Saturday, October 03, 2009

On popular positions

There's still an open question as to how the NDP can turn current warm-and-fuzzies into more substantive support when it's actually time to go to the polls. But in the wake of today's Harris-Decima poll (warning: PDF), it's difficult to reach any conclusion but that the NDP has been the big winner so far in this fall's Parliamentary maneuverings:
Nationally, Jack Layton’s position is the most popular, supported by almost 3-in-4 Canadians. Nationally, 72% supported Mr. Layton’s position that the NDP will support the government for as long as it takes for EI legislation to become law and the new money distributed, including 18% who strongly supported this position. This position has broad appeal nationwide with no less than 66% in any region indicating they support his position on the matter. Among New Democrats, 81% are supportive of this position, while 13% are opposed. The position of the NDP leader is also supported by 70% of Liberals and 78% of Conservatives.

Gilles Duceppe’s position is well-supported in Quebec and among BQ supporters. In Quebec, 70% of respondents support Mr. Duceppe’s position, while 20% are opposed. Among his own supporters, his support jumps further with 86% of BQ voters supporting his position, and 14% opposing it.

Nationally, 31% of respondents either strongly support (11%) or support (20%) Mr. Ignatieff’s position that he no longer has confidence in the government and would no longer support it. 57% are opposed to this position, including 24% who are strongly opposed to it. Mr. Ignatieff’s position is most popular in Quebec, where 40% support it, and least popular on the Prairies, where 64% are opposed. Unsurprisingly, his position is more popular among Liberals than other voting groups, with 54% of Liberals supporting his position and 39% opposing it. However, this split is by far the lowest support any Opposition leader received among their own supporters.
In fact, the commentary actually seems to understate the gap in support for the leaders' positions. Layton's stance isn't just more popular with his own party than Ignatieff's, it's actually favoured by Liberal supporters compared to what Ignatieff has on offer - and by a fairly noteworthy gap (70%-54%).

And equally remarkably, Layton's stance that the NDP will avoid toppling the Cons in order to pass EI reforms is more popular in Quebec (77% support) than Gilles Duceppe's position that he "he may or may not support the government solely on the basis of whether the legislation to be voted on helped Quebec or not" (70% support).

Again, there's still a significant question as to how the NDP can best build on its current position. And it of course shouldn't be forgotten that Michael Ignatieff managed to secure some momentary public support as well when he was the one acting on the basis of avoiding an election. But for now it looks undeniable that the NDP's move get improved EI legislation passed has been a huge win in terms of public opinion - and the NDP surely prefers the question of how best to build on its successes to the Libs' position of actively debating whether it's time to panic.

On narrowing perspectives

There's been plenty of talk about the content-sharing agreement between the CBC and the National Post. But as problematic as it is for the CBC to be outsourcing any of its content, I'm surprised there doesn't seem to have been any discussion of exactly what it is that the CBC is farming out - and what that figures to mean for those who see media diversity as an important priority:
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Post today announced an agreement which will allow both organizations to share content across their respective media platforms. The agreement is effective immediately. will run daily financial stories and podcasts from the Financial Post in CBC’s online Money section, and The National Post will run daily sports stories in the sports section of and periodically in the sports section of the newspaper. Financial terms were not disclosed.
Now, I'd think there's little room for dispute that most media outlets have a self-interested perspective when it comes to discussion of financial and economic matters. As major corporate entities themselves, they have every incentive to present reporting and commentary that affirm their own nature and serve the interests of their corporate owners - even if the effect is purely unintentional. (And of course it should be mentioned that the National Post tends to be a particularly noteworthy offender on that front.)

In contrast, the CBC is the only national media outlet which can combine both the capacity and reach to investigate and report on financial issues across the country, and an internal structure which gives it a different perspective on such issues - even if it too is bound to be sensitive to the interests of corporate advertisers. Which makes it a serious concern if the CBC is about to amplify the views of just another corporate media outlet rather than continuing to offer its own take. And the problem is equally obvious whether one actually prefers the CBC's theoretical position to that of the corporate media, or merely recognizes enough value in media diversity to view it as a plus for both types of perspectives to be presented.

Mind you, the deal's announcement doesn't say specifically that the CBC is actually planning to cut back on its own financial reporting. But it would only make sense that to the extent it plans to populate its own Money section with content from the National Post, the CBC will end up reducing its own reporting efforts. Which means that while the one media outlet capable of remedying that problem instead directs its attention toward reporting on sports (where there's surely far less reason for concern about presenting multiple perspectives as a matter of citizen information), Canadians will have effectively nothing but corporate voices to listen to in a major area of public interest.

On news dumps

I'm sure it's entirely coincidental that these two stories both managed to surface in exactly the same Friday news cycle, leaving no time for any particular research or response before the weekend:

- Brad Wall's old boss Grant Devine was awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, presumably for his breathtaking achievements in the fields of deficit-accumulating and economic mismanagement. The majority of the advisory body responsible for the choice would have been selected personally by Wall in 2008 (given the previous pattern of appointments in 1996 and 2002 and the three-year term which applies to the position) - but as best I can tell, he didn't bother publicizing even the fact that he'd actually made the appointments, much less the names of those who are now responsible for choosing Devine.

