Saturday, October 09, 2010

Worth watching

There was plenty of attention paid to one of Outremont NDP MP Thomas Mulcair's TV appearances this week. But there's another one which seems to me to reflect a far more important message that nicely highlights the difference between the Cons' economic dogma and the possibility of policies which pursue something more than the accumulation of easy money. So if you only have a minute for Mulcair's take, scroll ahead to 6:10 in the latter link - or take a look at a worthwhile critique of the Cons' F-35 purchase in the full panel discussion.

Saturday Afternoon Links

The links, they never stop...

- More interesting than the Cons' lead on "family issues" in Postmedia's poll is the relative position of the NDP and Libs - with the NDP reversing the usual vote intention numbers by ranking well ahead of the Libs on family issues. Of course that raises the question of what New Democrats can do to make perceived family issues into voting issues - but it seems to suggest there's a strong policy brand the NDP can use to build its level of popular support.

- Travis highlights one important point as to the lessons of Canada's growth in the 1990s which deserve more attention as we set our economic policies today:
The Canadian austerians, from the Federal government (and members of the loyal opposition), to the provincial governments, down to the op-ed pages of the Globe and mail are busy clamouring for both tax cuts and fiscal austerity. And it looks like the corporate tax cuts are a done deal.

And this brings me to the one thing Henderson got right in his paper (pp17-19) but Stephen and Paul failed to note. Namely, Martin RAISED taxes including corporate and capital gains taxes but not personal income taxes. On the latter, he did not need to because PITs were not indexed to inflation. So I guess you can raise taxes on capital and not retard private sector employment growth. Who knew?
- But as thwap notes, we can instead expect further financialization rather than policy based on what's actually best for our economy because...well, that's where the easy money is:
Very simply, the declining rate of profit at the end of the capitalist "golden age" from 1945-73 was met with a trio of policy responses: liberalization, globalization, and financialization. All three were meant to lower the operating costs of capitalism, but all three simultaneously demolish the foundations of the wealth of the society from which capitalism (like a parasite) feeds.
Financialization has been the capitalists' attempts to sever their bonds from all this messy bothersome business entirely and to create fortunes out of thin air called derivatives made up of esoteric products designed by complex mathematical equations. Alas, for them, these derivatives have to be based on something in the real world and since there's really nothing going on to satisfy the needs of this increasingly huge pool of liquid capital, this leads to speculative bubbles that inevitably explode. These bubbles have been getting increasingly large and increasingly unstable.

The point though, is that this response is RATIONAL from a capitalist's point of view. There's no other option for them. That's why there needs to be a revolution so that the wealth of society is not controlled by profit-maximizing elites but by the whole of society itself. How to run this society is in dispute but it MUST be as democratic as imaginable.
- And finally, Linda McQuaig notes one policy option which should make for a relatively means of favouring social justice over wealth accumulation:
Few Canadians even knew about the tax. Those who did mostly belonged to a small number of wealthy families who were rich enough to pay it. With its cancellation in 1972, this tiny crowd was suddenly a lot richer.

University of Toronto economist John Bossons calculated that ending the tax amounted to a windfall of about $12 billion ($62 billion in today's dollars) for Canada's wealthiest families.

The removal of the estate tax, which remains an obscure event in Canadian history, had momentous implications, depriving Ottawa of revenue and putting Canada on a path toward greater inequality.
Some will protest that an inheritance tax picks on the wealthy. But the current situation could be characterized as picking on the non-wealthy. Regular income — money earned on the job — is taxed.

But there's no tax on money received through large inheritances. These windfalls aren't earned, but just dropped into the laps of a lucky few, requiring no effort or talent on their part, beyond choosing appropriate parents.
Suffice to say...there resistance.

But then, nobody said taking on some of the most powerful people in the country — in order to improve the education prospects of every young Canadian — would be easy. Just that it would be worth doing.

On matters of conscience

Following up on the last point in this post, let's go one step further as to how to maximize the chances of passing Charlie Angus' gun registry bill. While I'll maintain my take that putting pressure on the Cons generally has to be part of the picture, it's also worth noting how that pressure should be applied.

After months of lectures from the Cons about how private members' bills should be subject to individual decisions how to vote, it shouldn't be enough for a single Con spokesperson to purport to speak for the entire party in rejecting any improvements to the long gun registry. Instead, there's every reason to call attention to each individual MP - particularly those who have focused on the gun registry personally - to explain whether they plan to vote against a bill that will eliminate many of the concerns about the registry. And to the extent the Cons vote to keep the registry in its current form, that should offer a strong reason why voters shouldn't take either the party or its MPs seriously in pretending to want to do anything about it.

