Saturday, July 04, 2009

On institutional bias

Oddly enough, this story about Jim Flaherty's effort to use both his name and his office to promote a right-wing think tank seems to have gone largely unnoticed other than in Linda McQuaig's recent column. But while the news may have escaped much attention in the midst of the latest confidence showdown, it's worth pointing out now as another example of how public resources are being misused by a Con government which apparently believes that the public sector exists only to further its political ends:
Tomorrow night, the country's Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, will host a private dinner at the Albany Club in Toronto to raise support for a new, non-partisan, private sector think tank. Called the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and designed to be national in scope but based in Ottawa, it is the creation of Brian Lee Crowley, currently president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax.

Mr. Flaherty is "giving it my personal backing," he says in a letter inviting well-heeled Bay Street types to the event "and I hope that you will consider doing the same."

Having spent several years in the capital, the minister says "I can speak with some authority when I say that driving change within Ottawa is not easy. There are powerful actors in Ottawa, within the civil service, Parliament, the media and in many non-governmental organizations, that actively resist progress. ... Although I have always felt very well supported by friends and colleagues, I have clearly felt the need for independent research, support and promotion of these ideals," which he enumerates as smaller government, lower taxes and greater personal responsibility.
The minister concludes his pitch to potential backers of the new think tank by saying: "I'd like to see him return with a strong, independent and well-financed organization behind him to help transform Ottawa for the better, regardless of who is in power. This important national initiative deserves to succeed. Please join me in ensuring that it does. My office will follow up with you."
Now, the first message worth taking away from Flaherty's statement is that the Cons are still pushing the paranoid style of politics when it comes to dealing with the civil service among other actors. And it can't escape notice that the sitting Finance Minister is trying to use the prestige associated with his office to whine about "powerful actors" who have the nerve to point out that public policy shouldn't be measured solely by how much wealth it transfers upward.

Needless to say, the inclusion of the civil service in the list looks all the more ridiculous in light of Flaherty's stated intention to put "his office" to use in twisting arms for Crowley, including by ensuring that the latest propaganda machine is "well-financed". And I'd have to wonder how that could make for anything but a glaring misuse of the public resources at Flaherty's disposal.

Which means that there's a definite need for followup as to just how much public time has been dedicated to Flaherty's private support for Crowley's group. And hopefully if the truth comes out, it'll go a long way toward ensuring removing Flaherty from any position where he's able to do anything similar in the future.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Speaking of the NDP Convention...

For those looking for the latest unofficial news on the NDP's convention in Halifax this summer, keep an eye on Devin's blog for details about the Tweet Up planned for the Saturday night, as well as a Twitter feed about the convention.

On rebranding

There doesn't seem to be much doubt that the possibility of a party name change will be one of the significant topics for discussion at the NDP's upcoming convention in Halifax - with Ian Capstick making some of the case both for and against here. So I'll take the opportunity to wade in on the issue.

Off the top, I agree with the view that it's time to remove the "New" from the party name. In general the goal of a name should probably be to capture a party's long-term philosophy rather than ephemeral forces behind its creation. And the problem with focusing on initial "newness" is only highlighted once the term has formed part of a well-established party's name for upwards of four decades.

What about the choice between merely dropping the "New", and looking to add a "Social" or "Progressive"? It's probably true that either of those terms would be more descriptive when set out in full. But it's worth noting that a rebranding effort will also have to consider the new shorthand term for the party. And with a two-word lead-in, the end result would likely be another set of initials (SDP or PDP) or an abbreviation (SocDem or ProgDem) which is both less memorable and less positive than a single-word descriptor.

In contrast, "Democrat" alone as a shorthand for "Democratic Party" would set up the best possible footing to make sure that casual discussions about the party involve positive associations rather than neutral or negative ones.

That is, assuming that there isn't a problem to be found in confusing the party's brand with that of the U.S. Democrats. But just as I don't see the Obama phenomenon as much of a point in favour of trying to adopt the name, nor would I expect there to be too much trouble in maintaining a distinct identity - particularly given that the same faces now associated with the NDP would present the first public image of a Canadian Democratic Party.

Mind you, that also reflects an important reason to rein in any expectations as to what a rebranding will accomplish. After all, the expected continuity in the party would make for a difference from most of the recent party rebranding efforts which might be looked on as positive precedents, since those have tended to be combined with clear efforts to unite substantial elements of two or more parties. (See e.g. the Alliance and the Conservatives federally, and the Saskatchewan Party provincially.)

And I'd also want to be careful in throwing out too much of the NDP's branding during the course of a changeover. For example, while Capstick looks at a name change as a chance to drop orange as the NDP's main colour, I'd wonder whether there's much to be gained in that department given the lack of viable alternatives that aren't already associated with other parties. (About the best options would be either trying to elbow the Greens out of the colour which also forms their name, or switching to a yellow which wouldn't seem to be much of an improvement - and either of those would come at the expense of years of work based on concepts like Get Orange, the Orange Room, etc.)

