person-to-person contact and discussion rather than focusing primarily on memberships and donations.

But while there may be some room for improvement, the campaign ultimately looks to have the potential to build some significant momentum for the NDP on all fronts. And with that possibility brought to light, it would be difficult to conclude that the NDP's response was anything but the right one.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

In pictures 4 - Caged

By reader request, one more Obamicon with the other image used by Michael Ignatieff to describe the Libs' role.

D for disingenuous

Before anybody gives undue credit to Brad Wall for speaking out against the Harper/Ignatieff budget, it's worth keeping in mind the timeline involved.

When there was any danger that the budget might be defeated, Wall didn't have anything negative to say - and indeed he was presumably waiting on standby to again bash the idea of a coalition if given the opportunity. And it was only once his commanding officer was sure to stay in power that Wall decided to mention a few of the more glaring problems with the budget.

So the ultimate lesson to be taken from Wall's actions is that he'll only pretend to stand up for Saskatchewan when he's sure it doesn't count for anything. Which should serve only to show the continued similarity in insincerity between him and his federal role model.

What thwap said

Go read. This has been another edition of what thwap said.

What comes next

So Michael Ignatieff has made it clear that his idea of leadership is standing athwart history, yelling "Proceed with Caution!". But what does the Libs' choice to spend the balance of this Parliament blinking in Stephen Harper's general direction mean for the NDP?

As I've mentioned before, looking strictly at its political interests, the NDP could hardly have asked for a greater gift than to have Ignatieff side with the Cons over the democratic coalition. And the actual events look only to reinforce that conclusion if the NDP plays its cards right.

The NDP's first course of action should naturally be to reach out to its coalition supporters to build a cohesive opposition to the Con government. The most obvious pool of potential support may be in Quebec: with Ignatieff essentially telling over a third of the province that he disagrees with their conclusion that he should be Prime Minister, there would seem to be loads of opportunity to push disgruntled Libs into the NDP camp. But there was significant support for the coalition across the country, and the NDP should be making every effort to bring that movement under its umbrella.

But how best to do that? I'll note here that as tempting as it may be to come out with guns blazing against the Libs, that may not be the best possible option. Instead, there should be a wide opening to portray the NDP's actions as the cutting edge of a new breed of politics. After all, the NDP took the lead role in brokering the coalition agreement, and put in most of the organizational work to rebuild its public perception after the Cons' initial ad blitz managed to misinform far too many Canadians into distrusting it.

Ultimately, the message should then be that the NDP's current seat count put it in position to create the opportunity for the coalition to begin a new era of cooperative politics. But that wasn't enough in this case due to the Libs reverting to old-line political calculations, where being #2 in the party queue supposedly means being able to count on becoming government by default somewhere down the line.

That means that for a future coalition to succeed where this one failed, what's most needed is a strong message that such an assumption isn't correct, particularly where the Libs abdicate their responsibilities by voluntarily choosing worse government in the meantime. And what better way to change that calculus than to improve the NDP's relative seat count so the Libs don't consider themselves to inevitably be next in line for government?

While the NDP should be quick to point out its role in the coalition process, however, it should be careful about taking credit for any of the contents of the Cons' budget. Instead, it would seem to have an opening to criticize not only the Cons' implementation, but the broader decisions made by the Cons as well.

And one of the points that I'd think would be worth picking up is the obvious link between the Cons' tax cuts and Deficit Jim's sea of red ink. With balanced-budget advocates now fleeing the Cons in droves and the Libs choosing not to try to alter the government's course, the NDP should be looking for every available opportunity to highlight the differences between "tax cuts at all costs" fiscal conservatism and "smart, balanced budgeting" fiscal responsibility, while doing everything it can to draw the latter group into the NDP's fold.

In sum, Ignatieff's decision to kill off the coalition and prop up the Cons has left the NDP with a huge opportunity to claim a massive amount of territory based on cooperative politics, accountability and fiscal responsibility, all while keeping up the "effective opposition" title. And if Layton, Mulcair and company are able to make those labels stick, then the NDP should be ideally positioned for the next federal election.

