Saturday, June 20, 2009

CROP circles

The headlines surrounding the latest CROP poll are understandably focusing on the end of Michael Ignatieff's honeymoon in the province. But while most of the other parties can find some ups and downs in the poll, the NDP alone can point to what looks to be unequivocally good news - as declines for Ignatieff personally and for the Cons and Bloc in the party standings look to be correlating with NDP gains.

From a leadership standpoint, Jack Layton is up to 24% in the "Best PM" category, closing 7 points of the gap between himself and Michael Ignatieff even though the June polling started before Ignatieff's last show of weakness. (Meanwhile, Stephen Harper's descent continues, as he managed to lose a point himself to 14% even as Ignatieff started to drop.)

But then, the NDP's biggest question in Quebec over the past few years has been how to make the party's support numbers match Layton's personal popularity. And there, the NDP is up to 17% both in general and with francophone voters - ranking well ahead of the Cons on both counts.

Of course, the big question for all parties is whether the Libs can sustain their relatively strong support numbers. But it's noteworthy that the NDP is now matching its Dion-era high-water mark for party support despite the Libs' initial Ignatieff boost - signalling that the NDP's current support includes far more than just disaffected Libs looking for a place to park their vote. And if Ignatieff and the Libs are indeed poised for some further declines, the NDP looks to be extremely well positioned to start making some serious inroads in Quebec.

On rushed decisions

Most of the discussion about nuclear building in Saskatchewan has understandably focused on the issue of power generation. But it looks like Brad Wall plans to claim that the relative silence on other aspects of nuclear development is an excuse to push forward on them:
Mr. Wall said he wants to launch a full-speed effort to build a research reactor within two to three years, likely at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

Such a project would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, he said. Saskatchewan would pick up part of that tab, Mr. Wall said, but he also hopes the reactor can be built through a partnership of the federal government, the province and the private sector.
Mr. Wall is looking to act quickly on a research reactor: A final decision will come as soon as August, after consultation with the public.
Needless to say, a timeline where Wall could make a "final decision" pushing ahead with a research/isotope reactor might come as a surprise to anybody. And that's not just because of Dan Perrins' report due date on August 31 (i.e. too late for Wall to actually review Perrins' conclusions in depth before making any decision), nor the pro-nuclear camp's emphasis on the possibility of additional assessments later on to try to avoid criticism today.

Instead, the most important point to keep in mind is that the UDP report itself only identifies a research reactor as a possibility to "selectively invest" (rather than receiving the "actively pursue" designation given to nuclear power), with no mention of any intention to increase the province's involvement until the latter part of the 2009-2014 period.

As a result, the UDP consultations themselves can't be said to have asked the province what it might think about rushing into building a research reactor along Wall's planned timeline. And it hardly seems to be an accident that despite all the turmoil that has surrounded Chalk River since before the UDP was ever put together (even if the actual report was tailored to avoid mentioning it), Wall is just now publicly declaring his determination to push forward now that the public forums are over.

Of course, the most recent set of isotope reactors - built on a far less tight timeline - turned into a money pit which may or may not be salvageable to produce the intended isotopes. And the previous one has been shut down due to a radiation leak. So one would think Saskatchewan should look long and hard at whether it wants to race into the breach.

But apparently Wall is eager to make a final decision about an isotope reactor based on a false claim to have consulted Saskatchewan already - which can only increase the urgency in developing a strong enough wave of public sentiment to force him to reverse course.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Musical interlude

Soul Attorneys - These Are the Days

Credit where due

Others have already mentioned the Libs' declaration of support for the principle of net neutrality - and I'll join in giving them full credit for taking a surprising stand on the right side of the issue. But while most of the discussion so far has focused on trying to push the Cons to do the same as the party who holds power, it's worth noting that there's also another available way to enshrine net neutrality in law.

NDP MP Charlie Angus' private members' bill has only passed the first reading stage so far, but looks to have far more chance of making progress with the Libs onside. Which means that even if the Cons continue to ignore the dangers of allowing ISPs to throttle the content available to Internet users, there's still an opportunity to keep Canada's online presence strong and free.

On divisions of labour

LRT puts forward a theory on how Dwain Lingenfelter should be looking to organize the Saskatchewan NDP. But while I agree with the need for a careful allocation of duties within the party, I'd argue that his analysis is exactly backwards as to who's generally going to be best suited for what role.

LRT suggests that the NDP's strongest young voices should lead the charge against the Sask Party, in effect forming a provincial equivalent of the federal Libs' "Rat Pack" of the late '80s. But I'd argue that it's in fact the veteran MLAs in caucus who are best suited for the task of holding the Wall government's feet to the fire. They'll be more familiar with both the issues at play and the give-and-take of the Legislature. And they can't be plausibly turned aside with "if you'd ever been in government, you'd know better" as a rookie MLA or other young voice might be. (Indeed, this may be exactly why Biden, Clark and other experienced figures were so effective in clearing the way for Obama.)