In sum, I agree generally with Capstick's view that a name change should make for a net plus for the party. But it's important as well to be aware of the limits on what the change would accomplish - as it'll ultimately be the structure behind the brand that matters most in determining the party's success.

The reviews are in

The Star Phoenix editorial board:
While half a world away gay citizens of India celebrated a historic high court ruling that denoted a vast advancement in their human rights, the Saskatchewan Party government was asking for a court's guidance on how to allow a group of public officials to discriminate against homosexuals.

Attorney General Don Morgan, himself a lawyer who owes the justice system more respect than to attempt to use it as a political cats-paw, announced Friday he's asking the Court of Appeal for an opinion on legislation that would allow marriage commissioners not to perform same-sex marriages if it's contrary to their religious beliefs.
It's difficult to imagine any other grounds for discrimination that the province's Justice Minister would seem worthy enough to seek a court reference.

Would the minister go to bat for a social conservative who objects, justified on grounds of "traditional values" or religion, to wed a mixed-race couple? How about a Hindu doctor who refuses to treat a person he believes to be of a lower caste?

The point is, in a secular society that goes to great lengths to separate people's personal religious beliefs from their performance of job duties in the public sphere, what Mr. Morgan is asking the court to do is reprehensible.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Musical interlude

Basement Jaxx - Do Your Thing

Noah Evanchuk to Seek Palliser NDP Nomination

One of the main questions coming out of the Saskatchewan NDP leadership campaign was how much of the movement behind Ryan Meili and Yens Pedersen would keep up its momentum once the leadership race was over. And there's some good news to report on that front: Noah Evanchuk, one of Meili's key Regina organizers, is planning to seek the NDP's nomination in the Palliser riding.

I'm not aware of a date being set for a nomination contest, and it could be that others will also come forward to contest a seat where Don Mitchell and Jo-Anne Dusel both put up strong second-place finishes in the last two elections following Dick Proctor's painfully close loss in 2004. But all indications are that Evanchuk is looking to build on Meili's model to take back Palliser for the federal party - and based on the structure that's already in place, there's plenty of reason to like his chances.

(Edit: Fixed typo.)

Cheque please

The Cons are apparently ensuring that while the rest of Canada's economy declines, the giant novelty cheque industry will continue to see exponential growth. But while the tactic might have seemed to have no downside in the past, the Photoshop era would seem to leave the Cons ripe for well-deserved scorn. So without further ado, a couple of easy ones to get started...

On measures of success

Douglas Bell's latest post is definitely worth a read in pointing out the perverse effects when power is put in the hands of anti-government parties. And it's true enough that a right-wing regime can effectively succeed in its long-term ideological goals by failing miserably as a government: every time it spends money recklessly, lies to the public, or puts its own interests ahead of those of the people it governs, it only helps to build a longer-term narrative that the public sector generally shouldn't be given any room to operate.

But it's worth noting the flip side to that, in that it's also impossible for that type of government to succeed completely in their goals or to maintain much of a shelf life.

As a general rule, the anti-government crowd is only able to take power when combined with a good-government message directed at perceived misuse of resources by a competing party. And while it all too often takes a term or two for that coalition to unravel after the former group takes over in power, it's essentially inevitable that those who restraint and good government will eventually find its way into another camp as a result of the abuses which inevitably flow from a party which thinks that if government can't do any good anyway, it had might as well use the public purse for its own ends. And that goes particularly once the previous concerns about another party become a thing of the past.

What if the good-governance crowd manages to take control? The obvious answer to that is that we'll deal with it if it ever happens, which seldom seems to be the case. But the tension would seem to be just as strong there. A responsible-government focus would prevent the governing party from carrying out the selloffs and giveaways that the wrecking crew wants to see - resulting in inevitable challenges from the right, either within the party or from the outside.

So while the government-bashing crowd can succeed in part by failing to govern competently, it also fails in part if it happens to succeed from a governance standpoint.

In contrast, a progressive government has every incentive to keep those concerned with good government on side while in power. When the goal is to build sustainable structures rather than destroy them, it's a necessary step to make sure that whatever is built can hold up over an extended period of time and succeed in its stated ends. Which means that while there may be some tension as to how quickly to move on priorities, there's no inherent conflict between left-wing governance and accountability movements.

Of course, a right-wing party in opposition will naturally go back to picking at the actual money spent by the governing party, and eventually find some success doing it. Which is why any progressive government isn't any more likely than its conservative counterpart to survive more than a few terms in all but the most extreme cases.

But at the very least, a progressive government's natural goal of developing confidence in public institutions isn't hampered by the kinds of internal contradictions that plague any right-wing coalition which takes control of a structure which it abhors. Which is why a progressive vision and a good-governance model can be as potent a combination as they form over the long term.

(As an aside, the downside of Bell's post is that he sadly perpetuates at least one fairly glaring evidence-free assertion, classifying Michael Ignatieff as a "progressive" even while pointing out that Iggy has scrupulously avoided actually presenting any policy which could merit the title.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Deep thought

We'd sure hate to lose this kind of sober second thought.

