Saturday, January 30, 2010

The reviews are in

The Star-Phoenix editorial board:
Only the most cynical or deluded would continue to argue that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to stack the Senate on Friday had anything to do with his perpetual promise of reform.
(S)ince his days in the Reform Party, Mr. Harper has championed a modern Senate that would be elected, effective and equal. However, as PM, he has contributed disproportionately through rhetoric and actions to denigrating this branch of government.

This has been particularly so with Mr. Harper's perpetual insistence that it's been the Senate that has stalled his "law and order" agenda.

However, it's an agenda he has repeatedly thrown under the bus of political expediency -- whether that was to ignore having set-date elections, circumventing the constitutional responsibility to answer to Parliament, or ducking parliamentary committee hearings into allegations that the Conservative government left the military dangling over claims that soldiers handed over Afghan detainees to torturers.
True reform of the Senate will require the will of a majority of Canadians and the provinces, as well as Parliament's. Until the country can muster that courage, however, it will continue to be abused by one prime minister or the other pursuing more unchecked power.

Why not both?

Meanwhile, taking into account the certainty that Stephen Harper will do absolutely everything possible to barricade himself in the Prime Minister's office, let's also respond to Murray Dobbin's question:
Reform democracy or rid the country of Stephen Harper?
What is our goal? Do we want to finally rid the country of this execrable politician once and for all, or do we want democratic reform for the sake of democratic reform?
Of course, getting rid of Harper needs to be at the top of the to-do list. But particularly if the Cons plan to weasel their way out of any votes of non-confidence in this Parliament (or any future one), there's simply no guaranteed way to get there from here. So in the meantime, it's certainly worth some effort to put formal measures in place to limit the damage Harper can do - as well as setting up a more democratic system for future PMs.

On resistance

Aaron Wherry points out the advice which newly-appointed Con Senator Bob Runciman gave to the party when it faced a vote of non-confidence in the House of Commons. But it's worth fleshing out just what Runciman's stance means:
As last week's parliamentary shenanigans unfolded, Runciman got in touch with his Conservative colleagues on Parliament Hill to give them the benefit of his experience.

"I immediately sent my friends at the federal level my encouragement to prorogue the House, because one of the mistakes we made was not resisting," he said.
So what was it that Runciman thought the Ontario Cons should have resisted? Remember that in the 1985 Ontario election, the Libs actually won more of the popular vote than the Cons, and were only four seats behind in their final count. And added to that almost complete parity between the two largest caucuses, the NDP had pledged its support to the Libs based on a written agreement.

At that point, the Cons would have had no excuses based on alleged collaboration with separatists, and no argument that they could claim a larger caucus than the next two largest parties (or even a substantially larger caucus than the proposed government). Instead, the only reason to "resist" would have been based on a belief that a party is fully entitled to cling to power even when it holds neither a popular mandate nor the confidence of the legislature by any reasonable measure.

In effect, then, Runciman seems to recognize that every excuse offered up by the Harper Cons in 2008 was a sham, representing nothing than a means of clinging to power for its own sake. And by rewarding that mindset, with an appointment to the Senate, Harper has effectively signalled his own agreement - while at the same time setting up one source of resistance as he nears a Senate majority which will presumably be ready to throw a tantrum on command.

So Runciman's appointment should offer one more indication that Harper will have to be removed from 24 Sussex Drive kicking and screaming - no matter how clearly he lacks the confidence of the House, or even how soundly he gets defeated in a future election. And those of us looking forward to a less despotic government in Ottawa will need to factor that future resistance into our efforts.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Musical interlude

Delerium feat. Matthew Sweet - Daylight

On declarations

There's been a massive outpouring of criticism over the Supreme Court's latest Khadr ruling. And while it's probably not entirely accurate to say that the Supreme Court has decreed that courts can't ever make an order which will result in an effective remedy in a case such as Khadr's, the practical upshot of the decision in this particular case (and with a government that couldn't care less whether it keeps violating Khadr's rights) is effectively to limit the courts to offering suggestions to a government which has already said it isn't interested in listening.