Long Weekend Zombie Lie Hunt

A couple of notes that desperately need correction in otherwise reasonable columns...

First, Bronwyn Eyre's column on the HST is much less cheerleaderish about the HST than the Star-Phoenix' usual offering on the subject.

But she does maintain the paper's habit of painting the issue as a false choice between "Canadians' ability to pay for the basics -- food, rent, utilities, transportation -- let alone the things that improve quality of life" and "(government) expenditures for infrastructure, education, health care...pensions and social programs". So let's offer up a reminder: the HST is bad for both, increasing both individual costs of living and government deficits for the benefit of the corporate sector.

Meanwhile, James Travers may be right to rein in the Libs' sense of entitlement. But his acceptance of a "self-evident" statement that Canada is closer to a Con majority than an alternative government depends on exactly the mistake I pointed out here.

In reality, of course, the real issue isn't which leader commands a plurality of seats following the next election, but which party (or combination thereof) can win the confidence of the House of Commons - making for far more favourable terrain than a simple Con vs. Lib seat count. And while the Libs seem to think it's in their interest to buy into Stephen Harper's flat-out lies as to what makes a government legitimate, the real lesson from Travers' column should be that anybody who wants to get rid of the Harper government should be pushing the Libs to stop using such a counterproductive message.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Musical interlude

Propellerheads - Take California

Friday Afternoon Links

A few notes to close out your week...

- Gerald Caplan's column on the hidden attacks on Ontario's lone NDP government to date is well worth a read. But it's worth wondering to what extent the same phenomenon is still in effect: while it's far from a secret that other provinces have similarly faced capital strikes and other corporate tantrums over the election of NDP governments in the past, is there any indication that, say, Darrell Dexter's government in Nova Scotia is facing anything of the sort?

- Susan Delacourt points out Stephen Harper's apparent philosophy in choosing who to trust:
(H)ere's the secret to Harper -- he doesn't value people with whom he shares friendships or old associations (that's why you get former loyalists like Tom Flanagan, Gerry Nicholls on the outs with him). He values people who share his enmity and his single-minded fixation on destroying his enemies of the moment. Look at his favourite word in the Commons...and that of his most loyal lieutenant, John Baird.
By now, nearly five years later, we in the media are used to this. The worst thing you can call someone in Harperland is a Liberal. Hence, Lawrence Martin is dismissed as a "big-L Liberal" by the PMO after his book is released. Being a liberal, small-l or big-L, is something for which people, in Conservative Ottawa, should be deeply ashamed. There's an element of hysteria to all this too -- witness the slightly off-the-rails, anti-Liberal rhetoric of Lawrence Cannon and Jim Flaherty in recent speeches to non-political audiences.

A few months ago, I saw a quote that keeps rattling around my head. It's from philosopher Eric Hoffer, a man himself who apparently celebrated his standing as an anti-intellectual, anti-elite outcast. Here's the quote:
"You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you."
That is enormously useful information in the hyper-partisan capital right now. The more that the word "Liberal" is used as a swear word, the more I wonder where that fear is coming from.
Of course, it's worth building on Delacourt's analysis and noting that the Cons are trying even more desperately to attack the concept of a coalition. And the Libs would be smart to note just what it is that scares Harper most.

- The coverup is always worse than the crime. But both look to be signs of some painfully bad judgment and partisan focus in the public service.

- Finally, the NDP's effort to fix the long-gun registry is getting at least some media attention. But I'm not sure the NDP is best off adopting its strategy of focusing mostly on the Libs and Bloc for support: isn't much of the appeal of making the registry less onerous the prospect of forcing the Cons onto the defensive in arguing against improvements?

On foundational principles

John Ivison writes about a planned redraft of the NDP's party constitution. And it's worth noting that there really doesn't seem to be far to go in modernizing or softening the wording of the party's longstanding commitment to social democracy.

Mind you, at least a few changes to the current preamble wouldn't strike me as particularly controversial. While most of the passage cited by Ivison seems fairly unobjectionable, it's probably fair to say that "control" is a stronger term than most New Democrats would want to apply to the government's role in handling the economy as a whole. And likewise, while I'd expect most within the party to retain serious concerns about an undue focus on corporate profits over other priorities, I can't imagine there would be much argument about eliminating a categorical statement that "the production and distribution of goods and services shall be directed...not to the making of profit".

