Saturday, August 07, 2010

Burning questions

Since Tony Clement's latest excuse for gutting the long form census is that he (on behalf of the federal government) is sick of being the bad guy who requires that Canadians provide personal information for societal benefit, let's ask this. If the Cons really wants other to have to take responsibility for data collection, is it planning to cede Parliament's authority under s. 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867 respecting "The Census and Statistics" to allow provinces or other actors to collect data to the same standard currently provided for?

And if so, is there any particular reason why it would be better to have a patchwork of provincial or other subsidiary censuses, rather than a single standard that applies across the country as provided for by Canada's Constitution?

On recruits

With the retirement of Con MP Jim Abbott, the Kootenay-Columbia riding may be a dark horse candidate for an NDP pickup. And in what looks to be both a sign of the NDP's strength and a boost to its chances, a former Lib candidate with a strong reputation in the area has decided to join a contested race for the NDP nomination:
It may be the dog days of summer, but the political pot is still simmering in the Kootenay-Columbia riding and now there is a new surprise.

Former Invermere mayor and Liberal candidate in Kootenay-Columbia Mark Shmigelsky intends to return to the fray and run in the next federal election.

But not as a Liberal.

Shmigelsky is seeking the NDP nod in the next federal election and he makes no apologies for abandoning the Liberal ship saying it’s a natural thing to do in the circumstances.

“You run for what you believe in,” he said in an interview with the Daily Townsman this week. “I believe in fiscal responsibility, but I believe in social programs too. I’m a centrist and a social democrat.”
Shmigelsky said he thinks the controversial HST will also be an issue in the next federal election. “The feds were the ones that put the carrot in front of the provincial government’s nose and offered them more than a billion to take it.”

The would-be NDP MP also questioned why current Conservative MP Jim Abbott announced his departure in February the way he did.. “We have an MP that said he retired, but if they’re not going to call an election until next spring that’s a long time to be going without an active MP.”

Sparwood Mayor David Wilks and Creston Councillor Wes Graham have announced they are seeking the Conservative nomination to replace Abbott and Creston businesswoman Rhonda Barter announced two months ago she will be going after the NDP nomination.
Of course, it's hardly news that the NDP has been looking to recruit strong politicians from other levels of government to its slate of candidates. And the Kootenay-Columbia area's history of electing NDP MPs and MLAs combined with Abbott's retirement looks to differentiate it from the ridings around it.

But it's still striking that a candidate with Shmigelsky's track record - as a three-term mayor with experience as a federal candidate - would cross party lines even in the knowledge that he'll face a contested nomination. And whether it's Shmigelsky or Rhonda Barter that emerges victorious as the NDP's nominee, the end result looks to be an excellent opportunity to win back what's been Reform/Con territory for far too long.

(Edit: fixed label; added link.)


With most of the talk about the census focused on the long form as a whole, there hasn't yet been a lot of discussion about why the specific questions are essential to an accurate picture of Canadian society. But a couple of recent stories highlight the direct impact that eliminating the long-form census - and other choices made by the Cons - will have on the valuation of unpaid work.

First up, there's Jeremy Warren's article following up with Carol Lees, who just a decade and a half ago fought successfully to have unpaid work included in the census:
In 1990, Carol Lees, a mother of three in Saskatoon, began a five-year battle — which eventually brought together Canadian women's groups and feminist icon Gloria Steinem — to get unpaid housework onto the census so that the unrecognized social and economic effects of stay-at-home parents could be measured for future policy decisions.

Lees and a national network of women's groups successfully persuaded the federal government to include unpaid housework in the 1996 census. Fourteen years later, the question is gone, along with the mandatory long-form census the Harper government has dumped in favour of a voluntary National Household Survey.
After the 1996 census, Lees developed diabetes and decided to leave behind her activist work within the loose network that formed around her cause.

But over the next decade she noticed that governments increased support for people providing child and elderly care at home.

Lees believed that an accurate measurement of unpaid housework would have health and social policy implications, perhaps improving childcare programs and pensions

"We were voiceless and invisible," Lees said.

"If you are considered unoccupied and unproductive, which we were in government documents, you do not deserve a voice and nor deserve to have any policies put in place to support you because you aren't doing anything."
Of course, it's not hard to see a connection between the policies which Lees sees as having sprung from the gathering of information about unpaid work, and the exact types of programs which the Cons are seeking to axe in favour of more spending in the fear sector along with tax giveaways to the wealthy. And that means that it shouldn't be much surprise that the damage doesn't stop at gutting the long form as a whole.

While Warren's article seems to focus on the elimination of the long-form census as a whole, Antonia Zerbisias goes into more detail about the Cons' choice to eliminate any recognition of unpaid work even from their voluntary survey:
All but lost in the controversy over the Conservatives’ impending elimination of the mandatory long-form census is how, in the proposed $30 million dollar replacement — the voluntary National Household Survey — Question 33 from the long form has been cut.

Question 33 (let’s call it Q.33) is a three-part query that has been in place since Canada made commitments at the 1995 UN World Conference on Women in Beijing. The question gathered data on how much time people spent on unpaid work: domestic chores, child care and attending to the needs of elderly relatives and friends. It helped make Canada a world leader in “time-use” data.
Oddly, Q.33 has nothing to do with the level of “intrusiveness’’ that Industry Minister Tony Clement repeatedly says disturbs Canadians. What’s more, according to Lahey’s analysis, StatsCan’s own documentation shows that, during a 2007 consultation on the 2011 census, there was really no substantial evidence that Canadians want the question eliminated.

Interestingly, the new optional survey maintains queries about unpaid work performed by spouses and partners in family-owned business such as farms. This leads Lahey to conclude that the Harper government is preparing the political ground to introduce income-splitting for farm and small business couples. This would benefit higher income earners more than those who make less.

“From the perspective of women, income splitting is the ultimate incentive to economic dependency,” she wrote in a recent paper on the subject. “At the same time, it would be extremely costly, endanger funding available for existing and future social programs and would also exclude single individuals as well as any couples not falling within the terms of the provision.”
Now, there's an obvious parallel between the Cons' preservation of information about some limited sectors (recognizing unpaid contributions to farms and businesses) and their decision to keep the collection of farm information mandatory while electing not to do so for information from Canadians in general.