So what does that leave for younger members to do? Well, the other main task for the party (along with general rebuilding) is the impending policy renewal process. And that's where I'd think the younger leaders in the NDP are best positioned to make their presence felt.

After all, we've just finished a leadership race where the two young candidates both presented platforms full to the brim with ideas worth discussing. And one would have to figure that there are plenty of other younger party members who also have ideas to offer - and will be no less energetic in presenting those through a policy process than they were in supporting the Meili and Pedersen leadership campaigns.

In contrast, the last few terms of NDP government were been marked by frustration over a limited amount of creative policy-making. And while there are undoubtedly some good ideas to be found among the caucus members who have been around during that time, it hardly makes sense to put the same general group of MLAs who presided over the period of relative stagnation in charge of driving change now.

Mind you, the division shouldn't be absolute by any stretch of the imagination: some experienced hands to guide the policy process and youthful enthusiasm to turn against the Sask Party are certainly pluses as well, and each member will bring different strengths to the table for each task. But to the extent there's going to be any correlation between age/experience and roles within the party, I'd think it's far better to aim for youthful, creative policy development and hard-nosed, experienced opposition rather than the converse.

So what would Lingenfelter's role be based on that division of labour within the party? I'd agree with LRT that as leader, Lingenfelter should likely try to stay above most attacks on the government - and likewise the bulk of the policy process until it's developed something close to a final result. Again, better to be able to claim some distance from any particularly flawed ideas that get put into the mix.

What the party would need from Lingenfelter would then be to oversee the process, keep building connections inside and outside the party, take up the role of Wall's chief critic once issues move past the stage of speculation into the realm of clear proof, and work on polishing up his own image for comparison to Wall in 2011. And if the NDP can combine that effort with a revitalized policy package against a worn-down Sask Party government, then victory should definitely be well within reach.

Ryan Meili's Concession Speech...

...from the Saskatchewan NDP convention is now making the rounds - so here it is for those who weren't able to attend or watch at the time.

The reviews are in

Murray Mandryk:
Add another casualty as the hearing started on Wednesday: Accountability. For the first time in a quarter century of covering events at the legislature, I witnessed reporters being barred from a room where elected officials were publicly debating law. Ostensibly, the reason the media wasn't allowed in was because there was no room for them because of the larger-than-anticipated crowd of tradespeople that had taken up the chairs that are filled on a first-come, first-served basis...

Of course, with the hearings broadcast on the Internet and carried within the legislative building on close-circuit television, the government committee members weren't especially interested in listening to any such concerns Wednesday. Frankly, though, the fact they weren't particularly interested in much of anything that might have altered their already-made-up minds is exactly the problem.

The truth be told -- and contrary to the false assertion of committee chair Greg Ottenbreit -- the trades people that came to the legislature Wednesday did not come at the behest of the NDP Opposition. They came out of deeply held concerns that this legislation threatens higher wages and might restrict their access to future jobs.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Lowered expectations

It's definitely for the best that after years of Con stalling, Abousfian Abdelrazik will finally be treated as something other than a fourth-class citizen. But how sad a commentary is it that Rob Nicholson's announcement that the Cons plan to comply with a court order rather than continuing to make nonsensical excuses comes as a shock to all concerned?

Deep thought

It would seem to me that an effort to present the "pros and cons" of an issue should include somebody who doesn't have a vested interest in the "pro" side.

"Ignatieff backs down on..."

...anything and everything. But in this case, isotopes:
The agreement between Ignatieff and Prime Minister Stephen Harper contains not a word about the medical crisis that could delay some diagnostic procedures for cancer or heart patients.

Early in the week, Ignatieff had demanded a written plan from Harper on how to solve the problem, which has worsened since the May 14 shutdown of the Chalk River nuclear reactor.

The Liberal leader defended the lack of specific agreement on isotopes, saying, "I've done my job, which is to go to the prime minister and say to him on behalf of Canadians 'You've got to have a plan, it has to be public, you have to tell Canadians what you're telling me -- which is that we're into triage.'
So in Ignatieff's view, his job is to be seen complaining without actually caring whether anything gets done as a result. Which explains a lot about the Libs' strategy since he took over.

Meanwhile, at least one opposition party sees itself having a role in trying to bring about change by pointing out the need for action:
The NDP yesterday launched a Facebook site for patients and doctors affected by the isotope shortage. The open group is called "The isotope shortage is hurting my family and friends."

The party hopes ordinary Canadians will share their experiences, and doctors and specialists will also participate.

Cullen said in the absence of a government plan, the Facebook site is "at least starting the conversation.
We'll see how successful the effort proves in bringing together Canadians concerned about the issue. But it's at least a plus that one party recognizes that its job isn't done based solely on a sad attempt at posturing.