That said, I'd hate for the Supreme Court's justified criticism of the government actions - Lib and Con alike - which violated Khadr's Charter rights to get lost in the fact that it failed to make an order with practical effect. So let's make sure that the following parts of the judgment are what get remembered in the long run:
[21] An applicant for a Charter remedy must prove a Charter violation on a balance of probabilities (R. v. Collins, [1987] 1 S.C.R. 265, at p. 277). It is reasonable to infer from the uncontradicted evidence before us that the statements taken by Canadian officials are contributing to the continued detention of Mr. Khadr, thereby impacting his liberty and security interests. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary (or disclaimer rebutting this inference), we conclude on the record before us that Canada’s active participation in what was at the time an illegal regime has contributed and continues to contribute to Mr. Khadr’s current detention, which is the subject of his current claim. The causal connection demanded by Suresh between Canadian conduct and the deprivation of liberty and security of person is established.
[24] We conclude that Canadian conduct in connection with Mr. Khadr’s case did not conform to the principles of fundamental justice. That conduct may be briefly reviewed. The statements taken by CSIS and DFAIT were obtained through participation in a regime which was known at the time to have refused detainees the right to challenge the legality of detention by way of habeas corpus. It was also known that Mr. Khadr was 16 years old at the time and that he had not had access to counsel or to any adult who had his best interests in mind. As held by this Court in Khadr 2008, Canada’s participation in the illegal process in place at Guantanamo Bay clearly violated Canada’s binding international obligations...Canadian officials questioned Mr. Khadr on matters that may have provided important evidence relating to his criminal proceedings, in circumstances where they knew that Mr. Khadr was being indefinitely detained, was a young person and was alone during the interrogations. Further, the March 2004 interview, where Mr. Khadr refused to answer questions, was conducted knowing that Mr. Khadr had been subjected to three weeks of scheduled sleep deprivation, a measure described by the U.S. Military Commission in Jawad as designed to “make [detainees] more compliant and break down their resistance to interrogation” (para. 4).

[25] This conduct establishes Canadian participation in state conduct that violates the principles of fundamental justice. Interrogation of a youth, to elicit statements about the most serious criminal charges while detained in these conditions and without access to counsel, and while knowing that the fruits of the interrogations would be shared with the U.S. prosecutors, offends the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects.
[30] An appropriate and just remedy is “one that meaningfully vindicates the rights and freedoms of the claimants”: Doucet-Boudreau v. Nova Scotia (Minister of Education), 2003 SCC 62, [2003] 3 S.C.R. 3, at para. 55. The first hurdle facing Mr. Khadr, therefore, is to establish a sufficient connection between the breaches of s. 7 that occurred in 2003 and 2004 and the order sought in these judicial review proceedings. In our view, the sufficiency of this connection is established by the continuing effect of these breaches into the present. Mr. Khadr’s Charter rights were breached when Canadian officials contributed to his detention by virtue of their interrogations at Guantanamo Bay knowing Mr. Khadr was a youth, did not have access to legal counsel or habeas corpus at that time and, at the time of the interview in March 2004, had been subjected to improper treatment by the U.S. authorities. As the information obtained by Canadian officials during the course of their interrogations may be used in the U.S. proceedings against Mr. Khadr, the effect of the breaches cannot be said to have been spent. It continues to this day. As discussed earlier, the material that Canadian officials gathered and turned over to the U.S. military authorities may form part of the case upon which he is currently being held. The evidence before us suggests that the material produced was relevant and useful. There has been no suggestion that it does not form part of the case against Mr. Khadr or that it will not be put forward at his ultimate trial. We therefore find that the breach of Mr. Khadr’s s. 7 Charter rights remains ongoing and that the remedy sought could potentially vindicate those rights.

[31] The acts that perpetrated the Charter breaches relied on in this appeal lie in the past. But their impact on Mr. Khadr’s liberty and security continue to this day and may redound into the future. The impact of the breaches is thus perpetuated into the present. When past acts violate present liberties, a present remedy may be required.
[48] The appeal is allowed in part. Mr. Khadr’s application for judicial review is allowed in part. This Court declares that through the conduct of Canadian officials in the course of interrogations in 2003-2004, as established on the evidence before us, Canada actively participated in a process contrary to Canada’s international human rights obligations and contributed to Mr. Khadr’s ongoing detention so as to deprive him of his right to liberty and security of the person guaranteed by s. 7 of the Charter, contrary to the principles of fundamental justice.

Suitable for framing

Paul Wells, quoted in full:
I’m going to encourage you to read Aaron’s post about the ridicule that was heaped on Jack Layton’s head when he suggested negotiating with the Taliban. That was, of course, the subject of today’s summit meeting in London. Also of course, a large number of Taliban will not be worth talking to because they will be incorrigible. Others who currently traffic under that loose title will be more amenable. But Layton was saying no different in 2006, and nobody should be surprised that Peter MacKay, among others, turned out to know a lot less than the guy he was mocking. This is a bit of a recurring theme in that minister’s career. Of course the people whose quotes Aaron compiles will either ignore this turn of events, or set about Jesuitically parsing their earlier statements to explain why they don’t look silly today. No matter. Kudos to the NDP leader.

On time-savers

Sure, Dan Cook has come under plenty of criticism for his efforts to dismiss the anti-prorogation movement. But let's give Cook credit for this much: his take on the issue looks to have given him the easiest blogging job in the country - as he's now reached the point of contrasting "grassroots fury" with points that don't have anything to do with grassroots choices.

But let's help him out even more by writing his next few weeks worth of equally nonsensically dismissive posts. Coming soon to a Dan Cook Blogolitics post near you...