But the more significant distinction looks to be that between the treatment of work which contributes to some type of profit motive which the Cons consider to be important, and that based on caring for family or other non-profit-related goals which the Cons consider to be beneath even asking about. And if its track record weren't enough evidence already, that choice as to what information to collect speaks volumes about the Harper government's relative valuation of the two.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Musical interlude

Narcotic Thrust - When the Dawn Breaks

On dysfunction

I'm sure there's plenty of fallout to come from the fiasco that was Stephen Harper's limited press appearance today. But let's see if there's any disagreement on what strike me as the most obvious problems with how the event played out, both the direct result of Sun Media's actions.

First, there's the fact that David Akin's question fell painfully short of deserving the time of a Prime Ministerial press conference. Sure, Akin's later deflections about the limited number of questions accepted by Harper ring true enough - but isn't that reason to make sure that every question is directed toward some meaningful point (ideally subjects that are agreed to be important by all media outlets), rather than being directed toward self-serving trivia?

And second, there's the taunting of other press outlets after the fact from both Akin and Kory Teneycke. Of course, that looks to be par for the course from the Sun chain - but it only contributes to the breakdown of any sense that the media's goal at such a press conference should be based on gathering information in the public interest, rather than one-upmanship.

Which leads to what seems to me to be the most likely outcome of today's press conference. If the message is being sent that Sun will plan to ask its own frivolous questions rather than working with the rest of the press gallery in the future - and will enjoy a privileged place when they do opt out thanks to Corn Cob Kory's Con connections - then that figures to reduce the incentive for other media outlets to act any more responsibly in agreeing on questions, rather than simply taking their chances on being able to use PM media availability to push their own preferred storylines.

In other words, while the signs have been accumulating for some time, today may have been a watershed moment in making the Cons' style of dealing with other political parties into the default form of treatment between Canadian media outlets: refuse to cooperate, consider only your own interests, and twist every moment for maximum damage to your perceived opponents. And that hardly looks to be any more desirable among journalists than it is in a political scene that's already raised public cynicism to disturbing levels.

The purge continues

There's been some reporting about the Wall government's "rebalancing" in the Saskatchewan civil service to move union positions out of scope - ensuring that the public pays more for the same work as the price of undercutting public-sector unions. But that's apparently the least of the Sask Party's efforts to manipulate the civil service for its political ends.

Here's a Facebook post from Yens Pedersen (and need I add, former leadership candidate and NDP nominee in Regina South?):
Civil servants beware - a few civil servants and their spouses I know have received unsolicited calls at their home to find out what they think of the Sask Party and premier Brad Wall. Some callers apparently sound like a pollster, but are not. These are Sask Party calls, and they are building their database of who is and isn't a Sask Party supporter in the government.
(F)irst one I heard, thought it was a coincidence. 5th one I heard, seems like a pattern. The questions all sound similar too, not typical pollster questions.
(Incidentally, a few more examples have apparently surfaced since Yens' original posts.)

Elsewhere on the same thread, Yens also rightly notes that the names of civil servants are available through the Government of Saskatchewan's public directory. So it's not particularly difficult for anybody with enough resources to call up virtually any public servant at home by matching work names with listed phone numbers.

But it would appear to be a first for the Sask Party to be using that method to carry out a systematic loyalty test. And based on the Wall government's track record of politically-motivated firings, there's plenty of reason for public servants to be concerned about a government that seems entirely eager to purge any independent thought from the province's civil service.

Update: A couple of commenters note that the scope of the calling seems to go beyond the civil service alone, raising the possibility that it's instead a garden-variety push poll. Which would itself make for another broken promise for the Sask Party - but makes it less clear whether the calls are related to the management of provincial employees.

On influence

I can understand why the NDP's response to the Cons' lobbying deflection was to demand more rather than criticizing the idea altogether: as laughable as it should be for the most secretive government in recent memory to keep pretending to have any interest in transparency, they might well be able to score political points with their base by bleating that the opposition parties don't want to face their definition of accountability. But it's worth taking a step back to ask whether there's actually any point to requiring registration of dealings with opposition MPs other than to make life more difficult for anybody opposed to the government.

After all, the main purpose of restricting lobbying activities would seem to be to make sure that decision-makers aren't influenced by unknown outside forces when making policy choices which can't be easily reviewed or debated. Which means that the obvious focus would seem to be the cabinet ministers who have the formal authority to make independent decisions which directly affect the interests of Canadians, along with high-ranking officials and partymates who wield disproportionate influence.

Needless to say, that need for transparency goes doubly in a political culture where statutes tend to serve mostly to set out authority which can be exercised by the executive in any number of directions - meaning that the effect of federal action on any particular person is almost entirely driven by discretionary choices where lobbying a single minister can make all the difference.

In contrast, no single backbench member of Parliament has the slightest ability to set policy independently or secretly: the main forms of influence for MPs are through fully-documented participation in Parliamentary debates and votes. And indeed under the Cons, even the will of Parliament as a whole (whether in the form of binding orders or legislation) is routinely flouted - again at the whim of the executive branch which is looking to deflect attention from itself.

As a result, it doesn't make much sense to me to suggest that efforts to raise issues with backbench MPs or opposition parties should be layered with the same type of restrictions that might be appropriate when an interest group seeks to influence government decision-makers directly outside the channels of public debate.

What's more, the application of lobbying rules only figures to make it more difficult for groups who are already on the wrong end of the Harper Cons' brand of government by grudge to voice their concerns to the parties best positioned to raise questions about the executive vindictiveness. And it will also allow every real concern about government decisions being influenced by outside actors to be met with trumped-up finger-pointing toward the opposition - making it far more difficult for genuine concerns to receive the focus they deserve.

In sum, while there's plenty of reason for the opposition parties to be wary of the politics of rejecting greater perceived transparency, we shouldn't ignore the question of whether the move actually makes sense in substance. And if the end result is that greater restrictions on the opposition parties will ultimately serve only to better cloud what the government is doing, then it's worth fighting back rather than simply accepting the Cons dictating who the opposition can and can't meet with as the price of avoiding conflict.

