Saturday, September 05, 2009

Lowered expectations

In commenting on the U.S. Department of Transportation's decision on Air Canada charter flights, the Harper government's point man on virtually everything:
(a) picked a gratuitous fight with the superpower next door; and
(b) showed he either doesn't know the difference between the U.S. executive and legislative branches, or is eager to launch attacks at Congressional Democrats even when he knows they're false.

And apparently nobody else in Canada so much as batted an eye. Doesn't that say it all about what we've come to expect from the Harper government?

By way of clarification

One of the current memes circulating around Canadian political punditry is the claim that the legitimacy of any coalition government following the next Canadian election would be dependent on what's been promised during the course of the campaign, such that Michaelle Jean should take into account leaders' statements from the campaign in determining whether to recognize a coalition government - and perhaps refuse to recognize a coalition agreement if anybody's promised not to enter into one. And it's time to call bullshit on that argument in the clearest of terms.

Whatever one's view about the basic ethics underlying the actions involved, the Governor-General hasn't treated the Cons' election promises as reason to refuse the exercise of what would otherwise be constitutional powers (such as, say, appointing senators or calling an election in advance of a fixed election date). And while ideally I'd like to see as many of the opposition parties as possible actually defend the idea of a coalition in principle so that the issue doesn't arise, there's absolutely no basis for applying a different standard to a coalition which might form following an election based on what's said during the course of the campaign.

On open seats

There's been plenty of discussion about the Bloc's intention to run Daniel Paille as its candidate in Hochelaga. But there seems to have been far too little mention of the fact that some Bloc loyalists themselves are less than happy to have Harper's hand-picked investigator imposed on them as a candidate:
Maxime Bellerose, le président d'association dans ce bastion bloquiste, a pressé son chef de renoncer à cette idée, hier, en rappelant que les dirigeants du parti se sont formellement engagés, il y a une semaine à peine, à ce qu'une assemblée d'investiture en bonne et due forme ait lieu dans Hochelaga.

Selon M. Bellerose, la nouvelle que M. Duceppe compte imposer Daniel Paillé a soulevé «inquiétude et incrédulité» chez les militants bloquistes...

«Nous pensons que notre parti et surtout notre chef croient fortement au processus démocratique, et nous sommes convaincus que pour le bien de la vie démocratique du parti, il y aura une assemblée d'investiture juste et équitable pour tous les candidats. Si le parti passait outre et choisissait de ne pas accorder d'investiture en invoquant l'urgence d'élections imminentes, ce serait un grave déni de démocratie pour les citoyens et membres de Hochelaga», a soutenu hier M. Bellerose.
From the sound of it, the Bloc will ultimately go ahead with an actual nomination meeting while simply naming Paille as an economic adviser, rather than outright appointing Paille as a candidate. But it's worth wondering whether an eventual nomination itself will be seen as a result of party meddling - and more importantly, whether the Bloc's current support base might end up fracturing if Paille becomes the candidate.

After all, as Stockholm notes at babble, the Hochelaga riding looks on its face to have a fairly strong left-wing bent as well as sovereigntist predilections. And in recent memory, the Bloc has held it by large margins while running Real Menard, whose credentials on both the sovereigntist and progressive angles were difficult to challenge.

But the expected nomination of Paille - with his resume including not only his appointment by Harper to try to uncover dirt on the Libs, but also a fairly heavy pro-corporate background (warning: PDF) - might well result in a split in those factions. And the NDP will be offering a strong progressive alternative by once again running prominent union leader Jean-Claude Rocheleau.

Of course, the Bloc will still be the heavy favourite, particularly based on Paille's name recognition. But the combination of a fairly favourable riding and a Bloc base with two obvious reasons for disillusionment should make this into one of the NDP's better targets in Quebec - meaning that if nothing else, the going shouldn't be as easy for the Bloc as it has been in the past.

As an aside, let's note this tidbit from another article on Paille's nomination:
Paille said he looks forward to joining the Bloc and has admired the party for a long time.

He said he intends to fight Ottawa on its plan to create a national securities regulator, and criticized what he called the Tories' stubbornness on tax harmonization.
Which would seem to suggest all of the opposition parties are on side with the idea of cornering the Cons on tax harmonization - even if the Libs aren't playing quite the best possible role in that regard.


So much for my concern that the Libs might be quiet about the HST as a federal election issue merely because they'd have to be insane to focus attention on their own nonsensical position. Instead, it looks like they may be just crazy enough to try to use the issue to build outrage against the Cons without offering any suggestion as to what they'd do differently - and it's anybody's guess how the attempt will play out:
The federal Liberal Leader sought to put the 12 per cent HST, introduced after a provincial election in which the B.C. Liberals ruled it out, in play as the “Harper Sales Tax.”

He said his party is concerned the Tories have “pushed” sales tax harmonization across Canada at a time of recession, and “is now walking away from it, saying ‘It has nothing to do with us.' We think that's dishonest. They're fully implicated in this decision, and they should take responsibility for it.”

Without providing details, he said a federal Liberal government would look for ways to make the tax work better for British Columbians.

“For the moment, this squarely on Stephen Harper's shoulders. He keeps pushing this off, pretending it's a silly provincial matter,” he said. “It won't wash.”
The key statement for now is "across Canada": while it sounded before like the Libs might try to wall the issue off as a localized B.C. issue, they now seem to be sending the correct message the issue is effectively the same in B.C. as in Ontario (and in the provinces that are still being pushed to harmonize). With that national focus, there's a significant opportunity to place the HST at the forefront of a federal election campaign - and the "Harper Sales Tax" phrasing can only help that cause.

But for the Libs, there's the small problem that the reality doesn't show any meainingful distinction between the Libs and Cons on the issue.

After all, it was a Lib government which made similar deals with the Atlantic provinces. And more importantly, with Ignatieff himself looking to "make the tax work better" rather than actually wanting to reverse Harper's plan, there would seem to be ample reason to doubt Canadians can expect the Libs to change course to any meaningful degree. Which could bode extremely well for the federal NDP if it can present itself as the real opponent of the HST as its provincial cousins in B.C. have already managed to do.