Grassroots Fury? Conservative Senators Appointed

Grassroots Fury? Canadians Help Haiti

Grassroots Fury? "Avatar" Highest-Grossing Movie

Grassroots Fury? Olympic Team Cheered

Grassroots Fury? Hot Spring Fashions

And of course...

Grassroots Fury? Parliament Reconvenes

The reviews are in

William Neville:
Essentially, Harper is suggesting that government gets better the less Parliament does.

That argument has been made explicit by no less an authority than one of Harper's senior pit bulls, Jason Kenney, who last week commented, "As a minister, I often get more done when the House is not in session. That's not to say Parliament is unimportant, but from a ministerial point of view, I think any minister in any government will tell you that's probably generally the case."

Could the message be any clearer? Presumably with no Parliament at all, the Conservatives could do one hell of a job.

This is an extraordinarily pernicious doctrine. In fact, to call it a doctrine is to dignify it: It is pernicious nonsense. From a party that has made a fetish of wanting less government and more accountability, this confounds the convictions they have always professed to have. The truth, obviously, is that they love power and unchecked power especially. Little wonder that poll after poll suggests that a large majority of Canadians want Parliament sitting because, for all its imperfections, it is the only way in which a government -- this government -- can be held accountable on a day-to-day basis.
Despite his frequently made claims to being an economist, Harper has always lived on the avails of politics and is an archetypal professional politician who has had no significant career outside politics and, within which has been narrowly focused on ideology, strategy and tactics. Coming, as he does, from the one-party state of Alberta he has never shown any sensitivity to nor understanding of a parliamentary system whose functioning depends on recognizing the legitimacy of opposition, the existence of constitutional conventions and limits, or that there are lines that governments may not cross.

He demonstrated this ignorance a year ago in precipitating a crisis that almost brought him down, and he is demonstrating it again now over prorogation. He combines the stubbornness of the control freak with the ignorance of the know-it-all. Harper, in a sense that his sternest critics may never have imagined, is a dangerous man.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Burning questions

So what's the most worrisome part of Sun Media's story on the Cons' next set of crime legislation?

Is it the fact that a media chain is willing to turn over an article's worth of news space to a pseudo-leaked document that consists of nothing but stale talking points the Cons have used on dozens of crime bills before (including the ones they torpedoed less than a month ago)?

Or is it that fact that it seems entirely plausible that any internal discussion behind the Cons' crime legislation is just as content-free as the pablum offered for public consumption?

On renewed efforts

Thomas Mulcair's call for an extension of the home renovation tax credit (with a focus on energy efficiency) looks to be the NDP's first move in shaping the contents of the upcoming federal budget. So let's take a look at what the proposal might mean.

From a political standpoint, the move looks to be a solid one for the NDP. Even the worst-case scenario would have some apparent benefits: if the Cons substantially take up the proposal, the effect would be to leave the NDP with some of the credit and a cooperation/results moment to point to.

But the prospect of Deficit Jim Flaherty instead leaping into his stimulus "exit strategy" and declining to renew the credit would figure to be nothing less than ideal for the NDP. Suddenly, the millions of dollars the Cons spent promoting the credit as a benefit to the economy and Canadian homeowners alike would be turned to the NDP's advantage - while Flaherty would be left trying to argue that what was an essential investment the previous year has suddenly ceased to be so.

Based on that calculation, I'd figure that the NDP's call to extend the credit makes it very likely that the Cons will have little choice but to do just that. And that may help shift the frame of public debate as to the need for more stimulus in general, as the Cons figure to prefer turning off the stimulus taps all at once rather than explaining to some groups why their funding has been allowed to expire while other stimulus measures continue.

Unfortunately, though, the policy question behind the tax credit itself is somewhat less of a slam dunk than the political calculation.

After all, much of the benefit of the second year of the credit would presumably be absorbed by those well enough off to afford $10,000 worth of renovations in each year of the program. And while an extension of the credit might limit a predictable downturn in construction compared to the result if it's allowed to expire, I'd figure one would generate more actual stimulus from a program aimed at encouraging new types of economic activity rather than simply maintaining the incentives already in place for the past year.

In sum, then, the proposal looks to be a big winner politically in using the Cons' own rhetoric to push for obvious results. But it looks to fall far short of the ideal as a policy proposal - which is somewhat of a shame even if can't expect any better as long as the Cons are in power.

(Edit: fixed label.)

Harper-Proofing Canadian Democracy: Delegated Authority

One of the areas where the Cons have rightfully faced at least some resistance is in trying to take executive control over an increased range of policy decisions - with a prime example being their move to allow the Minister of Immigration free rein in picking and choosing what immigrants are allowed into the country (which the Libs unfortunately wound up supporting in the end). But there hasn't yet been much attention paid to the question of whether Canada's system of governance is already set up to allow for too much executive power to set policy. And I'd think now would be the time to raise the issue as part of the discussion of the limits on top-down power.

