Saturday, January 09, 2010

Question and answer

I'll note off the top that I'm sympathetic to David Akin's conundrum in trying to develop questions for a short joint interview with Stephen Harper. And indeed nobody seems to have yet tied Akin's explanation to the most significant problem with Harper - being that he doesn't accept enough questions from any source, or answer them meaningfully enough, for anybody to do more than scratch the surface of the range of issues where Canada should be able to get answers out of its Prime Minister.

That said, though, at least some of Akin's explanations seem to be falling short of the mark. For example, here's his commentary on the one question about prorogation asked the next day:
(W)e would very much like to ask the PM more questions about it but, if you read what he said to Mansbridge, what he said to Ivison and me and, what he said to CTV in New Brunswick, you'll see that he's going to say pretty much the same thing -- "as I've said before".
So should we take much from the question of whether Harper claims to be repeating himself? Well, guess which interview contains the following statements from Harper:
As you know...I don't think we've been secret about I did say yesterday...Since I just said...I've said...we know we to work in that context and we will continue to try to do so...our approach has been very clear. We've been very clear on what our targets are and also very clear that we're looking to implement these in a continental framework...we've been very clear...As you know...
So the fact that Harper states that he's repeating himself probably isn't the best measure of whether a question is worth asking - both because Harper has every incentive to pretend he's being consistent even when he's not, and because statements along the lines of "as you know" seem to be a regular verbal crutch for Harper.

Once again, though, the bigger issue is the fact that journalists and MPs alike receive so little opportunity to question Harper that they're forced to choose between asking a single followup question on abuses of democracy and dealing with vital policy issues like climate change and Afghanistan - and can't count on any content in the answers either way.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

"Le 'bon gars' proche du monde"...

...probably isn't such a bad reputation to carry (anybody else hearing echoes of Warren Kinsella's HOAG principle?). Especially when the leader trying to sell gravitas is instead making a fool of himself.

We'll tell you what you think

The National Post editorial board tries to spin the obvious unpopularity of Stephen Harper's decision to suspend Canadian democracy by making the remarkable argument that you can't trust the public to tell you what the public thinks:
Voters may say that they oppose Mr. Harper's decision to prorogue Parliament -- if a pollster calls them at home and puts the question to them. And some youths may even put up Facebook pages denouncing the Tory tactic. But public interest in the issue is thin and fleeting.
So if members of the public are prompted for their opinion, then the Post considers that to unduly distort the results - at least when it comes to an issue where Harper is taking a beating from all sides. And indeed I'll be interested to see if the Post shows similar skepticism toward every other poll it prints in its pages - particularly those which can be spun for the benefit of the right.

But at the same time, if the public instead takes spontaneous action which results in over a hundred thousand Canadians expressing their opinion publicly, the Post dismisses that too as some mere folly of youth and thus safely ignored. So the takeaway from this particular editorial is that there's nothing the public can do to convince the National Post that it could possibly disagree with the Post's echo chamber.

Again, I'll be interested to see whether the National Post bothers taking anywhere near that critical a stance on any other issue which isn't so inconvenient for the Dear Leader. But for now, every indication is that the Post is far more interested in using even clear evidence of public opinion as an excuse to lecture Canadians that they shouldn't care what their government does, rather than listening to the fact that the public actually is interested in what happens in Ottawa.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

The reviews are in

Stephen Maher:
(I)t’s striking that Mr. Harper would point to the polls to show that he is in tune with Canadians’ priorities, because Canadians don’t like the fact that he has shut down Parliament.

According to two polls, most Canadians — including many Conservative supporters — are opposed to prorogation.

More than 100,000 people have joined a Facebook group in protest, and commentators across the political spectrum are united in disapproval.

Even The Economist — the influential British magazine — published two articles attacking Mr. Harper.

Here is why everyone has the same view: There is nothing good to say about this.

The best thing that Mr. Harper can say — that he needs the time to work on the economy — is hard to believe, and even if you do believe it, it is an admission of failure.

"We need the time — to look carefully at our agenda, to continue to deliver the economic measures that are being delivered here and elsewhere across the country as part of the economic action plan," he said in New Brunswick on Friday.

If he needs the time, that must be because he is not doing a very good job. Canadian governments have always been able to put together budgets while dealing with the inconvenience of facing our representatives in the House of Commons.

His inability to do that is either a frank admission of incompetence or a falsehood.
The Tories have lost a few points, but they remain five points ahead of the Liberals, and Mr. Harper has worked hard for years to fix himself in the public mind as an economic manager.

But if Canadians come to think that Mr. Harper is abusing their democratic institutions to suit his political goals — which he is — they won’t like that.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Musical interlude

Soul Coughing - Super Bon Bon (Propellerheads Remix)

Choose your own explanation

Andrew Coyne has his theory on the Cons' string of nonsensical attempts to defend their choice to shut down Parliament:
This last is so mind-numbingly stupid, so staggeringly beside the point, that I can only assume it is part of some sort of fiendish plot. I think it is intended to act as a kind of electromagnetic pulse, aimed at knocking out the entire country’s brain waves and making it impossible for anyone to think straight...It is as if the Conservatives were bent on proroguing, not just Parliament, but intelligent discussion of any kind.
I'll counter with the possibility that Harper wants to figure out his party's floor for public support, and plans to take a dive for a couple of weeks when there's no possibility of an election to test just how low the Cons can go and what they have to do to rebound.

What's your crazy theory that nonetheless makes more sense than the prospect that somebody actually thought the Cons' arguments might convince anybody?

The reviews are in - Losing the Base Edition

Mike Brock:
The pandora's box that Stephen Harper has opened in this past year goes far beyond the present and extends ominously into the future.