So while the NDP and Libs are apparently in full agreement that the Harper Cons need to wear the effect of tax harmonization, the current positioning seems likely to set up a head-on collision between the two in trying to capitalize on the resulting outrage. And with the Libs' advantages in money and media access balanced against the reality that they're tied to the provincial governments responsible and can't claim any principled objection to the policy in general, there's obvious reason why both parties might hold out reasonable hopes of coming out on top in that clash.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Musical interlude

Jonas Steur feat Jennifer Rene - Fall to Pieces

On transfers

David Akin's article on the Cons' jump in spending at the Privy Council office nicely lines up the contrast between Jim Flaherty's dishonest message about restraint and the actual actions of the Harper government:
Spending in the government department supervised directly by Prime Minister Stephen Harper soared by 14 per cent last year, despite a directive from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty that government must "show restraint."

Financial statements released this week show that spending by the Privy Council Office for the fiscal year that ended in March hit $172.5 million, compared to $151.8 million in fiscal 2008.
Last fall, as he tabled the economic and fiscal update that would prompt the Liberals and NDP to agree to form a coalition government, Flaherty said, "We cannot ask Canadians to tighten their belts during tougher times without looking in the mirror."

Among other things, Flaherty proposed in that statement to cut a public subsidy paid to all political parties. He also imposed unilateral wage restraints on the civil service.

"We are directing government ministers and deputy ministers from every single department and agency of the government to rein in their spending on travel, hospitality, conferences, exchanges and professional services," Flaherty said on Nov. 27. "Canadians have a right to look to government as an example. We have a responsibility to show restraint and respect for their money."

However, not only did the Privy Council Office fail to tighten its belt, it loosened it a few notches.
That said, let's put the Cons' insincerity in even more stark relief: if Harper had managed to get his way in cutting off political party funding, he'd simply have redirected the roughly $20 million which currently goes to the opposition parties toward expanding his own office rather than saving citizens a cent. And that point should be placed front and centre by all of the opposition parties when Harper tries to grandstand about ending party funding whenever the next election campaign begins.

Deep thought

I simply can't imagine why unions could possibly be needed in this day and age.

On strategic considerations

Over the past couple of days, corporate pundits and Lib hacks alike have tried to sell a dubious narrative that the federal NDP will be looking to avoid an election at all costs. But while it's usually a safe bet that the NDP is best off ignoring the concern trolling of those who always seem to think the party's best interest lies in doing what somebody else wants them to, let's take a closer look at just why it is that they're so far off base in examining the NDP's likely course of action this fall.

I'll start off by noting that the ideal scenario for the NDP probably doesn't involve an election. But nor does it involve the NDP supporting the Harper government on any confidence matters.

Instead, the best-case outcome for the NDP is still for the Libs to roll over once again. That would likely put to an end whatever sense of momentum Michael Ignatieff has managed to create within the party, and likely push a few of the Libs who have grudgingly gritted their teeth in supporting the Cons for this long out of the tent all together.

Despite those exact risks as well as Ignatieff's current bluster, I don't think it's as certain as some people seem to want to believe that they won't eventually be pressured into backing down. The Cons are obviously eager to put the onus back on the Libs to either vote with them or take responsibility for an election, and there have been plenty of corporate media objections to the Libs' course of action which might well shift the balance of opinion within the party far enough to get them to revert to their long-held position even after they've admitted that the NDP was right all along.

But let's assume for the moment that the Libs do stick with their current position. Under those circumstances, when would the NDP most want to fight an election against them and the Cons?

Before answering that question, it's worth pointing out what the Libs' priorities have been under Ignatieff. Their first order of business was to work on their fund-raising, with the assumption likely being that they can work on their party structure and brand once they have more cash in the bank to work with. And by all accounts, they've done reasonably well in that department. Which means that at the moment, the Libs have a fairly strong fund-raising machine which they haven't yet converted into party development.

So which would the NDP rather face in an election: a party with a slight fund-raising advantage which hasn't yet turned that into much else, or a party which has had another few months to a year in which to develop on all fronts with the money it's raised so far? I'd think the answer there is fairly obvious.

Likewise, any delay in an election will give Michael Ignatieff a chance to develop into something more than a cipher as the Libs' party leader. So far, he's largely had to improvise, and the results have been rather less than impressive - meaning that there's both a lower baseline to start from, and some significant potential upside for the NDP in the possibility that he'll flub up his first election campaign. But with more time for long-term development which isn't impeded by going in front of the cameras every couple of months to threaten an election then back down, Ignatieff figures to be able to define and prepare himself better for an election in 2010 than for one now.

Combine all that with a Lib base brought back from the dead by the party's decision to actually take on an opposition role and the dangers of dampening NDP support if the party supports the Cons without winning massive concessions, and to me the calculation seems fairly clear that the NDP is better off facing Ignatieff now rather than later.

On the surface, those factors might be balanced out in the short term by the popularity associated with being seen to get things done: remember that in the summer of 2005, the NDP did get a major boost in the polls after winning its budget concessions from the Libs. But that boost would seem to be no less illusory than the one Ignatieff got after deciding to prop up Harper, as anybody who approves of avoiding an election now would figure to be unhappy with whatever steps eventually led to an election later.

Which is why it makes sense for the NDP to make some public efforts at a deal which it doesn't expect to actually materialize - allowing the party to present itself as reasonable and accommodating, while acknowledging that it's highly unlikely that the Cons will do anything to justify allowing them to stay in government.

Interestingly, the absolute worst-case scenario would probably be for the Cons to stay in power with the support of the Bloc - which would give the Libs the opportunity to build capacity and try to erase all memory of the last two years, while eliminating any "getting things done" counterargument. And that explains why the NDP may want to keep itself front and centre in any talks about whether or not the Cons will stay in power now. As long as it's the party being the most conciliatory toward the Cons, the NDP can effectively hold the reins when it counts to ensure an election - while the sooner it abandons the field, the more opportunity the Cons will have to justify cutting a deal with Gilles Duceppe.

In sum, then, the NDP has every reason to conclude that it's actually best off going to the polls this fall if it can't secure a dramatic change in course from the Cons. And if the Libs are planning based on the opposite assumption, then they figure to be in for an unpleasant surprise once they have to take their untested machine into a race toward election day.

