Saturday, July 31, 2010

On false deadlines

Virtually every story about the census over the last couple of days has included some mention of the fact that the Cons' gutted version is "scheduled to go to the printers" on August 9, with some implication that the date will serve as a cutoff for any possible changes. But lest anybody take that to be the end of the story, can we agree that there's no reason to declare final any decision to bull ahead as long as it's possible to make up for lost time for less cost than the $30 million the Cons plan to dump down the drain?

Any day now...

...this whole census thing is bound to go away on its own, figure the Cons. That is, if one ignores the Calgary Herald:
The federal Conservatives should reverse their stance on killing the mandatory long form of the Canadian census. From academics to genealogists to corporations, everyone except Stephen Harper's Tories seems opposed to the introduction of voluntary completion forms, replacing the long form. Economists, think-tanks, professional associations, non-profits, labour unions, religious groups, municipalities and corporations oppose the move, which will cost taxpayers millions more but lead to inferior results.

Harper officials have tried to spin this change as proof that they are the party that supports smaller and less intrusive government. And yet, the Tories plan on spending another $30 million to send the detailed long forms to 30 per cent of households instead of 20 per cent, in hopes that at least 20 per cent of those will voluntarily agree to answer the questions.

How does spending more money equal smaller government? It's ironic to be sure.
This calls for a graceful about-face by the prime minister, as the count is overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the census intact, mandatory forms and all.
And the National Post:
We are on record opposing the government's slapdash approach to cancelling the mandatory long-form census. Nothing has occurred in the two weeks since to change that opinion or to alter the impression that this was a hasty decision, and that the dubious explanations now being offered for it were concocted after the fact.
(I)t's making the government look foolish, and it doesn't appear that anything more salacious will come down the pipe to distract the chattering classes' attention before autumn. For this self-interested reason--and also, for the more important and substantial reason that good census data is a valuable resource -- the government should accept a compromise solution offered by the National Statistics Council: Remove certain long-form questions that are deemed particularly invasive and eliminate the threat of imprisonment from the relevant legislation.

Enough already. It's past time to turn the page.
And the Royal City Record:
The plan to replace the long form mandatory census with a voluntary one has been almost universally panned. In fact, the longtime bureaucrat in charge of the department actually resigned over the decision.

It is still puzzling why Harper has not done some back-pedalling.
Now, for the average taxpayer, it may seem like an arcane battle, and many would probably be delighted to not have to fill in the long form. But those same folks may not be so delighted when government makes decisions on flimsy data and they end up with less services - or worse, services placed in areas for political purposes and not based on facts.

Making the census long form voluntary will ensure that some individuals will simply not be represented in the data.

And to make decisions without that information is just plain dumb, as SFU statistics professor Carl Schwarz says, "Making decisions with poor data is worse than making decisions with no data. If you've got poor data, you make decisions with this aura of respectability that just isn't there."
And William Christian:
Pity poor Tony Clement, the federal industry minister. A bright and decent guy, though without the backbone to resign, he has to take the fall for the prime minister’s decision to cancel the long-form census. Without the details provided by the long-form census, future governments, both provincial and federal, will not have the information effectively to introduce social welfare programs.

No money, no information. Bye-bye, social planning. And a faith-based foreign policy.

Maybe Harper’s agenda is becoming less hidden.

Laying the groundwork

I suppose there's enough news value in the fact that a federal leader is actually signalling some openness to an election that I can't blame the Mark for its headline attached to Jack Layton's interview. But the real story looks to me to be Layton's message on the outcome of an election when it happens:
Only in Canada could you go out and say that a party who has twice as many people who don't support them as who do is somehow holding a lead and is able to be the government. It's ridiculous. You've got two Canadians over here that don't agree with this government, and you've got one that does, and yet they get to govern with virtually a hundred per cent of the power in terms of the executive branch of government, appointing people to different posts, gradually transforming our public polity. It's ridiculous...To me, what's interesting is that the two old parties are barely able to get 50% between them now of the support of Canadians. What that says to me is that there are a lot of Canadians whose minds are open to some alternatives.
Of course, there's plenty more work to be done in sending the message that there would be far more legitimacy to a coalition government which can actually point to the approval of a majority of voters, rather than a single party that tries to cling to power without either popular or Parliamentary support. But it's a huge plus to see Layton making the case - and the more he and the rest of us do so now, the less traction the Cons' spin will have when the next campaign comes.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Musical interlude

Massive Attack - Radiation Ruling the Nation

Well said

In case there was any doubt, Simon Enoch explains why the Fraser Institute has been so eager to trash the long-form census:
One might wonder how the Fraser Institute can possible defend the evisceration of social statistics that it also depends upon for its research.

That is until you realize that the Fraser Institute has been painfully allergic to evidence-based research since its inception. What does accurate data matter when you can simply manipulate it to suit your desired ends? Whether it's flawed content analysis, grossly inflated tax numbers, disregard for socio-economic indicators, misrepresenting the HST, rigged hospital and school "report cards," or bogus "Tax Freedom" days, the Fraser has always been "fact-averse." The Fraser institute has never cared about the validity of social statistics before, so why should it start now?

With a voluntary long-form almost guaranteed to bias in favour of the affluent, the Fraser can end evidence of poverty, discrimination, and all the other social ills it has been trying to disappear from Canadians' view in one fell swoop. For the factually challenged Fraser, it's win-win.

Things that go without saying

Gail Lethbridge:
I give Canadians more credit than Stephen Harper does.
Which makes sense, because the amount of credit Stephen Harper gives Canadians is too small to be measured by the science Harper abhors so much.

On legacies

John picks up on Scott Adams' question about "legacy systems", and has some useful examples of areas where it would be a plus to effectively start policy development from scratch. But while I tend to agree with John's ideas, it's worth highlighting a crucial distinction that Adams seems to miss:
One of the biggest problems with the world is that we're bound by so many legacy systems. For example, it's hard to deal with global warming because there are so many entrenched interests. It's problematic to get power from where it can best be generated to where people live. The tax system is a mess. Banking is a hodgepodge of regulations and products glued together. I could go on. The point is that anything that has been around for awhile is a complicated and inconvenient mess compared to what its ideal form could be.