Just as Stephen Harper has in many ways been a mirror-image of Jean Chretien in terms of his governance-style: shrewd, tactical, power-centralizing, etc -- future Liberal governments can be guaranteed to enjoy the inheritance of heavy-handed tools that Mr. Harper has paved the way for using. As such, parliament will become more and more a game for politicians to maneuver through -- pushing procedures and rules to their boundaries -- while the inevitable consequences of corruption through lack of oversight, will go unchecked.

We certainly need democratic reform in this country, as Stephen Harper has himself advocated for. The problem is, Stephen Harper has defined himself as one of the biggest reasons we need democratic reform as opposed to someone we can trust to deliver it to us.

Stephen Harper has become the very enemy to accountable government that he claimed to be fighting against. He has lost almost the entirety of his intelligent, thinking base and is left with nothing more than a voting block on which to chop populist issues, and a chorus of uninspiring partisans cheering on from the bleachers. Harper is bathing in the bath of his own arrogance right now, and he is sowing the seeds for the destruction of the very united right that he shepherded into existence.
And Greg Vandermeulen:
The announcement to prorogue parliament until after the Olympics is particularly hard to take for rural, Conservative voting Canadians.

Many of us have watched sympathetically as the Conservatives told us their stories about trying so hard to get important justice bills passed, about how opposition party members are opposing them at every turn.

They told us they were in favour of justice reform, of getting to the bottom of the prisoner abuse claims in Afghanistan and remaining vigilant when it comes to the economy.

And we bought it, hook, line and sinker. We believed because we wanted to see Stephen Harper as a responsible, ethical leader. Instead we see greedy political opportunism taking the place.

Harper and his MPs (unless they have the courage and integrity to speak out against it) have told Canadians they care so little about their own bills, about passing harsher sentences for drug dealers, about providing economic relief, that they are willing to let all those bills die.
This decision by Harper shows a massive level of disregard for taxpayers, and a great level of disrespect for his own party, his own platform and his own initiatives.

If Harper and his fellow Conservatives can't even take their own ideas and bills seriously, how can we expect them to seriously consider any of ours?

On remedial measures

Let's give Stephen Harper this much: his decision to shut down Parliament should give his less-informed caucus members a chance to catch up on some political studies which they've somehow managed to avoid so far. So let's suggest some summer school-style assignments which the Cons could complete so they'll have some idea how Canada's political system works when they next deign to engage in it.

First up is of course a question for Colin Mayes, whose effort to justify prorogation is based on the theory that the Cons might be at a disadvantage if their MPs are too busy attending Olympic photo-ops to show up for important votes:

Define a "paired vote" in the context of the House of Commons. And for bonus marks, explain how refusing to pair votes when requested may lead to unfortunate consequences.

Edit: Fixed label.

"Biased, and thus not credible or serving the public good"

There's been plenty of commentary on how Environment Canada describes the Cons' tar-sands cheerleading. But the money quote from the title is the one which seems to tie the tar-sands issue into everything else the Cons are doing.

The reviews are in

Josee Legault:
(C)ynicism has worked, so far anyway. But the Conservatives have had other things going for them as well: Stéphane Dion's and Michael Ignatieff's serious shortcomings as party leaders. Add to that Ignatieff's sorry lack of any vision.

There was also Ignatieff's major error in judgment last year when he axed any possible coalition or alliance with the NDP. Which, mathematically, means that as long as the right remains united and the Bloc stays strong, it's possible for the Conservatives to stay in power for a long, long time - even if as a minority government.

Earth to Ignatieff: Do you get that? Do you get that at all?

Thursday, January 07, 2010

On entitlements

Con MP Gary Schellenberger's excuse for prorogation is painful enough to listen to on its own:
The Olympics in Canada were another good reason to prorogue Parliament, he added. ”If we are sitting, how do MPs get to those events,” he said of the Olympic games. “It makes sense that we are not sitting.”
But it's even more so compared to an NDP move which is looking better by the day as the Cons try to use the Olympics as an excuse to put Canadian democracy on hold:

So the Cons have ordered a break which isn't available to the general public to make it easier for their MPs to use tickets which aren't available to the general public - and seem downright proud to have done so. And the contrast between that sense of entitlement and the NDP's contrasting choice to stay in the same position as Canadians at large on both counts should ensure that the NDP is ideally positioned to capitalize on the building outrage against the Harper government.

Update: Jack Mitchell provides the video equivalent of Schellenberger's quote in the Macleans comments.

So we're all in agreement then

The Economist writes about the dangers of allowing a Prime Minister to flee Parliament anytime he faces inconvenient questioning:
The danger in allowing the prime minister to end discussion any time he chooses is that it makes Parliament accountable to him rather than the other way around.
So let's see if Harper disagrees at all with that characterization of the consequences of his actions. Here's Harper in his interview with Peter Mansbridge, providing his spin on why Parliament shouldn't have any say in the PM's choice to shut down proceedings at will (starting at approximately 9:57):
Mansbridge: Do you think the decision to prorogue should be left in the hands of the government of the day, or should it be a decision that perhaps Parliament should have a vote on?

Harper: No, I think it's (sic) ultimately should be in the hands of the government of the day because it's ultimately about the government presenting its agenda to Parliament and the government calibrating its own agenda.
In other words, Harper is probably even more direct than the Economist's critical editorial in saying that as far as he's concerned, the executive's agenda is ultimately all that matters. In turn, Parliament's role by Harper's reckoning is solely to respond to that agenda - and to sit down and shut up when the Prime Minister decides that he doesn't like the direction that elected officials are taking.