That said, it's worth keeping an eye on what gets developed in place of the current preamble. And it's there that the the combination of the language being removed and that being discussed in its place raises some reason for concern:
“This is not the wild, wooly 1970s, when we had to own everything,” said the senior NDP strategist. “We know we need to create wealth and growth in order to allow the Treasury to intervene when it’s prudent and responsible.”
Once again, at least part of the change (favouring wealth and growth) is fairly unobjectionable on its face. But there's reason to wonder why economic development is being presented in opposition to the concept of social ownership, particularly when the existing wording already favours public ownership only "where necessary". And if the new constitutional wording reflects a desire to cut public ownership out of the picture to be replaced by a presumption that the corporate sector should generally be allowed to do as it pleases, then I'd expect that to make for a serious debate at next year's convention.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Continued evidence that nobody cares

Yesterday's headlines saw stories about Con supporters and cabinet ministers alike defending the long form census. But the criticisms of the Cons' choice to gut it haven't stopped there, as the Star-Phoenix' editorial board has chimed in on the latest set of spin:
(T)he majority of Canadians are offside with the government's move to make the census voluntary. And it's a chasm that only can widen with nearly every utterance by Conservative politicians, whose justifications for the widely unpopular decision increasingly sound as if they are being made up on the fly.

Their performance would be laughably pathetic, if the consequences of the ill-advised decision didn't run counter to the long-term interests of Canadians by sabotaging a detailed data source that's import to governments, businesses, academia, scientists and a plethora of social groups.
With so many Canadians finding the multi-page income tax forms a chore to complete, not to mention the coercive and mandatory nature of filing returns, might one complaint from one Canadian be all it takes for Mr. Clement and his cabinet cronies to make income taxes voluntary?

That notion makes about as much sense as what's been spewing from the lips of Conservative MPs on the topic of the long form. Rather than admit it was a mistake to ignore sound advice and pander to a minuscule fraction of party supporters, they've made the census fuss into an embarrassing long-running spectacle.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

On questionable motives

Following up on my earlier post, it's now official: with a "pass" that deserves to live in infamy, the Libs have effectively eliminated any chance of holding the Cons to account for declaring their desire for secrecy to override Parliamentary supremacy. But I have to wonder whether the commentary so far is accurate in its assessment of the Libs' motives.

Granted, the move is consistent with the Libs' track record of rolling over every time they're pressed by the Cons. And that probably explains why words like "spineless jellyfish" and "meaningless empty puppets" are being tossed around.

But this time, they never actually faced any particular pressure from outside forces. They're in a better relative position in the polls than they've been for some time, meaning that they have less reason to fear an election than usual. And the Cons didn't even bother saying much of anything about either Bill Siksay's motion or the Libs' delay tactic.

Yet despite the fact that nobody was actually testing for any trace of a backbone, the Libs nonetheless chose on their own to make it harder for Parliament to hold a secretive executive to account.

Now, that might simply be a matter of force of habit. But might it instead be a matter of the Libs counting their own electoral chickens before they're hatched, and figuring that the ability to shield political staffers from democratic accountability might might prove useful in some future stay in government?

Not this again

The fact that the NDP is pushing to have the Cons held accountable for declaring their political staffers above the law is a definite plus. But the Globe and Mail has apparently been drawn into the Cons' spin on the matter once again, with the result being a threat against any vote to keep the Harper government in check:
If Mr. Milliken were to find that privilege had been breached, and the House of Commons then declared the government to be in contempt of Parliament, an election would likely result.
As in the case of Afghan detainee documents, there's precisely zero indication that the NDP is looking to make any privilege or contempt motion a matter of confidence. Which means that the only one way an election could result from a contempt motion would be if the Cons continue to make the wholly unfounded claim that the only check or balance in Canada's democratic system is a trip to the polls, and decide to call an election themselves in response to a vote not intended to provoke one.

In other words, there's absolutely no reason to see a process intended to do nothing more than secure accountability from the current government as necessitating an election. And if the Cons do want to engage in their usual threats in the absence of any reason to do so, then once again they should be the ones to bear responsibility for that choice.

Meanwhile, there's another common thread with the detainee issue, as the Libs are apparently eager to give the Cons both the delay and the substantive result they're after:
Earlier in the day, the Commons Procedures and House Affairs committee will debate a motion by Liberal MP Yasmin Ratansi to “begin a study to develop guidelines for the appearance of exempt staff and staff of parliamentary secretaries as witnesses before Parliamentary committees.”

If that motion passes, the Liberals may argue there is no need to support Mr. Siksay’s proposal.
Now, it's worth remembering that the status quo involves the Cons putting in place an edict that they can trump Parliamentary supremacy at will. So any agreement to delay and study will serve only to give the Cons everything they want in the meantime - while the Cons can be counted on both to drag out the committee study as long as possible, and to do everything in their power to stand in the way of any reasonable outcome.