In pictures 3 - No Change

In pictures 2 - No Hope

In pictures 1 - No Progress

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

For comparative purposes

The Disaffected Lib questions whether the Libs had any economic plan ready to deal with Canada's current recession. But it's worth noting that there's almost certainly such a plan in existence: after all, the Libs announced just over a week ago that they were working on a shadow budget for the precise purpose of being prepared if they were called on to form government.

So instead of the problem being that the Libs didn't produce anything, the issue is that they've chosen to make nothing public. But now that they've told Canadians that they'd rather prop up Harper than implement their own plan, it would seem a reasonable enough expectation that the Libs should make their draft public so that people can decide for themselves whether that was the right call.

Snarky responses to simple statements

Impolitical tries to spin the Libs' choice to prop up the Harper government:
But the Liberal approach is, in my view, going to achieve the departure of Stephen Harper, it'll just take a little longer...
Which is probably true enough. After all, if the Libs keep up their current strategy, Harper figures to die of old age in 24 Sussex any decade now.

Widespread views

For those wondering, my earlier roundup of comments on Ignatieff's decision to prop up Deceivin' Stephen quite deliberately doesn't include every voice speaking out against the decision. Instead, the post is intentionally limited to Lib supporters and/or non-partisan commentators - to make clear that the reaction to Ignatieff's move is far from simply a partisan issue, but is shared by progressives of multiple political stripes.

That said, if you're looking for some of the more insightful commentary from NDP supporters, you'll want to check out:
Driving the Porcelain Bus
Northern BC Dipper
Tiny Perfect Blog
Rusty Idols
Blogging a Dead Horse

The reviews are in: Dion Part Deux edition

Canadians who lose their jobs because the stimulus package did not cover the items set out in the Accord, or amount to the proper sum (at least 2% of GDP for now), should blame not only Harper when they lose their jobs, their homes and their livelihoods, but more particularly, each and every Liberal MP, and vote accordingly at the next election.

Because the Liberal MPs had a choice.

They could have voted to install a progressive centre government, with a more realistic stimulus program.

Instead, they supported Harper...

At a time when courage was called for, the Liberals offered cowardice.

In Canada, ‘Yes we can’ has become ‘No, we dare not.’ What a sad day for Canada.
Chet Scoville:
After all the trouble of replacing Dion with Ignatieff, here we go again...Yeah, yeah. Seen it, taped it, taped over it already.
The Disaffected Lib:
Let's get this straight. The interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, our nation's Official Opposition, is content to allow Canada in the face of this fiscal emergency to wallow haplessly under the weight of Harper's visionless bailout budget. If Ignatieff supports this budget, that's exactly what he has done.

If Ignatieff supports Harper on this one, he'll chalk up one more odious similarity to our Furious Leader - he'll put his personal political fortunes ahead of the interests of Canada.
L-girl at We Move To Canada:
These goddamn Liberals. They get to act tough, showcase Ignatieff's tough-talking leadership, and then defeat the Government and have an election when they're good and ready, and when they feel Canadians are amenable to it.

And we're stuck with this bullshit Government and their unfocused, grab-bag budget that does more for wealthy folks remodelling their kitchens than working people thrown out of work and barely hanging on...

I fucking hate the Liberals. I don't know how any Canadian who considers themselves progressive can vote for them.
The budget falls short, but we’re gonna support it, and require reports, and then watch them like hawks, and if it doesn’t work the way we think it should we’ll bring them down — I think Dion wrote his text for him.
Same ol’ Liberals. Pretty sad day for the country. Iggy is going to let Harper fall even further onto his face, and take the rest of us down with him while he wastes Billions of dollars in the process.
James Curran:
NO changes to the policies contained in the budget? NO CHANGES to the EI in the Liberal amendments? NO CHANGES to the housing clauses? NO CHANGES to help with day care and people on Social Assistance? What about green renovations instead of all renovations including your cottage?