Of course, a complete review of the federal regulatory structure is probably a bit ambitious for a single blog post. But let's look at least in general terms at what can be done to keep more policy-making power in the hands of Parliament - rather than (as the Cons seem to want) limiting MPs' role to deciding whether or not to vote out the current holders of executive power.

Nearly any statute will include regulation-making authority to facilitate the implementation of the policy included in the statute, and I certainly don't object to that. But many also seem to include a broad scope for delegated power to effectively take precedence over the purpose of a particular law - e.g. by dictating how the policy underlying the statute will be applied (as in the immigration categories discussed above), or by allowing for exemptions which undermine the point of a policy (see the Cons' wholesale elimination of environmental assessments for infrastructure projects).

In effect, there's a continuum of delegation ranging from having policy determined mostly by statute with the executive role based primarily on implementing the will of Parliament, to having Parliament set up a series of departmental structures which are close to policy-neutral which can then be used for whatever purpose a particular government sees fit. And it's worth taking a serious look at whether Canada has veered too far toward the latter.

Of course, there's a limit to how much detail can be dealt with by statute. And we know all too well from the climate change experience that the Cons aren't above flat-out ignoring the law of the land if it doesn't suit their mood.

But in order to ensure that the policy actually implemented by Canada's executive branch reflects the will of Parliament, it's still worth defaulting to the position that the purpose of any given area of legislative action should be governed by statute and implemented by the executive - such that broad policy issues worthy of debate in Parliament aren't delegated to be decided at the ministerial level.

In closing, I'll recognize that any suggestion along the lines of the above is bound to be met with the answer that it's easy to impose limitations on government when one actually isn't involved in running it. And in theory, an ideal government might well function more smoothly if it didn't have to clear its policy choices with the people's representatives.

To that, I'd counter that it's equally easy to say we should blindly trust that whoever's in power will do the right thing when one actually holds it (or expects to hold it in the near future). But surely one of the lessons of Harper's stay in power has to be that we shouldn't take the good faith of the executive branch of government for granted - a point which even Michael Ignatieff seems to be acknowledging lately. And if ensuring that Harper and his ilk can't use Parliament as little more than a rubber stamp means requiring governments of all stripes to be more accountable to Parliament, then that's a tradeoff worth making.

The reviews are in

Lawrence Martin:
(The Conservatives) campaigned heavily against Liberal abuse of power and promised a new era of accountability. And the Accountability Act did, in fact, contain many fine reforms. But as Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch (who advised the Conservatives on the legislation) will tell you, a goodly number of the proposed reforms never made it to the table, and others that were enacted have since been violated in spirit. When Stephen Harper's all-controlling proclivities are factored in, the end result has been a further worsening of the problem.

People don't use the term “overconcentration of power” so much any more. It has been replaced by phrases akin to one-man rule. Everyone in the governing party falls at the feet of the Sun King. It's been four years since Mr. Harper came to power, and almost that long since anyone in his party has had the nerve to question his decisions. Maverick MP Garth Turner spoke out once and was banished from the party. The talented Michael Chong did the same and has been a backbencher since.

The democratic deficit increases for the simple reason that the government finds democracy too restraining. Power cannot be shared. Mouths need be closed. Loose charges sink barges. Most revealing was one of the government's defences for its latest suspension of Parliament. It's easier to get work done, Conservatives said, when Parliament isn't in session. How could anyone disagree? When there is no opposition across the aisle, autocracy takes the place of democracy.

Sensing that democratic reform is becoming a top-drawer issue, Mr. Ignatieff – his Liberals are back to work despite the shutdown – promised this week to give more power to federal watchdogs who have been under attack by the Conservatives for not being toadies. That's fine, but bearing in mind what happened to Mr. Martin's high-minded intentions, he needs to come up with much more. He needs a wide-ranging reform plan that will substantially diminish a prime minister's powers.

He could start with measures to reverse what began 30 years ago, measures that strip away the authority of the unelected in the PMO and turn those functions over to elected members. The enormity of prime ministerial might is such that a downsizing would still leave the office as one of the strongest among Western democracies.
And James Travers:
Conservatives found new ways and means so dark and Machiavellian that Liberals were left gawking in envious wonder.

Imagine a confidential manual instructing chairs to manipulate, obstruct and, when necessary, sabotage committees. Imagine directly challenging the independence and objectivity of the chief electoral officer, sacking the nuclear safety watchdog for dutiful barking and then systematically choking counterparts probing issues as diverse and seminal as timely access to information, complaints against the RCMP and who knew what and when about Afghanistan prisoner abuse.

While all the buzz around here, not much in that authoritarian behaviour disturbed the nation's cozy sleep. A record number of voters stayed home even when Harper shafted the spirit of his own fixed-date law by forcing the fall 2008 election.
That mask has now fallen away, exposing the bare face of self-interest. Parliament is dark because Harper is tired of being embarrassed by rivals shining their little lights into Afghanistan shadows.