Needless to say, most Canadians - including Harper himself before he assumed the trappings of power - would seem likely to understand that MPs are supposed to hold the government to account in accordance with the will of constituents, not merely provide easily-cut-off responses to the government's agenda when instructed to speak. And the fact that even Harper doesn't dispute that he's operating on a fundamentally flawed assumption as to how Canada's political system works should lead many Canadians to question whether they want him to hold any significant power within it.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Third time's not the charm

A new version of Ernie Lightman's CCPA HST study has now been posted - featuring yet another new set of numbers. But perhaps more importantly, the report's previous commentary that it remains to be seen how much of any business savings will be shared with individuals has been removed, replaced by an explicit statement that the government's rationale for harmonizing has been ignored in favour of an assumption that cost reductions will be passed along:
This paper measures the impact of the tax mix shift between the personal income tax and the HST. It does not address the issue of tax shifts between business and households in the change from the RST to a value added tax and assumes implicitly that businesses will pass the bulk of these savings on to consumers.
At the very least the new phrasing is somewhat less opaque than the previous two drafts. But it should be beyond doubt now that the Lightman analysis (a) is based on a highly dubious assumption which isn't even accepted by HST proponents, and (b) is utterly incompatible with the other pro-HST material which estimates benefits to the corporate sector on the assumption that businesses actually won't pass along any savings to consumers.

The reviews are in

Lawrence Martin:
Our priorities, like the PM's, are somewhat upside-down and it has suited him just fine. But with his second prorogation in the space of a year, things may be changing. Although the move could easily be seen as an unprincipled manipulation of the democratic process, Mr. Harper likely figured that having gotten away with it before, he could get away with it again.

And some commentators did, indeed, award him points. As in, hey, never mind that he's seized the moral low ground again – how about those crafty politics! However, there are indications that anger over his act is spreading. A Facebook campaign against it is pulling in a large response. Newspapers that are normally in the Prime Minister's corner have protested. This paper ran a front-page editorial. An Ekos Research opinion poll appearing today will show a sag in support for the governing party.
The question is how many times he can tempt fate and get away with it. What he's doing in avoiding a scheduled return to Parliament is putting his fundamental flaw, his autocratic arrogance, on parade.

His defenders look at the prorogation in isolation and say it's not so bad. Viewed in isolation, they're right. It is not entirely odious. It's only when you look at in combination with all the other examples of low-road behaviour (smearing opponents, shutting down committees, cutting off information channels etc ) that the true picture emerges. There's a cumulative effect that episodic media coverage hasn't brought across – and the cumulative effect isn't pretty.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Graphic content

Following up my post this morning, this seems to be in order to make sure Norman Spector's characterization of Stephen Harper sticks:

(Edit: fixed label.)


Dan Cook has fixed his faulty math, but seems to be continuing with a drumbeat of condescension toward Canadians outraged over Stephen Harper's prorogation. And not surprisingly, Harper's minions seem to be eager to echo the theme.

But is there any message more likely to actually keep the group in the news and expanding - or better yet, turn its current Facebook supporters toward more concrete action - than a consistently dismissive tone of "bah, your opinion doesn't count"?

Update: A warm welcome to readers who have found their way here through CAPP's links page. And for those wondering, the more concrete action mentioned above is highly recommended.

From crisis, opportunity

Devin has a suggestion for an opposition plan "B" based on restructuring the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan to include an opposition majority capable of conducting hearings even in the face of a Con boycott. Which certainly seems like an idea worth exploring - but why stop there?

After all, the Cons arrived at the start of the last session of Parliament with a set of centrally-planned amendments designed to tweak the committee rules to better suit Harper's plans. In some cases the amendments passed with support from one or more of the opposition members who were effectively forced to react on their own; in some cases the opposition was wary enough to vote them down. But to my knowledge, none of the committee rules did anything but stay the same or get amended in the manner suggested by the Cons.

Which means that it's probably time to use Harper's attack on Parliament as an opportunity to turn the tables on him. As long as committees are stuck starting from scratch when Parliament reconvenes, and particularly if the opposition parties will be getting back to work even in the midst of the Cons' Harper Holiday, why not use some of that time to work out some agreed amendments to committee rules to counter the Cons' obstruction tactics?

That may not require going so far as to attempt to change the numbers on each committee, but could be as simple as ensuring that a Con chair storming out of the room or PMO instructions to boycott a committee can't bring proceedings to a halt. And I'm sure there's much more that can be done to ensure that committees are better able to actually deal with critiques of the government while they're sitting.

In sum, Harper's one-time attempt to escape scrutiny by shutting down Parliament may well give the opposition an ideal opportunity to render his current obstruction manual obsolete. And the result could be a net positive for MP oversight despite Harper's most devious efforts.

Burning questions

What's more shocking about Norman Spector's response to Stephen Harper's latest attempt to spin his way out of trouble: is it that a Con supporter is willing to admit this?
Some of what we saw on CBC Tuesday evening may be real. But most of it is fake. Who doubts that Conservative attack dogs are operating with Mr. Harper’s approval, even if he is not micromanaging each and every one of their low blows?
Or is it that Spector manages to leave the impression that saying Harper's public presentation bears little to no relation to reality is somehow a compliment, to the point where the other federal party leaders (per Spector) should be trying to emulate the deception?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

A possible solution

Following up on Malcolm's clear evidence of the futility of any formal pre-election coalition, I now wonder whether my conclusion that broader public opinion shifts can have a far greater influence than attempts to divvy up seats might point toward another form of cooperation. So let's take a step back and revisit what was little more than a throw-in when I first put together a rough draft of a more complete basis for NDP/Lib cooperation.

Assuming for the moment that any more formal deal isn't likely to come about prior to the next election, what would supporters of the NDP, Libs and Greens think of an informal agreement that their national campaigns would avoid messages which tend to lead to disputes between them rather than a focus on the Cons?