My idea for today is that established nations could launch startup countries within their own borders, free of all the legacy restrictions in the parent country.
What Adams seems to overlook is that many of the most problematic "legacy systems" (the "entrenched interests" blocking action on global warming, the lobbyists and their benefactors pushing for tax exemptions and regulatory loopholes, etc.) are private actors rather than public ones, and would face no restriction in their ability to operate across borders. That means that their resources built up elsewhere would undoubtedly be applied in any "startup countries" from day one, ensuring that any new systems would be developed around their interests. And in the absence of any countervailing forces, it's all too likely that they'd end up being able to turn any untilled soil into an even more tilted (if perhaps less complex) playing field than the one which Adams is seeking to improve.

Which leads to a more general philosophical point which should be particularly salient based on recent experience, whether it's the Harper Government of Vandals shredding whatever it can get its hands on or the Wall government's all-out attacks on the labour movement. As we sort out the nature of progressivism and seek to apply it, part of our theory needs to ensure that whatever progress we make is durable enough to withstand even the most antagonistic of future governments. And that means encouraging the development of positive "legacy systems" as counterweights to the interests which would otherwise crowd out all other voices.

The reviews are in

The Leader-Post editorial board pulls no punches over the Sask Party's attempt to politicize the hiring of Saskatchewan's Chief Electoral Officer:
Saskatchewan Justice Minister Don Morgan was absolutely right the other day when he said "obstructionist" and "grossly unfair" tactics were to blame for the stalemate over hiring a new chief electoral officer for the province.

The problem is that Morgan is directing his wrath at the NDP Opposition, instead of where it really belongs -- his own Saskatchewan Party colleagues.

He'll get no sympathy from us that he and his caucus feel stuck with an acting chief electoral officer they don't want. Our sympathies lie with Dave Wilkie, who has been treated disgracefully in a supposedly non-political process.
Wilkie has said little, other than stating he has no idea why the Sask. Party caucus rejected him. Morgan won't say either, though the NDP suggests it's Wilkie's supposed past investigation of a potential violation of election law by a Sask. Party MLA. Whatever the reason, the Sask. Party has cast a shadow over the reputation of a senior public servant and painted itself into a corner.

It's time for Premier Brad Wall to show some leadership by overruling his caucus. The head of Elections Saskatchewan is an independent officer of the legislature -- there's absolutely no room for politics in the selection process.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The root of their woes

January 2009: The Con government in Ottawa decrees that not a dime of federal stimulus funding will flow if provinces and municipalities don't put matching funding on the table:
Nearly $12-billion federal dollars will be made available for “shovel-ready” public works projects across Canada that can be commenced quickly, but there's a catch. Provinces and municipalities will have to contribute nearly $9-billion more in order to get the roads, bridges and sewer upgrade work started.
In other words, much of the supposedly budgeted money won't flow if municipalities and provinces don't put their own money on the table first.
July 2010: The Cons' media proxies start peddling the line that if provinces and municipalities are now facing budget crunches, it's their own fault for being foolish enough to take the Cons' orders:
(P)rovinces also experienced shrinking tax revenues during the recession, and felt the need to match federal infrastructure spending to help kick-start their economies. As a whole, provincial governments have estimated their collective deficits to be almost $34 billion in fiscal year 2009-10. Their collective deficits are expected to improve slightly in 2010-11.
You can see where this is going: straight to another round of the provinces’ favourite game, “Blame Ottawa”. Provincial premiers will bleat about the need to increase federal transfers, even if their own largesse is at the root of their woes. (“But we had to build all those hockey arenas in small towns – heck, the feds were doing it!”)

Purely coincidental

Since Kory Teneycke took over, Sun Media has become a laughingstock for turning itself into nothing more than a subsidiary of the Harper Conservatives.

Since Kory Teneycke took over, Sun Media has chosen to poll leadership traits purely as a two-way contest between Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff (contrary to its previous practice) in order to pretend that the most popular leader in the country doesn't exist.

I wonder if there might be a connection between the two.

Thursday Morning Links

- There's some moderately good news on the climate change front, as key states and provinces within the Western Climate Initiative are planning to move forward with a cap-and-trade system. I'll be somewhat skeptical until the system actually gets put in place - but better to have Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and others at least doing something than for denialists and obstructionists at the national level to completely control the debate.

- Macleans' report on the Cons' waste of gobs of stimulus money is worth a read in full. But most damning is the contrast between some of the frivolities that were approved, and the Cons' rejection of more useful but less photo-friendly infrastructure proposals:
(E)ven for those (projects) that were about roads and sewers, the average size is quite small, just $2.5 million—about one-tenth the size of the ferry terminal in tiny Klemtu. That’s hardly the scale of infrastructure many observers say is needed for the future. Last week the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario released a report that argued the infrastructure deficit in Canada—pegged at roughly $130 billion—could cost the economy 1.1 per cent of annual GDP growth over the next 50 years. “In a lot of cases municipalities would tell you they weren’t the best types of projects in terms of city building,” says Andy Manahan, the organization’s executive director.

Some municipalities did try to tackle crumbling infrastructure, only to have more photo-op friendly projects get approved by Ottawa instead. In Brantford, Ont., councillor Richard Carpenter complained to a local newspaper that the city asked for roads, and got hockey arenas and a farmers’ market instead. “It turns out the ribbon-cutting projects are the priority for this government,” he said.
- Murray Mandryk nicely recounts a few of the reasons why Brad Wall can't be trusted:
But what seems to be lost on Wall and his government right now is that trust is never a forever thing in politics. It's something premiers have to work to keep and events of late have surely taken a serious toll on Wall's trust factor.
Worse yet, are public suspicions that the political games this government is playing might affect the outcome of elections.

The idiocy of the Sask. Party caucus in rejecting the agreed-to candidate for chief electoral officer is quickly becoming the Sask. Party's version of the federal Conservatives' long-form census mess -- an issue the public wouldn't otherwise care about that's turned into a political embarrassment of their own making.
Accusations by current PC party leader Rick Swenson that the Sask. Party has conspired to deprive the rival Progressive Conservatives of this money to prevent it from mounting effective political campaigns have plagued Wall's entire tenure as leader. It will now be up to the courts to decide, but any whiff of involvement by Sask. Party principals in this Trust Fund may do serious damage to Wall's own trust factor.