Academics will spend years studying how and why a tipping point was reached. But it's already obvious that the unintended consequence of Harper's repeat gambit is that Canadians are making dotted-line connections between lesser events and greater threats.
Harper's great unintentional gift to Canadians is a wake-up call. Finally alert, their attention is the political variable he didn't calculate and now can't control or ignore.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On blind loyalty

Chrystal picks up on one hilarious implication of Adam Daifallah's whinefest, as it suggests that the very National Post he's writing for is a fringe media source. But it's worth noting that Daifallah's argument does at least as much damage to his own credibility as it does the National Post's:
Third, and most importantly, the Tories had few outside defenders to help. Aside from MPs and Senators, party staffers and a coterie of Ottawa lobbyist-pundits with Tory connections, hardly anyone has taken a public stand for the Conservatives. The party simply does not have a critical mass of extra-political organizations and individuals who will come to their aid in times like this. In contrast, in the U.S., the Republican Party has a cadre of like-minded groups and people willing to charge to its defence on a moment’s notice.
The proroguing controversy is not really a left-right issue. Some on the right are quite upset about this move too. But the hard lesson for the Conservatives is clear — the Tories simply do not have a ready and able roster of media personalities, groups and activists to count on when they need help. The Tories will likely weather this storm. But unless they cultivate some outside help, next time they might not be so lucky.
So what's notably missing from Daifallah's complaint? Read his post in full, and try to find even the slightest suggestion that Harper's prorogation actually deserves to be defended on the merits.

Of course, this is a factor I'd mentioned some time ago. Simply put, one could never have expected a strong principled defence of Harper because the Cons' initial spin was based on declaring the issue unworthy of principled discussion to begin with. And even if that hadn't been the first line of messaging from Harper, there's awfully little reason to think there was any particular constituency (even among the numerous groups who normally echo the Cons' message at every turn) who would be eager to speak out in favour of arbitrary executive actions to shut down Canada's Parliament.

So Daifallah is making the argument that "in times like these" (seemingly meaning anytime they face negative publicity), the Cons are entitled to a blind partisan defence in the media and elsewhere regardless of whether the actions being discussed actually warrant it. And if they don't yet have quite the army of sycophants that they'd like...then Daifallah considers building one to be a more important priority than any effort to listen to the Canadians who actually have mobilized around the issue on the opposite side, or indeed anybody else who isn't willing to sacrifice their own credibility for the sole benefit of Stephen Harper.

In effect, Daifallah's post amounts to a lamentation that unlike their cousins to the south, the Harper Conservatives don't benefit from the existence of a massive zombie media empire devoted solely to amplifying their immediate message regardless of whether it's right or wrong. And the fact that Daifallah honestly seems to consider that both a reasonable expectation and a precondition for political success speaks volumes about the contempt he and his Con fellows have for the idea that genuine political debate might actually matter.

Democratic renewal reading

If there's anything about the CIW's report and recommendations on democratic engagement that might be worth questioning, it's the focus on ease of involvement rather than perceived benefits of involvement. That strikes me as missing a significant part of the problem: while there have been some roadblocks to participation on the voting front, I'd think the general rule is that the political parties make it fairly easy for anybody wanting to vote, volunteer or otherwise get involved to do so.

Instead, the more important issue seems to be a perceived lack of ability to make a difference by actually putting in the effort. And it seems far too plausible that a focus on process rather than the ability to influence substantive outcomes might only give a free pass to the culture of top-down control.

That quibble aside, the materials are still well worth a read - particularly at a time when there's a strong opportunity to actually push for a more responsive political system. And hopefully by the next time the CIW does such a survey, we'll have some more positive trends to point to.

History repeating

I suppose that given the similarities in paranoid style between Stephen Harper and Richard Nixon, something like this was inevitable. Time for a wagering pool as to who ends up playing the role of John Dean by the time all is said and done?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The reviews are in

Don Martin:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to stuff the Senate later this week, filling five vacancies and officially placing the Red Chamber under true blue Tory control for the first time in a dozen Liberal-dominated years.

There's speculation at the lucky appointee's names, but none about their common characteristic and responsibilities. They will all be card-carrying Conservatives and swear to vote on PMO command.

With that, the reform of the Senate will be complete. There'll be no pretense of the Senate as a collection of honorable citizens trying to provide a different take on legislation. It'll be a lapdog kennel.
A key priority that drove him to prorogue Parliament was to anoint the official Senate majority, place the legislative study committees under Conservative control and hand out marching orders to his senatorial hand-lickers.

In practice and reality, the Senate will have become an extension of the elected Conservative caucus, their robotic role confined to expediting government legislation without meddlesome examination or hostile amendment.
Starting with the return of Parliament in early March, Canada's revamped Senate will be under Conservative control and, just like any other prime minister, Mr. Harper will count every vote and tolerate no dissent from those who slow or obstruct his agenda.