After all, it's been fairly well documented that the Libs' strategy for several election cycles has depended on poaching soft NDP votes at the tail end of each campaign by saying the NDP can't form government - and that much of the NDP's time has consequently been spent inoculating itself against that result by offering reasons not to vote for the Libs. (Similar dynamics have mostly existed between the Libs/Greens and NDP/Greens as well, with some exception for the Dion/May pact in 2008.) And in every case, the result has been to reinforce Con messages about each opposition party while allowing Harper to escape criticism he'd otherwise face for his record.

But what would happen if the NDP, Libs and Greens agreed not to use their national campaign to spread the messages which lead to that tug-of-war, and to similarly encourage local candidates to focus criticism on the Cons rather than each other? Wouldn't the end result almost certainly be a campaign focused on more positive ground for all of the opposition parties, with the Cons having to fight far harder just to retain their current turf?

Of course, there would still be some need for the opposition parties to differentiate themselves from each other - and such an agreement might be prohibitively difficult to police. But I have to wonder whether it might provide a far more feasible yet no less effective means of escaping the current stalemate than any pact involving parties running less than a full slate of candidates.

On second looks

Public Eye Online picked up on the removal of the CCPA's pro-HST report. But whatever additional "modifications" are expected, it's worth noting that the report has already been altered then deleted before - and a reader has passed along the two versions posted publicly so far.

Here's the original version:
Not a Tax Grab After All 1

And here's the second:
Not a Tax Grab After All 2
So what's the difference between the two? Well, one can most obviously point to Table 1 at page 13 - where effectively every single calculation as to the effect of the HST on families changes from one draft to the next. But perhaps the most striking change in the second version is the new footnote 14 which seeks to paper over the difference:
In the course of reviews, some technical adjustments were made that have no bearing on the conclusion of this report. This is an updated version (18/12/2009) of the report first released 14/12/09.
Now, the updated version didn't actually fix the assumption which seems to have generated the most concern (being 100% flowthrough of business tax savings to consumers). And it's hard to see what "technical adjustments" one could make if that assumption were corrected which wouldn't completely undermine the conclusions which have already been released twice.

Just in case there's any doubt, this looks to be a rare whiff for the CCPA. But whether or not there's a third draft coming, the sequence of alterations and deletions leaves no reason at all to put any stock in the Lightman report - and every reason to doubt anybody still trying to wave it around to pretend the HST won't be harmful for individuals.

The reviews just keep on coming

Murray Mandryk:
(W)hat we're witnessing from Harper takes contempt for democratic principles to a whole new level. Actually it may be worse. He is using public cynicism as a blunt hammer to pound in the detour sign that allows him to get around the last bastion of true accountability for his PMO.

And that truly separates Harper from his predecessors.

By proroguing Parliament again -- this time for no better reason than the political convenience of sidestepping an increasingly troublesome Afghanistan debate while carefully positioning his government for what he hopes will be the afterglow of the Vancouver Olympics and a possible gold medal hockey win -- Harper is abusing tradition like no other recent PM.
What's truly loathsome is that he announced the prorogation through an unelected communication functionary between Christmas and New Year's, as if it were no more important than the local Queen's Counsel appointments.

Maddeningly, Harper is simply banking on Canadians' abysmal understanding of British parliamentary practice and counting on a cynical public to see this as nothing more than another bit of gamesmanship in a minority Parliament. And he's counting on the wealth of the Conservative party coffers and the friendlies on talk radio and elsewhere to spin this to his advantage.

Canadians should know what's at issue is far more nefarious.

At a time when the country needs to have meaningful debate about vital issues such as defence policy and our role in the longest war Canadians have ever engaged in, the prime minister is silencing the very institution -- perhaps the only institution -- capable of holding his office accountable.
Lawrence Martin:
We won’t know for sure until some polls come in, but there are indications the prorogue gambit is backfiring on (Stephen Harper). The reaction has been demonstrably negative. Media comment boards have lit up in protest. The Globe and Mail went to the unusual extent of running a front page editorial. Conservative newspapers, normally in the prime minister’s stable, have condemned the move. The Facebook group, Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament, already has 15,000 signed up.

It’s become a question of how many times the people will let a leader bend a democratic system to his will before they fight back. If the prime minister doesn’t take a hit in the polls on this, he will feel the sting in other ways. The opposition to his methods is hardening. People are angry. When they get angry, they mobilize.

This prorogation story, which comes on top of his defying the will of Parliament by refusing to turn over documents on the Afghan detainees affair, is different from some of the other abuse-of-power stories. This one has legs. Every day the Parliament’s doors remain closed will serve as a reminder of what the supreme ruler did.
The Edmonton Journal:
There is no looming emergency, no threat of a non-confidence vote, no plausible reason other than blatant political gamesmanship to support suspension of the people's business for more than two months.

Using the Olympics as a foil is preposterous, as if opposition parties would do anything to embarrass the nation while the spotlight is on Canada.

The excuse that the government needed time to readjust given the changing Senate scene is also specious, since Parliament wasn't set to return until Jan. 25 anyway, allowing a decent interval.

Once again the Conservatives under Harper, formerly outspoken on the need for greater accountability and reforming the murky, partisan nature of Canadian politics under successive Liberal regimes, have shown a predilection for more of the same -- even when they don't have to resort to trickery. Indeed, the only thing transparent about this cessation of open government is its obvious motivation.
The Hamilton Spectator:
There is no doubt the Stephen Harper government's strategic move to prorogue Parliament until after the Olympics is nothing short of self-serving. It is not about what is good for Canada, for democracy, or even for the Olympics. It is only about what Harper has decided is good for his federal Tories. Even sober second thought cannot cast a positive light on his decision to interfere with democracy.
In the days since Harper opted to side-step the democracy of the House of Commons, it has become increasingly clear the prime minister has established a nasty habit of shutting down the system when he wants to avoid controversy and hard questions.