And about the last thing the Sask. Party leader needs is any more reason for the public to distrust him.
- For those in Saskatchewan interested in defending civil liberties in the wake of the G20 security fiasco, stop by the Saskatchewan G20 Solidarity site to lend your voice to the cause. (And for those elsewhere, check out the national version.)

- Finally, Heath Packman's CCPA report on the massive costs of nuclear power is worth a read in full. But helpfully, Postmedia's coverage has picked up the key points:
According to studies cited by Packman, the capital costs of creating new nuclear power are estimated at roughly $4,000 per kilowatt hour. Nuclear is the most expensive, along with solar, which costs the same amount. Coal ($2,438), biomass ($2,500), wind ($1,700) and natural gas ($700) are the other options cited.

As for fixed annual operations and maintenance, nuclear was the most expensive at $100 per kilowatt hour, followed by coal ($45), solar ($33), wind ($25) and natural gas ($20).

Opting for nuclear power in the current environment could cause power bills to triple, said Packman.
Packman said nuclear advocates often underestimate the actual costs of nuclear power, minimizing the construction and decommissioning expenses and over-selling its greenhouse-gas emission advantages over other sources of power. Every country that has constructed reactors has been forced to subsidize the project.

More reviews are in

Might the Cons be hoping for their gutting of the census to simply fade into the background as an issue? If so, they may want to read...

Haroon Siddiqui:
Instead of Munir Sheikh resigning as head of Statistics Canada, Tony Clement should have quit the cabinet. It was his dishonest suggestion — that he had the agency’s support in replacing the compulsory long census form with a voluntary one — that prompted Sheikh to depart.
It was heartening to hear such principled civil servants.

By contrast, Tory politicians have been reprehensible. Harper has been mute, while his minions put up lame defences.
It is a measure of Harper’s intransigence that he has dug in his heels despite the four-week-long non-partisan national uproar during the summer holiday season when Canadians normally have better things to do than pay much attention to politics.

The forms for the census in May next year must go to the printers within days. Yet Harper is holding the census hostage to his ideology, while also leaving Statistics Canada leaderless and rudderless.
James Travers:
Behind closed doors and without meaningful consultation, Harper and his cabinet rubber-stamped a pre-conceived conclusion. They are now characteristically defending it by grotesquely distorting facts.

Tony Clement’s fear-mongering about census scofflaws dragged away in chains and Stockwell Day’s bizarre suggestion that it’s really about discovering if your neighbour is Jewish would be funny if not so frightening. After making the wrong decision in the wrong way for the wrong reasons, Conservatives are resorting to the Big Lie in hopes of being mistaken for defenders of the little people.
Harper’s government climbs opinion polls when Canadians are content that the country is being competently managed. It slides down them when ideology and incompetence disturb the national reverie of political indifference.

Jarred into wakefulness by the sound of summer gunfire, Canadians are confronted by the spectacle of a wounded prime minister leading a gang that can’t shoot straight.
Lawrence Martin, albeit with the inevitable "blame Giorno" attempt to salvage Harper's personal reputation as a strategist:
In addition to several other control-freak eruptions, social conservatism came to the fore with abortion funding left out of the maternal health initiative, funding cuts for Toronto’s Gay Pride day, a planned employment equity review and, most important, the decision on ending the long-form census.

The upshot has been no change in the government’s image and zero improvement in its popularity numbers. Unable to score through these times, Tories must be wondering whether they can ever score.

When he became PM, Mr. Harper wanted to gradually enlarge the Conservative tent. That required his having a team that could curb his raw appetites and fashion an appeal to the mainstream. He had people like that initially. But then the yes chorus came, the ideological shackles tightened, and the tent got smaller.
And the Chronicle-Herald editorial board:
(T)o anyone with a sense of proportion, the Tories’ heroic self-image of saving Canadians from oppression by making the "intrusive" long-form census voluntary just doesn’t square with reality.

But Industry Minister Tony Clement isn’t conceding the non-existence of incarcerated census objectors. Testifying at a Commons committee Tuesday, Mr. Clement repeatedly evaded the question when asked if anyone has been jailed. Retired chief statistician Ivan Fellegi later did supply a factual answer: No.
The Tories’ indulgence in this melodrama shows we have more cause to worry about the ninny state than the nanny state.

Mr. Clement wants to spend $30 million to convince people to voluntarily answer questions that he and other ministers have spent weeks trashing as silly and invasive, often in misleading terms.
So let’s take the advice of the cool heads on this issue. Scrap the unused and over-the-top jail sanction, set reasonable fines, ensure every question has a valid purpose (and tell people what it is). But protect the quality of the data by keeping the long form mandatory.

And spare us the melodrama. The Bastille is empty and the emperor has no clothes.
Update: Scott rightly notes that C.E.S. Franks should be added to the list:
In his letter announcing his resignation as Canada’s chief statistician, Munir Sheikh said he wanted to take the opportunity to comment on “a technical statistical issue” that had become a subject of media discussion. The question was whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census. The answer: “It can not.”

Five days earlier, Mr. Sheikh’s minister, Tony Clement, had told the press that he asked Statistics Canada if they were confident they could do their job with a voluntary survey, and their answer had been that, provided extra steps were taken in advertising and enlarging the sample size, “Yes, we can do our job.”

These two statements fundamentally contradict each other. There are only two possibilities for explaining the difference: Either someone is not telling the truth, or Mr. Sheikh’s and Statistics Canada’s views on the usefulness of a voluntary survey have changed.

Mr. Sheikh’s and Statistics Canada’s views and advice to the government on the usefulness of a voluntary survey did not change.
Quite likely, Mr. Sheikh discussed his resignation and the contents of his public letter with the clerk. Perhaps they agreed on his description of a major policy change as a technical issue in order to allow Statistics Canada’s views to be made public. But if a deputy minister is compelled to resign every time a minister misrepresents the advice given by the public service, Canada would soon run out of competent and independent-thinking senior public servants. Something stinks in this entire affair, and it is not Mr. Sheikh or Statistics Canada.