It's reason enough to drive an honourable Senator to think about drink. It's also enough to reinforce any thoughts Canadians might have about abolishing their jobs as a cost-savings measure.

Less than altruistic

Murray Mandryk's latest probably deserves a complete fisking. But for now, let's stick with noting how warped our political discourse must be if an anti-tax group's predictable call for constant tax cuts (instead of using public funds on any other priority) is somehow being hyped as the height of publicly-interested policy development.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

What Dr. Dawg said

While I'm not as critical about the Libs' proposal to deal with prorogation, this much strikes me as exactly right:
With the current groundswell of public concern about Canadian democracy, this is precisely the time when fundamental democratic reform as a whole should be up for review: the electoral system, the question of the Senate (elected or abolished), checks and balances to offset the entire range of the Prime Minister's considerable powers, and so on. Call it a democratic recalibration.

The process begins

There hasn't been much news from the Saskatchewan NDP's policy review since last fall's consultation meetings. But the official website went live yesterday, along with more information about the process to come:
“New Democrats are at our best when we are reaching out to people across Saskatchewan and listening to their concerns, their ideas and their dreams,” Saskatoon Massey Place MLA and Chair of the Policy Review Task Force Cam Broten said. “That’s exactly what this is all about: it’s about listening to Saskatchewan people, engaging in a conversation about the future of this great province, and then moving forward to turn those dreams into reality.”

The public phase of the Policy Review follows an internal consultation with party members about how best to move forward with such an initiative. The process will include:

* Policy gatherings in communities throughout Saskatchewan, involving guest speakers and breakout discussion groups;
* A website containing video and relevant documents from the policy gatherings;
* Kits available so that groups of people could host discussions on their own and feed information back into the process; and
* Opportunities for input by email and mail.

Key themes for discussion will include:

* The jobs of today and tomorrow;
* Energy, environment and the economy;
* Farming and the rural economy;
* The role of government in the economy; and
* Kitchen-table issues for Saskatchewan families (including health, education, and social programs).
The first Policy Review gathering will occur in Moose Jaw on Saturday, March 6th from 12:00 to 3:00PM and will focus on kitchen-table issues for Saskatchewan families. Further details will be announced at
For now, the biggest news (alongside the appointment of Cam Broten to chair the process) looks to be a heavy focus on the economy as compared to social issues, as well as a plan to use online media primarily as a distribution mechanism rather than an opportunity for live consultation.

But there would seem to be plenty of room for the review to take different directions depending on what it hears from Saskatchewan residents. So for NDP members - or other concerned citizens - looking to influence the province's policy direction, the meetings starting in March will offer a perfect opportunity to make one's case to a party eager to cultivate new ideas.

The reviews are in

The Ottawa Citizen:
For many years now, constitutional experts and other political observers have lamented the concentration of power in the prime minister's office. They've warned, persuasively, that this concentration of power erodes Canadian democracy -- and it doesn't matter who the prime minister is or to which party he or she belongs.

Harper's arbitrary abuse of the power to prorogue has caused many Canadians to wake up and realize that all might not be well with our parliamentary system. Although the Governor General is in theory able to restrain prime ministerial power by denying a PM the right to use prorogation for partisan purposes, Canadians have discovered that in practice prime ministers do what they want.

Have the powers of the Governor General atrophied to the point they don't exist? Is this a good thing, in that the GG is unelected and shouldn't have real powers anyway? Then again, aren't the aides and minions in the PMO also unelected, yet wield more power than any legislator except the PM himself? Everyone in Ottawa has heard anecdotes of 20-something staffers from the PMO scolding senior cabinet ministers, and loving it. That can't be great for Canadian democracy, either.

What began as a debate revolving around an arcane term is turning into a much bigger and more interesting conversation.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Learning by example

Sure, most Canadians would be concerned if it's true that one or more members of the University of Manitoba Campus Conservatives might have acted as agent provocateurs at Winnipeg's anti-prorogation rally, including by attempting to pretend that a "Harper = Hitler" sign formed part of the protest. But let's be fair to the Con agitators: they're fully living up to the standards for honesty and civility set for them by Canada's Minister for Democratic Reform.

On competing proposals

The Libs have now offered up their response to the NDP's call to limit the Prime Minister's power to request prorogation. And the proposal offers at least some interesting material for the opposition parties to work with - though it also falls short of the NDP's in one key way.

Let's start with that major weakness in the Libs' plan, which would:
• Prevent a request for prorogation within the first year after a Speech from the Throne, unless the House consents;
• Prevent a prorogation longer than one calendar month without the consent of the House;
• Prevent a request for prorogation if a matter of confidence has been scheduled in the House unless the House consents;
In effect, the Libs have chosen to build in loopholes for little apparent reason. Where the NDP's plan would require the consent of the House of Comments for any prorogation request, the Libs want to reserve some power for the PM to order prorogation even in the face of majority opposition. And the criteria chosen aren't that far off from the incident which has called attention to Harper's abuses in the first place: if Harper had allowed the House of Commons to sit for just a couple of days in January of this year, he'd then have reached the one-year mark and been entitled to request prorogation without a vote.