Let down

In the wake of Dave Batters' tragic death, a friend and reader offers up some commentary on how mental health unfortunately continues to receive short shrift as a public policy priority:
We all do foolish things in our lives; thankfully the healthcare system is usually there to bail us out. For example: We jump from somewhere a bit too high, or pull a crazy stunt and break our leg. We go to Emergency. We get it fixed quickly. Sometimes we go to Emergency with a bad case of the flu and have to wait upwards of 6 to 8 hours or more just to see a doctor. We rant about how unreasonable this is.

But let me ask you this: 6 to 8 hours versus 6 to 8 months. Which is more ridiculous?

Our mental healthcare system often leaves people with no other choice but that of waiting for months on end to get the treatment they need. Please keep in mind that the distinction I make between mental and physical health is that of a false dichotomy: the brain is a living organ that produces chemicals, just like your thyroid or any other organ for that matter.

That being said, however, the idea of people "not being severe enough to need immediate attention" in a mental healthcare situation is a dangerous proposition indeed. Mental illness ebbs and flows at quick rates. While a person can be "very sad" one day, three weeks later life events or chemical imbalances caused by a bad prescription can push someone over the edge.

Research in the past 3-4 years shows that, when the brain is subjected to feelings of sadness or anxiety or, quite often, a combination of the two, the rate of production of neurotransmitters is altered. Just as your metabolism will, in some ways, change if you radically change your diet and exercise patterns, life events which affect your mood eventually alter the way your brain works.

Of course, this is all reversible, but painstakingly harder to do once the process has started. Ironically, it is at around 6 months of time that the brain really starts reorganizing itself to work in a consistently different way -- the same amount of time it takes to get in to see a psychiatrist in Saskatchewan (and elsewhere).

Furthermore, people often do not seek treatment for mental disorders because they feel ashamed, or are afraid that their employers, family, friends, and even their own self-concept, will view themselves as "weak." Some people falsely believe you can "go this on your own." At other times, assertions from people outside professions dealing with these issues (certain healers, etc.) lead individuals astray. Many people have suffered in silence for years due to these problems.

Mr. Batters' willingness to face his problem head-on despite all of these obstacles, even though he ultimately lost the battle, is indeed extremely courageous. Furthermore, his family's willingness to "go public" with the reason for his death is an act of bravery that cannot be ignored; it is paramount that it help advance the cause of mental health in our province.

One role of the healthcare system -- arguably its most important one -- is to disseminate accurate knowledge amongst its population to help keep them healthy. Being proactive even makes sense: it saves money. So why do STIs and BMIs get coverage, but not MDDs (Major Depressive Disorders)? Another role is to properly direct funds so that they can assist in finding new techniques, more hospital beds, more resource persons, and assist with more research which will help prevent more deaths. Mental health has been consistently underfunded, leading to a loss of lives which, as aforementioned, often goes unnoticed by the general public due to publication bans or feelings of shame.

People do not choose to remain mentally ill. It is more painful than a great deal of other illnesses. It can be crippling and unbearable. At the extreme, it makes us want to take our own lives. None of us start out wanting to take our own lives. We need to look at this situation carefully, and not dismiss it as someone simply choosing to take the wrong path. Our healthcare system needs to take some responsibility.

Mr. Batters was let down, as so many others have been over the years. I hope he is now at rest. I commit to keep fighting for the rights of the mentally ill his memory and those of others I know who have lost their battle with this illness.

On selective reporting

When the party who came in a distant second in Saskatoon Riversdale in 2007 nominated its candidate for the upcoming by-election, the Star Phoenix reported it immediately.

And likewise with the party who came in an even more distant third. (Though it omitted the noteworthy detail that the candidate was apparently poached from the Sask Party's 2007 slate.)

But when the party which has held the seat in all but one election since 1967 nominated the likely next MLA? The crickets have been chirping since Monday, and there's no evidence that they'll stop soon.

Update: In comments, Jan points to a link to a story from Tuesday which oddly didn't show up on Google News searches for either Chartier's name or the riding name. My mistake to a point - though both the title attached to the link and the lack of search results still seem off.

Update 2: And now the Star Phoenix mentions Eileen Gelowitz' party switch.

On liabilities

With all the other issues surrounding nuclear power in Canada, it wouldn't have come as much surprise if the Cons' efforts to pass another sweetheart liability regime for operators both public and private had managed to slip under the radar. But fortunately, NDP MP Nathan Cullen is on the job in pointing out how the Harper government wants to leave the public on the hook for any nuclear damage:
The government wants to update the Nuclear Liability Act to increase the maximum to $650 million in damages from the current $75 million set in the 1970s, but the NDP's Nathan Cullen said it should be in the billions of dollars.

"The crux of it is how much you can sue for in the event of a nuclear accident," said the MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley.