But there's no reason why an open-ended study on possible guidelines which could be applied by committees in the future would do anything to affect the validity of their past votes and orders. So at most, Ratansi's proposal should be seen as complementing the opposition's previous stands on the ability to call witnesses - not as overriding or negating them.

Unfortunately, though, it looks like the fix may be in among both the Libs and the press to once again give Harper everything he's after. And while it's worth the NDP's time and effort to at least force them to defend that position, it's hard to be optimistic about the outcome.

On universality

I've posted earlier about a couple of the considerations which seem to me to justify plans like the NDP's home heating proposal. But as promised, let's take a more general look at the comparative political effects of programs designed to be universal as opposed to those which fit a "give money to poor people" model. And let's keep in mind that to the extent we're considering a particular outcome to be a positive, there's surely value in designing a program more likely to make that outcome sustainable past the next political turn.

To start off with an obvious foundational difference between the two types of programs, one of the most problematic elements of targetted programming isn't a concern at all in universal policies. Simply put, any program targeted toward helping the poor requires defining "poor people" in the first place in order to determine who's eligible. And that's not as easy a task as it might seem.

After all, there are plenty of different definitions of poverty which can be applied at any given time - ranging from the corporate think tanks' usual blather that anybody within two days' drive of indoor plumbing should be grateful they're not living in the wild, to the more generous definitions based on baskets of goods or percentages of median income. And the use of any one measure within a policy is bound to create both debate at the outset, and an opportunity for future controversy as to how the program might be changed or cut.

In contrast, a universal program is rather simple: much as the Cons and their allies try to dehumanize some portion of the population, "everybody" is a rather difficult concept to define downward.

While that distinction is important at the outset, it becomes doubly so once a definition is chosen and a program put in place. To see why, let's consider what type of coalition of voters is likely to come together to scrap a program and eliminate whatever good it accomplishes.

Without a doubt, there's some portion of the population which will argue against anything carrying even a hint of redistributive effect (whether based on ideology, or the possession of enough wealth not to need social goods). On its own, though, this group doesn't tend to be able to dictate much policy.

But with any definition of "poor people" entitled to benefits comes the converse: "not poor people", who see a program put in place which offers help to their peers who may not be that far away from them in income or wealth, but which doesn't provide even nominal assistance to them personally. It might make sense in theory to declare that somebody making $19,000 is poor and entitled to assistance while somebody making $21,000 isn't - but the latter person is bound to be at least potentially resentful of being excluded. Which creates an obvious opening for those who barely fall into the "not poor people" category to be drawn in by the anti-taxers in wanting to kill the program.

And for any remotely realistic definition of poverty, the line will be drawn below the median income - meaning that assuming a bell curve distribution of income, there will be more people falling just short of entitlement to benefits than there are just barely receiving them, with the disparity in numbers only rising from there.

But wait, there's more! With a system that creates dividing lines, one also has to create some sort of bureaucracy to enforce the lines. At best, one can try to run a program based on only a slight increase in work for existing tax administration structures - but inevitably there's going to be some increased cost involved. And with that bureaucratic decision-making comes the certainty of controversy over the decisions made - creating the conditions for those who face the unfavourable decisions, as well as those who tend toward distrust of government generally and are responsive to the particular example, to join the coalition which sees the program as unfair. And that's where "Common Sense Revolutions" come from.

Now, it's difficult to measure exactly what effect these considerations should have on any particular program. But I don't think it's much of a coincidence that the most popular and durable social programs have been the ones which make benefits available to all.

Keep in mind that cuts and restrictions to welfare programs targeted at the poor have passed with little resistance all over North America - but even a concerted effort by a party which controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress couldn't put a dent in Social Security. And at home, a universal health care system has become one of our main points of national pride, while other social programs which haven't made it past the piecemeal stage have been cut at all levels of government.

So let's get back to the original point. If a party wants to develop a plan to deal with any issue - and here we can include poverty - is it best off designing a program which looks optimal to economists in targeting the problem to be addressed, but which will sow the seeds of its own demise by creating natural opposed constituencies? Or should a party instead look at how to produce the best results possible within a structure that has a reasonable chance of surviving past the next turn in ideology?

I won't say that there are absolute answers to those questions. But for the most part, if a party thinks that a priority is worth addressing today, it should also care whether or not that priority will still be addressed in the future. And so it's essential to build in some consideration of the probability that a particular program structure will be politically sustainable.

What implications does that have for policy development? Obviously, it will tend to favour the universal over the piecemeal, and either equal benefits or smoothed ones rather than arbitrary ones so as not to create radically different results on opposite sides of a particular line. But that doesn't mean that a program can't be targeted in the sense of giving greater benefits to those who need them most.