- Brad Wall's old boss Grant Devine has stepped down from the board of the still-disputed Saskatchewan PC trust fund. And in the process, the man who was just honoured by a Wall-appointed committee took the opportunity to endorse Wall's government and suggest that the money which would otherwise be used to revive his old party should be diverted toward a new wingnut welfare program.

Nope, nothing smells the least bit off about this arrangement. And it's still entirely unfair to point out that there might be some problematic links between the Devine government which decimated the province in the '80s and the Wall government which is following in its footsteps.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Musical interlude

Skydiggers - What Do You See?

On telling responses

It's definitely for the best that the misuse of federal resources to fund-raise for Con MP and Minister of Natural Resources Lisa Raitt is going to be investigated by the Ethics Commissioner. But it's worth noting what could be done in the meantime to ensure the Cons don't wrongly benefit from even what they acknowledge to have been improper - and what it might mean that they seem to be deflecting instead.

After all, it would seem to be a fairly easy step to determine exactly how many of the attendees at Raitt's fund-raiser appeared in response to Janet MacDonald's e-mail, and ensure that the Cons return or at least set aside the funds raised through the Port Authority. But if they're not willing to take even that type of basic action to avoid benefiting from wrongdoing, might it signal that the Cons aren't swimming in quite as much spare cash as they'd like to claim?

Messages received

While we're on the subject of public input from concerned Saskatchewan citizens, it's worth noting that there still seems to be some information available for public release from this summer's uranium consultation process. While Dan Perrins' report referenced thousands of submissions (most of them against nuclear development), it appears that only a few dozen organizational submissions along with full meeting recordings and notes have been released in full. And as far as I can tell, that leaves hundreds of written and electronic submissions getting included only in Perrins' statistical analysis rather than being made available for public debate.

So it's worth asking: is there any plan in the works to make the balance of the submissions public (with personal information removed of course) to ensure that all of the ideas counted by Perrins are also available for public review? And if not, might a FOIP request be in order?

A chance to be heard

For anybody interested in appearing before the Standing Committee on Crown and Central Agencies to talk about Saskatchewan's energy strategy, the witness guide is here (warning: PDF), and the deadline to let the committee know you're interested in speaking at the round of hearings from the 6th to the 19th is noon today. So now would be the time to make a request if you haven't already.

Unfortunately, the process doesn't provide any guarantee that any particular witness will be heard by the committee, which will put together its own witness list based on the requests it receives. But this still looks to be one of the few ways in which the Wall government will ever hear from anybody outside its corporate bubble - so I'll encourage anybody interested to make that known.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Particularly idle musings on today's confidence vote

1. On its own terms, the Liberal motion specified that they had "lost" confidence in the government, such that it would not accurately describe the position of a party which never had confidence in the Harper Cons to begin with. Discuss.

2. Over/under on the first declaration that the NDP's voting "present" means that it's imitating Barack Obama: 9:21 PM EST.

On pre-emption

Speaking of Lib deflection and projection, Brian Topp nicely pre-empts any attempt to tar the NDP with the "Toronto-run/top-down" criticisms being levelled at Michael Ignatieff by pointing out Jack Layton's diverse inner circle and focus on consultation. But is it enough to point out something as easily ignored as reality to a party which is mirroring many of Stephen Harper's principles and tactics? Stay tuned...

Heads up

This morning's post on the possibility that Stephen Harper might be able to parlay Lib MPs jumping ship into a majority without another election was intended to be a "where the puck is going" type of analysis rather than a description of where matters likely stand now. But in keeping with the hockey analogy, let's point out where the nearest goon figures to be during the course of the play.

The moment any names of Lib MPs actually considering crossing the floor become public, watch for a "little birdie" to leak the rumour that Olivia Chow is planning to join the Cons (presumably egged on by the "Mulcair people"), and at least a half-dozen of the less-canny/more-dishonest Lib bloggers to discuss how this proves it's really the NDP that's in trouble.

Municipal roundup

The final lists of nominated candidates for next month's municipal elections are in from Regina and Saskatoon. And there are a few interesting notes based on the last set of contestants to enter the field.

In Regina, the mayoralty race will once again feature three candidates, as Linda White has joined the race against Pat Fiacco and Jim Elliott. It remains to be seen whether either of the challengers will be able to develop much traction, but it's certainly for the best to have a few different perspectives on the city's direction.

Meanwhile, there were also a few noteworthy developments in the council races:

- In Ward 8, Donna Standingready is mostly emphasizing her strong work resume with the provincial government and the First Nations Family Support Centre in challenging Michael O'Donnell. But she also brings a long history of involvement in the Saskatchewan NDP which made her one of Dwain Lingenfelter's named leadership endorsers.