Cullen said it's difficult to have confidence in an industry that has to be afforded this kind of protection in the first place, but completely another matter to lowball the cost of human life. "Get somewhere in the ballpark ... into the billions for sure," he said in an interview.
Cullen said the liability limit is about $10 billion in the U.S. In most other countries there is no ceiling.

"It is a pretty unusual situation as far as we can tell that Canada would have this very low ceiling," he said.

Cullen and other critics suspect the reason behind the $650 million figures (sic) is to make Canada more attractive for companies wanting to build nuclear power plants.
Of course, the argument for a higher (or no) liability ceiling would seem to be one that the nuclear industry would readily concede if it actually believed its own spin that nothing can possibly go wrong. But to the extent nuclear operators do actually see an exceptionally low liability cap as a reason to build in Canada, that fact would suggest that the industry itself is far less confident about the safety of nuclear power than it presents to the public.

On the other hand, one could argue that liability cap actually doesn't serve as much of an inducement. But if that's the case, then the cap would seem to be nothing more than a gratuitous giveaway to an industry that doesn't value it in the slightest. And there's little reason to believe that Canada's population at large wants to financially subsidize the effects of nuclear development gone wrong, particularly when any incident would seem sure to have plenty of other public consequences as well.

So one way or another, the Cons' attempt to keep an unusually low liability limit for nuclear operators should raise some serious questions about whose interests they really have in mind. And the likely conclusion seems to be that the public shouldn't be caught on the hook for any nuclear incidents.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Today's right-wing vocabulary lesson

Coup: A vote in which parties representing the majority of seats in a legislative body use their superior democratically-elected numbers to vote down a governing party which has lost their confidence.

"Coup": The military seizure and subsequent forcible exile of a democratically-elected leader.

On the upside...

...your definitive good-news story for Canada Day is here.

We stand on guard for thee. But in ever less sufficient numbers.

Surely we can at least count on a right-wing government to get military development as a point of pride, right? Sadly, no - and in fact a gap between intentions and manpower only figures to get worse:
The Canadian navy is operating with significantly fewer service men and women than it needs on its East Coast ships, says the country’s top sailor.

"On this coast, I would say . . . I’m probably operating somewhere between 10, 13 per cent below the numbers that I want in sea-going billets," said Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden.
(T)he admiral’s trip to Halifax and meeting media outlets is to get the word out about careers in the navy. There are 2,463 East Coast naval positions, but only 2,200 or so are filled.

The need for enhanced recruiting will be more noticeable by 2014 when Ottawa’s defence strategy calls for the rolling out of six to eight Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships, he said.

Our Home and Native Land. (Sold for pennies on the dollar, then leased back at a premium)

Today is the time to reflect on and appreciate our national institutions. At least, until they're done selling off their homes to keep the lights on:
The CBC says it would consider selling buildings that house its radio and TV stations in a bid to wrangle control over its cash-strapped budget.

Hubert Lacroix, president of CBC/Radio-Canada, says anything could be up for sale if efforts to generate funds elsewhere fail.
“It's a question of us being owed money over time and accelerating these cashflows,” Mr. Lacroix said Tuesday in a telephone interview from Montreal.

“If that doesn't work, we're going to have to go to our real estate portfolio,” he continued. “Anything that we own we would then look at probably trying to sell and lease them back.”

Strong. Free. And Fossilized.

Truly it's a day for national pride:
Canada is now the G8's classroom dud on climate change, sliding to last place among the world's industrial leaders in the annual climate scorecard released by the World Wildlife Fund and insurance giant Allianz today.
"We have the resources – financially, intellectually, ecologically – to be leaders, and we've simply chosen not to."
"Canada is becoming increasingly isolated in clinging to the fossil economy while the rest of the world is moving on to green economy," he said.
Update: Which isn't to say there's a lack of reason to celebrate Canada Day. See here for Regina event details.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Not listening

For the most part, Kevin Libin's screed about Stephen Harper's Facebook page falls somewhere between a non-story being played up on a slow news week, and a stunning attempt to push Stephen Harper to be even less open to the public than he already is. But there's one part of the article which does bear mentioning:
A read through the photo comments section of the Facebook page of PMHarper finds supporters complaining about the distasteful tags being applied to the prime minister. Back in December, Julie Wu was asking "Can someone remove those tags? Not only is it immature, but extremely rude to the PM of Canada."

Weeks before that, in October, Nathan Lynes pleaded with the PM's Facebook minders: "Update the tags on your picture. Don't allow anyone to do this." Kelly Fitzgerald had noticed the same thing and "tried e-mailing his handlers," to alert them to the problem, "to no avail." Even before that, in September, Craig Drebit was asking "Can anyone remove the insulting tags on this photo?" The entire photo comment is a timeline of Conservative supporters galled at their main man's page being defaced by troublemakers.
Now, what's noteworthy isn't so much the fact that Harper hasn't done what some Con supports have suggested - which would be entirely understandable if some explanation was provided. Instead, the most striking aspect of the story is the fact that even Harper's supporters are going unanswered and unheeded for months at a time.