And that's where there's some room for criticism of the NDP's home heating policy. There's no dispute that while heating costs form a much higher percentage of the budget of lower-income homes, they're higher in absolute terms for wealthier Canadians. So in theory it might be possible to do more to balance the goal of dealing with actual heating costs with a desire to target aid toward those who need it most - though the complication in administering such a scheme might well not be worth the trouble.

But in designing any policy proposal, it's still well worth the effort to consider the prospect of public buy-in based on widely distributed benefits as well as the risk of creating resentments which might lead to its demise. And I'd argue that the people missing the point of our political system are those who want to wave away such concerns in the name of model-based policy.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that to start your day...

- The Globe and Mail editorial board isn't about to let the Cons' continued census nonsense pass without criticism:
Most Canadians are simply not disturbed by the questions they are asked on the mandatory long-form census. There is no groundswell of opposition. There is not even a ripple. According to nearly everyone who has expressed an informed opinion, including two former chief statisticians at Statistics Canada, the voluntary replacement will be less accurate and hence less useful. It also costs more.

There is less shame in admitting that a new policy was poorly conceived than in defending a nonsensical position with inflated claims, to the bitter end.
- Haroon Siddiqui weighs in on how Michaelle Jean should have handled Stephen Harper's threats against her and the country at large:
(T)he GG, who’s supposed to be above politics, fell for Harper’s politics of bullying. She blinked — and set a bad precedent.

We have since learned that should Jean have denied Harper’s request, he would have gone over her head to the Queen or attacked Jean and the legitimacy of her office.

If so, that would have been just fine, exposing him as too power hungry to respect parliamentary traditions, and he would’ve had to face the music from Canadians.

What transpired on Dec. 4, 2008, was bad enough. In trying to whitewash her role in it, Jean belittles the highest office in the land.

The job of the GG is far more than cutting ribbons and eating seal heart. It is to encourage, advise and warn the prime minister that the constitutional buck stops at Rideau Hall, not 24 Sussex Dr.
- David Akin points out the one real precondition to an effective access to information system:
The changes we need are simple: We need a commitment from current and future governments that they will honour not only the letter of ATI laws but also the spirit. This means, among other things, providing ATI offices within each government department the appropriate financial resources to do their jobs.

Access to information and privacy analysts — the fancy name for the censors who black out parts of records we’re not allowed to see — complain of job stress, while their supervisors complain of high staff turnover and difficulty finding and training enough analysts.

So find the money already. Hire some people. Obey the law.
- Finally, James Travers is far too willing to play into the false dichotomy between the Cons and Libs. But he's absolutely right about the effect of the billions the Cons have thrown into their assortment of ideological crusades and photo ops:
Conservatives have a problem dismissing promised Liberal help for the sick and seniors as just more tax and spend waste. Canadians can now answer the question “what is a billion?” It’s the price of summer summits more memorable for runaway costs and riots than lasting achievements.
After years of widely-supported investment in a hollowed-out military, Conservatives are now struggling to explain the largest arms purchase in our history. Among Harper’s challenges is explaining how such a sophisticated stealth fighter as the F-35 meets Canada’s varied and often simpler needs, why a $16 billion contract wasn’t open to competitive bidding and what can be done to control costs soaring so fast that other NATO purchasers are getting cold feet.

Then there’s the price tag attached to tossing more Canadians in prison and keeping them there longer. At a time when crime rates are falling, Conservatives plan to spend a fortune — Kevin Page, Parliament’s stellar budget officer, projects new costs at over $5 billion — to jail, among others, Stockwell Day’s slippery perpetrators of unreported crime.
Meaningful choice has largely been missing from recent fights for federal supremacy. What’s changed is that Liberals are finally offering alternatives and Canadians now know what a billion is and how effortlessly it can be spent on next to nothing.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Or to put it another way...

...maybe David Johnston is right that he shouldn't serve as referee in the sense of calling penalties on every single play in Canadian politics.

But if Stephen Harper's tenure has taught us anything, surely we've learned that he's not above claiming that he's entitled to an extra down after failing on a third down gamble. And if Johnston thinks his job is merely to suggest that Harper respect the game rather than enforcing a change of possession, then the ball may stay in Conservative hands long after they've lost the right to control it under Canadian rules.


Not surprisingly, we won't find out exactly how David Johnston will handle any disputes over Stephen Harper's habit of shutting down democratic institutions until the next time it happens. But there looks to be reason for concern based on his interview today:
For David Johnston, the governor-general is not a referee who makes calls on every play in the game, he says, but a thoughtful, apolitical adviser with a keen appreciation for Canada's political history.