On limited benefits

Aside from the Libs' illusory gains from their latest capitulation, they've also put forward one other claim to having influenced the Harper government. But the Libs may want to be careful what they take credit for:
Obviously, we’ll have to move from the 360 hour position to find consensus. And the Conservatives have already made a major move. In his presser today, Harper acknowledged the patchwork of differing regional standards has to go. That’s a significant concession from his past position of staunchly defending the system that has been achieved already by this Liberal initiated cooperative process.
Remember that until Ignatieff started looking for excuses to avoid standing up to the Cons, he and the Libs had joined forces with the NDP and the Bloc in pushing for a Canada-wide standard of 360 hours for EI eligibility. Which made for a strong strategic position, as it substantially improved the availability of support in some areas without weakening it anywhere.

Now, the Libs have apparently detached from that position in an effort to take credit for a national standard of some kind, wherever it ends up being set. But with the Cons having spent most of the spring thundering that a 360-hour standard would cause the fall of civilization, it seems highly unlikely that any final standard will anywhere near the 360-hour level. And the current minimum of 420 hours is close enough to that level that the Cons wouldn't seem likely to stomach it as a national standard either.

To the extent anybody has speculated about the likely outcome, 500 hours seems to be about the minimum the Cons would be willing to accept. And they might try to push the number even higher (560 as the current midpoint?), secure in the knowledge that the Libs are the ones who need to reach an agreement to try to make themselves appear relevant. After all, their fallback position of claiming Lib intransigence and continuing to shove their own policy down Ignatieff's throat seems to have worked just fine so far.

But let's be generous and assume that the Cons would agree to a 500-hour national standard. That would lower the threshold in most regions of the country. But for a large number of Canadian workers, it would actually make EI less accessible. In the highest-unemployment areas of the country. In the middle of a recession.

So who would stand to lose out? Here's the list of the current EI hour requirements - which includes more than a few regions which wouldn't figure to be happy to see standards relaxed in Calgary at their expense.

Take the region of Newfoundland and Labrador (St. John's excluded), currently at a 420-hour standard. Does anybody think Danny Williams would be inclined to give a free pass to federal action which reduced EI availability?

All three territories are also at 420 hours. Likewise Windsor, Northern Ontario, Eastern Nova Scotia and Restigouche-Albert in New Brunswick. Prince Edward Island and North Western Quebec are at 455. Do they figure to be happy with less accessible EI?

In fact, at least one region in every province except Alberta is currently below 500 hours as its EI standard. But even there, Northern Alberta is less than a percentage-point rise in unemployment away - along with a substantial part of Ontario and B.C.'s southern interior. And if the economy takes another relatively small turn for the worse causing an extra 1.5-2 points of unemployment, the likes of Toronto and Montreal would similarly be worse off under a national standard.

As a result, the Libs' change in position from "improved coverage everywhere" to "the same coverage everywhere even if it's worse" seems likely to lead to significantly less accessibility for a substantial number of areas. But fortunately, there is some good news in the longer term if that's the result.

It was just this week that Darrell Dexter and the first NDP government in Atlantic Canada were sworn in. And while Dexter's handling of the Nova Scotia NDP certainly deserves plenty of credit for the breakthrough, the first step for the party was...public outrage at the Libs' callousness on EI, which propelled the NDP into official opposition status a decade ago while also allowing the federal party to establish an unprecedented Atlantic beachhead.

In sum, the Libs' continued pattern of painting themselves into ever more precarious corners looks likely to lead to a worse EI system in the short term. But it also presents a golden opportunity for the NDP to use an already-developed template to extend its national reach - raising the question of how long it'll take before the Libs are nostalgic for the strategic genius of Ignatieff's predecessor.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Continuing the battle

As noted by LRT last week, the end of the Saskatchewan NDP leadership race should transition nicely into the beginning of the municipal campaign season, as other than incumbents and a the occasional candidate who's far ahead of the game there seem to have been few people focusing on the municipal races before now. And the Leader-Post reports on an intriguing development in Regina, as longtime school board member John Conway is leaving open the possibility of a run for city council after announcing he doesn't plan to seek re-election in the wake of the Sask Party's top-down education funding policy:
Before the changes were announced with the provincial budget this spring, he planned to "continue the battle" for smaller schools and class sizes, and better-funded, enhanced education levels.

"I intended to continue down that road and hoped that there would be a new majority after the election, but with this decision by the provincial government, that's simply not in the cards anymore," he said in an interview, alluding to the fact some of his views have contrasted with those of the majority of current trustees. "Without taxing power, I see no reason to run for elected public office — you can't do anything except administer what the province decides."
Conway, whose degrees include a doctorate in political sociology and whose accomplishments include numerous published works, said he has rejected the idea of running for city council before because he felt education was more important — while he hasn't decided his course going forward, a run at a spot on council is now one possibility.