Throwing financial crumbs out to a starving public is no way to ensure a solid, timely recovery but that apparently doesn't bother the Liberal party enough to bring down this government. It's politics first. What else is new?
Beijing York:
At least Dion looked pained and embarrassed every time he rolled over and let Harper piss on him. Ignatieff can't wipe off that smug expression as he "swallows hard".
Still more updates...

Andrew P:
Iggy needed to put policy over politics for the good of the country. His failure do so has convinced me where his loyalties lay, and they aren’t in the order I hoped. There’s an old saying in Ottawa - I know it’s in Toronto, probably in Ottawa - that says, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me - you can’t get fooled again. Well sir, I won’t be fooled again.
James Laxer:
Rule number one in politics: you can’t have it every which way. If you vote for the Conservative budget, it becomes your budget Mr. Ignatieff, no matter what font the government uses to print its reports for you...

Having decided “not to be” as a serious opponent of the Harper government, Michael Ignatieff could consider a career on the stage.

Meanwhile, Jack Layton has become the real leader of the opposition. He showed courage when he reached out to the Liberals to form a progressive coalition that could provide Canadians with the leadership they need to cope with the economic crisis. He tried the option of working with the Liberals. Michael Ignatieff has walked away from that option. Layton has retained his integrity and his clear understanding of what the country needs. Progressives now have one party and one party only available to them: the NDP.
More Disaffected Lib:
No matter which way he squirms and spins, Michael Ignatieff is going to be saddled with this decision and it's going to come back to haunt him for years.

We won't support a budget that contains tax cuts! Remember that? It sounds an awful lot like Stephane Dion saying the Liberals would never, ever, positively not ever support an extension of the Afghanistan mission past 2009.
Yet another update...

Words fail me ... because I am too pissed off.
More Chet Scoville:
The amendment, instead, is simply to require the government to make a claim to Parliament every few months saying, yes, we really are executing the flawed budget that we said we'd execute, and keeping the unfocused promises we said we'd keep. In other words, it demands nothing from the government, because accountability to Parliament is already an inherent part of a parliamentary system. Ignatieff is attempting to legislate something that's already there anyway by constitutional convention. All he's adding is a timetable, which, frankly, doesn't amount to much.

I don't expect much from Harper and company. They're not good at this governing business, and never have been from day one. I was hoping for better from Ignatieff's Liberals.
Miranda Hussey:
Despite all the problems with the budget and the rumors that the Liberals would ask for amendments with substance Iggy is only asking for some sort of checkpoint where the Conservatives have to provide quarterly reports on implementation. Given Flaherty's past history of creative accounting, and that fact that every economic projection that this government has put forward disagrees with all the experts this is a laughable as the only condition to put forward in order for the budget to get Liberal support.

I covered in my post this morning some of the things that I had major problems with and thought needed to be amended, yet all of them are being let slide in favour of quarterly reports. Might as well just give them a cart blanche for all the supposed teeth that amendment has.
One last update: See more at We Move to Canada.

Those who forget history

Let's offer a quick reminder to the Libs who are suggesting that adding some minor reporting requirements to the Cons' budget will somehow serve any useful purpose.

That strategy has been tried before - by the same deposed leader who the Libs are so eager to leave in the rear-view mirror. It's failed miserably before. It'll fail miserably again if it constitutes Ignatieff's answer on the budget.

And in fact, as pointless as it normally is to invite the Cons to report on their own actions, it's probably even more so in this case due to the time pressures involved. When the first report comes out in March, the Cons can say they haven't yet had time to do much (in between passages singing their own praises). And by the time the second one comes out, we can fully expect to hear that it's too late to bother with any change in course.

Indeed, about the only way we can expect to hear any negative report is if the Cons decide to test the Libs' confidence threats. Which means that the reporting system will serve only to provide even less stability in Parliament than we already had.

So the Libs seem to have come up with a way to invite the Cons to dispense even more propaganda, while utterly failing to actually hold Harper accountable for the results of his budget. And it doesn't figure to take long before that decision blows up in Ignatieff's face as Dion's similar strategy did not so long ago.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Beyond amendment

Speaking of the possibility of an amendment as the Libs' strategy for dealing with the budget, let's note the obvious problems with such an approach.