From my standpoint, it's that failure to even pay attention to supporters' comments and concerns in a rare medium which allows them to be made public in connection with a public figure which really reflects how much the Cons are missing the point of social media as part of their top-down vision of public communicaions. And that figures to remain a problem whether or not Libin's push to change Harper's tagging policy through the corporate press finds more success.


Having obviously recognized that Canadians aren't about to buy the argument that a summer of committee meetings with Pierre Poilievre makes for a substantial achievement, the Libs are apparently test-driving another excuse for their continued capitulation to the Harper Cons. But while this one from Warren Kinsella tries to sound positive on the surface, it may be even less plausible than the rest of the Libs' rationalizations for rolling over:
(W)hen Harper's Reformatories whipped up a crisis at the end of last year, my leader had lots of people—including some in the Liberal Party—urging him to push Harper out and lead a coalition government. Ignatieff certainly could have done that.

But that just isn't how Ignatieff wanted to win. On reflection, he and other Liberals determined that wasn't what Canadians wanted, either. We Liberals want to win, for sure—but we want (sic) win the right way.

Right now, the Liberal Party is either ahead or highly competitive in the opinion polls. We've got a great team and we are ready for an election. And, once again, Ignatieff heard from a lot of people—including Liberals—who wanted to defeat the government at the end of June, and have an election just a few months after the last one.

Once again, Ignatieff and Liberals thought about that. And Ignatieff decided, once again, that wasn't how he wanted to win.
Now, it's ridiculous enough for the Libs to be putting on a holier-than-thou front - particularly about election brinksmanship given that the only substantive demand they've ever made of the Cons is for a constant stream of confidence votes. But consider for a moment what message they're actually sending with quotes like these.

The Libs don't seem to dispute that the Cons' policies are both falling short of meeting the needs of a recession-wracked country, and burying Canada's future under a mountain of debt. And at the most extreme, the Libs have sent the message that Canadians will be starving over the course of the summer due to the negligence of the Harper government.

Faced with that starting point, one would expect the reaction to be one of outrage - combined with a desire to get back on the right track as soon as possible. Which could include either demanding real change from the government now in power, or seeking to persuade Canadians that they can do better.

But the Libs' line is that they can't be expected to pursue either of those possibilities. Instead, they're more concerned with winning by some nebulous "right way" than with actually improving the lives of Canadians. And if the Cons manage to do more harm even while the majority of Parliament claims to disapprove of their policies because the Libs are too busy pondering exactly which path to power they think will best serve their own egos...well, that's just tough luck.

Of course, it's highly doubtful that Kinsella or anybody else actually believes this latest bit of rhetoric any more than the Libs' previously-abandoned posturing. But the fact that the Libs think for a second that Canada could be more concerned with the Libs' sense of self-righteousness than with its own problems would seem to send a strong signal that the arrogance and sense of entitlement which got the Libs booted from office in the first place have returned with a vengeance. And that should offer reason for voters whose priorities are focused more on real-life outcomes than the Libs' place in the history books to turn their support elsewhere.

On pre-emptive war

Shorter Leader-Post editorial on the Sask Party's flat tax plan:

It's unjustified class warfare to question our belief that rich people are objectively better and more important.

Monday, June 29, 2009


Word comes out that Danielle Chartier has been officially nominated as the Saskatchewan NDP's candidate in Saskatoon Riversdale. In case anybody was still operating under the misapprehension that Chartier figures to be anything short of a "heavyweight", she managed to assemble 165 Facebook fans and a substantial support network even before the nomination race was over - so while there's plenty of work to be done to elect her as well as Dwain Lingenfelter in the next set of by-elections, she figures to be in excellent shape to carve out a major role within the NDP for years to come.

On impending attacks

Others have already commented on the statement that the Cons have every intention of eliminating vote-based funding for political parties:
Whenever the election does come, Harper has one plan in mind for afterward: the elimination of public funding to political parties. A punishing blow to his opponents. Sure, the idea caused a showdown last autumn, the adviser said. “But in retrospect, we should have stuck to our guns. It was strategically smart. It’s still strategically smart. We’re going to run again on it. And we’re going to do it, if we win the next election. It’s coming.”
But I haven't heard much discussion yet about the chances of the move going further this time than it did as part of the 2008 FU. So I'll take the opportunity to expand on my comment over at Challenging the Commonplace about the danger that the Cons might succeed this time out.

Remember that at the time of the fiscal update, the Cons' plan was based on the laughable theory that the NDP would support a fiscal update which ran contrary to everything the party stood for in the name of inflicting damage on the Libs:
(According to "various and sundry Conservative pundits, both official and unofficial"), the Conservatives are counting on the NDP eventually coming around to their point of view, on the theory that Jack Layton and company’s almost pathological desire to destroy the Liberal Party forever will override any short-term concern over losing a few million dollars a year.
I noted at the time (as well as later) the sheer gall the Cons exhibited in first assuming that the NDP would accept both a blow to its own finances and an abhorrent policy package in exchange for the possibility of hurting the Libs even worse than themselves. And it became all the more comical when the Cons then tried to paint the NDP's decision to instead pursue a coalition which could have resulted in better policies for the country at large as reflecting a comparative lack of principle.