On public interest

Ryan Meili's Sasquatch column is definitely worth a read in highlighting the need for "less politics and more democracy" to get more people involved in. But while the Saskatchewan NDP will be working its way toward new ways of interacting with the public during the course of its upcoming policy development process, it can take pride in the fact that it's doing well in getting large numbers of people involved in its current electoral challenges:
In the first week and a half, Dwain's team already has more sign locations, more volunteers and more ground covered than we did in the 2007 election campaign.
Now, the presence of more volunteers and more ground covered might be expected when all of Regina's NDP supporters are able to focus on a single riding. But it's the first of those indicators that's particularly remarkable: a third of the way through the by-election campaign, more voters in Regina Douglas Park had already made the decision to display their support for the NDP than was the case during an entire general election campaign for a popular, long-time MLA. And the fact that so many citizens even in a single riding are responding positively to the by-election campaign would seem to provide a hint as to how much more interest there may be once the party as a whole launches its process to give the public a stronger voice in democratic policy-making.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Ujjal Dosanjh Agrees with Bob Rae: Liberals Haven't Done their Jobs for Two Years

While Bob Rae may be the leader of the Libs' self-loathing caucus, he's apparently far from alone. Here's Ujjal Dosanjh:
i believe I was not elected to support Harper. Am pt o/offcl oppsn. So now doing what I wae elctd todo.
And of course these are two members of Michael Ignatieff's inner circle. So if even those closest to power in the Libs recognize and acknowledge that they haven't been doing what they were elected to do...then what reason is there to think they'll act any differently if they get rewarded for that failure at the polls?

On self-loathing

When it comes to public demonstrations of stupidity like this, the main message to be taken away is that for all their preening about not having to contrive criticisms about Stephen Harper, they're threatened enough by the NDP to flat-out make up nonsense. But what does it say about the Libs' view of their own party that their supporters' idea of a damaging attack is to shriek that another party might (but on all available evidence won't) do what they've been doing for two years and counting?

The reviews are in

Lawrence Martin:
Mr. Harper's government is also the one that promised to breathe new democracy into the country but did the opposite, overcentralizing command in the Prime Minister's Office to a degree seldom seen. His Conservatives took attack advertising to new lows, even doing the cluster bombing between campaigns. They put out a 200-page dirty tricks handbook on how to disrupt parliamentary committees. They ran roughshod over the freedom of information process, even attempting to vet communications of independent officers of Parliament, the Auditor-General included. They've given us the Cadman affair, the so-called in-and-out affair, NAFTAgate, a fixed-election date that they unfixed, the use of a budget update to try to undercut opposition party financing, the attempted hamstringing of budget officer Kevin Page, gobs of patronage when they promised not to go that route.

If the Prime Minister thinks he can find a deity, any deity, who will be impressed with that show of morality, he is welcome to try.

On breaches of duty

So far, coverage of Peter MacKay's three-and-a-half-year long conflict of interest and ethics violation has at best hinted at what looks to me to be a significant part of the story.

MacKay's excuse for failing to disclose his involvement in his father's businesses is that he had flat-out forgotten that he was involved with them. But doesn't that mean he's admitting that he's been utterly negligent as a vice-president and director who would have owed the businesses a duty to look out for their interests? And is that really the profile of somebody who deserves to hold responsibility for a cabinet portfolio?

The reviews are in

Haroon Siddiqui:
(Michael Ignatieff) is like John Kerry in 2004, unable to shed the burden of having backed George W. Bush. Given the clarity of Canadians on much of post-9/11 politics, Ignatieff is even less likely to win as Harper Lite than Kerry could as Bush Lite.

This is made all the more relevant given the many domestic implications of the war on terror.

Ignatieff was mostly mute during the controversy over Suaad Hagi Mohamud. Her lawyer, Raoul Boulakia, told me that the Liberals under Ignatieff have been reluctant to touch any case that might turn out to be unpopular. "Once they hear the word security, they run for cover. They don't want to touch it."

That was precisely the problem with Kerry Democrats – cowed into silence on key issues when Americans were beginning to crave principled stands.

So we end up with the irony that while Barack Obama is Canadianizing America – health care, human rights, civil liberties, etc. – Harper is stuck in Bush's policies, and the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada cannot articulate a vision of Canada in tune with the times.

Out of harmony

Last week, I theorized that if each of the opposition parties stuck to its most obvious line of attack on the HST, then the Cons could find themselves losing votes from all sides. But my fears have been confirmed that the Libs would undermine that possibility as they have every other chance to mount a solid attack on Harper by trying to sell conflicting messages in the two provinces which the Cons have bought off:
While leader Michael Ignatieff has said little about the HST for national consumption, it's clear from the party material that Liberals are opposing introduction of an HST in B.C. -- which could be embarrassing given that their provincial cousins are behind it.

Their federal candidates have been instructed to refer to the tax as the "Harper Sales Tax" and to assert an HST won't work for B.C.'s economy, instead hurting growing sectors, specifically the service industry and tourism.
Should voters ask what federal Liberals themselves would do, candidates have been asked to tell voters that an Ignatieff government would not use a cookie-cutter approach to the HST. "We would be far more flexible in applying harmonization."

Candidates also have been told not to comment on comparisons with Ontario -- which announced its intention to harmonize its sales taxes last March -- because "they have different industries."
In other words, rather than taking any coherent stance whatsoever either for or against the HST, the B.C. Libs are taking up the line that they'd carry out harmonization differently without saying how, and pretending that the issue is somehow radically different between the two provinces which have gone through the exact same process this year. Which makes the Libs themselves look even sillier than the Cons with their "don't blame us, we just spent $6 billion to make it happen" stance to the extent the issue does get discussed.

But more importantly, the Libs' internally conflicting position will mean that both they and the Cons will have a strong incentive not to talk about the HST during the course of a campaign. And that in turn will all too likely ensure that one of the issues with the strongest potential to raise public ire against the Harper government (even among its core supporters) will be kept out of the headlines - which figures to hurt the Libs' interest as least as much it does the other opposition parties.