So I'd think it's worth asking whether the Libs really see any particular reason to legitimize a prorogation intended to avoid scrutiny simply because it's been over a year since the last throne speech - or whether the better presumption is that prorogation should always require the consent of the House.

That said, the Libs' proposal does include two useful additions to the status quo. First, there's the requirement for advance notice, reasons and debate before any prorogation - which would seem to create a useful deterrent in that the government would be required to justify their belief that they've fulfilled their goals in the immediate session of Parliament.

Perhaps more importantly, though, is the idea that the effect of prorogation should be changed:
• Allow Parliamentary Committees to continue to function during the period when Parliament is prorogued until the start of the new session.
Now, I'd think the suggestion would best be seen as a piece of a more comprehensive set of reforms to Parliament. After all, it's rather useless to create a theoretical opportunity for committees to meet when the Cons can shut them down simply by refusing to show up.

But by making a change in the meaning of prorogation to allow committees to continue their work (and presumably allowing for other functions to also continue to the extent amendments might be made to the rules), the Libs' proposal would drain prorogation of a substantial part of its harmful effect. And that, combined with the requirement for a closing debate for the prorogued session, would significantly change the cost-benefit analysis for future PMs of all stripes.

In sum, I'd hope the NDP and Libs are open enough to each other's proposals to incorporate the best parts of each into a common front. But it has to be for the best that both are at least working toward ways of reining in Harper and future PMs alike.

More unhelpful suggestions

Shorter Derek Fildebrandt:

Dude, I just had the best idea! I know it sounds kinda crazy, but just hear me out: what if Stephen Harper started turning every vote in the House of Commons into a confidence showdown in order to force his agenda on an unwilling majority? I can't believe nobody's thought of this before!!!

Harper-Proofing Canadian Democracy: Candidate Nominations

Following up on my earlier posts, let's take a more detailed look at some ways of bring power back to the political grassroots - starting with the law which is normally seen as having centralized power in the office of each Canadian party leader.

Under the Canada Elections Act, the default rule is that a candidate requires a party leader's signature in order to be nominated. On its own, this might seem to be a fairly harmless step - but in retrospect, it can be seen as the source of much of the ability of many party leaders to trample on the grassroots, as preferred candidates can be assured of a nomination while anybody who's seen as dangerously independent can be ruled unfit to run by the central party.

Based on the few party structures actually required by the Canada Elections Act, there aren't many obvious alternatives to endorse candidates Canada-wide. But I wonder if a relatively small change in a nomination process might serve to restore at least some nominating power to the riding level.

After all, the Canada Elections Act does provide for the registration of riding associations (officially "Electoral District Associations"). With those serving as the most obvious possible source of local approval for a candidate, what would happen if the rules for nominations were changed such that where a party has a registered association, it's the riding association's officers who have to sign off on candidate nominations?

This wouldn't make for a cure-all by any stretch of the imagination, as riding associations themselves can only be registered with the approval of a party leader. But at the very least, I'd think it would be a significant source of embarrassment for a party leader to have to de-register a riding association and officially impose a new one in order to control candidate selection - in effect signalling a slight to the party's most visible presence in a riding rather than only to excluded individuals. And there would likely be some real costs to that step as well to the extent the previous riding association has any financial resources or volunteers that don't transfer over.

Again, the ideal solution in both registering riding associations and nominating candidates would be to develop some other mechanism aside from the leader's confirmation to establish a party's approval. But even if that isn't practical (and I wouldn't rule it out entirely - e.g. how does the U.S. certify candidates in the absence of official "leaders"?), it's worth seeing what can be done to loosen the hold that leaders now have on a party's potential candidates - and a direct connection between riding-level officials and candidate nominations would seem to be a good start.

The reviews are in

The Star-Phoenix editorial board:
Pundits and political observers have been almost savage in ripping the prime minister apart for this decision. They point to the bills that died on the order paper involving such issues as tougher crime legislation that the Conservatives had claimed were crucial to implement, the committee work that came to an abrupt end, and of the taxpayers dollars going to waste.

These are voices you expect to hear on such occasions. But it is the chorus of average Canadians who are raising the roof this time that makes the proroguing issue different. There is something about it that has touched off a firestorm of emotion and has challenged the notion that average Canadians, and especially young Canadians, do not care about politics.

The outrage is encouraging.

While it is frustrating to watch Mr. Harper remain unmoved when the people of his country are so clearly unhappy with one of his decisions, it is good to see people are doing what they can to fight back. And if protests and Facebook groups are not on the PM's radar, his recent dismal polling numbers definitely should be.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Count 'em up

As Aaron Wherry notes, the final count from the CAPP rallies is roughly equal to the number of ralliers on both sides of the coalition showdown a year earlier. (Or one can see the count as being roughly 19,000 to 3 rather than an even split among a similar number of people). And that increase in interest from the anti-Harper side comes despite the fact that unlike last year, the immediate identity of Canada's government didn't hang in the balance.