"I'll probably stay active in the community. I haven't thought about that yet," he said of a council run. "It's obviously a possibility, but I'm going to deal with this first, and then see what happens."
It remains to be seen who else will come forward over the next few months. But a Conway run for council would make for an excellent start in adding some life to this fall's election - and hopefully he'll be one of many candidates offering a much-needed break from the same old same old in Regina's municipal scene.

Stephen Harper Proudly Claims Credit for Job Losses

The latest Con talking point on EI - repeated among other places by Stephen Harper in today's Globe and Mail Question Period review - sees the Cons trying to prove their generosity by claiming credit for paying out an additional $5.5 billion in Employment Insurance benefits. So let's take a look at where that number comes from.

The obvious starting point is the Cons' budget as it deals with EI. But on its face, the Cons' "Skills and Transition Strategy" set out in January (which itself overestimates the amount actually going to EI recipients by classifying an employer rate freeze as a "benefit") only amounts to $2.7 billion.

So where does the extra $2.8 billion come from? Let's take another look at Erin's handy chart as to how the federal fiscal situation has deteriorated since the budget was released in January. And sure enough, the "EI Benefits" category shows a difference of $2.8 billion in additional expenses. Combined with the $2.7 billion number above, that adds up exactly to the number which Harper is so merrily throwing around.

Which leads to only one possible conclusion: by publicly taking credit for the difference in EI payments, Harper and his government are also proudly declaring their responsibility for the job losses which have caused the higher payouts.

History repeating

I suppose we shouldn't be surprised by now that the Libs' main achievement in backing down from the Cons is to have set themselves up to chicken out plenty more times this fall. But let's take a closer look at exactly what Michael Ignatieff has agreed to - and how little it figures to accomplish for both the country at large, and the Libs as a party.

First, there's the EI panel consisting solely of appointees from the Libs and Cons. And it's worth noting that the party allocation may be the most significant "win" for the Libs in substance, as they seek to cut two parties who collectively outnumber them in Parliament out of any decision-making processes rather than working toward goals which all three opposition parties had seemingly agreed on over the past few months.

But in doing so, they also ensure that the Cons get a veto over any potential changes, rather than using the opposition's majority in Parliament to achieve any meaningful concessions. And considering that the Cons' commitment is at most to implement any "consensus" decisions agreed to by the minister responsible, we can be assured that the outcome of the process won't be anything that the Cons would have been unwilling to offer up on their own.

(As an added bonus in noting how much the Libs have conceded, consider that they've managed to broker themselves only a one-time consultation process on a single issue in exchange for propping up the Cons. By my reckoning, that gives them less sway in the current Parliament than the Bloc would have held under the progressive coalition deal, which would have provided for ongoing consultation without a single-issue focus in exchange for voting with the government.)

So what about the wording of the adjournment motion? The Libs are apparently trying to spin this as giving them an opportunity to bring down the Cons in September which might not have existed otherwise. But if that's the case, then it only suggests that the wording of their January budget motion was an utter failure, since that was supposed to ensure opportunities to vote down the government based on each quarterly report.

And the motion itself is one which the Cons can easily get around if they see fit. You'd think Michael Ignatieff would have heard of the concept of prorogation once or twice - and if the Cons decide they don't want to face Parliament in September, does anybody think they'll hesitate to go down that road again?

But then, Ignatieff's history of backing down suggests the Cons won't have much to worry about anyway. Which is what makes the motion most laughable from the Libs' perspective, as it ultimately figures to offer them little but more chances to keep embarrassing themselves this fall. And the fact that the Libs seem to see absolutely no problem with putting themselves in that position should make for the most damning outcome of all.

Everyone's a critic

The Saskatchewan NDP's new critic list is here. And the inevitable speculative second-guessing is here, courtesy of Murray Mandryk:
Nor is it all completely surprising that Higgins supporter Pat Atkinson lost her agricultural critic duties to Lingenfelter, along with her deputy leader status. But doesn't demoting Atkinson in this way undo the unity you're supposedly trying to build?

And doesn't the appointment of loyalist Trent Wotherspoon as critic responsible for finance, SaskPower and SaskEnergy over arguably more capable Higgins supporters like Cam Broten (advanced education) or even Warren McCall (First Nations and Metis relations) send the wrong message about rebuilding the party with your stronger young members?
Now, it would seem obvious that in the same column where he criticizes the lack of party renewal involved in replacing Harry Van Mulligen with Dwain Lingenfelter, Mandryk might at least consider the possibility that Lingenfelter has also talked with his other current MLAs about who does and doesn't plan to stay on after 2011. And while that's publicly only a matter of speculation right now (and I'd have concerns about any effort to push current MLAs out the door), Atkinson's length of tenure in the Legislature makes her an obvious candidate to step aside.