First and foremost, banking on an amendment to resolve any outstanding concerns with the budget completely cedes the initiative and the final decision to the Cons. After all, if the Cons accept a package of substantive amendments, then there's basically no room left for the Libs to question or oppose the resulting amended budget.

Which means that once the Libs put their amendments out into the public eye, the decision as to whether or not the Cons would stay in power would be placed solely in the hands of Stephen Harper. And it's not hard to guess what choice he'd make.

That's particularly problematic since any amendment won't figure to do anything to improve the actual implementation of the budget - which Ignatieff has already recognized to be a significant problem.

For example, the Libs can try to strip out any legislated requirements for "leveraged" funding for infrastructure. But as long as a Con government will have the final say as to which projects receive funding it would be easy to implement the Cons' preferred limitations in practice even if legislation allows for broader funding.

Likewise, any legislated concern about the deficit would all too likely either be dealt with through revised estimates rather than substantive action, or offered up as an excuse for service cuts and asset sales.

And the problem is only amplified when one looks at how the Con government would likely administer even the measures within the budget which the Libs broadly agree with. After all, regional development agencies and sectoral supports are sure to be less effective than they should be when they're administered by a government that always puts partisanship ahead of policy.

Finally, it should be kept in mind that this is a road the Libs have been down before. Considering the results the last time the Libs allowed themselves to be prodded into agreement on a confidence measure, there's all the more reason to doubt that they'll be able to accomplish anything useful by following the same path now.

In sum, there's no basis for confidence that the Cons will start governing better once the threat of a coalition is removed. Which means that if the Libs are rightly concerned that Deficit Jim's budget is borderline at best even on its face, then the dangers of Con implementation should break any tie in favour of voting down the Harper government.

Equitable considerations

One of the more interesting surprises in the Cons' budget was their decision to keep attacking pay equity even after that was one of the main points of dispute in their fall fiscal update. So let's take a look at a couple of reasons why they might have kept such a contentious piece in what was supposed to be a conciliatory budget.

The first obvious possibility is that the Cons may have figured that the Libs would prefer amending the budget to voting it down. Under those circumstances, the continued attack on pay equity would be ripe for amendment - which could allow the Libs to claim some victory, and in turn allow the Cons to claim to have been cooperative by conceding that amendment.

But it might well be instead that the Cons have no intention of allowing their limitations on pay equity to be amended out of the budget due to the political advantage they could gain by leaving them in.

Keep in mind that Harper and company are already trying to rewrite history to claim that their position on stimulus hasn't changed from last fall, even though their fall update (a) failed to recognize that any was necessary and (b) didn't plan for a budget to reevaluate that position until March or April. Which seems very much intended to publicly undermine the main rationale for the formation of the democratic coalition.

For the Libs, the next-strongest argument why the fall showdown might have been justified was Deficit Jim's plan to hack away at pay equity. But if they now throw their support behind a budget which pushes forward with the same measure, then it'll be impossible for them to make any reasonable argument that pay equity was ever an inviolable principle.

That would leave the Cons with a slam-dunk message that the only time the Libs have opposed them was to preserve their own funding. And the combination of a Con base fired up by that theme and a Lib party demoralized by propping up the Cons likely represents Harper's best hope to make a final push into majority territory.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Deep thought

When it comes to funding intended to propel Canada out of a recession, "use it or lose it" isn't a reasonable threat.

Deficit Jim's Legacy

One other quick note on the Cons' budget.

$85 billion: Deficit Jim's red ink estimated over 5 years.
$87 billion: The total cost over 5 years of Deficit Jim's previously-implemented GST cuts (estimated at $7 billion per point per year), plus the income tax tinkering in the 2009 budget prorated from a 6-year estimate.

And that's leaving aside all the money Flaherty has tossed into other shiny vote-grabbing baubles. Which should make it glaringly clear where the responsibility lies for the deficits now confronting the federal government.

Falling short

The contents of the Cons' budget are now public. And the most striking news is the fact that the three largest programs - representing roughly half of the Cons' planned stimulus - all feature glaring weaknesses.