Collaborative destruction

The Harper Government of Vandals - now confirmed by Wikipedia!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Message delivered

The Libs have received plenty of due attention for their nicely snarky take on the census. But it's the NDP that's both tying the census into issues that affect voters directly, and making it easy for Canadians to send a message for the world to see. And if the effect on Stephen Harper's Twitter account so far is any indication, there's no lack of Canadians eager to stand up and be counted.

Loyalty test fail

Not surprisingly, Jane Taber can't avoid forcing "he said, she said"-style balance into a post which otherwise features a nice selection of columnists slamming Tony Clement. But it's worth noting how far she has to reach in order to find anybody on Clement's side:
Mr. Clement, however, has his defenders. The Prime Minister’s Office circulated talking points after his testimony...

The memo repeated some of Mr. Clement’s points to the committee...

Mr. Clement and the PMO argue that their new voluntary survey – the National Household Survey, which is now available online – will ask questions “identical to the questions that would be asked in the mandatory long-term census.”

Which leads one to wonder why the government is so intent on emphasizing the “intrusive nature” of the census questions. For now, Mr. Clement is not commenting.
Of course, it's most certainly not to Taber's credit that she's willing to provide the PMO which handed Clement his orders and talking points with the opportunity to review his performance. But it speaks volumes that the Cons have sunk to the point where Taber apparently can't find anybody outside Harper's immediate control to even try to defend what the Cons are doing.

A friendly reminder

The Sask Party seems to be hoping that if they keep making announcements about SCN being sold, nobody will notice the fact that there's still a serious risk of the network dying due to the Wall government's neglect. But with all parties still recognizing that the CRTC still hasn't approved the purchase (including a shift from a solely education format to one supported by paid advertising), let's keep in mind what happened when Bluepoint Investment Corp. planned to buy a Brandon station just last year:
(Bluepoint's) last plan to buy a Western Canadian broadcaster...fell through when the CRTC wouldn't agree to rig a future application in its favour, leading to the permanent closure of a broadcasting institution.

Who else is filled with optimism about SCN's future?

On bare minimums

Impolitical notes that Tony Clement seem to be hinting at modifying the short form census in response to the threat of litigation over French service delivery. But it's worth pointing out what Clement's declaration actually means in terms of the Cons' positioning.

Aside from the prospect of the Cons themselves deciding that maybe an all-out assault on the delivery of public services isn't a fight they want to take on at the moment, there's effectively only one way for anybody to force them to reverse course. That involves finding ways in which the Cons' plan involves a breach of law, then persuading a court to order that the census proceed as normal as a remedy for that impending breach. It's not a likely outcome (since courts are generally hesitant to dictate the outcome of discretionary decisions), but it at least offers some fallback option when the party in charge so stubbornly refuses to listen to reality.

In that context, Clement's concession mostly looks to signal that the Cons aren't about to take the risk of that happening. Instead, they're insisting on using their own zero-consultation, zero-reason gutting of the long form as the starting point. And from there, they're apparently willing to make small concessions only on issues that involve potentially enforceable legal duties (which they apparently never bothered to take into account in the first place) - with the apparent goal of undermining as much of the long form census as they can.

Needless to say, that's about the worst possible ground of discussion for those of us in the reality-based community. So let's keep focused on the Cons' more basic choice to trash the long-form census and how it feeds into their general desire to destroy effective government in Canada, rather than being the least bit satisfied with the Cons doing the most damage they can be assured of getting away with.

The reviews are in

Presumably the Cons' goal in going along with yesterday's hearings on the census was to try to pretend that the census crisis is more a case of "two legitimate sides, we've chosen one" rather than "we have no clue what we're doing". But if there was ever any hope that a full day's repetition of already-debunked talking points would manage to make the Cons look any less ridiculous, we can now say conclusively that the attempt failed, thanks to the likes of...

Scott Feschuk:
Let us pause now and spare a thought for poor Tony Clement. The minister in charge of Statistics Canada – or, as it will soon be known, Vague Hunches Canada – is not that different from you or me. He has a job. He likes his job. He wants to keep his job.

But to keep his job, Tony Clement must now wake up each morning, walk out into the world and say things that make him sound like a wet-lipped halfwit.
John Ivison:
the government’s solution — to make the mandatory form voluntary — has received such blanket condemnation — even from those who are normally staunch Conservative allies, such as seniors organization CARP — that the government is looking not so much out of touch, as out to lunch.

Mr. Clement claimed that a $30-million advertising campaign and a much larger sample size will eliminate concerns about the quality of the data gathered in the 2011 census.

But a number of other witnesses disagreed. Former chief statistician Ivan Fellegi, said the next census could be “unusable” because the information will not be comparable to data from previous years. He urged the government to follow the recommendation suggested by the National Statistics Council (NSC), the government’s advisory group, which has called for the threat of jail sentences to be removed and some questions on household activities to be dropped for the next census in 2016.

This seems to be a common sense compromise but common sense and a willingness to compromise seem to have deserted this government of late.
John Ibbitson:
Industry Minister Tony Clement’s obdurate testimony at Tuesday’s Industry committee hearing, the hostility of Conservative MPs on the committee to witnesses defending the census, and the rapidly diminishing opportunities for compromise point to a government determined to eliminate the mandatory long-form version of the census, no matter what anyone says or pleads.
Mr. Clement’s argument was a masterful defence of a false fact. Canadians, he said, were disturbed by the intrusive nature of the questions that traditionally go out to 20 per cent of Canadian households...

But the National Statistics Council, whose 40 members are appointed by the government to advise Statistics Canada, asked the agency to provide data on all complaints registered either directly with Statscan, or referred to Statscan from MPs or any other source, concerning the last census in 2006. The total number of questions, complaints and concerns: 166. From a census that was sent to 12 million households.

NDP MP Charlie Angus was entirely right to call this a “manufactured crisis.”
And Dan Gardner:
(H)ang on, the government's defenders say. People quote data from voluntary surveys all the time. Every opinion poll that appears in the media is voluntary. How can that be squared with the insistence that the census must be mandatory to be as accurate as possible?