Mind you, I'd agree that Atkinson's reduced responsibilities could be seen as a slight if her plans don't match that theory. But it can hardly be a sign of internal division to concentrate responsibilities in the hands of MLAs who are more likely to stay around - particularly when the candidate Atkinson supported for leader is one of the beneficiaries.

As for the allocation of responsibilities among the younger critics, the key word in the passage quoted above is "arguably". Mandryk doesn't offer up any particular reason why any choice among the three MLAs would be a matter of leadership loyalties rather than being based on the party's best interests. And in fact, Wotherspoon held a wider range of critic duties than the other two under Lorne Calvert (carrying responsibility for education, early childhood development and literacy) - so it's hard to see how another promotion under Lingenfelter would be a matter of controversy.

Of course, Broten and McCall should undoubtedly be in the mix for increased roles within the party as well, and hopefully that will happen once Lingenfelter's transition phase is done. But for now, there's little apparent reason to search for hidden messages in Wotherspoon's critic assignment - even if purely hypothetical threads of discontent might make for a more interesting story than the lack thereof.

More reviews are in

Don Martin:
It remains to be seen who wil be declared the victor of the brief dispute, but the one certain consequence of this bogus election standoff would be the end of the Michael Ignatieff honeymoon.

The rookie Liberal leader went from condemning the government on multiple fronts, preening himself as a portrait of moral rectitude willing to defend his party’s virtue on the campaign trail if those Conservative evil-doers didn’t play nice with the unemployed, to a leader who was knocked back on his heels by a Prime Minister who did nothing but reject his key proposal.

That whirling sound you could hear on Parliament Hill within hours of his ultimatum list was Mr. Ignatieff backpedaling away from his own rhetoric.
Now that the alleged easy ride from foreign import to prime minister-in-waiting is over, the Conservatives can cancel their “Just Visiting” Ignatieff attack ads. He’s proven himself capable of mortal misjudgments — and that reputation is here to stay.

The reviews are in

Thomas Walkom:
It's hard to take the federal Liberals seriously. They claim they want to hold Prime Minister Stephen Harper to account. But they don't. They criticize the Conservative government endlessly. But when the crunch comes, they support it.

They say they'd handle the recession differently. But they rarely say how. And when points of difference do emerge – such as the handling of employment insurance – they invariably backtrack.

For the Liberals, the time is never right. They come up with endless excuses for never forcing an election on the minority Harper government: They don't have enough money; they don't have enough candidates; their leader is too new; the polls are inauspicious; the weather is too warm; the weather is too cold...

In the spring, they say wait until fall. In the fall, they say wait until spring.

When St├ęphane Dion was their leader, they blamed him for everything. But at least Dion, with his plan to replace income with carbon taxes, gave some hint as to what he might do if elected.

By contrast, current Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is terminally vague. On the big economic questions, he attacks the government without saying what he'd do differently.

Ignatieff presents this as an asset, arguing that the point of being in opposition is to oppose. But in the context of the worst recession since the 1930s, his failure to articulate a clear alternative simply leaves the rest of us confused.
For Liberal satraps, all of this might be a clever way for their new leader to extricate himself from an election the party desperately wants to avoid. Outside of Ottawa, however, the rest of us are left scratching our heads and asking: Who are these ludicrous Liberals? And what exactly is it that they want?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Task completed

It may not hold the attention of the chattering class like a never-ending series of meetings between two party leaders engaged in a game of chicken. But at least one federal party has actually been making efforts to actually talk to people outside the Ottawa bubble - and the NDP has released the reports from its two economic task forces.

Mind you, the results are consistent enough with the NDP's policy direction that they won't come as much surprise. But they surely do far more to capture some of the genuine concerns of Canadians than the Harper/Ignatieff showdown about nothing.

On examples

The Frontier Centre for Public Policy's David Seymour tries mightily to paint Saskatchewan's success over the past couple of decades of NDP government as somehow vindicating extreme anti-government ideology. But even leaving aside the reality that Saskatchewan's success comes in large part thanks to factors such as a strong public sector which has kept life affordable for its citizens, Seymour's own chosen indicators only highlight the lack of evidence to support his claim:
This year, the Saskatchewan economy is forecast to grow in the midst of a global recession, while governments elsewhere can't seem to figure out their proper role. So, it is time to reflect upon the cause of this effect, and give credit where it is due: to the immediate past and current governments in the province.
The Fraser Institute recently and properly reflected on this trend by downgrading the United States to behind Canada on its Economic Freedom of the World index. By the same measure at the provincial level, Saskatchewan now generally ranks sixth or seventh out of 10. It ranked seventh or eighth in the early '90s.