Fortunately, the NDP actually did stick up for its values rather than bowing to Harper's pressure. But unfortunately, it may soon be the Libs in the same position. And after all the principles they've thrown under the bus in the last 79 confidence votes, there's little reason for confidence that they'll treat per-vote funding any differently.

Having spent most of this year crowing about some improvement in fund-raising, the Libs would seem far less likely to recognize any risk to themselves in supporting the elimination of per-vote funding than was the case last fall. And as I noted in response to Chrystal's post, if the Libs think they can count on keeping up their early-2009 fund-raising levels, it's entirely possible that Harper and Ignatieff could see it as mutually beneficial to cut funding to the NDP, Bloc and Greens who operate as barriers to anybody's ability to form a majority government.

Of course, it could well be that Harper will instead prefer to keep the issue in his pocket as part of an anti-Ottawa message in the next election campaign. But it shouldn't come as a surprise if the Cons move to cut their inconvenient opponents out of Canada's political scene at the earliest opportunity - nor if the Libs decide to roll over on party financing as they have on so many issues before.


So apparently all the Libs have to show for their latest decision to roll over is...more face time for Pierre Poilievre. This is what happens when one fails to include a "no cartoon characters" clause in describing the composition of a panel.

Which isn't to say that the Libs are likely to complain - at least to the extent they're focused purely on the political rather than any hope of accomplishing anything useful. After all, while Poilievre's inclusion further lowers the likelihood that the Cons will agree to EI reforms, it equally increases the chance of their embarrassing themselves in the process.

Yes, it's summertime...

...but I didn't realize that even the Hill Times and its anonymous Liberal sources went into reruns:
A Liberal source told The Hill Times that the Liberals are unlikely to vote for the Harper government on confidence votes anymore.

"There's an inherent dichotomy in, 'This government is terrible but I'm going to support them.' How do you reconcile that? [Stéphane] Dion took a lot of political hits because he never reconciled that," said the Liberal source.
Now where might we have heard the same line before?

Putting safety into question

Needless to say, the latest revelations about safety concerns with effectively all of AECL's CANDU nuclear reactors figure to be glossed over just as thoroughly as the recent concerns with the MAPLE and Chalk River isotope reactors. But in addition to providing evidence that nuclear technology is anything but free from trouble and uncertainty, the latest news would seem to cut to the core of any attempt to claim Saskatchewan's geography serves to favour nuclear power over healthier alternatives:
Canadian nuclear safety regulators say they have underestimated the seriousness of a design feature at the country's electricity-producing reactors that would cause them to experience dangerous power pulses during a major accident.
The discovery prompted the regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, to warn that it may have to order nuclear power plants to run at less-than-full power indefinitely to compensate for what it deems less-safe conditions at the stations, according to the document.

The commission and the three utilities that operate reactors – Ontario Power Generation, NB Power, and Hydro-Québec – will likely have to spend “considerable resources” dealing with safety issues related to the problem and still may not be able to resolve it fully, it said.
Although positive reactivity is not well known outside the nuclear industry, problems connected with it prompted Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. to scrap its two Maple reactors in May, 2008, after spending more than $500-million on them, leading to a crisis in the supply of medical isotopes.

According to the document, commission staff have always known that Candu nuclear power plants have positive reactivity, but they conceded that they miscalculated the magnitude of the condition. For instance, they said they underestimated a number used to measure it by 50 per cent.
Mr. Rzentkowski said the commission would consider ordering the stations to run at less than full power if safety margins shrink to unacceptable levels, with the Pickering and Darlington reactors in Ontario the first to be considered for such output cuts.

Greenpeace asked for records about positive reactivity compiled at the commission from Sept. 1 last year to March 31. But Mr. Rzentkowski said he thought the undated document, which was marked as a draft, was likely written in 2007 and was used in discussions with nuclear utility representatives.

The positive reactivity problem is highly technical, and has arisen because of the unique design of Canada's reactors. According to the document, the main factors “that introduce this hazard” are the Candu's use of natural uranium as fuel and the internal structure of the reactors, in which the heavy water used to cool them is separated from the water that moderates the pace of atomic chain reactions to safe levels.
So what does the revelation mean? Remember that the closest the Sask Party has ever come to offering a justification for pushing ahead with a nuclear reactor a vague claim that since uranium is mined in Saskatchewan, it should be used in Saskatchewan.

But even the nuclear industry's own UDP recognized that refining isn't a viable choice for the province. As a result, the only way Saskatchewan would actually have any comparative advantage over other jurisdictions in generating nuclear power would be if natural uranium can be used.