In order for his advice to be heard and heeded, he says he needs to maintain a solid relationship with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“It does require a rapport of a kind, between the prime minister and the cabinet and the governor-general,” Mr. Johnston said in a wide-ranging interview at Rideau Hall with The Canadian Press on Wednesday.

Mr. Harper needs the governor-general's approval to prorogue Parliament or call an election. Mr. Johnston would also have to decide whether a coalition could form government, if Mr. Harper were to lose the confidence of the House.
The inherent instability of minority government, along with Mr. Harper's track record of prorogation, will almost certainly mean Mr. Johnston can count on having to make tough calls in the months to come.

“I think the value that the governor-general can provide to our parliamentary system is the governor-general is outside of politics, is someone objective, one would expect would have a long-term view of the country and its values,” Mr. Johnston said.

“And I would hope that Mr. Harper and his colleagues would find my views on that helpful from time to time.”
Now, it should go without saying that Harper isn't lacking for advisers already. And if he was interested in listening to input from experts who do have Canada's long-term values and interests in mind, he wouldn't have chosen to set up the echo chamber that currently surrounds him.

Which means that the most important part of the GG's role (at least as matters stand now) would seem to be the "referee" element that Johnston is looking to downplay, rather than anything to do with dispensing "views" alone. And the more Johnston sees his role as merely involving suggestions rather than exercises of authority, the more likely the Cons are to be able to keep on walking over the institution.

And that danger is all the more obvious given that Johnston also looks to be setting up a fairly close relationship with the government - explicitly stating his intention to build "rapport" with cabinet ministers who wouldn't have seem to have any reason to deal directly with the GG except to be sworn in. In contrast, he's apparently left any mention of opposition leaders or parties out of his perceived job description.

Again, it remains to be seen how Johnston will actually exercise (or not exercise) his reserve powers in practice. But his stance today looks to make for a worrisome pairing with a government that's pushed the boundaries of executive control at every turn - and may have much to do with why Harper decided to appoint him in the first place.

Now that's a revelation

I'm sure Gilles Duceppe's take on his 2004 coalition talks with the Cons will receive plenty more attention in the days to come. But this may actually make for the most damning point of all when Stephen Harper tries to claim there's something wrong with a government (coalition or otherwise) holding confidence thanks to the Bloc's support:
Duceppe explained in the book that Harper's Conservatives had also pleaded with him in 2004 to prop up the minority government of former prime minister Paul Martin, in order to avoid an election following the throne speech.
In other words, Harper was downright eager to see the Libs propped up by the Bloc at that time. So how can he pretend that a similar arrangement would be the end of the world now?

On preemption

Obviously the media spin is in on Chantal Hebert's column discussing Gilles Duceppe's brief comments about the formation of the Lib/NDP coalition in 2008. But while Hebert, Norman Spector and others are rushing to proclaim it a win for the Harper Cons, I'm glad to see it from the perspective of those of us who want all options on the table to replace Harper after the next election.

After all, the "fear the Bloc" card looks to have been the Cons' main message from day one in trying to run against a coalition. And as with most aspects of the Cons' strategy, the only way it stood any chance of succeeding was if nobody discussed the Bloc's role rationally.

But while Duceppe's minimal revelations don't change anything much about the public narrative around the progressive coalition, they should ensure that the question of how the Bloc was involved then - and could be involved in the future - will get a thorough airing at a time when an election is nowhere in sight. And once again, so long as the Libs aren't spooked into saying anything counterproductive, the effect should be to blunt the force of the Cons' most obvious line of attack in the next campaign.

Wednesday Morning Links

- Thomas Walkom nicely summarizes what the Harper Cons want us to expect out of Canada's economy:
Young people should not expect good jobs when they leave school. The unemployed should not expect any work at all.

The sick should expect health care to be cut back. The poor should expect to get poorer.

The old should not expect the pensions they worked for.

In effect, the finance minister says, expect very little from this government. Take him at his word.
- And that only fits all too well with the Cons' general theme of spreading distrust and disinterest - which Alex Himelfarb identifies as one of the major challenges facing anybody who wants to see a public sector that responds more effectively to the needs of its citizens:
On the one hand, “blind trust” is neither desirable nor possible especially now that we understand the risks and the costs. The “age of deference” is well and truly over. But on the other hand, we are all the losers if the replacement is an “age of cynicism” which makes positive collective action impossible. The art is to find a middle ground and this won’t be easy if, as I fear, cynicism has the upper hand.