Of course the Cons will try to keep pretending the public outrage doesn't matter. But does anybody think Harper can expect to remain in power much longer if that pattern continues?

On unhelpful suggestions

Shorter Norman Spector:

Dude, I just had the best idea! I know it sounds kinda crazy, but just hear me out: what if Stephen Harper tried wrapping himself in the flag while being condescending and dismissive toward anybody who disagrees with him? I can't believe nobody's thought of this before!!!

Sunday Morning 'Rider Blogging - Free Agent Options

With the hiring of Brendan Taman as general manager, the 'Riders now need to turn their attention to keeping up the steady stream of incoming player talent that's served the team so well under the previous two GMs. For the most part, that talent will figure to come through the draft or through new imports of talent from the U.S. - but with the CFL's free agent list having been released recently, let's follow up on my previous post on the 'Riders' free agents with a look at a few players who might be worth picking up from other CFL teams.

I'll note that the usual problem with acquiring free-agent talent in other sports leagues is only amplified by the CFL's restrictive salary cap. It takes a certain amount of presumptuousness for any team to figure it can more accurately value a player for a particular role than the team which actually employed him the previous season. And any time teams get into a bidding war for a player, it's only the one with the most optimistic view of the player which will win out - making it very likely that high-profile free-agent signings will prove to be a lousy value.

With that in mind, the list below isn't intended to reflect the best talent available on the free-agent market. Obviously if the 'Riders got to pick whoever they wanted off the list at a fixed salary, the likes of Ricky Foley or Kerry Watkins would rank well above most of the players below - but operating on the assumption that it'll cost a mint to try to lure them off their current teams, the 'Riders are best off looking elsewhere. And some others who may be great values on the right team might be less so if Saskatchewan already has lots of talent at their positions - e.g. any team in need of non-import talent at receiver would want to take a look at the Als' Eric Deslauriers, but in Saskatchewan he'd struggle to get into the mix with the likes of Fantuz, Bagg, Getzlaf, Nicolson and McKoy ahead of him on the depth chart.

So my focus is on players who seem to have a reasonable chance to play above their perceived current value for the 'Riders - meaning players who are blocked or underused, or who may be available cheaply based on their falling out of favour with their current team.

1. Jermaine McElveen - DE/DT (Montreal)

McElveen may be the ideal case study in a player who can be a high-value free-agent signing. He has all the athleticism one could ask for in a defensive lineman and has seemingly played well when given the opportunity, but he's trapped behind two All-Star defensive ends in Montreal. So an offer of a standard starter's job and salary might well be enough to win him over to the Green and White - and could make McElveen the most important pickup of the offseason for a team which is looking at major losses at the position.

2. Charleston Hughes - DE/LB (Calgary)

After spending much of 2009 in the Philadelphia Eagles' camp, Hughes returned to the Stamps and was effective after returning. There's every reason to think Calgary will want him back, but Hughes is apparently looking south again for now, meaning that he figures to hit free agency in February. And if he's going to end up back in the CFL, he may be interested in taking over the spotlight that helped John Chick earn his NFL contract rather than going back to a team which has plenty of other defensive line talent around him.

3. Reggie McNeal - WR/QB (Toronto)

McNeal bounced from one role to another throughout his Argo career - at first resisting requests to play receiver due to his preference to play quarterback, then losing that job as well when dominant performances which made him the Argos' top receiving threat for a couple of games at a time were followed by drop-filled debacles. It's doubtful that McNeal would want to return to Toronto or go through another roller-coaster experience, so if he wants to give the CFL another try, he's probably best off looking for a job as a #4 or 5 receiver who can make use of his athleticism on long strikes downfield and trick plays without being counted on as a primary possession receiver. Needless to say, the 'Riders would make for a perfect fit - and McNeal's upside as an emergency (or more?) quarterback would be an added bonus.

4. Jonathan Brown - DE (Toronto)

At 34 years old, Brown certainly isn't a long-term solution on the defensive line - which is exactly why the rebuilding Argos might not want to keep him around. But for the 'Riders, he could be a useful stopgap for a year or two if the prime-age options don't pan out and Saskatchewan's youngsters aren't yet ready.

5. James Johnson - CB (Winnipeg)

I still find it surprising that Johnson hasn't been given another shot at a starting cornerback job since he was benched by the 'Riders in 2008. Granted, he gave up a couple of brutal touchdown receptions - but before that, he'd played as well at the corner for half a season as anybody I can remember seeing in green and white. But even if he's never going to play corner again, there may be another way to make use of Johnson's skill set defensively: if teams don't want to count on him alone in space, then why not make use of his athleticism and ball-hawking skills as a safety while making sure there's more coverage around in case of a breakdown?