The short answer: It can't.

"Opinion polls are generally trash," Ron Melchers, a statistician at the University of Ottawa says. Response rates on private surveys are low and falling. It's not uncommon for four out of five people to refuse to answer. Or more. That creates huge opportunities for bias to creep in. "My aged mother will answer any survey she's asked to answer. She's isolated, she's alone, she's grumpy and irritable, and she hasn't got all of her marbles. These are the people who are most likely to respond to a lot of these polling surveys," says Melchers.

StatsCan conducts voluntary surveys but it uses the census data to "weight" the results -- that is, to adjust it and correct for bias. Private pollsters generally don't or can't do that. And soon, thanks to the government's decision on the census long form, neither will StatsCan.
(T)he census is unique. And uniquely valuable.

Or at least it was until Stephen Harper came along.
Update: And let's not forget Aaron Wherry:
(I)f we can say anything about the quinquennial census, perhaps it is this: not until it was made an issue, did it become an issue.

This morning of hearings, an industry minister and two former chief statisticians summoned to Parliament Hill to discuss the nature of data collection in a democratic society, was often so profound. And if the 2011 census is destined to be rendered useless to future generations, at least our descendants will have these two hours to tell them all they need to know about the state of this nation’s management as it embarks on the second decade of the 21st century.
(I)f the source of this present debate is not great public outrage with the machinery of government, the explanation would seem to be simply this. That what we see here, and what we saw today, is simply a government made greatly uncomfortable by its own role and place in society.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Unhealthy compromises

As a followup to the need for skepticism about spin intended to attack those who are bound not to defend themselves, it's worth pointing out another problem with the credence the media and other have offered to the Cons: it's useless to talk about compromise with somebody whose position is so unreasonable as to be beyond rational explanation.

I'm not the first to make the analogy (though I can't track down where I've seen it before at the moment). But when one party is proposing broken glass as a sandwich ingredient, it doesn't do the rest of the diners any good to take a bit from everybody's suggestion in deciding what to eat. And the Cons have made it clear that they're out for destruction rather than nourishment.

On antidotes

Susan Delacourt is absolutely right to note the danger when silence required as a matter of duty leaves the real story untold. And it's worth noting that Delacourt misses another obvious example - as the Afghanistan leaks that have made so much news lately would have been far less significant if their details hadn't previously been withheld for little apparent reason.

But I'd think there's another point worth raising as to who bears responsibility for filling the void with spin, and how the press can respond:
Dutiful silence is an honoured tradition in Canadian public service, but if it becomes a weapon in someone else's hands, that should make us all worried. And it might make public servants reconsider whether discretion is always the better part of valour. If Mr. Sheikh had another option -- specifically, refuting things said about him publicly -- maybe he didn't need to resign.

And we in the media, yes that means me too, should be careful about allowing mischievous spin to fill a duty-bound silence. Sheikh essentially said this morning that StatsCan was outgunned by a whisper campaign against it, much in the way that the GG was, and that cannot be right. In a larger sense, I think this tension between perception and reality is the biggest problem facing political journalism and politics in general. Perception shouldn't be a trump card against facts.
It's not as if it's much of a secret that the source of the whispers is the same government which is well known for fabricating details even when it knows that the truth will come out. So shouldn't some greater skepticism - both in handling spin when it comes in, and more importantly in conveying it through a story - be one of the most important defences against abuses of the power to withhold the facts?

The plan of attack

Since there seems to be plenty of agreement with the sentiment that the Cons' war on public services demands a strong opposition response. With that in mind, what should we be looking to in order to turn the admitted goal of sabotaging governments across the country into the defining public perception of the Harper government, rather than just another ephemeral story?

1. Keep focused on the story.

The Libs in particular have taken loads of well-justified criticism during their stay in opposition for reflexively responding to the minutiae of the day rather than setting out a larger narrative. But a declaration that the Cons are actively working to prevent would seem to provide the perfect opportunity to connect an immediate story into a broader message - that is, if the Cons don't manage to change the subject again.

2. Connect all talk about the census to Taylor's declaration.

One of the Cons' great "successes" has been in consistently framing opposition positions as implausible extremes with no basis in fact - and I won't suggest the opposition parties should want to sink quite as low as Harper's crew. But now that the Cons' leading spokesparrot has said outright that his party's goal is to tear down the factual foundation for civil society, there's no reason for the opposition parties to allow the Cons to pretend their attack on the census represents any less.

So by the time the next election rolls around, Taylor should be better known than he is now as "Stephen Harper's court stenographer". Phrases like "ideological force-feeding" and "dealing a huge blow to the welfare state" - or better yet, stronger versions on terms not set by Taylor - should be highlighted often enough to penetrate the public's consciousness as defining the Cons. And every Con MP, candidate and spokespuppet should be forced to either distance himself or herself from Taylor, or agree with the statement that the Cons' ultimate goal is to destroy Canada's public infrastructure for good - and that the choice to gut the census is a "shortcut" to that end.

3. Raise the census at every opportunity.

Here's the plus side of a conflict which goes to the basic capacity and decision-making philosophy of government: every political issue can easily be linked back to it. So it shouldn't be difficult to make sure that every piece of news - including the Cons' own moves to change the subject - gets greeted with a response leading right back to Harper's ideological vandalism.

The Cons make a spending announcement? Point out how census information is important to making it, and how the Cons have basically said they don't care if the money produces results.

The Cons meet with a community group? Ask whether the group is satisfied being dismissed as a "special interest" which should be permanently shut out of public decision-making.

The Cons proclaim their fiscal responsibility? Highlight their ridiculous choice to pay more for less usable information, and tie it back into the broader theme of refusing to even have outcomes accurately evaluated.

Needless to say, I'll encourage readers to come up with more to add to the above. But the most important point is to make sure that our ideas now come to define the Cons by the time Canadians next go to the polls.

An improbable failure

Not surprisingly, the Saskatchewan NDP has been all over the apparent demise of the province's joint carbon capture project with the government of Montana. But it's worth pointing out just how remarkable it is that the Wall government has managed not to get any support from the Harper Cons.