On demands

The Star reports on a rough outline of the NDP's position in dealing with the Cons this fall, with improvements to EI, pension protections and credit card fees as the three main issues being presented. But while there are some reasons why focusing on those issues alone might make sense, I wonder whether the NDP should be expanding its range of demands to better position itself for the campaign which is likely to follow anyway.

Let's start off with the argument in favour of limiting the NDP's message. Of the three demands which have already been made public, two of them are already fairly well established as NDP issues: while the other opposition parties may have occasionally discussed pensions and credit card fees, it's the NDP that's generally recognized as leading the charge in trying to get anything done. And while all three opposition parties have seized on EI at various times, it's both a familiar theme for the NDP and a potential feather in the party's cap if it can somehow wring some concessions out of the Cons on an issue where the Libs tried and failed miserably.

So all three issues raised so far are identified with the NDP from its actions to date, and consistent with a platform based around the interests of working Canadians. And one can make the case that a party which doesn't tend to receive as many opportunities to make its case through the media needs to stick to its existing message to reinforce its position.

But I'd think there are far stronger considerations that might point toward raising some relatively new issues now to position the NDP for a fall campaign.

First off, the wave of outrage over the Cons' Senate patronage would seem to set up an opportunity for the NDP to paint an end to that type of action as part of its required change in course.

The most obvious opportunity on that front would be to publicly demand that the Cons work toward a mutually agreeable appointment to chair the Public Appointments Commission - a commission which was of course created through the Accountability Act, then thrown out the window once one of the Cons' party bagmen was rejected as chairman. My first thought was that somebody along the lines of Duff Conacher would be ideal as a compromise - though Conacher himself has probably been speaking a bit too much truth to power to win the Cons' approval now. But by coupling a demand to fill the position with an obviously non-partisan name, the NDP could put plenty of pressure on the Cons to live up to their past principles, and be able to position itself as the defender of those principles if the Cons reject the offer.

Likewise, at least a few promised provisions of the Accountability Act fell by the wayside as the Cons decided that improved access to information and other reforms didn't serve their purposes once they were in power. And by highlighting those issues now, the NDP can rightfully break them off from the Cons' brand and take up the cause of transparent, accountable government for itself.

As for other possibilities, I'd wonder whether the NDP's focus on areas covered by its private members' bills so far might unduly limit its ability to make the case as to what it would in fact do if given the chance to govern. There's no reason why the NDP's demands should be limited to areas which don't require government expenditures (as private members' bills are required to be) - and there would seem to be plenty of opportunity to request that money budgeted but not spent by the Cons be directed both toward more sustainable development and in a less partisan manner. In other words, the NDP should be taking a close look at its past platforms, not just its bills in Parliament, and looking for some relatively inexpensive but progressive items to fit into the current fiscal framework.

Finally, with the NDP also recognizing that its initiatives would require at least a few months to pass, some type of "no poison pills" term would also seem to be desperately needed, particularly on the off chance that Harper were to decide that he's better off snapping up the NDP's offer.

Again, the odds are that the Cons will summarily reject whatever the NDP brings to the table now anyway - particularly since their goal seems to be to place the onus back on the Libs to bear the brunt of responsibility for forcing an election. But even if that's the case, I'd think it's better for the NDP to ask for more now - such as to position itself as representing a broader range of interests, and to enable it to criticize the Cons as having rejected more good ideas later - rather than leaving open any room for argument that it aimed too low.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


I'll say this about the Saskatchewan Roughriders' decision to take a chance on a kick returner who's jawed, brain-cramped or fumbled his way off of half of the teams in the CFL (including the 'Riders) but seldom had trouble finding another one to take a chance on him: whatever the outcome, Jason Armstead's signing should put an end to any talk of improving the team's return game through outside additions.

If we get Armstead at his best, he's one of the few players with the speed to rattle off big returns even with mediocre blocking in front of him - so fans will have to be happy with him as the fix for this season.

And if we get Armstead at his worst, then whoever else the team puts back in the spot from its current roster (presumably Eric Morris) will look good enough by comparison to stop any questions for the rest of the year.

Deep thought

Boy, it must be embarrassing to be seen adapting or reusing slogans from past U.S. Democrat campaigns.

On double-edged swords

Don Martin seems to think the Cons are headed for a fall love-in between Stephen Harper and the previously-exiled Brian Mulroney. I'm not sure there's much reason to think that'll be the case - but as Murray Mandryk points out, that may carry at least as many costs as it does opportunities in terms of cementing a connection between the two:
(H)ow do old Reformers justify to themselves Harper's most recent Senate appointments? What do they say when they speak privately? How can they possibly disagree with Maclean's magazine columnist Andrew Coyne, who so aptly described these appointments as the "most obnoxiously partisan, disgustingly sycophantic choices" Harper could make?
These particularly partisan appointments jackhammer away at the the bedrock of old Reform principles that also demanded balanced budgets, prudent spending and an end to pandering to Quebec -- other issues from which Harper has parted ways.

It makes one wonder whether some old Reformers are now privately wondering: "Aren't we really right back to the days of Mulroney?"

Bob Rae: Liberals Haven't Done their Jobs for Two Years

Or at least, that's the implication of what he now says about what he wasn't elected to do:
"I didn't come to Parliament to vote for Stephen Harper, I wasn't elected to vote for a neo-conservative government," Rae told CTV's Canada AM.
And yet, that's of course exactly what Rae and the rest of his party-mates have done. Repeatedly. 79 times, one might even say. And all without a word of protest at the time.

But fortunately, Rae explains why he's now able to acknowledge the fact that he's spent his last two years doing exactly what he was elected not to do:
"I'm a member of the Official Opposition, Mr. Ignatieff is the leader and he's said we're not going to continue to support the government."
So apparently Rae is only allowed to point out the problems with Stephen Harper and his neoconservative government with the Lib leader's dispensation. And if Ignatieff himself has some Harper-like or neoconservative tendencies...well, Rae's own actions in propping up Harper under Iggy's orders tell us just how likely he'll be to do anything to counter them.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Reasons for disbelief

When a premier who's taken every step possible to avoid meaningful greenhouse gas emission reductions in order to prevent his province's oil industry from facing any consequences for its impact on the environment claims that we should avoid disrupting the equally-irresposible federal government's direction on climate change going into an international conference, it's probably worth taking that as evidence of just the opposite.