The Tories shut down Parliament in late 2008 when they faced almost certain defeat by a minority coalition on a key vote. They have shut down Parliament in early 2010, ostensibly so we can all watch the Vancouver Olympics without the distractions of democracy. It also allows the Tory government to duck the substantial heat churned up by the sensitive issue of Afghanistan prisoner abuse, as well as the high level of criticism resulting from Canada's less-than-stellar performance in the Copenhagen climate change talks.

It is both unseemly and disturbing that the Tories' cynical move played out quickly, without debate and, apparently, with automatic acceptance by the Governor General.

Harper knows most Canadians aren't overly concerned about it -- close to half don't care whether Parliament resumes now or after the February games. A sizeable slice of the population probably doesn't care whether Parliament resumes at all.

But that apparent indifference doesn't make the erosion of democratic accountability good or acceptable. It is a frightening abuse of the democratic process. It not what prorogation was intended for. And it further clarifies the government's intention to minimize the role Parliament plays in Canadian democracy.
And of course, Errol Mendes:
Apart from the doomed attempts of Charles I to prorogue the British parliament in the 17th century, there was no precedent in any parliamentary democracy anywhere in the world where a democratic parliament was shut down to hide from a vote of confidence. It opened the door for other abuses of the rights and privileges of the majority of Members of Parliament elected by Canadians. Harper has gone through that door once again.

This time, the insult to Canadian democracy, while less spectacular, is no less disturbing. The Governor General did not even merit a personal visit to be told to shut down Parliament until early March. Respect, even for the Queen's representative, by this Prime Minister is in short supply.

This behaviour by the Prime Minister is another piece of evidence of a major shift in Canadian constitutional democracy taking shape. First, there is the unconstitutional behaviour of the Harper government to deny the committee uncensored documents despite a motion of the House of Commons. Second, there is the boycott of the committee by the Conservative MPs at the committee. Third, we have seen the sandbagging of the Military Police Complaints Commission and the "yanking" of its chair, Peter Tinsley. This commission, a quasi-judicial tribunal has been stymied in its attempt to determine the truth over the detainee transfer issue. Finally, there is the unprecedented slamming of Richard Colvin for just doing his job of speaking truth to power and then accusing anybody who supports him of either being Taliban dupes or undermining our brave Canadian military heroes.

These are serious examples of abuse of executive power over Parliament, the Governor General, the public service and ultimately the Canadian voters who elected MPs to make Parliament work.
Some Canadians may not pay much attention to archaic constitutional terms such as prorogation of Parliament or even to the fate of Afghan detainees transferred to torture. Other Canadians will care greatly about both these issues. But all Canadians must care about a minority government that undermines the fundamental democratic institutions of this country while also manipulating quasi-judicial tribunals and intimidating the public service from speaking truth to power. This abuse of executive power is tilting toward totalitarian government and away from the foundations of democracy and the rule of law on which this country was founded.

Saskatchewan NDP Year in Review 2009: Pushback

As I discussed in an earlier post, the federal NDP's 2009 was marked by incremental progress toward a long-standing plan. In contrast, the year in Saskatchewan's NDP involved major decisions as to the party's direction. But while there are plenty of questions left to be answered over the next two years, we did see one key shift in Saskatchewan's political scene which will make tracing a path to government in 2011 far less problematic that it might otherwise have been.

Needless to say, the first six months of the year were dominated by the party's leadership race which culminated in Dwain Lingenfelter's second-ballot victory over Ryan Meili. What began as a seeming romp for Lingenfelter turned into a dramatic finish, as longtime stalwart Lingenfelter, faced with the membership sale controversy, was just barely able to hold off the combined efforts of a strong MLA competitor in Deb Higgins and two of the party's rising stars in Meili and Yens Pedersen.

But perhaps even more important than the candidates themselves was the range of supporters brought into the race - with Lingenfelter mixing plenty of new names and faces into a base of bedrock support dating back decades, while Meili and Pedersen put together new campaign teams which surprised many with their enthusiasm and effectiveness. Which leads to the question of how best to keep all of the key leadership race participants inside the NDP's tent and engaged in the party leading up to 2011.

So far, the best prospect for continued renewal looks to be a policy development process which Lingenfelter is rightly playing up as setting the NDP's direction for some time to come. There's some obvious room for improvement in the amount of public discussion about the process so far, but once consultations begin in earnest there will be a golden opportunity not only to set the NDP's policy direction, but also to build up a new set of NDP voices for the future to join Meili, Pedersen and newly-elected MLA Danielle Chartier. The latter goal may require some concerted effort to place a focus on the grassroots rather than the current leader or caucus, but such an effort would figure to be well rewarded in the end.

Meanwhile, Lingenfelter's main appeal as a leader always figured to be his ability to turn the tables on a government which had emerged almost entirely unscathed from its first two years in office (thanks to fawning media coverage as well as a lack of consistent NDP messages to define him). And with an assist to the NDP's prescient warnings about overreliance on potash revenues, the first half-year of Lingenfelter's leadership has undoubtedly seen the end of any free ride for Brad Wall.

Mind you, the concern hasn't yet filtered down to as much of the general public as one would like to see (nor up to the national media). But commentary on Saskatchewan politics in the latter half of the year rightly focused largely on the Sask Party's mismanagement in 2009 and difficult decisions to be made in 2010. And with cities, school boards and others who will be affected by cuts to anticipated funding starting to speak out, it doesn't figure to take long before Wall's habit of promising the moon sets up a significant opening for a government which is better grounded in reality.

It does remain to be seen exactly what alternative vision the Saskatchewan NDP will put forward in 2010 and beyond. But the combination of NDP renewal and Sask Party tarnish should significantly narrow any gap in the polls just in time for it to matter - meaning that whatever the NDP comes up with in its policy process should have a significant chance of setting the province's agenda within the next two years.