The reviews are in

Dan Gardner decides to match the Cons in their philosophy about facts and evidence. And the result is the best column anybody's yet written on the topic:
A slim majority of Conservative party members believe homosexuals should be arrested and imprisoned in federal dinner theatres, where they would perform The Sound of Music and other wholesome entertainment for children and seniors. Twenty per cent of the Conservative caucus dropped acid with the Grateful Dead. At least three cabinet ministers have outstanding arrest warrants in Nepal; one is a former member of the Manson family.

In the past, I would not have presented these claims as facts because they're not "true," in the narrow sense of an assertion supported by logic and evidence. That stuff mattered to me. I was a "member of the reality-based community," as a Bush administration official famously said about people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality."

But no more. "When we act," that official said, "we create our own reality." That's where I am now. Stephen Harper, the Conservative government, and me. Creating our own reality. And dropping acid with the Dead.
Facts, evidence, logic. Irony. We're moved beyond that. I might even say we've evolved, but some of the guys in the purple van might not like that. So let's just say we've opened the doors of perception. We make reality, man.

Hey, here's something most people don't know. Stephen Harper has a tattoo. Really. It's a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche. "There are no facts, only interpretations." He got it one crazy weekend in Tijuana. It's on his right buttock.

Thursday, August 05, 2010


John Campey and the Data Hounds hold a protest. Hilarity ensues.

Ignorance as policy

Lest anybody accuse the Harper Cons of being the only government in Canada which makes far too many decisions based on a complete lack of information, Joe looks to have uncovered another glaring (if unsurprising) example:
The subsequent request to Executive Council resulted in a phone call from Garett Murray, the manager of corporate planning at central management services with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, on June 28, 2010, to discuss the matter. The central management services branch provides support to intergovernmental affairs through a shared services agreement.

Murray advised that there is no one document containing a comprehensive list of barriers to trade and investment between the three westernmost provinces, but proposed that the provincial government would create a new record that had the information. It was further agreed that such a record would also contain the source for each barrier listed.

Unfortunately, the Wall government reneged on the offer without explaining why.

In a letter dated July 22, 2010, Bonita Cairns, the executive director of corporate services with Executive Council, provided a one-page record prepared by intergovernmental affairs staff listing five “general examples” of barriers to trade and investment that currently exist between the three westernmost provinces.

“A comprehensive list of barriers does not currently exist,” the document states.
In other words: months after the Wall government signed onto the WEPA to permanently tie the hands of Saskatchewan's public sector based on its faith-based belief in the need to eradicate mythical trade barriers, it hadn't yet lifted a finger to determine what barriers actually existed. And that looks to me like a far more damning statement about the Sask Party's decision-making process than its later refusal to do its homework after the fact.

Regina Qu'Appelle Valley - Tracy Rogoza Seeking NDP Nomination

The NDP's nomination race in Regina Qu'Appelle Valley now has a second entrant: Tracy Rogoza, an insurance broker with a strong background in swimming and volunteer work - as well as some key family connections as the daughter of longtime Regina mayor Doug Archer.

Between Rogoza and Steve Ryan (who has launched a website of his own), the NDP boasts two strong young candidates who should each have an excellent chance to topple the Sask Party's Laura Ross in a riding which was home to one of the province's closest races in 2007. Which means that whether or not any more contenders throw their hat into the ring in the Regina Qu'Appelle Valley, this should be a nomination contest to watch.

Thursday Morning Links

- If there's anything surprising about the latest federal fund-raising numbers, it's how little has changed over the past few years. While the Cons are hopefully seeing a drop in their receipts over the past couple of months, there seems to be little indication that any party's fund-raising capacity has changed meaningfully since the Cons took power - which is particularly telling for a Lib party which perpetually seems to be almost ready to adapt to a grassroots-based fund-raising model.

- The New Brunswick NDP looks to be doing an excellent job focusing public attention on both the Libs and Cons in that province for a stunningly slimy move to pass an increase to MLA salaries and pensions (among a pile of other legislation) at a time when a flood prevented any recording of the goings-on in the legislature.

But if I have any criticism of the NDP's strategy, it's that the party's sights are set so low in what may be its most visible issue campaign. After all, while it's true that it would only have taken one NDP MLA to keep bills from being forced through, surely it's for the best to elect many more MLAs who won't be inclined to play along with such abuse of democratic procedure - and with the NDP's polling numbers in the mid to high teens, there would seem to be a strong chance of doing just that.

- David Eaves' takedown of Stephen Taylor and other Con spokesflacks is well worth a read:
(F)or Conservatives the whole reason for getting rid of the census was that it was supposed to curtail big government. Stephen Taylor - Conservative blogger and cheerleader - says as much in his National Post Column. The beginning of the end of the Canadian welfare state. What was his line? "If it can’t be measured, future governments can’t pander." It took about 9 days to disprove that thesis. A $5.1-billion dollar a year increase to create prison capacity for a falling crime rate is the case in point. Turns out even if you can't measure it you can still do something about it. Just badly.

This isn't the end of big government. It isn't even the end of pandering governments. It's just the beginning of blind government.
- Meanwhile, QMI is predictably carrying the Cons' water on the census issue like to many others, push polling about how respondents would treat "questions that you considered to be very personal and embarrassing" without pointing to any evidence that such questions exist. So let's make it clear: if there were any questions on the long form whose embarrassment factor could possibly jeopardize the results, the Cons wouldn't have had to fabricate them.

- Finally, PostMedia reports that while the Cons' vandalism in government isn't the kind that can be prosecuted, their electoral book-cooking may yet result in charges.

On parallel decisions

I won't comment much on L. Ian MacDonald's theory that the Cons' road to a majority involves spending hundreds of million dollars on a Quebec City arena, if only because there doesn't seem to be much to talk about other than whether blatant vote-buying is good or bad. (And unfortunately there isn't much room for doubt where the Harper Cons stand on that.)

But it is worth noting how such a decision might affect Saskatchewan.

After all, the latest news about Regina's domed stadium proposal is that the federal government is due to respond to an application within the next month or so. And if the Cons do plan to follow the Quebec City vote-buying plan, I'm not sure they'll have much choice but to pony up at least some money for Regina as well - since there could be no more sure way to enrage a substantial number of Saskatchewan voters than to reject years of entreaties from the team, city and province while rushing to spend on a similar project for political cronies in Quebec City.