- In Ward 10, the already-crowded race featuring incumbent Jerry Flegel and Chris Szarka now also includes Michael Cassona, whose resume includes the presidency of the Regina Multicultural Association among other community involvement.

- The Ward 1 race won't be quite as crowded as the one in 2006, but both Shawn Kuster and Andy Asherbranner look to be mounting noteworthy challenges to incumbent Louis Browne.

As a whole, the election will feature only two acclamations for Council positions, meaning that Regina voters will have plenty of opportunity to chart the city's course. Candidate bios for the mayoralty, council, and public and separate school board races are available on the City's website.

Likewise in Saskatoon, there looks to be a fairly strong set of races overall: the three acclaimed council positions are balanced out in part by multi-challenger races in Wards 2, 8 and 10, while Lenore Swystun's official entry into the mayoralty race will make her one of four challengers to Don Atchison.

In sum, it looks like we're in for a lively month of municipal campaigning. But we'll have to stay tuned to find out what that will mean for the direction of Saskatchewan's two largest cities in the long run.

On retention strategies

I’ll mostly leave it to others to discuss the merits of Don Martin’s advice for Michael Ignatieff. But it’s worth using Martin’s column as a reminder that there’s more than one path from the status quo to a Harper majority – and the Libs’ current state of disarray may only help to produce that result.

Here are the relevant pieces from Martin:
Fire Denis Coderre

The former Quebec lieutenant did more than mere subordination when he quit in a huff at being overruled in a Montreal riding nomination fight. When he summoned media to blast his leader’s Toronto preference, he precipitated a family feud and handed the Bloc Québécois an invitation to attack the Liberals as a poor fit with Quebec interests. Having watched Prime Minister Stephen Harper ditch a candidate this week for merely stating the obvious — elect a Conservative if you want stimulus megabucks in your riding — Mr. Ignatieff must show similar spine and get rid of an MP who became a traitor to his party’s hopes. If he wants to be a particularly evil genius, he could simply refuse to sign Mr. Coderre’s nomination papers, thus denying him the right to run as a Liberal. It’s drastic, but necessary, action.

Bond with caucus

This is a very speculative rumble, but at least two MPs have mused in private about crossing the floor to join the Conservatives. Others complain their leader is deaf to their input and trivializes their value. Given that the Conservatives are no longer markedly different from the Liberals in fiscal or social policy, Mr. Ignatieff might be more caring of his caucus lest his MPs start looking for another party leader who can do better.
Now, the connection between these two items should be obvious when one considers the current party standings in the House of Commons. At the moment, the Cons’ 143 seats leave them 12 short of a nominal majority in the House.

But that number is somewhat misleading for two reasons. First, with Lib Peter Milliken serving as Speaker (removing his vote from the picture in most cases and obliging him to vote to preserve the status quo in the event of a tie), the Cons effectively gain a relative vote compared to the opposition. And second, Portneuf-Jacques-Cartier independent MP Andre Arthur was effectively made an honorary Con as Harper elected not to run a candidate against him – and usually votes the part.

What’s more, the upcoming set of by-elections is likely to see at least one more Con elected, as Bill Casey’s resignation leaves Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley likely to return to its usual party leanings. And it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that another seat might wind up in Con hands.

Now, as long as the party standings leave the Cons 12 seats short of a true majority, the prospect of flipping enough current MPs to bridge that number of seats looks relatively remote. And even a position 8-9 seats short of a functional majority - with no apparent momentum toward getting MPs to switch sides - may make for a sufficiently daunting gap to keep Harper focused on adding to his caucus through elections rather than through floor-crossing.

But if Ignatieff were to expel Coderre from the Libs, it’s difficult to imagine that either Coderre or Harper would have too many scruples about a switch to the Cons. And if a Coderre party switch were followed by two more Libs also gravitating toward power – reducing the majority gap to 5-6 seats while setting a precedent for others who might consider jumping – then the cost/benefit analysis involved in trying to entice existing MPs might look far more appealing both to Harper and to the opposition MPs who might be interested (presumably consisting of power-seeking Libs and right-wing Bloc MPs).

So what does that mean for the Libs’ strategy at the moment? For one thing, they’d be well advised to support Don Davies’ anti-floor-crossing bill if only to increase the pressure on their own MPs to stay loyal.

From a party management standpoint, though, Ignatieff has to worry not only about keeping his party generally satisfied with his leadership, but also with keeping his individual MPs from finding their way over to the Cons as a matter of personal interest. In Coderre’s case, that presumably means trying to be conciliatory rather than responding to his petulance in kind; in the case of caucus members who might be tempted to jump to the Cons even without being expelled first, that requires making a compelling argument as to why individual MPs who may have been enticed to get involved in politics due primarily to the promise of power should stick around opposition benches rather than seeking what Harper might have on offer. And if Ignatieff fails in those tasks, then all the ad campaigns in the world won’t help stop Harper from reaching majority status.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The jury is out

I'm in full agreement with NBC Dipper that the NDP's latest ad figures to strike a chord with a substantial chunk of the general public. And I'll add that it makes perfect sense as an extension of the Darrell Dexter strategy of appearing mature and above the fray compared to one's opponents.