Yesterday I noted that it's wrong to see the opposition mobilization in response to the Cons' decision to shut down Parliament as merely a mirror image of the Cons' attempts to turn public opinion against the progressive coalition when there was plenty of mobilizing going on from both sides in December 2008. But it's worth noting just why the current situation is so different.

This time, there simply isn't any way for the Cons to present even a remotely plausible countermovement. Harper's primary line of spin about prorogation has been that it's simply a routine Parliamentary procedure - and while some Con supporters may be sufficiently irony-challenged to be willing to attend a rally of the newly-formed Canadians Who Don't Think This Whole Prorogation Thing Is Worth Caring About, the apparent stakes for the Cons are nowhere near high enough to be worth the trouble of mobilizing. (Not to mention that they'd probably prefer that the whole issue get forgotten, rather than wanting to keep it in the public eye.)

So rather than the mass movements cancelling each other out and giving the ultimate advantage to the Cons' money machine, this time the anti-Harper protests will almost inevitably go unopposed in kind. And if they manage to make enough noise to keep Harper's contempt for democracy in the public eye through what was supposed to be the Cons' calm before an election, then Harper's latest shot at Parliament may well prove to be just as much of a mistake as the fiscal update which first helped send thousands into the streets.

Monday, January 04, 2010

This cannot stand

Remarkably, it actually took until the afternoon of 2010's first work day for the average top-100 Canadian CEO to get paid more money than the average worker will earn this year. Maybe some of the Cons' retrenched public-sector pensions can be paid into an executive compensation fund to make sure that never happens again.

Your Con government in a nutshell

They ignore the law. Then they lie about ignoring the law. Then they lie about lying about ignoring the law. And this is so commonplace that the example won't even register with most of the media, let alone the public.

History rewritten

Remember how December 2008 saw a fevered competition in rallies, Facebook groups and petitions both for and against the progressive coalition - with the "pro" forces gathering thousands in Toronto, and even outnumbering the Cons' minions in seemingly Harper-friendly locations like Edmonton and Regina?

Because as far as Gloria Galloway is concerned, the "pro" side might as well have never existed.

Another day, another cover-up

Cue the Con grumblings that Michael Yon is a Taliban-loving threat to national security in 3...2...1...

On retention

When I posted Saturday about what seems to me to be one major barrier in the way of any discussion of an NDP/Lib coalition discussion, my focus was on the apparent lack of a partner which the NDP can expect to deal with in good faith. And in comments, Malcolm from Simple Massing Priest noted equally serious questions as to whether the NDP and Libs actually share enough values to carry out an effective coalition/merger, and whether such a pact would be less than the some of its parts.

But Malcolm passes along some numbers based on the 2008 vote which call into question whether there's any point to a coalition even if the NDP, Libs and Greens all join forces:
I've done a quick tally of constituencies where the combined Liberal / NDP / Green vote exceeded the votes of the winner. My tally shows a total of 64 seats.

There are
* 45 of these seats where Conservatives won and the Liberals were the leading "coalition" party,
* 8 seats where the Bloc won and the Liberals were the leading "coalition" party,
* 8 seats where the Conservatives won and the NDP were the leading "coalition" party,
* 2 seats where the Conservatives won and the Greens were the leading "coalition" party,
* 1 seat where the Bloc won and the New Democrats were the leading "coalition" party.

I also calculated what proportion of the other "coalition" parties' votes the leading "coalition" party would need to retain on a net basis in order to win.

For example, in Simcoe North, the Liberals trailed the Conservatives by 22.0% of the vote. The combined New Democrat and Green vote was 22.7%. Therefore, the Liberals would have had to retain (net) 96.92% of New Democrat and Green voters. I say "net," because it is likely that some undetermined number of the other "coalition" party voters would actually vote for the Conservatives or Bloc as their second choice. In Simcoe North, if even 2% of NDP and Green voters were to support the Conservatives, it would be impossible for the Liberals to make up the difference. Similarly, if 4% of NDP and Green voters simply didn't bother to vote, the Liberals would be unable to make up the difference.

...(T)he Canadian Election Study suggests that the proportion of voters who would simply not vote is much higher than 4%, and the percentages of NDP and Green voters who would be inclined to choose the Conservatives over the Liberals is larger than 2%.

I trust, on that basis, that even the most rabidly pro-coalition advocate will concede that there will be some "coalition" party voters who will not conform. The argument is about how many, and whether the coalition is still viable.

I then went through and calculated the seat changes based on the leading "coalition" party retaining 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 and 100% of the other two "coalition" parties" vote.

Frankly, the "coalition" did better than I had expected, achieving a combined plurality (ie, Lib + NDP + Green > Con) at the 30% net retention mark.

Of course, this does not take into consideration how the "coalition" would affect the vote in the other 244 seats. In some seats narrowly won by the NDP or Liberals over the Conservatives or Bloc, for example,it could actually result in a loss of seats where, for instance, Liberal voters may actually split in favour of the Conservatives in the absence of a Liberal candidate, as the CES suggests. I have not examined that question at all. Nor have I considered how the condemnation from the Conservative campaign would move Lib-Con or NDP-Con swing voters.