The largest dollar figure of $12 billion is attached to infrastructure spending. But that comes with a major caveat:
Nearly $12-billion federal dollars will be made available for “shovel-ready” public works projects across Canada that can be commenced quickly, but there's a catch. Provinces and municipalities will have to contribute nearly $9-billion more in order to get the roads, bridges and sewer upgrade work started.
The Conservatives warn however they will withdraw offered funding if there's not a speedy pickup by provincial and municipal governments “The government is expecting all partners in this stimulus plan to act with urgency and will reinforce this with a strong, consistent, ‘use it or lose it' theme,” the budget said.
In other words, much of the supposedly budgeted money won't flow if municipalities and provinces don't put their own money on the table first. And with some municipalities in particular already signalling that they can't afford to have stimulus costs foisted on them by the federal government, it looks like a certainty that at least some of the money nominally allocated to infrastructure won't actually be spent.

Next up is the Cons' tinkering with the income tax system, which would cost the federal treasury roughly $2 billion per year (so $4 billion over the 2-year stimulus period). But with the Libs and others having already raised justifiable concerns about the ineffectiveness of tax cuts as stimulus, it's hard to see that as a positive sign.

And it only gets worse when one gets to the next program on the list, being the Cons' home renovation tax credit. While the Cons budget a whopping $2.5 billion, the terms surrounding the credit make it another pool of money which is likely to have little if any effect on actual economic activity.

After all, the credit doesn't even come into play unless a homeowner has a spare $1000-plus lying around to invest in renovations. And even above that level, the 15% credit doesn't look like a meaningful incentive to spend money which wouldn't otherwise be spent - particularly when the Cons' noises about an impending depression figure to make Canadians more cautious in handling their money.

I'm sure the smaller initiatives will be dealt with before too long as well. But the top three on the list - which again include half of the supposed stimulus amount - are enough on their own to tell the story of a budget which is designed for failure. Which means that the Libs should have an easier time than expected concluding that it's time for a change in government.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

On details

Despite the best efforts of the Cons and others to force his hand, Michael Ignatieff is laying the groundwork for a thorough review of the impending federal budget. And it's worth noting that Ignatieff looks to be focusing on a couple of areas where the Cons figure to come up short:
Ignatieff said the budget's fine print will reveal whether the Liberals support the government or bring it down, which could result in an election or a governing coalition with the NDP.

"You go on what's in the cold type and make a kind of overall judgment about whether this is in the national interest," he said.

"And then suppose, just suppose, you think you can live with it. Then you've got the issue of how you can guarantee that it's properly implemented."

Ignatieff, who took over the Liberal leadership from St├ęphane Dion in December, said some leaked budget information has already caused him concern, such as the proposed infrastructure funding formula and reported broad-based tax cuts.
Now, it's good enough news that Ignatieff's message is based on looking behind the large headline numbers underlying details - particularly given that the Cons seem to have concentrated on the former to the exclusion of the latter.

But it's even more significant that Ignatieff is raising implementation as an issue even before the budget is presented. If Ignatieff were looking for excuses to pass the budget, then the easiest course of action would be to focus only at the immediate numbers as representing a theoretical stimulus, while leaving any discussion about the Cons' competence or inclination to follow through until it's too late.

By raising the implementation issue now, Ignatieff has instead taken public responsibility for his ability (or lack thereof) to keep Harper in line if the Cons are left in power. Which can only figure to raise the perceived costs of propping up the Cons, as the Libs won't be able to direct future attacks toward implementation issues without all other parties pointing out that they could and should have dealt with those concerns earlier.

Moreover, if the Libs' choice is framed based on the question of whether they can best ensure the full and effective implementation of a stimulus plan as the opposition to a government which can't even be bothered to figure out the desired results or under a coalition government dedicated to putting economic recovery first, then it shouldn't be a tough decision to pull the plug on Harper. Which leaves only the question of whether the Libs will follow through on the direction they seem to have charted.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

More reviews are in

James Travers:
Harper is contradicting Conservative values. Suddenly, and for partisan advantage, he is willing to dump a debt load on coming generations, starting with a $34 billion deficit in the fiscal year beginning April 1, followed by another $30 billion the year after.