A call to action

I'll echo the many commentators who have complimented the effort made by Stephen Gordon and others at Count Me In!. But it's worth noting one slightly surprising aspect of the site.

Of the four "Act now!" options, all seem to be oriented toward one-time expressions of opinion, with only one (the NDP's Twitter tool) having any associated reach to one's social connections. And that seems to me to miss the type of influence that's most likely to sway the Cons.

Granted, the decision will ultimately have to be reversed at the cabinet level - so it's important that input eventually feed back to MPs. But we should have learned by now (as the Star-Phoenix editorial board notes today) that Stephen Harper will happily use a claim of "they're all against us" as a fund-raising and organizing tool rather than paying attention to fact-based criticism - as long as it doesn't upset the political balance the Cons have managed to set up.

With that in mind, the motivation most likely to get Harper to move from what's now an entrenched position is the recognition that it's doing more to build an opposing base than to fire up his own. And that means it's worth pointing out the Cons' vandalism and its effect on Canadian lives to our less politically-inclined connections - since it's their addition to the movement that figures to get Harper backpedaling.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

If only

Sure, it's a tragedy that Canada is governed by a party which is going out of its way to deride the very idea of making decisions based on evidence rather than prejudice and wilful ignorance.

But there's perhaps an even greater tragedy in the fact that the Harper Cons haven't yet reached the point of believing their own rhetoric. Because if they ran their political operations with the contempt for accurate information their cabinet ministers spout every day, the Cons would be fighting tooth and nail to so much as cling to their seats in Calgary.

Well said

Quebec Solidaire's Amir Khadir nicely compares the style of politics that's worked remarkably well for him with what we've become all too accustomed-to elsewhere:
How does a radical agitator like you end up being the most popular member of the most establishment of Quebec institutions? One pundit even pronounced you “rookie legislator of the year.”

Well, it was actually quite easy. There is a very cynical political culture that has been entrenched for a long time, and it’s (sic) most pure incarnation can be found in the Harper government. It’s a culture that incorporates and demands low blows, lies as modus operandi and offers mealy-mouthed evasion when one wants to avoid the lie. Just by avoiding that trap, by giving myself the freedom to speak, which most people don’t have, by acting out of a little good faith and sincerity, I look like something unusual. It seems to me it should be the norm.

On criminal negligence

Kady, who should seemingly know better, passes along the Cons' spin that their redefinition of "serious offence" won't create any new offences or result in any substantial costs.

The Cons' definition of a "serious offence" includes "betting, pool-selling and book-making" under section 202 of the Criminal Code.

The definition of a "criminal organization" under section 467.1 is any group of three or more people involved in a "serious offence" which results in any type of benefit.

And under section 515(6), anybody committing a "serious offence" related to a "criminal organization" faces a reverse onus on bail applications.

In other words, the Cons just declared that they can lock you up and and throw away the key for participating in a hockey pool.

Just thought you should know.

Deep thought

Any attempt to appeal to Stephen Harper's desire to be reasonable and responsive is roughly the equivalent of trying to appeal to Tony Clement's honesty and integrity. Or Stockwell Day's commitment to evidence-based decision-making. Or Stockwell Day's honesty and integrity. Or...

Those who do not learn from history...

Brian Topp offers an all-too-plausible theory as to why the Harper Cons may see little downside in calling an election this fall. But it's worth at least raising the question of how safely Harper can assume that the Libs will continue to prop him up given another chance to replace him with a coalition government:
This spring’s curious debate over the idea of building a single big progressive party highlighted the deep vein of loathing and fear that many in Michael Ignatieff’s Rosedale/Bay Street-centred blue Liberal faction hold for progressive policies and people. As they have made clear both publicly and privately in many venues, they feel closer to the Conservatives than to the New Democrats on many issues.

This being so, even after an election debacle on the scale suggested by these numbers, perhaps Mr. Harper could hope to work out another informal modus vivendi with the blue Liberals, whose party would be returning to the repair shop for another long visit. In which case, on these seat projections, Mr. Harper would govern with a de facto 212-seat majority, much as he is doing now.

Could Mr. Harper really count on this?

Mr. Ignatieff says he is open to building a progressive coalition government after the next election if the numbers justify it. He must say this to preserve his party’s currently faux-progressive positioning, designed to (faintly) appeal to New Democrats and Greens. But would those numbers justify such a government in his mind? Or does his conduct since January 2009 – in a fundamentally identical Parliament – tell us what he and his party wing would really do?

A pessimistic answer to this question would make a fall election more likely.
Now, there's no room for doubt that at least some Libs would rather keep Stephen Harper in charge of the country than allow a single New Democrat voice into cabinet. But it's worth raising the question of whether Michael Ignatieff has learned better than to let those blue Libs have the final say based on his own personal experience.

After all, Ignatieff has effectively had only one chance to replace Harper before, as there hasn't actually been any prospect of an alternative government since his initial coalition decision in January 2009. At that point, Ignatieff was apparently convinced by those within his party who said he should hold out for absolute power on his own - ignoring repeated warnings that continued Con government would be disastrous for both the country and the Libs.

For that decision, Ignatieff was rewarded with roughly a week of lionization by the mainstream press as a Serious Leader(tm) - which of course served absolutely no useful purpose since there was no way to translate it into electoral gains. And needless to say, that initial praise was followed by a steady stream of Con attack ads, media declarations that he's an ineffective leader, and declining poll numbers.

So Ignatieff's history should tell him that he'd be best off charting a different course the next time there's a chance to form an alternative government. And while I wouldn't want to bet on his having learned that lesson, nor would I be quite so pessimistic as to rule out the possibility that he has.

The reviews are in

The Star-Phoenix editorial board notes that Brad Wall has joined Stephen Harper among the main voices encouraging the type of right-wing dogma that's all too likely to torpedo any economic recovery:
As the premiers gather in Manitoba this week, their top task will be to decide who is correct about the world's economies -- their Saskatchewan colleague Brad Wall, or Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman and Washinton Post columnist E.J. Dionne.