Net retention Con Bloc Lib NDP Green Total coalition
10% 136 (-7) 47 (-2) 84 (+7) 39 (+2) 0 (0) 123
20% 132 (-11) 45 (-4) 88 (+11) 41 (+4) 0 (0) 129
30% 128 (-15) 44 (-5) 92 (+15) 42 (+5) 0 (0) 134
40% 123 (-20) 44 (-5) 96 (+19) 43 (+6) 0 (0) 139
50% 119 (-24) 44 (-5) 99 (+22) 44 (+7) 0 (0) 143
60% 115 (-28) 44 (-5) 102 (+25) 45 (+8) 0 (0) 147
70% 108 (-35) 41 (-8) 111 (+34) 45 (+8) 1 (+1) 157
80% 101 (-42) 41 (-8) 117 (+40) 46 (+9) 1 (+1) 164
90% 94 (-49) 41 (-8) 123 (+46) 46 (+9) 2 (+2) 171
100% 88 (-55) 40 (-9) 130 (+53) 46 (+9) 2 (2) 178

Note that the model, while interesting, has serious flaws. In particular:

* people don't behave with the kind of marked consistency used in modeling the result shifts
* no consideration has been given to how the strategy affects the outcome in NDP-Conservative marginals or Liberal-Conservative marginals. Given that the CES clearly shows the Conservatives as the more popular second choice of Liberal voters, it could well mean the loss of ridings like London-Fanshawe, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay - Superior North, Welland, Edmonton-Strathcona, Western Arctic, Burnaby - Douglas, New Westminster - Coquitlam and Vancouver Kingsway,
* it also does not consider the potential for an electoral coalition to depress turnout for any of the "coalition" parties.

Finally, please note that the shifts modeled below reflect NET gain to the leading coalition party - meaning that it is the margin of votes gained by the largest coalition party over the votes gained by the Conservatives. By illustration, in a seat where the Liberals are the largest "coalition" party, and 30% of NDP and Green supporters don't bother to vote, a net 30% gain means a split of 50-20 of the NDP and Green voters that DO vote - which is actually a 71.4% share of those who end up voting.
As Malcolm notes, there are serious issues with using the 2008 baseline without accounting for shifts in voter preferences in the meantime.

But the above numbers still speak to the remote prospect that a coalition would actually manage to consolidate enough votes behind the participating parties to change the outcome of an election. A net retention rate somewhere between 20-30% is needed before a coalition would even exceed the Cons' seat count; and a 70% net retention rate would be needed both to push one coalition party alone past the Cons' number of seats, and to provide the coalition with a majority of seats in the House of Commons. Which is in stark contrast to the actual polling numbers which suggest that Lib votes would likely bleed equally to the NDP and Cons, while Lib votes would actually move primarily to the Cons to make for a negative net retention rate.

In contrast, results similar to those at the highest retention rates are entirely plausible within the realm of simple shifts in public preferences. The relative balance of power between the Libs and Cons in the 40-50% net retention range is virtually identical to what it was based on the 2006 election results, while the effective results based on an entirely implausible 70% net retention rate could match those arising from any of the frequent Lib/Con polling stalemates.

So comparing the minimal benefit to a coalition at any plausible range of net retention to the chances of achieving similar results simply by keeping pressure on the Cons, the better course of action looks to be for each party to keep competing to show why Con MPs need to be replaced with its own candidates. And if we end up with another election result which allows for a coalition, then that will be the time to work out a governing arrangement.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

On hold

Shorter Cons to the environmental regulatory advisory committee which they've been ignoring for a year and a half:

Your advice is important to us. Please stay on the line until later this year when an agent will be available to consult you. This call may be recorded and monitored for quality-management purposes.

Dear Paul Wells

Speaking as someone who's highly interested in pointing out any actual "ominous rumblings" within the Libs: give me a &@%^#($& break.

If Stephen Harper hasn't already demanded that remotely prominent Con-supporting blogs receive PMO approval for each post, this sort of attempt to turn even the slightest bit of critical self-assessment into a portent of impending doom is exactly the kind of media attention which might accomplish just that. Which will of course be followed by declarations that it's a sign of weakness if any other party continues to have public discussions which range beyond the regurgitation of official talking points.

So is it anybody's goal to ensure that the online political universe becomes as content-free as the muzzled candidates and spokesflacks who have done so much to turn Canadians off of politics already? If not, then let's not blow single blog posts out of proportion.

Update: Welcome National Newswatch readers.

Update II: In reponse to Wells' tweet, I'm not blaming him for the Libs' fates in 2010 so much as for the decline of democratic discourse generally.

No, not really. But the point of the post is the incentives created for all parties in how they address online supporters, not so much the precise winners or losers in this round of events.

On unlimited power

I posted a few passages from James Travers' latest yesterday. But let's take another look at part of his column which raises what has to be one of the most serious questions about the Harper regime:
Systematically, and without explanation, the Prime Minister is testing every limit on his power. Along with successfully shuttering Parliament for the second time, he's neutering committees charged with the primary democratic responsibilities of safeguarding the treasury and forcing the government to explain its actions. He's challenging independent rulings against how Conservatives funded their 2006 election and how this government treats Canadians in trouble abroad.

Politics is an uncompromising blood sport played to win within loose rules. By learning Liberal dirty tricks, adapting to changing circumstances and reinterpreting every regulation in his favour, Harper is proving to be a shrewd and accomplished contestant.

Far less clear is what he accepts as legitimate constraint, the line in the democratic sand not to be crossed.
Needless to say, that passage raises important questions about whether there's anything that Harper would accept as a legitimate limitation on his own power. And it's the obvious answer to those issues that justifies the talk of despotism or banana republicanism that's surfaced since Harper first shuttered Parliament over a year ago.

But let's take a step back first and ask why it is that democratic structures tend to work - and what assumptions they tend to rely on.

The first important point is that democratic structures have exactly as much meaning as the actors within them are willing to accept.

In general, a democratic political system serves to stabilize a country by providing for mechanisms by which the populace chooses among competing visions for a particular state. In a state where no effective means exists to challenge the authority of a dictatorial government, it's relatively easy both for a government to believe that it can inflict violence on dissenters without consequences, and for those dissenters to similarly justify violent action in an attempt to bring about change. And the frequent end result is either the superimposition of violent attempts to gain political advantage as an element of the country's political structure - or a degree of violence by one side which is so extreme as to effectively annihilate the other.