After all, carbon capture and storage has been basically the only idea with any environmental application that the Cons happily funded at every turn. And the reason for that is obvious based on their consistent desire to hand money to the oil patch.

If CCS gets fully developed on a commercial scale, it would at least eliminate much of the risk associated with future greenhouse gas emission regulations. But even more significantly, CCS would effectively create a license for the oil industry to print money if combined with the Cons' plan for "intensity" targets - as the industry would be able to ramp up production (and maybe even overall emissions) while using technology developed at public expense to sell carbon credits as well.

That combination of theoretical environmental appeal and a potential windfall for the oil industry is why the Cons have made CCS a regular recipient of federal largesse while they've been in power. So the province's pitch for funding should have been roughly as difficult as selling water to a traveller stranded in the desert.

But even a bar that low is apparently more than the Wall government can clear. Which makes the failure of the Montana project just one more reason to wonder how much else the Sask Party is managing to foul up against all odds.

Monday, July 26, 2010

An incomplete gift

I'll second Greg's take that Stephen Taylor's proud declaration that the purpose of gutting the census is to permanently undermine any future government program development should be considered a gift for the cause of removing the Cons from power.

But there's an important flip side to that fact: there probably won't be a better opportunity to focus Canada's political debate on the worst of the Cons' long-term intentions. And if the opposition parties don't make the black mark stick on the Cons' permanent record (which really shouldn't be that difficult, especially to the extent the theory directly conflicts with Jason Kenney's efforts to win the support of exactly the groups mocked by Taylor), then there's a real risk that the perception that we're headed inexorably toward a deliberately failing state will become the default setting in Canadian politics for a long time to come.


Shorter Lawrence Cannon:

In keeping with our continued commitment to transparency on Afghanistan, we vehemently refuse to comment on documents which could possibly call our talking points into question.

Monday Morning Links

- For those who missed La Presse's brilliant take on the Harper Cons, here's Phillipe Gohier's translation:
The controversy surrounding the terms of the census is typical of the pillaging the conservatives have engaged in since coming to power. Not only is their behaviour dictated by simplistic ideology, the Conservatives impose their politics while displaying a exceptional degree of incompetence.
Before this government does even more harm to the institution that is the government of Canada, the intelligent people within the federal cabinet have a duty to rise up and stop the pillaging. Otherwise, the Harper government may be remembered as one of the most incompetent and harmful governments this country has ever known.
Unfortunately, it's not clear what "intelligent people within the federal cabinet" the editorial could be referring to. Which means that it'll fall to those of us outside Harper's control to bring about the change Canada needs.

- Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail reports that the order to gut the census came from Stephen Harper himself based on nothing more than vintage tea-party anger at the concept of governments having accurate information on which to base decisions. And the observation that Harper considered doing away with a mandatory short form as well raises the question: would he have taken that step too if he didn't hope for population shifts to work to his party's political advantage?

- Rick Salutin nicely encapsulates the conservative view of government by highlighting its affinity for the "fear sector":
The (prison and security sectors) aren’t as cost-beneficial as the military. They don’t make much to sell to the rest of the world, or generate social benefits. But deduct the impact of all three from the U.S. economy, and from its employment stats (including people in the armed forces or jail), and that mighty economic engine would be a holey mess.

The Harper government is clearly impressed. They don’t seem to mind big government, if they can tax and spend in the fear sector. So they’ve expanded our military budget and just announced a $9-billion (or maybe $16-billion) purchase of 65 U.S. jets we’ll have to find some use for. They’re increasing the prison population through U.S.-style sentencing laws and planning “major construction initiatives” that will boost (sorry) corrections costs by 43 per cent. On homeland security, there’s that amazing $1.2-billion spent at the G20.

But it’s a hard sell. Canadians will have to be persuaded to shift more money from a stretched health-care system to the fear sector. The benefits here aren’t as obvious. For buying those jets, all our firms get is the right to bid on U.S contracts. Lotsa luck. Mostly, though, there’s the fear culture that you need for a fear sector.
- Finally, Erin points out that the Bank of Canada's moves to push up interest rates look to be based on a theory that makes the confidence fairy look like a marvel of rational economics:
By my count, the (latest Monetary Policy Report) expresses concern eight separate times about anemic business investment. It acknowledges the point I have been making about capacity utilization, suggesting that business investment “is likely to remain sluggish relative to previous recoveries, owing to high levels of unused industrial capacity”.

But then the MPR’s tune changes: “Nevertheless, business investment is expected to increase to levels consistent with previous recoveries, driven by the need to expand capacity and to increase productivity in a more competitive international environment”. Mark Carney repeated this language in his remarks.

The two statements seem almost contradictory. Don’t the “high levels of unused industrial capacity” obviate “the need to expand capacity”?
The central bank’s mystifying words may simply provide cover for its actions. Two days before the MPR, the Bank of Canada raised interest rates again. This policy encourages cash accumulation and discourages investment in three ways.

First, higher interest rates mean higher returns on cash balances and higher costs on loans to finance investment. Second, higher interest rates diminish the possibility of inflation eroding the value of cash balances and hence the incentive to invest in physical assets as a hedge against inflation. Third, higher interest rates push up the exchange rate, which increases the relative value of Canadian cash holdings but reduces the competitiveness of Canadian production and exports.

The Bank of Canada is serving up anti-investment policy with a side of pro-investment rhetoric.


The Hill Times tracks down exactly why the environment committee wasn't able to finalize a report on the tar sands, and notes that at least one of the members actually worked to develop a joint report despite the Cons' intransigence:
"I listened to some other people the same day I spoke and I know [the committee] got a lot of negative material. I'm sure that's why there's no write-up," said Prof. Schindler last week from his Edmonton office. "To me that's a violation of the principles of democracy, and I'm very angry about it."

He said: "I think that the Conservatives don't want any negative side cast on the tar sands because they're afraid now that the U.S. will shut them down now because of their policies on dirty oil."

Another witness, Andrew Nikiforuk author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, also blamed the Conservatives.