In his weekend column in the New York Time, Mr. Krugman worried that politicians are so focused on narrow views of government deficits that they're throwing the poor and unemployed to the wolves rather than continuing the stimulus spending programs he believes are key to staving off another serious economic slump.

And Mr. Dionne noted that "incorrigibly stupid" politics that placed tax cuts for the rich above the need to support vital government appropriations threatens the largest superpower.

Mr. Wall, however, is going into the premiers' meeting with the warning that, "Much of the problems of the world right now, economically, are related to budgets that just got out of control." He suggests salvation lies in "debt reduction and lower taxes."
(Stimulus) projects that aren't completed by the end of fiscal 2010-11 will not get support from Ottawa. This deadline, by the way, is particularly awkward for Saskatchewan, where record rainfall through June and July have delayed work on projects worth millions of dollars.

This, however, doesn't seem to concern Premier Wall, who is heading to Manitoba to urge his colleagues to turn off the fiscal taps. Saskatchewan, he will point out, already has stopped the flow by cutting programs across the board and slashing the civil service.
Mr. Wall also has (sic) worry about the request for more recovery time by premiers who believe their provinces haven't yet exited the recession.

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, for example, is hoping to squeeze in a question on "whether or not there is more to be done" on the stimulus package.

But if it makes Mr. Wall more comfortable to be off-side with economists, newspaper columnists and his colleagues, his stance seems a perfect copy of the words and deeds of the PM Harper.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


I hate to have to slightly question the well-deserved outpouring of scorn toward Stockwell Day over his intention to spend billions of dollars fighting unreported crime. But there's actually a bit more internal consistency to Day's statement than the response would suggest - even if it undoubtedly reflects the Cons' warped ideological preferences.

Here's Day:
"People simply aren't reporting the same way they used to," he responded. "I'm saying one statistic of many that concerns us is the amount of crimes that go unreported. Those numbers are alarming and it shows that we can't take a liberal view to crime."

However, he didn't provide any evidence of an increase in unreported crimes, or a description of what types of crime go unreported. He also didn't explain how unreported crime relates to the need for new prisons.

Statistics Canada's latest compilation of crime reported to police, issued last month, shows overall crime dropped by seven per cent in 2007, continuing a downward trend since the rate peaked in 1991. The report found a decline in homicides, attempted murders, sexual assaults and robberies.

Still, Day said the government will push ahead with its tough-on-crime agenda, including building new prisons. He added the government supports more mandatory sentences to take discretion away from judges, increased jail times and eliminating "discount sentencing."
So why is it that there's any argument at all about the issue of unreported crime? Well, somebody at Statistics Canada answered that question before having his or her mouth duct-taped shut:
(A Statistics Canada) analyst said the No. 1 reason given by individuals for not calling the police about a crime is that they believe it was not serious enough. Only two per cent said they feared retribution, and one per cent said they felt the police may be biased.
And the "not serious enough" statement makes all the more sense based on the numbers pointed to by Rob Nicholson in an effort to clean up Day's mess:
Statistics Canada reported in their last General Social Survey (GSS) that an estimated 34% of Canadians who are victims of crime still aren't reporting the crime to police, including:
- an estimated 88% of sexual assaults;
- an estimated 69% of household thefts, and
- and (sic) estimated 67% of personal property thefts.
Put it all together, and there's actually some theoeretical prospect that a constant focus on whipping up public fear of crime could lead both to a perception that we should drop everything to direct increased public resources toward smaller and smaller offences like personal property thefts, and to the passage of mandatory multi-year sentences that do require filling up federal prisons.

Mind you, from where we stand now - with an assumption that any government should have at least some sense of perspective in developing its criminal justice policy - that might seem like a preposterous possibility. But the next time the Cons show any limit to their willingness to push obviously-counterproductive policies in order to concentrate public attention on crime rather than other issues will be the first. And Day may simply be telling us that the Cons have every intention of reaching that point if somebody doesn't stop them first - which to me offers just as much reason for alarm as the cluelessness and dishonesty that Day and other Cons have also put on full display lately.

Update: Alison points out exactly what was counted as a crime for the purposes of the "unreported crime" numbers being trumpeted by the Cons - with that definition including unwanted e-mail messages. Never mind federal prison sentences, this calls for reinstituting the death penalty.

This is as real as it gets

It would be easy enough to dismiss this with a mocking comparison between Michael Ignatieff and Walter Mondale and otherwise ignore the subject. But there's a trend developing among the Libs' faithful that deserves to be pointed out.

As best I can tell, the two most-trumpeted events from a tour that was supposed to reintroduce the Libs' leader to the country have been...Ignatieff dancing, and Ignatieff reciting an SNL catchphrase. Which seems to signal that Lib supporters are highly motivated by the prospect of taking our already-limited political discourse down about three more notches, to the point where the role of a prime ministerial candidate is to soak up attention by providing comic relief.

Now, I'm not entirely sure whether that's the result of a conscious effort by the Libs themselves to play up those aspects of Ignatieff's tour above all else, or simply an unintended and spontaneous show of what actually drives the Libs' supporters. But either way, it's hard not to notice the contrast between a party with so little commitment to any particular vision as to focus its attention on the most banal moments imaginable, and one which is harnessing social media to get people talking about issues. And with Ignatieff having a long way to go in trying to reverse all kinds of negative public perceptions, it's doubtful that voters identifying him primarily as "on a boat!!!" will get them very far.

Tuesday Morning Links

- The Straight's Charlie Smith points out one important difference between the current political landscape and the one in which the Libs had their success in the mid-90s: rather than being able to rely on the pattern of opposite votes provincially and federally, they're stuck with tired provincial governments in Canada's three largest provinces.

Of course, one can fairly say that the provincial Libs in both Quebec and B.C. are somewhat less than fully identified with the federal party. But that only figures to create more problems: after all, lower-information voters may be less likely to note the difference, while those with greater involvement are split between multiple federal parties among already-shrinking pools of provincial support.

- Juxtaposition for the day: Vic Toews' statement on why he wants rape to be separated from other sexual assaults in criminal law:
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said earlier this year that the 1983 replacement of ‘rape' in the code with the broader term ‘sexual assault' created a “general basket description that causes all kinds of problems.”