But while it's never a bad thing to build positive associations among those who are relatively far removed from politics (and the "on your side" message can easily enough be adapted to a more adversarial stance come election time), it remains to be seen whether the message will resonate anywhere near as much with Canadians who are inclined to support the NDP based on their seeing the problems with Canada's political system going beyond Harper and Ignatieff needing to "get down to work". And unless the NDP actually does expect either an election in the near future (whether or not based on the HST as a poison pill) or a massive number of otherwise-uninterested Canadians to open up their wallets to the appeal, I'd have to wonder whether its attention would be better focused on rallying and adding to its base than joining the arms race for warm-and-fuzzies.

On disparate treatment

A couple of weeks ago, the McGuinty government tried to pressure the mutual fund industry into backing the HST by threatening to inform the province about the harmful effect of investment fees. But I don't believe anybody else noted how bizarre it was that nobody seemed to be pointing out how problematic it would be for the province to be sitting on such information in the first place.

Now, it looks like the mutual fund industry and McGuinty's Libs are on the verge of a deal: they're currently talking about exempting the industry from the HST, which would presumably lead to the industry then backing the tax which they previously opposed.

So the industry gets a sweetheart deal exempting it from the rules which apply to the rest of the province, plus presumably some assurance that a damaging message won't get released.

The McGuinty government eliminates one of the voices opposing the HST.

And the citizens of Ontario disclosure of the work their government has done on the costs of investment fees, one less voice on their side in trying to fight against a closed-door decision to make their lives more expensive, and one less industry paying the bill if the HST does come to pass.

Anybody else sense that something's not quite right about this arrangement?

Update: Let's note that Greg has already posted about the possible exemption. But I'd think the sequence of events looks an awful lot worse when the seemingly-withdrawn threat of full disclosure about the effect of investment fees is included in the mix.

Edit: fixed wording.

On public interests

Apparently Brad Wall's gang of merry corporate lackeys isn't the only Western government which has been forced to concede that the supposed benefits of contracting public services out to the private sector are purely a mirage. Indeed, Gordon Campbell's government is now in-sourcing project funding and program administration alike due to the simple fact that it's more efficient than the privatized alternative:
The Campbell administration's devotion to the virtues of privatizing and contracting-out government services seems to have been wavering lately. For example, in February, The Surrey Leader's Jeff Nagel paraphrased Partnerships British Columbia chief executive officer Larry Blain as saying "switching from private to public borrowing" for the Port Mann Bridge and Highway 1 expansion project will save $200 million in financing costs. Ministries have also been asked to keep their professional services contracts to a minimum. And here's another example: during estimates debate last week, Forests and Range Minister Pat Bell said the government's Forests for Tomorrow program - which was being administered by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP - has been taken in-house, saving $200,000.
Of course, that isn't stopping both Wall and Campbell from trying to tie the hands of future governments in putting the public interest over private profit motives. But surely the fact that both are recognizing the folly of doing just that when they're responsible for the results should be the first step in reversing the trend of pushing public activity into the private sector.

On disharmony

As we await the terms of B.C.'s impending HST agreement, it's worth noting as well that some of the provisions of the preliminary deals seem to have received relatively little attention beyond last week's musings from Dalton McGuinty.

To give some indication as to how harmonization figures to complicate the relationships between provincial and federal governments, Ontario's preliminary agreement includes:
- a requirement that Ontario not raise or lower its sales tax rate for two years;
- a provision allowing for sales tax rebates on a limited amount of the sales tax base;
- a provision allowing Ontario to limit business purchase rebates on provincial sales taxes on a "select list of items" for up to five years, with a three-year phaseout period after that;
- a requirement that the federal government secure Ontario's agreement before reducing the GST so as to affect Ontario's sales tax revenues by more than 1%, or compensate Ontario for its failure to do so.

The first point worth noting is the number of moving parts and complexities involved in harmonizing the taxes which should make the public all the more skeptical of any claims of administrative efficiencies. But more interesting in the long run is the ability of each level of government to hamstring the other's actions.

For any province, the agreement effectively ties its hands to the extent the federal government wishes to make radical changes to the GST's structure which don't adversely affect its revenue base.

By way of example, let's say the Harper Cons were to decide that the current tax system isn't quite regressive enough for their liking and that the GST should be applied to basic groceries. At that point, Ontario would have effectively no recourse against the fact that its 8% provincial tax would be applied to the same items as well. At best, it would be able to set up a rebate within the 5% limit to make use of the sales tax administration system, then try to set up countervailing programs on its own - but in the absence of any remaining structure to actually deal with sales tax at the point of sale, that would be at best an inexact and costly effort which would basically require re-establishing exactly the type of unit which the HST is supposed to eliminate.