And when a supporter of a party whose leader declares tar sand development to be a national unity issue and says we can't reduce greenhouse gas emissions any more than the oil industry will let us criticizes another party as uncommitted to dealing with climate change, it's probably worth taking that too as evidence favouring the opposite conclusion.

Waiting for the miracle

A few Libs seem all too happy to use exactly the same kind of highly selective quoting and repetition of press spin against the NDP that they regularly decry when it's working against their party. So let's highlight the most important part of what the NDP in fact has to say, with the part of Joe Comartin's statement that they're leaving out:
"It's absolutely necessary that the Conservatives make some very important compromises," said the NDP MP. "If they don't change their economic policy, we won't be able to support them."
If there's been a change in the NDP's tone, it's in suggesting that there's some meaningful chance that the Cons might now consider governing more responsibly in order to stay in power where the Libs left them no reason to do so before. And I'll grant that the line taken by both Comartin and Thomas Mulcair is more optimistic on that point than I am: I'd think it would be better at this point to stick with the previous terminology that it would require a miracle for the Cons to do so and let them try to take steps to make it happen, rather than creating even the slightest space for a desperate Lib party to invent a narrative which casts the NDP as taking over the role the Libs have occupied for so long.

But the NDP's basic position that Con government in the form we've seen for the past three and a half years isn't acceptable remains the same - leaving only the question of whether Harper is willing to change how he governs in order to retain the ability to do so. And while it looks like the Cons prefer to put the onus back on the Libs to keep allowing them to govern without compromising at all, one can't rule out the possibility that a miracle will happen.

Update: Megan Leslie is closer to the right message (though I'd work on the example of what would have to happen for Harper's direction to change):
"We clearly haven’t supported the vision of the Conservatives. Absolutely," said Ms. Leslie. "But were there to be a huge change in that vision, who knows? I think there’s room to stop and think about what is best right now. But it’s the Harper vision that we can’t support. Who knows? Maybe he’ll fall on his head and have a new vision."
Update II: Apparently no miracle is forthcoming. Which is just fine: thanks to the Cons' over-the-top refusal to even talk about cooperating, the NDP both preserves its principled stance as the lone national party to vote against the Cons' government in practice, and wins the title of the only party willing to make any effort to make Parliament work to improve matters.

Simple answers to simple questions

Greg asks:
The Tories have a minority government and need the support of only one other party. Whether we have an election or not is up to the government's willingness to negotiate with other parties, not the Liberals. The Liberals alone have no ability to bring down the government. Why won't they work with the other parties in parliament to avoid an election?
Because after three and a half years of staying in power by bulldozing weak opponents as part of a hyperpartisan strategy rather than compromising even once on anything of substance, they flat out don't know how to "work with" anybody. This has been another edition of simple answers to simple questions.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Time for a reminder...

I for one recall something about an opportunity to replace the Cons with a less toxic government without an election until at least 2010. Can anybody remember which party it was that decided leaving the Cons in power would somehow be more stable?

On revelations

So apparently the Libs have figured out that it's entirely legitimate to judge a government on its body of harmful work rather than waiting to read the text of the Cons' latest attempt to cling to power first. And good on them for coming around to the NDP's longtime position.

But here's the problem: the same standard of judging a party by its full track record rather than merely its latest public facade applies equally to the Libs. So how do they plan to get off the hook for having to eat two years worth of excuses for propping up the Cons?

Update: Lest there be any doubt, there's indeed plenty of reason for skepticism as to whether or not the Libs will follow through on their bluster for a change. But even if they don't, they have plenty to answer for in going from their "no reasonable party would declare non-confidence in advance!" line to doing just that.

Update II: HUD has the early lead in providing the best explanation for the Libs' change of tune.

On business inputs

In comments here, I noted what strikes me as the underlying philosophy behind the the HST and other efforts to shift the cost of taxes from businesses to citizens. But it's worth going into a bit more detail as to just how bizarre the distinction may be.

Just so there's no doubt what type of goods will be covered by the HST, here's the Campbell government's attempt to get restaurants onside despite the increase on taxes for their customers:
For example, a restaurant will no longer pay sales tax (PST) on products which are considered business “inputs” under HST such as:

* fridges, stoves, freezers, dishwashers and other appliances
* energy for heat, cooking and operating equipment and lighting
* cleaning supplies, such as rags, soaps and cleaning solutions,
* cash registers, computer hardware and software
* equipment repair and maintenance services
* paper towels and toilet paper
* customer food bills and menus
* cloth napkins, table cloths, tray covers and placemats
* pots, pans, kitchen implements and knives
* plates, bowls, glasses, cups, other reusable dishes, and cutlery
* coffee machines, blenders, mixers and other small appliances
* free‐standing equipment such as juice dispensers, ice machines and coolers
* office equipment, supplies and furniture,
* advertising materials, such as flyers and brochures
* items purchased to give away as free promotions
Note that the majority of the items which the Campbell government brags about making tax-free for restaurants are also items which are used regularly for home purposes. So let's ask the question which seems to have been utterly ignored by the HST's proponents: is there actually any basis in principle for treating those items differently based on whether there's a profit motive involved?

Is there an obvious reason to consider keeping a home clean and well-maintained to be "consumption" to be accounted for as a negative externality when it's merely done for the benefit of family, friends and unincorporated groups, but a "business input" if some clients might also stop by? And if so, what does that say about the value we place on providing for one's home and family?

Is there in fact some real economic benefit to taxing the price of a computer which will be used for non-profit purposes including a blog without ads, while treating a blog with ads (and thus some theoretical claim to potential profit) as a business which entitles the computer's purchaser to a 12-13% rebate?

Is there a particular reason why it's considered taxable consumption to merely raise children, but a tax-creditable business enterprise to raise them for export?

Okay, the analogy likely breaks down at some point. That said, it still seems that the starting point has to be that a good purchased and consumed is a good purchased and consumed. And some hint of an underlying profit motive on its own hardly looks to be justification for overriding the considerations underlying consumption taxes.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like the HST debate to date has involved the least bit of scrutiny toward the premise that businesses ought to be treated more favourably than mere citizens.