What that buys beyond the government's widely anticipated survival remains vague. Harper is counting on taxpayers and, should it come to an election, voters to confuse spending with a solution. Even after all the budget leaks, it remains only a smiley-face assumption that Canadians will be better off, more domestically productive and internationally competitive, when the worst still to come is finally over.

The reviews are in

John Ivison:
(S)uch is the severity of the current downturn that even the most conservative-minded economists have conceded grudgingly the government must step to the fore with timely, temporary and targeted counter-cyclical fiscal policy. However, they warn that the stimulus package must be focused on economic growth and employment -- and that spending must be reined in when the economy recovers.

On the current evidence, that is not what the government is proposing. The focus of this budget is not on setting Canada on the road to recovery. Rather, the principal goal appears to be ensuring a Conservative victory at the next election.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Harper: Never Mind the Results

I've theorized before that the opposition parties should highlight accountability and effectiveness as a key point of distinction between a coalition government and the Harper Cons. Now, Deceivin' Stephen has made it clear that he doesn't have any particular results in mind for the billions of dollars he hopes to be able to shovel out the door:
Harper declined to get into specifics about how many jobs will be created through massive government spending, which includes $7 billion for infrastructure spending and $2 billion for public housing projects, among other initiatives.

"I think that the game of predicting jobs is very dangerous" said Harper, adding that there are too many influences on the economy to pin down a specific number.
Now, one would think that even a government which had to be pushed into admitting the need for stimulus spending to get the economy back would at least take some look at what it hoped to accomplish with that spending.

But Harper apparently doesn't have any qualms about presenting a budget vital both to Canada's economy recovery and to his party's survival without even a hint of what results might be expected. And that should offer another compelling piece of evidence that leaving the Cons in power is a sure recipe for even more mismanagement at a time when Canada can least afford it.

On previews

The corporate media blitz is on, featuring "news" stories like this intended to try to force the Libs' hand toward backing the Cons' budget. But at least some of Harper's supporters in the press can't help themselves from letting slip what's to come if the Libs follow that poisoned advice:
(T)his isn't working out the way the Liberal leader might have preferred. Sure he'll be able to grouch about various details, and boast about having forced Mr. Harper to get serious after that embarrassing economic update in November. But claiming to have influenced the Prime Minister isn't the best route to becoming Prime Minister. One suspects Mr. Ignatieff will have some more cranky days ahead of him.
Fortunately, it isn't yet too late for Ignatieff to recognize the obvious dangers of supporting continued Con government. But lest there be any doubt, neither the Cons nor their mouthpieces in the media are about to ease off the Libs for a second longer than they have to in order to keep Harper in power. And if Ignatieff takes the easy way out for the short term by propping up a government which he knows can't be trusted, then he and his party figure to start paying the price the moment they make that choice.

Deep thought

Somebody should tell Ted Menzies that it's faster to cut and paste Con talking points than to type them out by hand.

All for show

The Cons' pre-budget PR blitz now includes some attempt to distance themselves from the fiscal update fiasco and other glaring examples of putting partisanship above all. But it's worth noting that even the Cons' sources aren't pretending that message is anything more than a temporary facade:
Last fall's economic statement led to the creation of the Liberal-NDP coalition and the near-death of the government. Government officials have pointed fingers at Mr. Giorno, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and at Mr. Harper himself for the statement and its inclusion of such initiatives as suspending the public service's right to strike and the effort to eliminate voter subsidies to political parties.

While nobody has been reprimanded for the November difficulties, it now appears clear the government wants to send a message that it has learned its lesson...

One Tory insider also said that the PMO has sent out messages that individual ministers are not to draw attention to themselves during the budget process by pushing forward controversial ideas.

"There's a sense now that now's not the time for gimmicks," said the Tory. "We just have to appear serious at this stage. We can't appear to be poking our fingers in people's eyes."
The obvious first problem with the Cons' apparent position lies in their continued focus on perception rather than reality. Instead of showing any actual contrition for their past faults or even trying to do better for the future, they're once again looking to do nothing more than paper over the continued problems with Con government in order to survive the impending confidence vote.