But that justification doesn't exist where there's some ability to challenge the government peacefully through two basic means: a legislature in which a government may pass legislation while the opposition may seek to hold the government to account, and an electoral system under which the place of any party in the system may change by the will of the voters.

Once such a system exists, party interests tend to line up with national interests in preserving the democratic structures: while it's better for a country to avoid violent upheaval, it's also best for partisans to be able to present their case peacefully regardless of who's in power. So there usually isn't much problem in getting even the most partisan of politicians to accept that the long-term interests of the system outweight the benefit of pursuing power in the short term.

That cost-benefit analysis is reinforced by the fact that most political ideologies involve at least some reason to want to ensure a stable state. Social democrats may see the government as the primary mechanism for a more just distribution of economic spoils; Red Tories and large-L Liberals may see it as the most efficient way to at least minimize the hardship of groups who are perceived as needing protection; socons may see it as the primary means of setting out moral principles to be fostered through policy; business-oriented groups may recognize a stable governing structure as a necessary part of a solid economic base.

From my standpoint, the realization that everybody is ultimately better off preserving and accepting democratic accountability has been one of the underlying values of most developed-country democracies - to the point where there's hardly been a need to discuss it. While there are individual cases where the actions of Canadian governments can be seen as trampling on principles of democratic accountability in favour of short-term political goals, those have regularly met with proper condemnation. And nobody of any partisan stripe has made a game of the practice because all parties have recognized that there's something about governmental accountability worth protecting.

That is, until Stephen Harper came along. And indeed one can see the current circumstances as creating a perfect storm for someone like Harper to suddenly start operating on a plane where concern for the long-term well-being of the state created by our democratic institutions is removed from any political calculation.

To start with, Harper seems to operate primarily under one of the few ideologies which could well see a dysfunctional federal state as a reasonable outcome (if not an outright positive one). His affinity for "firewalls" to end Ottawa's influence over his home province signals that he'd be perfectly satisfied if the federal government mostly abandons the field of governing; his belief that business can be trusted to regulate itself serves as the basis for a conclusion that any weakness in the government will be compensated for by the market; and most importantly, his belief that courts, the civil service, and anybody else forming part of the federal governing structure must be a partisan enemy gives him some justification in his own mind to think that it might not be such a bad thing if the entire apparatus gets torn down.

Again, any impulses to that effect in a single leader tend to be cancelled out by more responsible voices within one's own party. But thanks to Harper's iron grip on the Cons, there's neither anybody willing to question his present-day actions in his own camp, nor anybody developing enough of a future prospect of leadership to value that possibility over the security in their current position under Harper.

And the current minority government context does serve as a factor as well. That isn't the result of any inherent problem with minorities, and indeed it's possible that Harper would simply take his current pattern to even greater extremes in a majority setting. But the fact that the opposition parties too have had to keep an eye on the prospect of an election call at any moment has kept the focus of Canada's political actors on the day's news cycle rather than the long-term ramifications of Harper's actions.

Now, my suspicion is that there have been opportunities to change direction from the current path. During Harper's first few months in government, he may have found it impossible to resist a strong push toward empowerment of Parliament if all of the opposition parties had been onside - but instead the Libs, with an eye on their presumed return to government, actually argued against it at every turn. And of course the progressive coalition would have served to break Harper's control over party and country while suddenly igniting some newfound Con concern about good governance.

But those opportunities have long since been missed. And the result is that the main means of holding the Cons to account on a day-to-day basis have been rendered toothless - in ways that go far beyond even the examples we've seen to date.

After all, Harper's contempt for Parliament already extends to his cutting off a sitting which would have resulted in a non-confidence vote. So there's absolutely no reason for optimism that even a united opposition front to bring down the Cons will actually result in an election. If Harper wants that election, he'll allow it to happen; if not, he'll simply request prorogation yet again to put off the vote until he sees it as more politically convenient. Which means that we may not be far away from seeing Parliament meet only for the bare minimum amount of time to keep federal operations going, with Harper strong-arming one of the opposition parties into keeping basic funding going (anybody want to bet the Libs won't cave to a "we need this money for the troops" argument?) while shutting down Parliament as long as he can otherwise.

And even if an election happens, that may not be the end of the story either. It's natural that public expectations may be based on what the Cons have professed to believe - i.e. that the largest party in the House of Commons has the right to form government. But to my recollection based on some of the constitutional arguments made surrounding the 2008 confidence showdown, there's actually more precedent for a sitting prime miniater to demand the right to stay in government after an election where another party has more seats in the House than there was for their than there was for Harper to flee the 2008 confidence vote. And that could bring us right back to the scenario of a Parliament in hiding even if voters reject the Cons.

But wait, there's more! Remember that in 2008, one of the Cons' threats to the coalition was that they'd resign their seats in the Commons en masse - necessitating by-elections in every single Con-held seat and presumably fomenting an argument in the Cons' base that anything any branch of government would be able to achieve in the meantime must be illegitimate. Which may signal that the Cons would rather threaten the country with chaos than cede power even in the face of a democratic loss.

One hopes that the Cons wouldn't take that even further by stepping entirely outside the realm of democratic protest. But after four years of Harper government, we have countless examples of his seeking to warp Canada's political system to cement power in his own hands - and exactly zero where he's shown any willingness to acknowledge having gone too far.

In sum, to answer Travers' point: at this point, there's precious little indication that there's any line at all which Harper wouldn't cross to keep power. And that fact - not the day-to-day minutiae which so often get thrown out to distract from the bigger picture - needs to be the central point of discussion if there's going to be any hope of retrenching Harper's abuses.

Edit: fixed wording.