Which itself seems to reflect a trend which deserves to be pointed out more than it has been. While some mention has been made of the effort to convert Canadians from seeing themselves as involved citizens to identifying themselves primarily as consumers defined by what they own, the push seems to be on toward the next step: a country of 33 million independent consulting firms seeking to maximize profit at every turn, with the mere consumers in our midst punished for their lack of interest in becoming capitalists with higher taxes.

Of course, if the HST does end up spreading from coast to coast to coast, there will be ample reason for Canadians to make just that switch for tax purposes. But is it ultimately a plus for us to be judged as possible profit centres first and foremost, while activities which can't be classified under that heading are subject to relative tax disincentives? And isn't it worth at least having the discussion in some detail before the tax system is shifted even further toward putting profits first?

Logical connections

Let's take Michael Ignatieff's "life support" line to its logical conclusion.

Harper government : Liberals : New Democrats :: Terri Schiavo : Republicans : Democrats

Now we just need to make sure that the Libs meet the same reward as the Republicans for their bedside manner.

(Hey, if it's not too soon for Kennedy jokes...)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Someday, this could all be ours...

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
After decades of national debate over what to do with spent nuclear fuel, and with no resolution in sight, the Kewaunee nuclear power plant in northeastern Wisconsin finally ran out of storage space inside the plant.

So over the past week, Kewaunee workers have begun storing radioactive waste in casks on the grounds of the reactor, a short distance from the shores of Lake Michigan.

After a practice run a few weeks ago, workers moved spent fuel into the first of the 25-ton, 16-foot-long casks and then transferred the cask into a concrete vault outside the building Aug. 22, said Mark Kanz, spokesman for the Kewaunee Power Station. A second cask was transferred Thursday.
The dwindling storage space in the spent-fuel pool inside the Kewaunee plant was among the factors that led Wisconsin utilities to sell the reactor to Dominion several years ago. Dominion then proceeded with plans to build the dry-cask storage system and applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to keep the plant running until 2033.

Point Beach experienced a brief fire during a spent-fuel transfer attempt in 1996. The hydrogen fire inside one of the casks produced enough force to blow a 3-ton lid 3 inches into the air. That incident resulted in an investigation and a $325,000 fine against Wisconsin Electric, which owned the plant at the time.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission later required Wisconsin Electric, which now operates under the trade name We Energies, to use a different kind of storage container for the used but still radioactive nuclear fuel.

Some Wisconsin environmental groups have been critical of nuclear power in part because of the onsite storage of radioactive waste on the grounds of the two plants.

Iggy said it, not us

I'd point out that it's really been for two years, but otherwise Michael Ignatieff seems to be coming to terms with the role his party continues to play:
“We've kept this government on life support for 10 months. It's important to remember that,” he said at his news conference.
Indeed it is - particularly when it comes time to decide who can be taken seriously in saying they're prepared to offer a better alternative.

Another slap in the face

Shorter Maria Minna, trying to deflect criticism of the Libs' $550/plate Sudbury fund-raiser in the midst of a lengthy and bitter strike at Vale Inco:

I'm shocked the little people aren't grateful that we're trickling down all over them.

Burning questions

Since Deficit Jim Flaherty has fallen in line with the Cons' attempt to deny responsibility for sales tax harmonization at the same time as David Akin has released the Cons' latest spending figures, now seems like a perfect time to put the stories together by asking the Finance Minister to answer the point I raised here.

Namely, how much of the Cons' $69 billion in announcements since last fall didn't involve a decision by any other party? And when can we expect the Cons to publicly retract their attempt to take credit for the rest of it?


I mentioned in an earlier post that if Stephen Harper cared in the slightest about ensuring that the Senate didn't stand in the way of the will of Canadians as expressed through the most recent election, then he'd have made sure that his appointees committed to working with all future governments rather than appointing a set of Con hacks. But let's take another look at the implicit assertion that the current makeup of the Senate has affected the passage of government bills in the first place.

Fortunately, we can start with LegisInfo's handy list of bills which passed one chamber but not the other. Since the list doesn't consider bills in the current session which could still pass in the second chamber, the most recent bills listed are ones from the 2nd session of the 39th Parliament - but that timing should only help the Cons' claim since it reflects a Senate composed of a higher proportion of Libs than the present one.

But not surprisingly, the Cons appear to have awfully little to complain about. The bills which passed the House but not the Senate included 8 private members' bills and only 2 government bills - meaning that Jack Layton, Nathan Cullen, Dan McTeague and Nicole Demers have at least as much justification as the Cons for concern about their democratically-passed bills getting bottled up.

So what were the rare examples of government bills which didn't get through the Senate? Bill C-10 from 2007 was rushed through the House of Commons in a single day - resulting in serious issues such as film censorship provisions being completely unaddressed. Let's grant that this counts as maybe the sole relevant example of the Senate delaying the passage of a government bill. But if there was ever a point where the Senate would be justified in putting the brakes on a bill in the interest of some sober second thought, that would have to be it.

Meanwhile, Bill C-29 took nearly eight months to pass in the House of Commons before finally making its way to the Senate on June 17, 2008. Since the Senate only sat for a grand total of two more days before the summer break, it can hardly be blamed for the fact that the bill didn't manage to get any further - particularly when it was the Cons who chose to halt the bill's progress at that point in order to try their luck at the polls.

What about the Cons' bills from the previous session (39th Parliament, Session 1)? There, the list of government bills which passed the House but not the Senate is somewhat longer - but the path taken by those bills once again thoroughly undercuts any claim that the Senate was responsible for holding up bills agreed to by the democratically-elected chamber.

Starting from the top of the list of bills considered last by the Senate...
- Bill C-51 passed the House four days before the Senate's summer break;
- Bill C-22 spent a month and a half in the Senate after taking nearly a year to pass the House of Commons;
- Bill C-33 reached the Senate the last week before the summer after needing 8 months to pass the House of Commons;
- Bill C-23 took a year to pass the House of Commons, and reached the Senate only a week before the summer recess;
- Similar patterns applied to C-10 (introduced May 4, 2006 and only reached the Senate on May 29, 2007) and C-35 (introduced November 23, 2006; reached the Senate June 5, 2007). (Which, as the Libs note is a pattern which the Cons are repeating with more recent bills).
- About the only exception was C-62, which passed through the House on a single day in June 2007 and theoretically could have made it into law if the Senate had acted equally quickly. But based on the fact that the bill still didn't arrive until shortly before the summer recess, that would presumably have required unanimous consent in the Senate, not merely a majority.