Mr. Toews told a Senate committee that the change was “perhaps the biggest mistake in criminal law that the Parliament of Canada has ever made.”
And to see what Toews considers to be a serious mistake, the reason why the division was eliminated in the first place:
Ms. Kane, senior general counsel, co-authored briefing material for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson two days later that referred derisively to the “old, antiquated and narrow offence of rape.”

“The replacement of the antiquated rape offence by the current sexual assault offences reflects the reality that the sexual integrity of any and every victim can be violated by any form of non-consensual sexual activity.”
“The repeal of the rape offence was also accompanied by significant criminal law reforms to do away with outdated rules, myths and stereotypes,” Ms. Kane wrote in her advice to the justice minister.
But don't worry: the Cons are surely looking for other outdated rules, myths and stereotypes to entrench in law instead.

- Armine Yalnizyan frames this week's meeting of the Council of the Federation as a chance for premiers to step up to save Canada's census:
Now we need more than a hero, more than someone who says no. We need leaders. Elected officials who will capture in clear and resonant language what is at stake for Canadians everywhere, and define what we are saying yes to.

That voice could come from any point of the compass in this land of sensible counters and take-no-guff pragmatists.

Can the provincial leaders fix the census mess? Perhaps. If so, it will be because statesmanship eclipsed brinksmanship. And that's the type of leadership all Canadians want.
- And finally, Postmedia's Andrew Mayeda reports on the dangers of Arctic oil development, featuring both a 3-year time frame to drill a relief well in the event of a spill, and a complete lack of equipment available to do the job. But don't worry: the Cons' constant bleating that any criticism of their offshore drilling policy is anti-Canadian will surely prevent any harm.

Lies and the lying liars who tell them

The census debacle overview from Heather Scoffield and Jennifer Ditchburn is well worth a read - and I'll plan to circle back to a couple more points in future posts. But for now, let's highlight their concise summary of the sheer amount of dishonesty - in terms of both the number of people involved and the number of false claims - put into service by the Harper government to defend the indefensible:
The Prime Minister's Office's response in the early days of the debate was unusual at best.

The director of communications, Dimitri Soudas, sent reporters an email underlining how many Canadians had listed their religion as "Jedi" during the 2006 census, and making reference to census workers visiting homes at 10 p.m. — something Statistic Canada says does not occur.

Clement was forced to defend the decision with no prior consultation or polling to back him up. Neither was there any clear indication of just who in Canada was upset by the intrusive questions in the long form.

Bernier claimed that as industry minister, he had received 1,000 complaints a day during the census season of 2006 — but then couldn't produce a single one.
Cabinet members such as Transport Minister John Baird and Treasury Board President Stockwell Day helped spread a few untruths, ridiculing non-existent questions in the census on bathrooms and reading material.
(Edit: fixed typo.)

On shining examples

Sure, there's plenty to criticize in Todd Hirsch's column, which for reasons unknown seems to have been given prime real estate in the Globe and Mail.

But let's be fair to Hirsch: while his column may be an embarrassment from the standpoint of having anything useful or accurate to say, it does look to be perfectly emblematic of the TILMA/WEPA corporate movement. After all, it takes somebody whose depth of understanding is in the range of "BC = pot! (hehindeedy!) Saskatchewan = ViCo! (hyukhyukhyuk!)" to overlook the complete lack of reality to the supposed "trade barriers" he's so eager to fight - not to mention the fact that the examples of procurement and labour mobility have long since been dealt with.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Also: Tony Clement reports that the Statistical Society of Canada endorses gutting of census

One might think the Cons could at least find enough astroturf supporters for their policy of perpetually doing something about the environment in a year or two to avoid making up support out of whole cloth from organizations independent enough not to stand for the fabrication.

But one would be wrong.

Monday Morning Links

A bit of light reading for your Saskatchewan Day...

- deBeauxOs notes that the recession looks to have resulted in the corporate sector slashing jobs and wages far out of proportion to any actual harm from economic conditions, then pocketing the difference. Which fits in nicely with what looks like a pattern of corporate profiteering under cover of outside forces which deserves plenty of further study: for example, do we know yet how many Ontario and B.C. businesses were able to sneak in price increases under the cover of the HST?

- Meanwhile, the CAW's Laurell Ritchie reminds us that our EI system is falling far short of providing the benefits needed by workers facing extended periods of unemployment:
Haunted by the spectre of a double dip recession, it would be a huge mistake to remove fiscal stimulus through EI benefits when we still need economic oxygen to support this fragile recovery.

Many workers are facing their second or third layoff since 2008. Statistics Canada has just reported that regular EI beneficiaries increased in May for the first time in eight months, to more than 680,000. That’s not reassuring.

Also troubling is that Canada’s long-term unemployed has doubled as a percentage of the country’s total unemployed, prompting a recommendation from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that temporary EI extensions “be maintained until the pool of long-term unemployed begins to drop significantly.” This is good advice to be heeded by a federal government that often appears too quick to consider the economic meltdown a thing of the past. Too many Canadian workers are still in survival mode, forced to rely on precarious, part-time and temp agency jobs.
- For those who haven't yet seen it, Terahertz Atheist's series on developing a secular equivalent to church culture is well worth a read.

- Gerald Caplan rightly notes that for all the Cons' efforts to stoke fears of honour killings as a means of bashing Muslims, far more needs to be done to stop violence against women of all cultures:
Between 2002 and July 20, 2010, a total of 151 members of the Canadian Forces have been killed serving in Afghanistan. Each received respectful coverage in the media, as they should have. Yet more women are killed on average each year, often with no public attention at all, than the total of soldiers killed since we joined the Afghan war. Why has our government not declared war against the enemy at home who continues to murder so many women?

Violence against women doesn't always end in murder. In Canada in 2007, nearly 40,200 incidents of "spousal violence" (i.e., violence against legally married, common-law, separated and divorced partners) were reported to police. And yet the figures show that such reported incidents had actually decreased by 15 per cent between 1998 and 2007. Let's put that another away. Despite a 15 per cent decline in those years, more than 40,000 Canadian women still reported being subjected to violence by their partner in 2007.