In contrast, the province is somewhat protected against any reductions by the 1% of revenue rule. But that would still allow for a steady erosion of provincial income without any compensation if a federal government plans to cut away as much of the tax base as it can without hitting that trigger point - and for the next two years at least, the province wouldn't even have the ability to raise its own tax level to compensate, potentially giving the Harper government significant ability to add to provincial deficits.

At the same time, though, the rule also creates a substantial disincentive for the federal government to carry out any reduction for specific types of goods which might reach the 1% threshold. So ideas such as, let's say, removing the GST from family essentials would potentially become unworkable for a federal government which would not only lose tax revenue of its own but also have to pay provinces to carry out the effort.

So the ultimate effect of harmonization is to make it more difficult for either level of government to take into account the needs of its constituents. And while that may be just fine in the view of the likes of Harper, McGuinty and Campbell, there's plenty of reason for Canadians to be all the more unhappy with the HST scheme.

On deadlines

I'm sure neither level of government will be rushing to make a public show of it given that the public is thoroughly outraged over the HST. But the agreement signed by Deficit Jim Flaherty and his B.C. counterpart in red ink Colin Hansen establishes today as the date by which British Columbia and the federal government were supposed to sign a final HST implementation agreement - so it'll be worth seeing whether either of them is willing to own up to having signed such an agreement, not to mention what it might include. (And that goes doubly given some of the unanswered questions about Ontario's deal which I'll discuss shortly.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

On inefficiencies

If we needed any more evidence that privatization and budget-slashing are just two sides of the same anti-government coin and that both are being pursued with no regard for the public interest, Brad Wall has provided it in truly comic form.

Having set up a P3 secretariat earlier this year without any apparent reason other than their ideological commitment to outsourcing profits, the Sask Party has apparently reached the conclusion that the province doesn't have enough potential corporate giveaways to keep such an entity occupied. At which point they took an operation which they created without considering whether it served any useful purpose - and converted it into an "efficiency secretariat".

Mind you, I'd hate to miss out on the opportunity to offer a constructive suggestion. So let's help the new unit out with a first source of government efficiencies: "don't waste our money on useless projects like P3 secretariats".

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Clearing the path

I suspect we may have just stumbled onto one way to getting Saskatchewanians interested in politics again. But is it possible that Chris Szarka is really only blocking for Stu Foord in Ward 9?

On reputations

I've wondered for quite some time whether anybody has actually paid attention to the NDP's track record of outworking its political opponents. But apparently the list includes Aaron Wherry for one:
But here is Mr. Kennedy now, looking into things, doing research, adding and subtracting large numbers, carrying the one and generally making it his job to hold the government to account on a daily basis. And such is the current state of things that such stuff has seemed no less than revolutionary. Indeed, if you weren’t paying sufficient attention, you might assume Mr. Kennedy was a member of the NDP caucus.

On global impact

Two decades of inaction on climate change from Lib and Con governments alike sure have put Canada on the map internationally:
Last Monday afternoon, standing outside the Houses of Parliament in London in Parliament square, I held my cell phone aloft with a hundred other protesters, taking part in a “climate flash mob,” a seemingly spontaneous but pre-arranged protest against the British government’s inaction on climate change. Everyone was there to flood MPs with phone calls demanding a fair and effective treaty at Copenhagen this December.

Nearby a man stood, holding an upside-down Canadian flag.

“Sorry to bother you—but why are you holding the Canadian flag upside down?” I asked, a little timidly (I figured with my accent he might clock my Canuck identity and tell me off).

“Flying a flag upside down is the internationally recognized symbol of distress,” he answered. “We are facing a climate emergency—and there is no better symbol for that than the nation of Canada.”

Given that Canada has higher per capita greenhouse gas emissions than any other G8 nation, and was branded the “Colossal Fossil” at climate talks in Poznan, Poland, last year for blocking efforts to arrive at an effective treaty on climate change, I couldn’t argue with him.

On coercion

Dr. Dawg's post on Gary Goodyear's attempt to pressure the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) into pulling funding for a conference on the Middle East is definitely worth a read.

But it's worth noting that what Goodyear apparently did may actually be worse in some ways than those in the other incidents mentioned by Dr. Dawg. As ugly as the actions of Maurice Duplessis (in denying a liquor license to a restauranteur based on his support for Jehovah's Witnesses in several legal proceedings) and Lawrence Cannon (in declaring that he's entitled to withhold consular services based solely on his personal whims) may have been, they seem somewhat different in that they represent efforts to reach final judgment on matters involving private citizens (albeit by ministerial fiat).