And of course, it was again the Cons who pulled the plug on those bills in the Senate by opting for prorogation.

In sum, then, the Cons can point to a grand total of one government bill where delay caused by the current party standings in the Senate could have affected their ability to implement legislation approved by the House. Which hardly seems like a compelling impetus for not just breaking but downright eviscerating what was supposed to have been a firm campaign promise based on the founding principles of the party which first launched Harper into Parliament.

Meanwhile, there's also the future of the Senate to look at. And the fact that Harper has obviously made loyalty his top priority in Senate nominees suggests that it may not be long before exactly the problem which the Cons are falsely claiming to want to solve becomes a reality for the next government.

After all, if the current Con caucus in the Senate sticks together and continues to take orders from Harper or another leader equally determined to press every potential political advantage with no regard for democratic principles, then a Con majority created by the next wave of Harper appointments would figure to have no more regard for the will of the majority of the House of Commons than...well, Harper himself when it's proven inconvenient. And the fact that Harper's current rhetoric ties any talk about democratically-elected governments to his personal "agenda" should provide yet one more hint that when push comes to shove, his appointees will be instructed to put the Cons' political interests ahead of any commitment to respecting the will of the democratically-elected House.

So Harper's patronage appointments look far more likely to create a roadblock to the implementation of legitimate legislation in the future than they are to resolve any meaningful difficulty in getting bills passed now. Which should make it clear that they have nothing to do with "evening out" the legislative process, and everything to do with tightening the Cons' grip on Canada no matter how many of their promises and principles they have to discard in the process.

On their side

If there's any element of the right-wing self-image that fits even less with the facts than their claim to responsible financial management, it's their attempt to be seen as consumer-friendly by...every so often declaring that businesses could consider doing better without government action. And Michael Geist points out just who it is that the Cons side with when they have the choice:
Last week I discussed the well-known challenge faced by millions of Canadians as they sort through a myriad of cellphone pricing plans in a marketplace still lacking in robust competition.

Previously unreported, however, is that Industry Canada officials identified the same problem and worked for years to develop an online tool to address it.

After spending tens of thousands of dollars creating and testing an online calculator designed to help consumers select their ideal wireless plan, Industry Minister Tony Clement killed the project weeks before it was scheduled to launch.

Government records suggest intense lobbying this spring by Canada's wireless companies, who feared the service would promote lower-cost plans, played a key role in the decision.
The focus groups' response to the cellphone cost calculator was positive, with the vast majority of participants indicating they would use the tool and encourage friends and family to do the same.

Yet just as Industry Canada was set to launch the tool, the major wireless carriers began lobbying against it.

According to lobbyist registration records, the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association and Bell Canada met with officials from Clement's office on April 8, with the association listing telecommunications regulation and consumer issues as the topics of discussion.

Two weeks later, Telus also met with the same officials to discuss consumer issues.

The carriers were apparently concerned that the tool only covered voice services and was geared toward lower-priced plans.

Sensing that Clement was facing pressure to block the calculator, Canadian consumer groups wrote to the minister, urging him to stick with it.

Despite months of preparation, thousands of dollars in taxpayer expense, the creation of an effective tool and the obvious benefits for lower-income Canadians, Clement nevertheless killed the project.
So never mind the market forces which the Cons normally claim to want to apply, nor the obvious value of providing more and better information to Canadians than carriers would provide themselves. Instead, Tony Clement apparently fully supports the telecoms' view that lower-income Canadians should pay more for their cell-phone plans than they would if they knew what options actually existed. Which should make it clear that when it comes down to choosing between the interests of citizens and those of corporations looking to preserve artificially high profits at customer expense, the Cons will side against mere Canadians every time.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Decreasingly Brief, Updated History of Liberal Declarations that they Can't Go On Supporting the Harper Government's Every Whim

Since they've delivered more material since this post...

October 20, 2007:
Dion told his MPs that it would be unthinkable for him to yield to the humiliation of supporting the throne speech and Harper's vision of Canada. He said that he'd merely be suffering the death "of 1,000 cuts," as long as he propped up the government and he would emerge from the whole ordeal with reputation and leadership damaged.
December 2, 2007:
Dion has had a rough year dealing with constant questions about his leadership abilities, crucial by-election losses in Quebec, and low poll numbers that have forced him to prop up the Conservatives in order to avoid heading to the ballot box.

However, Dion vowed to The Canadian Press that the coming year will be a different story.

"2008 will be another ball game," he said. "You cannot keep alive forever a government who wants to die."
January 14, 2008:
"I honestly don't see how they can support the budget. They are the opposition, they are there to oppose. This notion of appeasing and sitting on your hands, that's run its course. The political price to be paid for doing nothing is too high. If the Tories were to come out with a very Liberal budget, that might diffuse it, but what are the chances of that especially since they [the government] don't have a lot of money," said one top Liberal who requested anonymity.

"The Liberals are coming around to the notion that they can't continue to abstain so I think that's not a viable long-term strategy. So, I don't see the government getting Liberal support on this budget or abstaining."
February 17, 2008:
"We hear now that ... Chretien and Jean Pelletier, his former chief of staff, are telling him it's a matter of credibility, that he can't support the government any more and that the timing would be right," Jean Lapierre told CTV's Question Period on Sunday.

Lapierre, now a political commentator for Quebec's TVA network, said Dion would be "comfortable with that advice."
April 9, 2008:
The Liberals have hammered away at the government in recent weeks over the bill, accusing the Conservatives of seeking a back-door way to enforce an anti-immigrant agenda. But they have refused to say when or if they will actually oppose it in Parliament.