All of which means that the Cons' strategy can be summed up in a familiar line:
Sincerity - If you can fake that, you've got it made.
Now, the Cons may well be clueless enough to think that a display of Groucho Marxism should somehow pacify the opposition parties. But Canadians who are expecting a serious response to the economic downturn only have all the more reason to be skeptical about the Cons' continued focus on appearances over substance.

What's more, it's implicit in the insider's statement that the Cons are perfectly happy to resort to gimmicks when the timing is right - or indeed to "(poke) fingers in people's eyes" as long as they can avoid the public appearance of doing so. And a civil servant sourced for the Globe's article confirms what we can expect if Harper is left in power:
When asked whether Mr. Harper would have done so much consulting without the sword of the coalition hanging over his head, the bureaucrat said "no way, no way. This isn't in their DNA. They're playing against type here."
That should offer another sure signal of what can be expected after the budget: any vote of confidence in Harper will only encourage him to resume his usual micromanagement and hyperpartisanship. And no amount of panicked messaging in the face of the democratic coalition will change that reality.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

High stakes

The Disaffected Lib raises a good point about just how much Michael Ignatieff might be putting at risk if he goes along with the Cons' budget:
Come Tuesday, somebody's going to flinch. If it's Ignatieff he risks being seen as just another feckless leader like Dion whose caucus was known to steer clear of Parliament on confidence votes they couldn't support. Iggy is still just interim leader. How he handles the budget on Tuesday could impact on his expected coronation. He too has issues with his base, both existing supporters and those voters he needs to attract to the party.
Now, I haven't yet heard much public discussion about a serious Lib leadership race. And particularly if Ignatieff is busy actually governing the country before May, there wouldn't seem to be much risk of a viable challenge being raised.

But that could easily change if Ignatieff were to decide to prop up Harper, and thus begin to get tarred with the Cons' actions. With many within the party already having had enough of ducking confidence votes under Dion, it wouldn't be at all surprising if somebody else perceived an opening to make a serious run at the Libs' top job. Which means that the political stakes riding on Ignatieff's budget vote may involve his own leadership in addition to his party's claim to be a viable opposition to the Cons.

On responses

As I noted last week, the Cons' strategy for now looks to be to announce as many sectoral giveaways as they can in hopes that the actors involved will in turn put pressure on Michael Ignatieff to pass the budget. Let's follow up by noting that Jack Layton's response on CBC this morning offers an effective means of muting that message: rather than critiquing the Cons' spending announcements, Layton suggested that the measures made public so far are entirely consistent with NDP principles, and even mentioned the possibility of including some of the Cons' measures in a coalition budget.

Which seems like a tidy way to shift the discussion from the Cons' specific announcements to a broad comparison as to who's best suited to manage a stimulus package. But there may still be room to develop another theme on the latter point.

So far, the main message put forward by the opposition has been to the effect that the Cons can't be trusted to effectively administer spending which runs counter to their ideology. And that's certainly an idea worth emphasizing. But it's worth taking a hint from this month's developments south of the border as well.

After all, Barack Obama has announced not only an oversight board dedicated to handling stimulus spending, but also a plan to make audits and reports publicly available.

In contrast, the Cons' announcements to date have consisted solely of pools of money without so much as an indication of expected results, let alone any substantive oversight mechanisms. And the Harper government seems to be in far too much of a hurry to take credit for shovelling money out of the public purse to change that focus anytime soon.

As a result, the door is wide open for the opposition to mirror Obama's message and focus on the need for increased accountability to ensure that a stimulus plan actually works. And given the potential benefits from presenting a second main reason why Deficit Jim and Recession Stephen shouldn't be left in charge which will play well with some of the Cons' core supporters, it'll be a disappointment if they don't take the opportunity.


Shorter Tim Powers:

It's the height of openness and transparency to tell people only what we want them to hear, when we want them to hear it.