In contrast, Goodyear looks to have gone a step further by actually using his arbitrary exercise of discretion to try to blackmail an independent public agency into his preferred course of action. From my standpoint, that roughly mirrors the difference between theft (of rights rather than property) and extortion - in that the latter involved a coercive effect on the other party's actions as well as a loss of what's taken. And while both are obviously serious issues, the latter seems far more likely to create a self-perpetuating cycle of abuse.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

On Planet Liberal

Leftdog notes that the Libs' troubles lately have been met with a series of attacks on Jack Layton and the NDP - and indeed the blog response noted by Leftdog looks to be only a relatively mild example. But it's worth offering a reminder as to why that's the Libs' knee-jerk response.

It's never too hard to figure out what the Libs' primary strategy is in opposition: relying on the assumption that they're the country's "natural governing party", they bide their time waiting for the party in power to self-destruct, and plan to pounce when there's a perceived opportunity to emerge on top in a two-party race.

But the NDP's growth has thrown a monkey wrench into that plan, as the Libs have recognized the potential for another party to present itself as a governing alternative. And knowing that they probably don't have the strength to win a political fight against the Cons, the Libs have thus concluded that their best bet in the short term is to try to sandbag the NDP so as to cling to second place - even if that means helping out the Cons.

Of course, the most vivid example came during the course of the 2008 campaign. There, a Lib party which didn't trust its leader enough to inform him as to how the campaign was going (and which was in the process of ramping down its campaign as a whole) managed to make the effort to send Bob Rae into Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar - the Libs' weakest riding in the entire province, where they held little prospect of improving on their 12% share of the vote from 2006.

In fact, the Libs dropped to fourth place behind the Greens in Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar. But presumably thanks in part to Rae's visit, their candidate did manage to siphon off just enough support to elect Con Kelly Block over the NDP's Nettie Wiebe. Which would seem to have been the goal all along, even if it brought the Cons one seat closer to a majority.

As a general rule, the Rae principle seems to have been a fairly common theme whenever the Libs have faced problems: when in trouble, attack the NDP in hopes of clinging to second-party status, even if it means strengthening the Cons' hand.

Of course, there's one notable exception to the rule: the Libs' response to the Cons' 2008 fiscal update, where Stephane Dion had the nerve to conclude that his party was better off working with and validating the NDP than allowing itself to be steamrollered by Stephen Harper. And it's that moment of cooperation - not the worst election showing ever for his party - which caused the Libs to decide that they couldn't bear to leave Dion in a leadership role for a minute longer.

So in answer to Leftdog's question, it's fairly obvious why the Libs think it's a "good strategy" to respond to adversity by projecting their problems onto the NDP, or otherwise doing more to attack the fourth party in Parliament than the government they claim to oppose. But the more important question is whether progressive Canadians share the view that the Libs' standing as the default alternative is more important than what happens under Con government. And if not, then it's long past time to recognize that the Libs' party structure is a barrier to better government rather than a means to achieve it.

(Edit: fixed typo, wording.)

Monday, September 28, 2009

On disorganization

Following up on the question of what Denis Coderre's resignation will mean, I doubt the Libs will particularly mourn the loss of his cousin and the few other operatives who also quit today. But if his star candidate recruits start fleeing as well (as Natalie Le Prohon is apparently considering), that could signal a distinct lack of confidence in the Libs' organizing capacity without Coderre in charge - which in turn could become a self-fulfilling prophecy in a hurry.

Out of order

It's difficult to disagree entirely with the view that Denis Coderre's resignation as Michael Ignatieff's Quebec lieutenant could theoretically help the Libs in the long run, both in taking Coderre himself out of the spotlight and in potentially eliminating altogether the concept that a single power broken would be appointed to single-handedly choose candidates for the entire province of Quebec.

But there would still seem to be some open questions in the shorter term as to just how much of the Libs' already-limited Quebec machine might be taken out of play (or turned against the Libs) now that Coderre has announced his intention to take his ball and go home in about the most damaging way possible. And considering that Michael Ignatieff is the second Lib leader in a row to conclude both that the lieutenant position was a necessary one and that Coderre was a preferred choice for the job, one would have to figure either that Coderre has some significant organizational heft which he can withdraw from the party, or that the Libs' judgment about their own Quebec operation has been even worse than would seem to be the case from the outside.

On bubble politics

"Political leaders should never go anywhere which has not been carefully staged by their handlers because..."

"Political leaders should avoid appearing near people who have not been vetted because..."

"Political leaders should constantly look over their shoulders for their competitors' operatives because..."

No, I don't think the above sentences have reasonable endings from the standpoint of what kind of politics we want our leaders to practice. But one party on Canada's federal scene - or at least a number of its prominent supporters - owe us all either an explanation as to how they can be reasonably completed, or an apology for doing their best to build a wall between political leaders and the public.

The Photo Op

There's been plenty of rightful criticism this fall of the Cons' use of a combination of public and party money to blast out a consistent message at volumes which are bound to overshadow the capacity of any party which doesn't have the federal government apparatus behind it. And rightly so, as the battle of ideas which is supposed to be found in a democratic system is bound to be diminished where one side is able to drown out others.