Yes, governments too often abused the trust we bestowed on them not simply by virtue of their political spinning and pathological partisanship which have always existed and now seem to have replaced all else, but also by too many instances where private interests trumped the public good or where majority interests trumped minority rights.
Any organization or, for that matter, any relationship is doomed if it is built on distrust. We know from our experience that it is easier to break trust than to build it, and once broken we waste enormous energy on scrutinizing behaviour, looking for any signal of wrongdoing. And those on the receiving end of distrust will often feel diminished or become paralyzed, afraid to risk error or take responsibility. We have seen some of this in the layering of rules, controls and oversight in the public service that serves only to undermine performance, constrain creativity and innovation and stall an already slow machine. Distrust makes cooperation impossible and it is insatiable.
- Last time the Cons introduced an obnoxiously large piece of budget legislation, the opposition parties ended up scrambling to try to deal with massive changes in far too little time. So somebody with a few spare days may want to take a close look at the Cons' latest omnibus monstrosity - especially since its summary is carefully phrased to mention "better targets" and "reform" without actually clarifying what changes are being made.

- Finally, Dick Haskayne provides a national perspective on why a PCS takeover shouldn't be approved: offer my specific reasons for recommending that the federal Industry minister not approve the proposed takeover of PotashCorp by BHP:

- It would be the largest, most significant takeover of any Canadian mining company in history. This news would send a worldwide message that Canada is prepared to sell any of its prized resource companies;

- This takeover would further reduce Canada's stature as an important mining country and indicate that Canadians are satisfied with 'branch office' operations of our major resource assets;

- PotashCorp is so important for the world because of its enormous reserves. Canada should take a long view and jealously protect the management of that asset considering the interest of shareholders and what is best for Canada;
It seems inconceivable that this takeover could be demonstrated as "a net benefit "to Canada because BHP offers nothing to PotashCorp that it is not doing now in terms of operations, finance or marketing. PotashCorp should continue to be a public company with all of the transparency involved, compared with a branch operation whose operations would be buried within a large multi-national corporation.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Wonder demonstrates his five-limb, five-direction sprawling technique.

Babushka Tigger is not amused.

Lacking benefits

Shorter BHP Billiton:

Our plan for a mine at Jansen Lake - which is in no way related to or dependent on our PCS takeover bid - is the main reason why our PCS takeover bid should be approved.

The battle ahead

As promised, let's look in a bit more detail at how dangerous the Cons' combination of motivations surrounding the 2008 coalition actually is - and why we'll need to do everything possible to make sure the next (seemingly inevitable) showdown turns out differently.

At the outset, it's worth remembering that the Cons have quite intentionally developed the habit of idolizing their leader. And while the main purpose of that strategy is surely to foster unity within the party, it would seem virtually inevitable that the cult atmosphere would have some effect on Stephen Harper's own view of himself.

That apparently led to Harper being momentarily shattered when he discovered that his actions had consequences, and that he couldn't simply impose his will on the country. But it didn't take long for Harper to summon up his most self-aggrandizing view yet, believing himself to be Canada's saviour against the caricature of a coalition that his party was already starting to paint:
But Mr. Harper’s mood and the government’s fortunes were transformed when Mr. Dion and NDP Leader Jack Layton invited Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe to attend the press conference and sign the document cementing the coalition. Galvanized, the Prime Minister vowed to do everything within his power to prevent what he called the Liberals coalition “with socialists and separatists” from forming the government.
Now, the belief of a controlling leader that a country requires saving at all costs from enemies within would be scary enough to begin with. And indeed one can argue that it's exactly that type of "only we can save Canada!" attitude that led to the Libs' downfall, as the consequences of their willingness to throw money at saving the country from separatists became much of the impetus for their removal from power.

But Harper also adds an extra element to the mix. While the Libs' sins were borne of a desire to stay in control of the country largely as it stands and a willingness to direct public dollars into their own hands to do so, they can't be said to have been willing to do deliberate harm along the way.

In contrast, Harper and his party wasted no time in threatening the country with ruin at their own hands if Michaelle Jean didn't give them the reprieve from democracy that they needed to stay in power. And unfortunately, the fact that attitude has been rewarded seems to have given them little reason to rethink their position.

So as matters stand, we're stuck with a Prime Minister who's spent five years being assured of his own infallibility, who's come to believe that only he stands in the way of untold horrors - and who's willing to destroy the country in order to save it.

Of course, it still remains to be seen exactly how far Harper intends to push matters in order to cling to power. But while I'm still optimistic that the general public won't be convinced by his fearmongering and will give some combination of opposition parties the chance to replace him following the next election, there's little reason to expect anything but a desperate fight at that point. And the more Harper manages to work himself and his party into a fury, the more dangerous the results figure to be for the country.

Heroes often fade

Since his expulsion from cabinet, Maxime Bernier has tried to carve out a niche for himself as an "idealistic" and "authentic" small-c conservative. But in case there was any doubt, his now-debunked claims about nonexistent census complaints should make it clear that he's no more interested in offering a remotely accurate or honest appraisal of the country than any of his partymates.