So the struggle for women's equality, including the simple right not be abused or murdered, continues. Today in Canada, the struggle must focus on the Harper government, surely the most anti-women government in modern times. Stephen Harper refuses to support terrific programs at home or abroad that promote women's equality. Charity from above for the less-fortunate, sure; solidarity with equals, not a chance.
- While Greg has already highlighted it, the derisive take of a leading U.S. statistician on the Cons' census spin is worth repeating:
The Chicago-based statistician then laughed at the details of Canada’s plan to pass out more questionnaires to make up for less compliance. He was part of a 2003 experiment in the United States to make voluntary the Census Bureau’s own detailed questionnaire, known as the American Community Survey. Statisticians quickly concluded the data would be less reliable and more expensive to obtain.
- And finally, Joanne McGarry points out that the Cons' goal of preventing present-day Canadians from getting an accurate picture of their country will create distortions lasting far into the future:
If you know what your great grandparents did for a living, where they were born and how old they were in 1881, there’s an excellent chance you (or the family tree service you used) got the information from the Canadian Census.

For me, it’s also how I found out that two people I thought were family friends were actually great uncles, and that there were unrelated people living in the same house, officially as “lodgers” but quite likely as erstwhile employees in the family hotel. It’s also how I learned there were Anglicans in the mix on both sides of the family, not just one as I had thought.

In all the official reaction to the proposed changes to the census, few people, if any, have mentioned the role Statistics Canada plays in helping Canadians find out more about their own histories, as well as the country’s. A voluntary survey won’t capture information about religion and ethnicity, for example, simply because the response rate won’t be high enough to be accurate.
In the future, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will probably be just as curious as we are about their cultural, religious and geographic roots. Perhaps that is the one function that only a well-designed census can fulfill.

Let's make this easier

Apparently my suggestion last week to focus on Stephen Taylor's gleeful violence toward public services hasn't yet gone anywhere. So here's a more concrete thought for anybody more cinematically inclined.

The scene: a popular, familiar embodiment of positive social services. Say, a hospital bed where a nurse is attending to a grateful patient.

Two figures enter the room in Conservative Party jackets - one with a distinct Harper head of hair, one with a Taylor beard.

The Harper figure whacks the nurse over the head with a chair, WWE-style. The patient reacts in horror. The Taylor figure pumps his fist and shouts, "About time!".

Cut to a visual of Taylor's quote about "dealing a huge blow to the welfare state".

Now was that so hard?

The price of demagoguery

The Hill Times sets the record straight about how the Cons' increased census costs are going to be applied. And the answer is: clearing up at least part of their own deliberate confusion about the short form:
An aide to Mr. Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.) confirmed what a source told The Hill Times—that $25-million of the $30-million Mr. Clement referred to as advertising money to promote the long questionnaire is actually for additional follow-up once the short census, which by law is mandatory to complete and return to government, is mailed to all Canadian households.

The government is aware, without saying so publicly, that its decision to replace the 40-year-old mandatory version of the long census will likely result in confusion among Canadians over which of the forms they must fill out by law, the source said.

"People will be confused, 'This is the census, I heard it's voluntary,'" the source said. "Of course, the short form isn't [voluntary] but people will be confused..."
The source said "there isn't a penny" for additional enumeration and follow-up for the long form, despite the fact more households are likely to ignore it than ever before in the history of the survey.

But Mr. Clement, in statements to the news media and MPs, has up to now said the money was being set aside for advertising and a public relations campaign urging Canadians to complete the longer questionnaires, which will go to 30 per cent of households.

"As I said to the media, there is an additional cost of $30-million to launch a public campaign to convince citizens to complete the questionnaire," Mr. Clement told the House of Commons Industry, Science and Technology Committee. "I think every census costs a lot."
So the Cons are making boneheaded decisions, wasting public money in the process, and lying about it. Which means that this is a day ending in "y". (Update: See also.) But it's still telling that Clement has tried to pretend that the added cost somehow relates to preserving data quality for the long form, rather than trying to counteract the Cons' own deceptive rhetoric about removing the penalty of jail for census non-compliance.

Meanwhile, it's also worth noting the fact that the Cons themselves recognize exactly what their gutting will do to what's been referred to as the "long form census" out of habit:
The Hill Times has also learned that Statistics Canada has increased the total estimated cost of the 2011 census to $660-million from an estimate that was posted on the agency's website prior to the government's decision to make the long census a voluntary national household survey, which will not be part of the census in a legal sense.

When Cabinet quietly approved legal details of the census last June, news of which quietly leaked out later in the month when the cabinet orders were posted in the Canada Gazette, it included and approved only a five-page version of the 2011 census short form, which contains just seven questions, and a mandatory questionnaire for the agricultural household census. Under the Statistics Canada Act, only the census questionnaires approved by cabinet and published in the Canada Gazette are mandatory.
So for all the Cons' spin, there doesn't seem to be much doubt about the actual effect of the change. Rather than actually serving as a census in either a legal or a practical sense, the long form will instead turn into nothing more than Canada's most expensive mail-in poll.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Missing the point

You know the Cons have made a disastrous mistake when even L. Ian MacDonald can't help but to criticize them. But let's not MacDonald off the hook for his misplaced focus either: shouldn't it be obvious that the biggest problem with the Cons' choice to gut the census is the fact that it involves a major and destructive change made with absolutely no rational basis, rather than the lack of a communications plan to try to defend that boneheaded move after the fact?

On uncharted territory

There have been a couple of interesting posts discussing the NDP's resurgence in Quebec. But it's worth taking a slightly closer look at the historical numbers for the NDP's three most successful elections in the province to see just how much of an opportunity the party actually enjoys.

While Eric and Volkov have based their charts on the NDP's raw vote percentages in Quebec, let's take a look at the three apparent spikes for the party from another standpoint: comparing the NDP's share of the vote to that of the other national parties, consisting of the Libs and Cons in each election along with the Greens in 2008. (While the greatest effect of that move is to remove the Bloc from the picture from the picture for 2008, it also has some effect on the 1965 results when the Creditistes won a substantial share of the vote.)