But there's been an even more damaging turn which doesn't seem to have received much public outcry at all. I won't bother linking to the photo since it's been present in plenty of reporting over the past few weeks, but Kady set the context in liveblogging Jack Layton's meeting with Stephen Harper a month ago: having dared to make the public aware that he'd be going to Langevin, Layton was followed at a seeming distance of about half a foot by Lib operatives holding signs reflecting their party's message.

Now, it's hardly a new development for a leader's image in still form to be converted to another party's use - and indeed Canada's political history is rife with examples where that strategy has succeeded (the Dion shrug) or failed (the PC's 1993 ads against Chretien). But it seems to me to be an entirely new step to intrude on a leader's physical space in order to force one's own message into their image.

And it's also worth noting that unlike any non-astroturf protest, the Libs' signs weren't focused on any actual issue of substance. Instead, they carried two of their party's preferred messages for the fall to try to intrude on any attempt by Layton to define himself: a narrative of "NDP + Conservative" (keep in mind, this is at a time when exactly one party - and not the NDP - had voted with the Cons on confidence matters in the previous two years), and a narrative of Layton as power-hungry.

In terms of the impact on public debate, this was roughly the visual equivalent of shrieking "you lie!" in the middle of a public speech (or Warren Kinsella's attempts to avoid letting Brad Lavigne get a good point in edgewise) - only it may have been even more harmful since it tossed in physical cornering and appropriation of image to go with the mere disruptive effect. But nobody outside of a few NDP bloggers seemed to even question whether something might have been amiss.

From the Libs' standpoint, the tactical impact probably exceeded their expectations. Not only did most media outlets make their contrived photos into the defining image of Layton's meeting with Harper that day, but some media outlets used the same picture to represent Layton for several days after the fact - ensuring that even as Layton's words spread the NDP's message in print, the Libs' intrusive visual about him would be presented as the first impression for readers.

So what can be done in response?

The Response

Presumably the quick answer is based on a party's self-interest: it should avoid any situation which might result in an embarrassing photo being taken for the same reason the Cons have won more praise than criticism for replacing their candidates with tape-recorded versions of their party's message. While I'm not aware of any Canadian politicians going to quite the lengths that, say, George W. Bush did in ensuring ideological uniformity in his audiences, most parties already seem to go to awfully great lengths to make sure that their leaders appear in only the most positive of settings. And surely for the sake of avoiding embarrassing visuals, they can find some way to limit their exposure - by limiting public notice about their appearances, by vetting audience members ala Bush, or by ensuring that the party's actual leader never appears next to a backdrop which hasn't been fully set up by staffers.

But there are a couple of serious problems with this answer.

First, it doesn't deal with the question of what parties ought to be doing on anything but the most superficial level. And indeed an effort to keep anybody but confirmed party supporters away from a leader will only make it more difficult to draw in anybody who isn't already involved in politics.

Of course, we know that Stephen Harper is perfectly happy staying in a bubble for himself - in large part precisely because his strategy is based on keeping a modest base motivated and trying to make the rest of the electorate so sick of politics as to stay home and give him a majority. But don't the Libs need to try to encourage public involvement to try to counter that effect? And doesn't that make their effort to force other parties to put up a wall between themselves and the public just as counterproductive as it is damaging to the concept of a free competition of ideas?

Similarly, the second major problem has both ethical and strategic ramifications: even if one assumed that they were otherwise legitimate, the Libs' tactics are doomed to fail against a party with the Cons' resources.

With a security detail laying out Stephen Harper's every step, he'll never have to worry about similarly damaging images. Indeed, the best the Libs can do is get pictures of themselves outside the Cons' selected sites. And even that step (which they've taken a few times since) gives the Cons an excuse for stunts like delivering budget reports two provinces away from the national capital in order to avoid the gangs of roving Liberal operatives just waiting to interpose themselves into the same frame as Harper's photo ops.

So the tactic doesn't serve as any check on the powerful. But the NDP, which doesn't have the state apparatus working to spread its partisan message - and which might actually feel some pinch in redirecting resources from engaging with the public to trying to insulate its leader? The Libs definitely taught them a lesson alright. And the next time the Libs showed up with an astroturf protest against Jack Layton, the NDP found a way to keep him from once again having his image appropriated for the Libs' uses.

The Challenge

But if the NDP has now made changes to Jack Layton's accessibility for the sake of trying to preserve its public image, it's all the more worth asking whether the Libs' move to force those changes can possibly be justified. So I'll invite Lib supporters - particularly those who have spread (and in some cases continue to spread) the images generated by their effort to intrude on Jack Layton's image and personal space - to fill in the blanks.

"Political leaders should never go anywhere which has not been carefully staged by their handlers because..."

"Political leaders should avoid appearing near people who have not been vetted because..."

"Political leaders should constantly look over their shoulders for their competitors' operatives because..."