This shift should be recognized in any honest assessment of what now defines the province's political culture. Saskatchewan has certainly proven over successive generations that haphazard interventions based on the politics of envy, utopianism or vested interests all spell economic stagnation. However, just as other governments are about to find that out for themselves, Saskatchewan's more modest approach to economic management has revealed a future for the sunshine province that is arguably brighter than ever before.
In other words, Saskatchewan has apparently moved from roughly seventh on the Fraser Institute's list of ideologically correct provinces, all the way to...roughly seventh on the Fraser Institute's list of ideologically-correct provinces, with at most a one-rank change over the course of nearly two decades. By my count, that would leave five or six provinces ahead of Saskatchewan by the Fraser Institute's standards for corporate-friendly policy who are conspicuously lacking for economic success to show for it. And it would seem highly likely that at least a few would have boosted their position by a greater margin on the Fraser Institute's list.

But Seymour is so desperate to portray Saskatchewan's progress as vindicating conservative economic thought that he happily ignores the fact that he's really only shown that a province can stand out for its economic success without turning its treasury and policy apparatus over to corporate lobbyists.

Mind you, there are plenty of lessons which other provinces should be looking to take from Saskatchewan's progress. But since those won't be found in Seymour's column, we'll have to settle for these two messages: that the strategies which the Fraser Institute would claim to lead to prosperity bear no particular correlation to the ones which can actually bring about that result, and that facts are still no object when it comes to the right-wing noise machine's attempts to push its ideology on Canadians.

On pending decisions

It's easy to simply gloss over the explanation served up for a failure to provide information in response to an access request, looking at the information not provided through documents rather than the information provided through the exemptions applied. But I have to wonder whether part of the latest response to Joe Kuchta might be highly important:
As for correspondence between the province and Bruce Power, CIC said it located one record responsive to the request. Access to the record, however, was denied “on the basis that if disclosed the record would release information that could reasonably be expected to disclose information, including the proposed plans, policies or projects of a government institution, the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to result in the disclosure of a pending policy or budgetary decision...”
Now, it's worth noting that the provision of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP) relied on is one which doesn't seem to have been discussed in much detail either in Saskatchewan or elsewhere; only case seems to have applied it. So there's some room for interpretation as to how it would be applied.

But on its face, the exemption contains two main requirements. And there's potentially cause for serious concern if either of them are satisfied.

The first would be the existence of a "pending policy or budgetary decision". There, the main question is how the word "pending" would be interpreted: the exemption could conceivably apply to either or both of:
- decisions where the final outcome is still pending - i.e. decisions which haven't yet been made, or
- decisions which have been effectively finalized but are still pending public disclosure.

Here's the problem, though: other provisions in FOIP deal create specific exemptions for documents setting out options available to a government institution, as well as consultations or plans prepared by or for government institutions. Which means that an exemption which requires the existence of a "decision" would seem by comparison to be predicated on a decision already having been made.

And that's all the more likely based on the other main element of the exemption. After all, a document could hardly be "reasonably expected to result in...disclosure" of a decision if it merely points to options or possibilities rather than offering at least a fairly clear indication of what the final decision would be.

As a result, the response to Kuchta seems to suggest that the Sask Party's correspondence with Bruce Power includes a signal about decisions that have already effectively been made. And those "pending" decisions are being hidden from the province even in the course of what's supposed to be a public consultation process about Bruce Power's desire to build a nuclear reactor.

Needless to say, that possibility would seem to amplify the already-serious concerns that the consultation process is a sham. And there will be little reason to trust anything else the Sask Party has to say if it's already finalized its plans to go nuclear without bothering to inform the province.

The reviews are in

Scott Feschuk:
Let’s face it: No Canadian – and I fear this includes Michael Ignatieff – currently has any idea exactly what series of events and nature of responses from Harper would prompt the Liberal leader to vote to bring down the government. This doesn’t exactly make for a catchy call to arms:

What do we want? Further numerical information pursuant to a number of ongoing political files!

When do we want it? By Friday. Or perhaps later. Listen, we’re flexible on that!

If this is Michael Ignatieff’s idea of “messing with” Stephen Harper, I’m looking forward to the point when he’s “done” doing that.

On reliable sources

Rather than simply taking Stephen Harper's word for it, Kady O'Malley checked the facts behind the Cons' public claims that an election would have the slightest effect on delaying stimulus spending. Not surprisingly, she found that in reality, the money being discussed wouldn't flow until 2010 anyway.

Meanwhile the NDP, rather than taking Con press releases as the final word, actually looked into what money remains to be spent from current infrastructure programs. And while there are billions left in limbo, the money has already been approved by Parliament - only to go unused by the Harper government.

So given that the Cons' public announcements have been nothing but misleading in their presentation of what money is flowing, what money isn't flowing and why...what possible purpose can it serve to ask for nothing more than another similarly self-serving statement?