Which means in effect that if the Wall government were to push ahead with nuclear power generation, it would have one of two choices. On the one hand, it could select a non-CANDU model - which would eliminate any pretense of competitive advantage and thoroughly undermine Wall's apparent plan to buy into AECL. Or instead, the province could voluntarily choose a design which poses well-known and escalating risks which are now close to coming to fruition in the form of massive costs and potential shutdowns.

But what about the much-vaunted regulation which the CNSC in particular has spent so much time trumpeting? Well, it apparently wasn't enough to push the CNSC itself to make the known issues public two years ago. And that was before the Cons strongarmed Parliament into overruling the CNSC itself on safety issues at Chalk River.

So there's no reason for confidence that the CNSC itself is telling the public the whole story about the risks surrounding the industry under its regulation. And it's tough to take much comfort from an organization whose mandate seems to have shifted from actually regulating anything to a PR exercise in proclaiming what a wonderful job it's doing.

Finally, it's worth noting that the similarity between the issues which caused the MAPLE isotope reactors to be abandoned and the ones also present in CANDU reactors may push Wall's federal allies to the opposite side of the table. At the moment, there's a regular food fight going on between the Cons and the Libs as to whether or not the MAPLE project should have been abandoned - but Harper and company can hardly make a credible claim to have done the right thing by scrapping MAPLE while promoting the construction of new reactors which face the exact same problems.

In sum, then, today's revelations provide some compelling evidence both that the nuclear industry is less safe than it claims and that known issues are being kept from the public. And that reality certainly can't help the Sask Party's case to rush forward rather than taking a thorough look at the obvious risks from Saskatchewan's perspective.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

On effective opposition

Yesterday, I pointed out one egregious example of the Star rewriting history to try to cut out the Libs' complicity in continued Harper government. But it's worth pointing out that the NDP itself could be doing more to point out both its own successes in putting together the progressive coalition, and the potential to do far more in the future in one which actually comes into being.

By way of example, the NDP is currently highlighting its results in Parliament since the last election, including a still-remarkable gap between the NDP and other parties' MPs in terms of bills, motions and questions. But with a few key exceptions which have received a reasonable amount of public attention, those don't figure to be familiar at all to most voters. And even the ones which are relatively well-known (Jim Maloway's Passenger Bill of Rights along with the motion and bill on EI) have yet to result in any substantive change in law - and don't figure to do so in the near future in light of Stephen Harper's obvious contempt for the will of the majority in Parliament.

So the NDP's current examples of effective opposition involve accomplishments which aren't familiar to most Canadians, and probably fall short of top-of-mind issues in any event. And it's hard to see too many potential voters being swayed by those types of considerations.

In contrast to the relatively limited public awareness of the issues now being emphasized, last winter's conflict between the coalition and the Conservatives was by virtually all accounts the high point for public awareness of Canada's political scene over the past few years. But the NDP's retrospective look at its accomplishments doesn't even mention the coalition, and includes the Cons' excuse for stimulus only alongside a clear expression of frustration with its failings:
Forced the Conservatives to respond to the economic crisis: When Conservatives tried to use the economic downturn to play politics while jobs were at risk, New Democrats led the opposition against them. As a result the government put forward a stimulus package – one that still doesn’t help a single new applicant get Employment Insurance, and has been too slow in creating new jobs.
Now, it's true that a month and a half of desperate attacks from the Cons and several more of scorn afterward - echoed by Michael Ignatieff as his excuse for keeping Harper in power - have made coalition politics into a difficult message to sell for now.

But the NDP's role in brokering agreement with the Libs and securing the Bloc's support would be useful in counteracting the current complaint that the NDP is unwilling to work with other parties in Parliament. And for the future, the NDP has more incentive than any other party in Parliament to keep open the possibility of a formal coalition. So it's hard to see why the NDP wouldn't try at the very least to defend the concept for future use while refuting the Libs' most recent line of attack.

Mind you, there's far more potential upside to be had if the NDP goes further in playing up the coalition as an example of its brand of cooperative politics. Presumably there are plenty of Canadians who are no more happy with Harper's government now than they were last winter when so many attended pro-coalition protests, signed up for Facebook groups, or otherwise showed their support. And if the NDP can tap into even a small portion of that enthusiasm - especially while the Libs go out of their way to try to distance themselves from any similar effort in the future - then the result would seem to be to open up a world of anti-Con swing voters who would otherwise be more easily persuaded by electability-style arguments.

Of course, the easiest path for now might seem to be simply to turn attention toward less controversial subjects. But given that the Cons don't seem to have any intention of abandoning the plan to build their next election campaign on the idea of coalition-as-boogeyman, it doesn't seem likely that the topic can be avoided anyway. So better for the NDP to work on claiming the positive results that were generated by the coalition (and better yet, that were missed out on due to Ignatieff's choice to roll over) by putting its at the top of the party's list of accomplishments.