"I think the Tory government was afraid of what U.S. Congress, what U.S. customers, oil customers in general, investors and Canadian taxpayers might have to say about our record of regulatory neglect in the tar sands," he said.
(NDP MP Linda) Duncan recognized that witnesses such as Mr. Nikiforuk and Prof. Schindler are disappointed in the study's result.

Ms. Duncan said she approached other opposition members about writing a report together but was turned down.

Liberal member Francis Scarpaleggia's (Lac-Saint-Louis, Que.) assistant Gweneth Thirlwell told The Hill Times that he said his party would write its own, to be finished likely before fall. Mr. Scarpaleggia was the MP who originally called for the study in January 2008, and last month accused the Conservative committee members of blocking the final report so as not to release a document that could include information on the negative effects of the oil sands that could hurt the government.

"I think Francis Scarpaleggia and probably Linda Duncan actually have very similar views on what's wrong. I think partisan politics has separated them," said Mr. Nikiforuk.

Mr. Scarpaleggia did not respond to questions verbally, but in a statement to The Hill Times said "Other parties are free to [write their own reports]. Nothing is lost from that perspective."
Needless to say, I eagerly await the next "principled" Lib effort to single out Duncan for particular criticism while glossing over the Libs' deliberate choice to prioritize "partisan politics" above working with anybody on shared goals.

On outcasts

The Star Phoenix editorial board laments the fact that Canada has become an international pariah on a number of health and environmental issues, with a particular focus on asbestos exports:
For Canadians still squirming over Canada's dubious honour of being named "Fossil of the Year" at the Copenhagen climate change talks in 2009, the finger-pointing over its refusal, mostly for political reasons, to wind down its Quebec-based asbestos industry is yet another international embarrassment.

This isn't the image that most Canadians hold of their country, which they rightly point out has led initiatives such as the ban against landmines and pioneered peacekeeping. But that was then and this, sadly, is now.

Even though it's the current Conservative government that's under attack for continuing to support the Chrysotile Institute, Canada's asbestos industry lobby group, the reality is that it's merely following the practice of federal Liberal and Progressive Conservative administrations that have dared not let damning evidence interfere with allowing the industry to continue.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

On brand development

Let's double back to Murray Dobbin's questions about what kind of progressive infrastructure we should be working to build in Canada:
Without organizations committed to challenging these enormously powerful forces we are certain to suffer huge setbacks before cultural change begins to reflect itself in the political and economic world.

Does that mean completely new organizations? A huge change in the ones that already exist? Is the answer coalitions of groups that can together come to grips with the fight that is ahead of us? A concerted effort to transform the NDP into a real party of change?
As hinted at in my initial comment, my sense is that Dobbin is actually missing a couple of related elements to a successful movement - which at best might be considered part of the "new" or "huge change" categories, but probably need to be separated out as specific areas for improvement.

The first one - and an odd one for Dobbin to omit in light of the massive amount of attention that's been paid to Fox News North - is the development of far-reaching media outlets as a specific type of organization.

Here, we run into the costs and benefits of the specialization of news and commentary - a trend which may be most easily observed online, but can also be found in traditional formats. On the bright side, it's relatively easy for anybody seeking out progressive news and commentary to find it, whether that be online through media outlets, blogs and advocacy organizations, or through alternative newspapers and radio.

While there's plenty of information available, though, there doesn't seem to have been any effective effort by the Canadian left to develop any consistent mainstream presence - whether by expanding the reach and visibility of a niche outlet to the point where they spread to the wider public consciousness, or by taking over all or some of an existing outlet with a wider audience that can be built up into the go-to source for progressive perspective.

And the latter doesn't necessarily require the "buy a TV station as an ideological loss leader" model followed by the right. Indeed, the example of MSNBC's successful left-leaning shows would suggest that a strong voice can succeed if it's given a chance under corporate ownership.

But that leads into the second element that seems to be sorely lacking: namely, the development of strong individual voices and brands within the progressive movement.
(The irony of writing this on a pseudonymous blog branded with a picture of a gavel is duly noted. Let's just say that I'm working on changing the limitations in my own ability to network through the blog.)

After all, it's the development of popular and recognizable hosts (Maddow and Olbermann) that's allowed MSNBC to flourish as a network identified as having a leftward slant - with a much stronger network of recognizable figures in other formats such as commercial radio and the blogosphere supporting that effort every step of the way. And this looks to me to be where there's the most room for immediate improvement on our side of the border.

However dubious the cast of characters on the right may be, there's no doubt that the Levants, Taylors, Kheiriddens and Steyns of the world serve plenty of useful purposes for the conservative movement. Right-wing commentators have managed to become go-to opinion providers in all kinds of Canadian corporate media outlets (often even while bleating the entire time about how their kind is underrepresented). And the commentators use their personal followings to push all parties to the right and focus attention on conservative issues of choice, while maintaining faces and voices for the movement even as politicians and parties rise and fall.

So who, if anybody, is working to develop similar individual identities from the left?

The most successful brand built in the last 15 years is likely that of Naomi Klein - but with a focus primarily on global issues rather than on Canadian ones. And it's a sharp drop from Klein to anybody else that could be considered a multi-platform face of the Canadian left. Maude Barlow still has ample name recognition left over from the free-trade battles on behalf of the Council of Canadians, but doesn't seem to get a lot of face time in the political mainstream anymore; David Suzuki has a strong personal brand and appears regularly in loads of settings, but obviously identifies more as "environmentalist" than "progressive". And that completes the full list of Canadians who can even arguably be portrayed as combining a household name with a commitment to further progressive political ends (outside of MPs and current party spokespeople who are limited in their ability to push anything to the left).

What's more, nobody seems to be even remotely close to stepping into the breach. Granted, there's a decent supply of (mostly veteran) columnists with a left-wing take including Dobbin himself. But with the exception of Gerald Caplan, none of them have apparently parlayed that into regular TV work. And while Brian Topp and Douglas Bell have managed to make it into the Globe and Mail's stable of bloggers, they're probably another level below the print-only columnists in their name recognition and reach.