Monday, June 15, 2009

On reunification

CBC reports that Dwain Lingenfelter has started to put his stamp on the Saskatchewan NDP caucus with a shuffle of critic duties. And all indications that leadership race loyalties have been put behind the party in determining who will play leading roles going forward:
Dwain Lingenfelter, the new leader of Saskatchewan's NDP, has selected Deb Higgins, one of his opponents in the party's leadership race, to take on the duties of second-in-command at the legislature.

Lingenfelter made the announcement Monday as he unveiled a slightly rejigged roster of critic duties for members of the Opposition. He was chosen as leader June 6.

In addition to serving as deputy leader, Higgins maintained her responsibilities as Opposition critic for municipal affairs.
Lingenfelter said he will serve as the party's critic on agriculture matters. He has said he will seek a seat in the legislature when a byelection is held for the soon-to-be vacant seat of Regina Douglas Park.

In the meantime, Lingenfelter has tapped Len Taylor to act as interim Opposition leader.
Particularly in a caucus where Lingenfelter proudly boasted the support of a majority of members, it's a pleasant surprise that the top two positions within the NDP caucus for the moment were given to an MLA who (to my recollection) stayed unaligned, along with Lingenfelter's lone caucus leadership opponent. And while there's still plenty of work to be done in bringing the party together on the policy front, today's announcement looks to signal that Lingenfelter is off to a good start in bridging the gaps that appeared during the leadership race.

Reclaimed territory

It only took one seemingly off-the-cuff remark for at least one Lib blogger to start speculating about a focus on health care in any impending federal election. But a far more significant move to reclaim policy a key issue looks to have largely happened under the radar.

When the text of Jack Layton's speech to the Woodrow Wilson Center was put online, my first reaction was surprise that Layton would conclude with a discussion of the environment and climate change, rather than keeping the focus primarily on Obama's efforts on health care. But in retrospect, the speech along with other recent actions would appear to be part of a concerted effort to win back some of the environmental vote which the Libs had tried to claim under Stephane Dion.

Needless to say, with Michael Ignatieff looking to present himself as the defender of the tar sands, there wouldn't seem to be much danger of the Libs eating into that same voter pool whenever the next election takes place. And without the Libs tag-teaming with Elizabeth May to try to equate support for carbon taxes with environmental bona fides, the Greens would figure to face significantly more trouble gaining traction in their criticisms of the NDP from 2008.

Not that Layton is likely to complain if health care ends up at the top of voters' minds either. But all indications are that the NDP is in the midst of a strong effort to win back its hard-earned title as the strongest environmental voice in Parliament - and that can only bode well for the party's efforts to broaden its progressive support base.

Prolonging the agony

If nothing else, let's give Michael Ignatieff points for surprise in his press conference this morning.

The smart money would surely have been on his either getting his capitulation over with now, or at least making some policy demand that could justify putting off the inevitable. But instead, he's doubled down on his strategy of asking only for information rather than anything of substance, declaring that he'll overlook Harper's failed "What I Did Last Quarter" report if the Cons turn in a small extra credit assignment.

Here's the problem, though: another demand for absolutely nothing of substance only figures to give the Cons a fairly desirable set of choices. If Harper wants to appear conciliatory in avoiding an election, he can easily hand over a minimal rewrite of his party's economic numbers and a couple of policy details - which might well give the Cons an opportunity they wouldn't have had otherwise to put a more positive face on their party going into a summer blitz of spending announcements and other PR.

(And unlike the blame-shifting tactics of the PQ which Paul Wells invokes, Ignatieff's demands don't actually reflect either a substantive loss for the party facing the demand or a meaningful gain for the party making it.)

Or Harper can instead take Ignatieff's position as a sign of weakness and say that he'll stick with his current report. That would leave Ignatieff in no better position by Friday than the one he took a pass on today. And given how easily persuaded Ignatieff seems to have been in the past to avoid doing anything which could possibly challenge Harper's hold on power, there's little reason to think he'll pull the trigger then either.

In sum, it's probably fair to describe Ignatieff's choice as merely punting on the question of whether to pursue an election. But the reality is that punting tends to happen only following the failure of one's offensive strategies. And there's every reason to think Ignatieff will be in even worse field position when he gets the ball back later this week.

On sideshows

Shorter Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, which is now apparently criticizing the Sask Party's consultation process for the fact that anti-nuclear voices aren't being shut out as they were from the UDP:

We're all about the "informed debate", as long as that means everybody mindlessly reciting our talking points.

Update: And it's particularly worth noting the different reasons for concern about the consultation process presented in the article. Clean Green Saskatchewan is rightly worried that the perspectives offered at the consultation meetings won't be heard - making for a stark contrast with the Chamber of Commerce, which apparently figures that if Bruce Power has nice things to say about its own proposal, then there's no reason why the mere citizens of Saskatchewan should have any say in the matter.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

And elsewhere on the web...