The measure of a man

Shorter Rocco Rossi:

Weakness is strength! Dithering is decisiveness! Failure is accomplishment! And if you liked those, we have plenty more where that came from!

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Sunday Morning 'Rider Blogging

Ive been meaning for some time to start translating the steady stream of news about the Saskatchewan Roughriders into some content for the blog. And with the regular season set to start next week, there's no time like the present. So here's my quick preview of where the 'Riders figure to place this year compared to their CFL competitors.

Unfortunately, though, there are plenty of reasons for concern with this year's team. While it's always tough to say how an offseason's worth of new recruits will affect the balance of power in the CFL, it surely can't be a good sign when players who couldn't make the cut as starters or roster players last year and don't figure to have developed much in the meantime are beating out the best talent a team was able to bring in. (Hello, Chris Jones, Stevie Baggs and Marc Parenteau.)

Offence: Average (4-5 out of 8 teams)

The 'Riders are obviously below the top tier of offences in Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal where elite quarterbacks enjoy well-developed rapports with multiple star-calibre weapons. But the offseason looks to have been a reasonably good one on the offensive side of the ball - at least, as long as the quarterback situation is managed better than last year.

Barring another freak wave of injuries, the receiving corps includes a nice mix of speed (Dressler, Quinn and Walker) and strength (Fantuz, Clermont, Getzlaf and Bagg), and the depth cultivated last year has allowed the team to move past using roster spots and patterns on ciphers like Michael Palmer and Corey Grant. Wes Cates probably isn't an elite runner anymore after a couple of injury-plagued seasons, but he's still an All-Star caliber back thanks to his receiving and blocking skills, and shifty Hugh Charles and speedy Stu Foord offer contrasting styles which should keep defences off balance. So whoever plays quarterback will have lots of options to work with.

But there's an obvious candidate in the "what could go wrong?" department. While Darien Durant looks to be ready to take over as the starting quarterback, he's at his best when eluding defenders in the backfield and taking running lanes when they're available. But with the offensive line already having to plug the holes left by two injuries and a trade demand, it won't be at all surprising if that style of play lands Durant on the injured list himself. And at that point, all bets are off, as neither Stephen Jyles or Dalton Bell has given much indication of being ready to lead the offence.

Defence: Below-average (6-7)

I'm probably less concerned than most with the 'Riders' lost linebackers in Maurice Lloyd and Anton McKenzie - as the position always seems to be the easiest to fill with respectable talent, particularly with a Rey Williams waiting in the wings. But it's the rest of the defence that looks to be a problem going into the season.

Up front, Baggs' emergence gives the team somewhat more hope than it had before in terms of ability to get to the quarterback - which was the major defensive weakness last year. But based on the preseason, any much-needed pressure on the quarterback seems to be coming at the expense of a new scheme that makes the 'Riders extremely vulnerable to the run. And the team is still just another John Chick injury away from regularly giving opposing quarterbacks enough time to wander off for a leisurely stroll before delivering the ball on any given play.

Of course, the other way to make opposing quarterbacks less comfortable is to have a ball-hawking secondary which can turn any slightly dangerous read into a turnover. But last season's unit aside from Lance Frazier apparently wasn't up to the task, especially after James Johnson (a 2007 West All-Star still in his prime) was pulled from the lineup over a couple of botched reads on pump fakes. Meanwhile, two spots were occupied by Omarr Morgan, whose strategy was apparently to give up an 8-10 yard out anytime the quarterback wanted it in order to give himself enough of a cushion to avoid being beaten deep, and Eddie Davis, who seemed increasingly vulnerable against younger receivers and whose big plays came mostly on blitzes rather than getting the jump on passes in coverage.

Naturally, the 'Riders gave Johnson away this offseason rather than seeing whether his talent could be better harnessed. And Morgan and Davis are back with starting jobs, leading one to wonder just how much damage might result if either has lost another half-step. Mind you, there are plenty of DBs in their athletic prime around as well, and Chris McKenzie, Denatay Heard, James Patrick, Tamon George and Donovan Alexander could combine with Frazier to form a solid young unit. But we'll see how long it takes before the team lets that happen - and until it does, there are going to be a couple of spots on the field where opposing offences can count on being relatively unchallenged.

Special Teams
: Average (4-5)

The 'Riders' incumbents on the kicking teams have proven themselves to be steady presences, with Luca Congi showing the ability to be much more than that at times. But the return game once again looks to be a relative weakness for now, though hopefully with more playing time Morris will develop into what Weston Dressler was last year before he got moved toward receiver duty.

Overall: Average (5-6)

In sum, I'd expect the 'Riders to be just below average compared to their CFL competitors, with a record between about 7-11 and 9-9. That might well be enough to make the playoffs either in the West (if the Lions can't fully rebuild from their offseason losses or the Eskimos don't gel under Richie Hall) or as a crossover team. But it would be surprising if the 'Riders are able to once again challenge the Stamps for supremacy in the West - and it remains to be seen how the fan base will react to what looks to be the first real step backwards in the Tillman era.