If the Libs are prepared to try to justify why they're encouraging a form of politics which creates massive disincentives for public engagement, then they're free to do so. But if they recognize that we're best off with a political system where "shouldn't" replaces "should" in the above statements, then it would seem to be an essential step to stop making use of the fruit of their own poisoned tree - and maybe to apologize for doing their utmost to force other parties toward exactly the same types of politics that have rendered the Harper government so odious.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

On underlying assumptions

Shorter Bruce Johnstone:

The idea of having SaskEnergy own natural gas reserves is an interesting one. But if we can accept as articles of faith that Crown corporations (a) shouldn't try to act in the public interest and (b) will fail miserably at anything they attempt in contrast to the infallible private sector, then I'm sure we can agree to dispense with it.

On contrasts

I'm not entirely sure why Warren Kinsella is so proud of today's Question Period segment - particularly since it culminates in Brad Lavigne explaining reasonably why it's a good idea to reverse at least some of the Libs' historical assault on EI benefits while Kinsella tries to drown him out by mindlessly repeating "vote against it!". (Meanwhile, Tim Powers apparently gets lost in the phrase "enchanted forest".)

But if one wants to compare the substantive decision-making process of the NDP to the facade politics of the other two parties (which I'll do in more detail in a post to come), one could hardly ask for a better example. So I'll at least echo Kinsella so far as to suggest giving it a look.

Weasel words

John Baird tries to dodge questions about how much stimulus spending is actually underway:
The Liberals have also said that only a small fraction of infrastructure projects announced as part of the Conservatives' economic stimulus plan are actually creating jobs.

"That's a bunch of baloney," Baird said in response. "We see substantially more than 75 per cent of projects that were slated to begin this year... are incurring expenses."
Which leads to some obvious follow-up questions.

First, how many projects as part of a stimulus which was supposed to create jobs immediately aren't actually "slated to begin this year"?

Second, how broad is Baird's definition of "incurring expenses"? Are projects classified as such based on having even a small amount of preliminary organizational or professional work done, rather than any substantial construction? Is there a gap between projects which have "incurred expenses" and ones which have actually received reimbursement, leading to provinces and municipalities being left holding the bag even as Baird claims credit for their actions?

All of which lead to the ultimate question: how much of the money which was supposed to flow quickly has actually been disbursed?

Needless to say, one wouldn't think Baird would be speaking so carefully if the answers reflected well on the Cons. And if the Cons keep their frame of reference limited to such carefully-selected phrases rather than any actual measure of stimulus achieved, that figures to speak volumes about what's included (or not included) in their upcoming propaganda piece.

Sunday Morning 'Rider Blogging

There isn't too much to say about two of the three phases of the Saskatchewan Roughriders' game after their win over Edmonton yesterday. The defence was nothing short of superb, leaving little to improve on other than trying to make sure a bit more rust gets shaken off Rey Williams before he returns to a full-time role. And on special teams, about the only development which seems likely to affect the team in future games is the success of the punt teams when Jamie Boreham has converted third downs or quick-kicked into the wind - leading to the question of whether the 'Riders might be best served using a similar strategy even when the conditions aren't quite as extreme.

On offence, though, there's plenty worth discussing about Darien Durant's performance.

The good news is that Durant seems to be adding new strategies to deal with defensive pressure as his first season at the controls wears on. At the beginning, Durant mostly sought to scramble to the outside - which is never a bad option for a quarterback with his athleticism, but which can be easily enough taken away when it's his standard escape route.

As the season has progressed, the 'Riders have rolled out new wrinkles to combat the pass rush every few games. Not long ago, Durant added to the usual screen plays as an outlet against pressure by making effective use of shovel passes; yesterday, it was a strategy of backing up and buying a fraction of a second when a rusher got in Durant's face which met with some success.

While we've seen a lot of different strategies work at different times, however, we haven't often seen much variety within a single game. And the same held true yesterday: while Durant's retreats worked well at times, he also wound up taking far more sacks than would be ideal, seemingly due in large part to far less decisive running than he's shown in the past when an extra second bought by backing up wasn't enough for him to find an open receiver.

That was particularly problematic in the second half when Edmonton tried to cover for its injury-depleted secondary (I believe defensive coordinator Jim Daley actually took the field under the assumed name "Gemara Williams") by sending a blitz nearly every play. Rather than attacking either the weakness in the secondary or the desperate pass rush, Durant stuck with the apparent plan to try to retreat his way out of trouble. But not surprisingly, that was less successful when there were multiple defenders coming at him than when Durant faced only a single defender who would have to worry about containment rather than being able to rush all-out.

Fortunately, Durant managed to make just enough plays to win the game by sticking to the original plan. But the next step in Durant's progress as a starter has to be to take the elements which he's used effectively in isolation and identify the one which fits best into the game situation. And that may be the difference between Durant's current status as a solid starting quarterback who can manage the game if the rest of his team plays up to par, and his developing into one of the CFL's elite players.