As long as I'm on the subject of web presence updates, I'll also point out a couple of recent developments for this blog. While I've had some Facebook presence for awhile, you can now see my blog profile here. And I'm also taking a tentative step into the world of Twitter here - though I suspect I'll be doing more following than posting there.

As long as we're following up...

Having looked today at what's been done at the official Saskatchewan NDP website since the leadership race, let's take a quick run as well through the sites of the candidates other than Dwain Lingenfelter (whose leadership site now features a thank-you for the campaign).

Not surprisingly, the site which drew the most attention during the leadership contest has been the active one since the convention. While Ryan Meili's front page hasn't changed, his news page has continued to be updated with both a press release and news articles featuring Meili. And that hasn't been Meili's only continued online presence: in fact his Facebook group - which features additional updates - has continued to grow since the campaign, having now reached 525 members.

Meanwhile, Deb Higgins has updated her front page with a message of thanks for the campaign. That leaves Yens Pedersen as the only candidate whose page is still the same as it was before the convention - but hopefully Yens' page, like those of the other candidates, will soon serve to support a run in 2011 or sooner.

Burning question

It's well and good that David Akin and others are keeping track of the Cons' spending announcements. But is anybody following up with the people who share the stage with Harper's MPs to see what happens after the announcements are made?

Early returns

It was just over a week ago that Dwain Lingenfelter won the leadership of the Saskatchewan NDP. But he's wasted little time in putting somewhat of a stamp on the party's website. So let's take a look at what we can tell from how the site has changed - and how it's stayed the same.

To start with, there have been at least a few news updates over the last week, including one criticizing the possibility of public money being put into a nuclear reactor and one calling on the Sask Party to fund a cancer treatment in addition to Lingenfelter's congratulatory message to Darrell Dexter on the NDP's win in Nova Scotia. But then, those are fairly standard features on any party website.

What's perhaps more interesting is the video icon below the news items. There, since the picture on the front page features a screen shot from one of the NDP's election ads from 2007, I was all set to question why the party would be highlighting those again after the fact.

But the use of the screen shot from 2007 is purely a matter of using a pre-existing icon to point visitors toward new content. Rather than replaying the 2007 campaign, the link actually contains video footage taken at the announcement of the second-ballot results from the leadership race - complete with "NDP" chants before and after.

Which nicely captures the feeling of the convention for those who weren't able to attend, while also highlighting the party-unity message that emerged from the convention rather than some of the divisions that were more prominent beforehand. And it's a particularly positive touch that the main focus is on the enthusiasm of the membership, rather than on Lingenfelter or any of the other leadership candidates.

Of course, there's a long way to go in translating that enthusiasm into a stronger and more principled party. But at the very least, there's some indication that the NDP is headed in the right direction. And the more Lingenfelter's team makes sure the membership is heard in the party's renewal processes as well as on its website, the better our chances of getting there before too long.

Time for a reminder

It hasn't been by accident that I haven't had much to say about the latest election rumblings about of Ottawa. But I'll take a few minutes to offer up a refresher course in why the Libs figure to be unlikely to take a stand against the Cons - and why they could be in serious trouble in a campaign if they do pick now as the moment to start acting like an opposition party.

Remember that over the course of the past two and a half years, the Libs have sent the message that exactly zero of the Cons' failings and manipulations were worth toppling the government over. They've criticized the Cons over the environment, immigration, pay equity, fiscal irresponsibility, and all kinds of other issues - and they've had every opportunity to vote Harper down. But every time, they've gone on to declare that those problems didn't matter enough justify voting down the Harper government.

That's always figured to make it tough for the Libs to change directions. In effect, the moment the Libs declare that some single issue is big enough to demand that they vote down the government, they'll immediately have to answer the question of why every other issue they claim to care about fell short of that standard.

Which means that the Libs have painted themselves into one of the few corners where the trigger for an election really matters. Absent some scandal or failing on a scale which obviously dwarfs all the bad news that's already come out about the Harper government, any Lib vote of non-confidence now figures to demoralize seemingly-friendly groups by making clear that their concerns didn't matter enough to the party to be worth pressing.

And as many concerns as there are with the Cons' actions over the past couple of months, there's simply no reasonable argument to be made that anything new has come up. Incompetence and deception surrounding Chalk River and medical isotopes? Failure to spend promised infrastructure money? Politicization of government spending? A perpetually-deteriorating economy and fiscal situation? Those are the main weak points for the Cons at the moment - and on every single one of them, the Libs have sent the message on previous confidence votes that they didn't justify bringing down the Cons.

Of course, it remains equally true that the Libs see themselves as better off kidding their supporters than being honest about the likelihood of their actually standing up for anything. So they don't figure to stop saber-rattling anytime soon.

But there's no way for the Libs to pull the trigger on the Cons now without opening themselves up to obvious questions as to why they never bothered earlier. Which is why there's little reason to think next week's confidence votes will have any different outcome from the last 71.