So if the corporate media doesn't figure to be the source of progressive personalities, what about younger figures in current advocacy organizations? That's where I'd see the most opportunity for growth - but as best I can tell, progressive organizations in Canada have thus far focused their efforts on building up institutional brands rather than personal ones. Which means that the labour movement and the CCPA may be well recognized as producing strong messages without anybody from their ranks gathering any individual recognition or following, even while their regressive counterparts develop individual personalities as well as a steady stream of content for media consumption.

How about the more-overtly-political group at Rabble? It's probably the closest organization to developing the type of cross-platform concept that I'd most like to see. And in particular, the "Not Rex Murphy" contest is easily the best effort so far to focus on the goal of developing recognizable progressive commentators. But the organization's limited reach has only been highlighted by the fact that Humberto DaSilva's contest win doesn't seem to have built up to any further media exposure beyond Rabble itself.

So there are groups trying to develop individual voices who don't have the capacity to launch those voices into the mainstream. And there are groups with the resources to build individual reputations as part of their mandate to promote progressive policies who have directed their efforts elsewhere. But as far as I can tell, there's effectively no intersection between capacity and mandate to develop and brand the next generation of progressive leaders.

In sum, then, I'd argue that the next step for Canada's progressive movement should be a concerted effort at developing individuals who can serve as the faces of its ideas and opinions to Canadians at large - ideally in the context of structures with enough stability to allow the new activist leaders to dedicate their full efforts to the task. And when those voices start to get heard in widely-dispersed media (whether current outlets or newly-developed ones), that's when we can begin to reverse the rightward ideological drift in Canadian politics.

Sunday Morning 'Rider Blogging

There are at least a couple of positives for 'Rider fans after last night's loss in Calgary: while his hang time left something to be desired, Eddie Johnson looks to have been a huge upgrade on the punting and kickoff performance the 'Riders have seen this year. And the team's group of receivers looks to be firing on all cylinders: three are on pace for 1,000+ yards and two more within striking distance, and all five managed at least one impressive catch last night to account for most of the 'Riders' offence.

Thus ends the good news. But there's plenty on the down side as well after a 20-point loss that by all rights should have been much worse than that.

Let's start for a change with the 'Riders' latest set of special-teams issues, as field position was a huge problem for the team all night (resulting in the offense racking up a lot of yards that didn't come close to leading to points).

While Johnson managed respectable distance on his kicks, it's worth wondering whether the kick cover units were unaccustomed to something about his style, as Deon Murphy was able to put up big returns at will on both punts and kickoffs - making for a new problem in an area that hadn't been a particular weakness yet this year. And the Stamps' big returns were all the more obvious in comparison to another weak game by Dominique Dorsey on a few fronts.

It's one thing if Dorsey doesn't have the raw speed to outrun cover teams - and I'm not sure the 'Riders would have reason to complain if Dorsey were combining moderate explosiveness with smart decisions about how to take kicks which resulted in consistent mid-range returns. But once again, Dorsey also made plenty of questionable decisions as to when and how to catch the ball, allowing Burke Dales to pin the 'Riders deep on multiple occasions by letting the ball bounce rather than making an effort to catch it on the fly. And it's hard to see what the 'Riders are getting out of a veteran returner when his of decision-making has been a consistent problem (to go with a lack of substantial returns when he has caught the ball).

Needless to say, Luca Congi's 1-for-3 performance was just icing on the cake. But in fairness to Congi, his kicking didn't figure to make much of a difference either way based on how the rest of the game played out.

Defensively, the 'Riders appeared to play well on the surface in a first half which saw the Stamps limited to 7 points. But it's worth questioning how much of that was based on the Stamps' weaknesses and choices rather than any particular defensive strength.

Both of James Patrick's interceptions seemed to be better classified as unforced errors by Henry Burris rather than the result of any great defensive play: Burris mostly succeeded in ducking the 'Riders' pressure throughout the game, and seemed to have better options on both plays than forcing the ball into the end zone. And while Nik Lewis' fumble was somewhat more directly caused by the defence, it too required a good bounce at the right time which left the Stamps scoring only seven points off of four first-half trips to the red zone.

After that first half marked by the Stamps missing their opportunities, it only took a single strike to Romby Bryant to send the 'Riders into panic mode. From that point on, Saskatchewan got little to no pressure on Burris and fell apart against the run. And not surprisingly, the end result was for Calgary to start converting after its regular marches down the field.

Meanwhile, the response from the 'Riders' offence had to be considered a disappointment as well. While its yardage looked fine on paper, the line lost most of the battles in the trenches, leaving Darien Durant to face a regular onslaught on defensive linemen. As a result, the offence put up most of its numbers thanks to spectacular receptions on low-percentage throws (which were balanced out by interceptions when similar plays went wrong), as well as Ken Miller's odd decision to leave the first-string offence on the field after the game was out of hand. But Durant and company didn't succeed either in taking control of the game when the Stamps were reeling in the second quarter, or in keeping up with Burris' production as Calgary put the game out of reach in the second half.

Of course, any team is bound to have a down game every now and then - and Burris is exactly the type of streaky quarterback who can hang a loss even on a team that's done everything it can. But the 'Riders can't plausibly claim to have met that standard yesterday - and the combination of new problems and familiar flaws in yesterday's game suggests that the team has plenty of room for improvement.

Decisions, decisions

In case there was any doubt, the litigation process over the Saskatchewan PC Trust Fund is still a few steps away from any great public revelations: even if Rick Swenson is able to force Brad Wall to testify as part of the discovery process, that evidence wouldn't generally go public until a trial a ways down the road. But the news that the Sask Party hasn't been able to weasel its way out of the claim does leave the Wall government with an interesting choice over the next year-plus.

After all, it can almost certainly get itself out of the litigation if the Sask Party and its supporters back away from the trust fund - but that would mean having to put up with a well-funded challenge from the right for the election. Or on the other hand, the Sask Party can keep both the PCs and the trust fund tied up through another election - but only if it doesn't mind devoting plenty of its own resources to defending the claim.

Of course, it's probably a telling sign that the Sask Party's preference so far has been to keep a straitjacket on the PCs. But we'll see if the calculation changes as both election day and a possible trial draw near, particularly if the PCs succeed in attaching Brad Wall's name to the Sask Party's evidence.