Some political observers say the Liberals could suffer damage within one of their core constituencies — ethnic communities in urban and suburban ridings — unless they back up their rhetoric with action.
October 20, 2008:
One of the chief questions, being asked of returning Liberal MP's- are they prepared to endure another period of abstentions? The theory being, a weakened opposition, with no leader and no money, will be forced to dodge and weave to avoid another election. I would argue, that there should be little chance for a repeat of last spring's embarrassing string of abstentions.
April 10, 2009:
At some point, you can't wait forever. You can't play cat and mouse. You have to have the courage to defeat the government. With the economy deteriorating, you have to be capable of providing an alternative, or else you're endorsing the government.
June 29, 2009:
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.
And now today:
(O)thers close to Mr. Ignatieff — and many MPs, who loathe propping up the government — are raring to plunge into a campaign. They argue that Mr. Ignatieff's and the party's credibility can't withstand yet another retreat.

On political games

Shorter Con spokesflack Dimitri Soudas:

The opposition's failure to approve our appointment of one party hack three years ago has left us no choice but to keep appointing hundreds more ever since.

Well said

We're being given the illusion of choice when really it's all the same crap tied up in different coloured bows. Yes, that's how I think about American politics and increasingly Canadian politics too. We've got 2 big box parties in Canada that are now so similar, one of them is terrified to make their "policies" public for fear the other party will steal all their ideas. Gee, did it never occur to anyone that they might have to come up with something the other guys can't steal. Something new. Something daring. Something people really need and want. No, that would be too risky. People might not like something new. You'd have to work really hard to sell it and convince people it's worth having. If you just put out the same old stuff that's already selling, you know people will buy it (or at least you're pretty sure they will) and you don't have to explain why it's better so it's safer and easier to just make the same lame crap as everyone else. Just roll out a huge ad campaign and put a shinier bow on your stuff and hope people are drawn to the shiny keys.
Of course, I'd think HUD's ultimate conclusion misses part of the point: in politics as in shopping, the problem isn't so much a lack of other choices as an all-too-easily accepted assumption that it's not worth seeking them out. But the first step of recognizing the illusion of choice between the big boxes is an important start - and the more voters realize how many others are similarly sick of the same old same old, the better the chance that another choice will be able to compete on an equal footing with the current big boxes.

Sunday Morning 'Rider Blogging

Thanks to the bye week, there isn't much to talk about by way of news about the Saskatchewan Roughriders. And indeed even off the field the times have been fairly quiet, as the big story a week ago (the possibility of signing Reggie Hunt to patch up the team's linebacker corps in the wake of injuries to Rey Williams and Kye Stewart) remains a matter of speculation at best. But the lack of an immediate game to dissect should also present an opportunity to look at the season as a whole - so let's compare where the 'Riders are now to where one might have expected them to be.

The obvious good news for the 'Riders this season has been the defence - despite a surprisingly high number of points against (worst in the league at 256).

At its best, Gary Etcheverry's line has been a turnover machine which has made virtually every quarterback other than Anthony Calvillo look unusually uncomfortable in the pocket - and even at worst it's generated regular pressure while keeping most offences from putting games out of reach. With the exception of some issues in wrapping up running backs, there's been little dropoff in the linebacking corps despite the loss of Mo Lloyd and Anton McKenzie. And the secondary has managed to become more opportunistic than it was under Richie Hall without sacrificing its coverage on opposing receivers.

About the only question going into the second half of the season is then whether or not the front seven in particular can stay healthy - and if not, whether any injured players can be replaced without too much of a drop in production. For now, the 'Riders have managed to get solid efforts out of backups on the defensive line (and thankfully so in light of Scott Schultz' retirement) and the linebacking corps. But it's not hard to see how another key loss or two could be the breaking point, and that could be a problem particularly given John Chick's history of injuries.

On offence, while the story has changed from week to week, the results are actually best described as remarkably steady. Darien Durant ranks a solid fourth or fifth among CFL starters in nearly every key passing category including completions, yards, touchdowns and QB rating, while posting a decent but unspectacular TD-to-interception ratio of 11 to 11. Likewise the 'Riders rush offence ranks fourth in the CFL, though with a bit more variation in the players involved than some teams (as due to Wes Cates' early absence no single 'Rider ranks higher than eighth). And not surprisingly, the combination of average passing and average rushing has led to an average point total, as the 'Riders sit fourth in the league there as well.

The good news is that there's some obvious room for improvement in the second half. With any luck the offensive line should be healthier and more experienced - and it looks like Andy Fantuz will soon rejoin a group of receivers that has been surprisingly effective in his absence. And most importantly, the extra experience which Durant has picked up over the first half of 2009 should help prepare him to move from solid to upper-echelon down the stretch.

Of course, the reason the 'Riders have managed to struggle at teams even with the offence and defence generally doing relatively well has been the special teams. But rather than hammering the same point that seems to be dominating discussion about the team, I'll take a moment to point out that some key parts of that unit have been reasonably solid, as the kicking numbers of Jamie Boreham and Luca Congi aren't all that far off from past seasons. The issue has instead been with the return and coverage teams (where to my surprise it's actually the punt return coverage team which ranks as worst in the league by a wide margin, while the rest have been merely below average) - which means that a fix requires more than just putting somebody new in the returning roles.

Which may make for the general theme for the 'Riders: there doesn't figure to be much room for improvement based on trying to sub in new personnel for what the team has. Instead, the key is to get back to health at a few positions, and to continue to developing the talent on the roster where it hasn't yet come together. And while the team still looks more like an average CFL unit than a top contender, there's plenty of reason for hope that it has enough potential to emerge from the pack over the rest of 2009 and beyond.

The reviews are in

The Edmonton Journal:
Albertans, it seems we misunderstood this Senate obsession of Reformers and Stephen Harper Conservatives.

When they raged at the appointment of party bagmen, former aides, sympathetic media types and hockey celebrities by the Chretien Liberals, we imagined the problem was the kind of person for whom the Grits were holding out the cushy seat.

But it turns out bagmen, aides, and names in hockey and journalism are just hunky-dory in Tory-land. The Conservatives' real problem in the bad old Liberal days was simply that they weren't the ones doling out the loot.
Maybe Harper expects future senators--elected or otherwise--to look on the bright side his concept of the Senate. If second thought is downgraded as a virtue, maybe it's less important to be sober as well.