Year NDP% Federalist% NDP Federalist Share
1965 12.0 78.9 15.2
1988 14.4 97.4 14.8
2008 12.2 61.2 19.9

In other words, the NDP is now far ahead of where it's ever been in the past among the national parties in Quebec. And that's all the more clear in looking at the NDP's share of the vote in direct comparison to that of the other parties.

In previous elections, the NDP had managed to post so much as half of the vote of either the Cons or Libs in Quebec exactly three times - in 1965, when it won 12% of the vote to the Cons' 21%; in 1980, when it took 9.1% to the Cons' 12.6%; and in 2004, when it won 4.6% to the Cons' 8.8%. And of course the latter two results were based more on extreme Con weakness than NDP strength.

But in 2008, the NDP managed to top that standard compared to both the Libs and the Cons. And the NDP's standing has only improved its standing in the time since then, with the party polling close to even with the Cons for most of the time since the 2008 election while at least keeping pace with the Libs.

Of course, as a result of the Bloc's stranglehold on a substantial chunk of the province's vote, the NDP's success against its national competitors has translated only into a trip back into the NDP's historical territory in its share of the total vote. But while I won't make the mistake of assuming the Bloc will fade away on its own, it's worth keeping in mind that the NDP is actually the best-positioned national party to peel off Bloc votes based on both Jack Layton's personal popularity as a potential Prime Minister, and the NDP as a party ranking as Bloc voters' preferred second choice.

So while the Cons have mostly written off the province and the Libs have no apparent plan for growth, the NDP's current standing in Quebec involves a far more direct path to electoral success than the party has ever had before. And that means that there's reason to expect the NDP to be able to build on its current level of support, rather than seeing the 2008 results as a temporary spike.

(Edit: Added 1980 and 2004 results to share-of-vote comparison.)

Sunday Morning 'Rider Blogging

Another game, another fairly solid win that could easily have been a blowout in the Saskatchewan Roughriders' favour. But there's reason for optimism both that the 'Riders have fixed a couple of their nagging weaknesses, and that they can remedy their current problems by digging into their existing playbook.

The main story coming out of the game was the 'Riders' inability to convert drives, with three separate trips inside the Hamilton 5 resulting in a field goal or less (and another two just barely turning into touchdowns). But while Hamilton deserves credit for some highly effective short-yardage defence, it's worth noting that the 'Riders would seem to have the ability to improve their chances of scoring by using some strategies that have been far more effective in the past.

After all, it's been well noted that the 'Riders have had a stellar track record on two-point conversions: given one play to score from the 5-yard-line, Darien Durant's offence hasn't been stopped a single time over the past two years. So why would the 'Riders have any trouble scoring with three chances starting from the 3 or closer?

The main problem seems to be a choice to play it safe in a couple of ways. On first down and on subsequent plays within a couple of yards of the end zone, the 'Riders regularly ran into the teeth of the defence - ensuring that the Ticats needed only a strong push from the line to hold the 'Riders back.

And in what's surely a somewhat related factor, the 'Riders were shockingly reluctant to let Darien Durant use his scrambling ability near the goal line. Every play after Durant's lone interception was apparently designed for either a handoff or a lob from the pocket into the back of the end zone - with the result that Durant had neither any chance to take the ball into the end zone himself, nor any angles for a quick pass to catch the secondary by surprise.

Fortunately, there would seem to be an obvious solution. Rather than fixating on playing it safe when that means making the defence's job far easier than it should be, why not use the 'Riders' two-point conversion playbook as their default option on plays outside the opponents' 1, treating the extra downs as bonus chances in case the first try doesn't work? At the very least, that would bring some of the 'Riders' key offensive strengths back into play - and as an added bonus, it would soften up the interior of the defence for when they do decide to try to pound the ball into the end zone.

Aside from its trouble converting drives, the other issue for Saskatchewan's offence was the success Hamilton's defensive backs had at times in timing and deflecting Durant's longer passes. This too looks to go to some predictability that's creeping into the 'Riders' offence - but should be easily fixed by relying somewhat less on rainbow passes and proportionally more on direct strikes underneath.

On defence, the obvious story was Arland Bruce's huge game, which feeds into the problems I've mentioned earlier with the 'Riders' ability to stop a single top speed receiver. But at this point, it's worth wondering whether that should be considered an acceptable price for combining Gary Etcheverry's trademark pass rush and push for turnovers with a generally effective run defence. After all, the 'Riders have now given up the two biggest individual receiving performances in the league this season (and three of the top five) - and have won each of those games.

Of course, the tip interceptions by Luc Mullinder and Lance Frazier did wonders for the 'Riders' chances in countering Hamilton's attack - and one can't particularly credit the defensive scheme for basic mistakes by the Ticats' receivers. But both Mullinder and Frazier did have to make brilliant plays to take advantage of those opportunities. And if there's a tradeoff to be made between the preparation needed to scheme to slow down a receiver like Bruce and that used to take advantage of chances to take the ball away from the opponents, I'd have to think the 'Riders have made the right call.

Meanwhile, the special teams had their best game of the year by far on all fronts. The most obvious strengths were Luca Congi's seven field goals along with Neal Hughes' blocked punt. But two other areas which may make for more consistent advantages are worth highlighting as well.

First, Eddie Johnson's kickoff distance was superb throughout the game - leading to two free points for the 'Riders as Marcus Thigpen was forced to retreat into his end zone. As it happened, the game wasn't close enough for those points to make a huge difference - but it's always worth taking whatever advantage a team can get.

And second, Dominique Dorsey had by far his best game of the year. Instead of letting punts bounce around as he had earlier, Dorsey managed to cash in on two fifteen-yard no-yards penalties, which combined with a couple of solid returns to help the 'Riders to better field position than they've enjoyed for ages. Of course, the 'Riders' opponents figure to notice that pattern and back off based on the knowledge that Dorsey isn't going to give them the benefit of a reduced penalty for getting too close. But that should only make it easier for Dorsey to find the blocks he'll need to break returns more consistently.

With Montreal looming next, the 'Riders will need to make sure both Dorsey and the offence are firing on all cylinders as they were in week 1. But yesterday's performance once again seemed to signal a team on the cusp of dominance - and Saskatchewan will surely be looking forward to seeing whether that holds up against the league's other top team from the past couple of seasons.