The art of the possible

Following up on this post, Stephen Gordon replies to Robert as to his take on expanding the reach of consumption taxes:
So Stephen, are you in favour of charging the HST on groceries and then giving low income households money for that?
Posted by: Robert McClelland | October 04, 2010 at 08:01 PM

Yes. But that battle was lost long ago.
Posted by: Stephen Gordon | October 04, 2010 at 08:17 PM
Which is pretty much the answer I'd expected - and certainly makes for a consistent view of how a tax system should be set up in theory.

But then we get to the practical side of the issue. And while one can understand Gordon's reason for frustration with the system as it stands, surely one also has to recognize that any policy is going to be discussed within something resembling our existing political reality. Which seems rather important when the NDP or any other party develops a policy proposal.

At another time, with another government, Gordon's "just give money to poor people" answer to redistributive issues might well make for the foundation of a better theoretical policy than one which involves cutting consumption taxes for all. (Though I'll post later as to why the economic theory behind that principle has inherent political weaknesses.)

But last I checked, the Harper Cons' answer to any suggestion about helping poor people ranged from hysterical laughter to the unprintable.

So the NDP's choice is then between tilting at windmills and proposing something which it knows will be shot down in short order, or making a suggestion that's at least close enough to the governing party's worldview to have some chance of being taken seriously. And if the measure catches on enough to push the Cons to act, then the result is the implementation of a policy which has some positive redistributive effects in percentage-of-income terms (even if it does fall short of the mark in absolute terms).

Again, that can reasonably be seen as less than an ideal outcome - and I'll be the first to agree that the NDP also needs to have its longer-term societal goals in mind, even if I may not agree entirely with Gordon as to what those should be. But there's some middle ground between a political party which is focused only on communication strategies at the expense of policy and one focused solely on theoretical outcomes which fail utterly to connect with politics as they stand - and I wouldn't want the NDP to trap itself in the latter extreme any more than the former.

Just wondering

A few quick thoughts on the cause and effect relationship between the Cons and their house media organ.

Should we interpret this editorial as a case of "when even the Sun thinks Christian Paradis is done, surely he has no choice but to step down"?

Or is it a case of "it's so obvious that Christian Paradis is stepping down that even the Sun has to play along"?

And in either case, can we look forward to his being labeled as a Liberal in keeping with a decade of journalistic tradition?

Monday, October 04, 2010

Burning question

How long before the Cons declare that their political control information extends no further extends no further than Sebastien Togneri and two of his co-workers who all mistakenly interfered in various files - and that this time they mean it until somebody proves otherwise?

On essential goods

Stephen Gordon has predictably rushed in to criticize the NDP's call to remove the GST/HST from home heating. But while Gordon has taken a fairly consistent line in favour of consumption taxes in the abstract, I haven't seen much from him directly addressing one element of our current tax policy which makes the idea an entirely logical fit.

So, to Gordon or anybody else looking to take his side:

Is there such a thing as an essential good that should be left out of a consumption tax system (e.g. groceries as matters stand now)? And if so, isn't there at least a reasonable argument to be made that heating oil should similarly be classified as essential?

Or is the preferred model simply to tax as many goods and services as possible? And in that case, why isn't there just as much effort to point out that omission in our current tax policy as there is to pillory the NDP for its proposal?

First impressions

A few quick notes on the Conference Board of Canada's potash report which was released today.

To start off with, the report includes some highly questionable assumptions which fit into the Conference Board's tendency to echo corporate buzzspeak. Most notably, it's stunning that the Conference Board ignores BHP Billiton's own repeated statements that it wants nothing to do with Canpotex by rationalizing that "market discipline" would override that explicit intention.

But that only makes for the difference between loss of $2 billion over 10 years, compared to one of $5.7 billion under a scenario where a buyer decides to undercut potash prices based on its own internal considerations (whether gaining market share or wanting to favour particular purchasers). So either way, the clear decision for the Wall government is whether it's worth losing hundreds of billions of dollars per year solely in order to be perceived as friendly to business.

Meanwhile, the Conference Board does present one useful suggestion to minimize the cause of the possible tax losses from a BHP Billiton takeover:
(T)he Province may want to consider making the impact of capital
expenditures on potash royalties project-specific, rather than company-specific.
Of course, it's open for question whether there should be much need for tax breaks on potash investment in any event. But to the extent they're going to remain in place, the Conference Board's suggestion would seem to make for a useful means of linking tax breaks to the capital investment they're supposed to stimulate, rather than having them serve as a means to put the province on the hook for a takeover.

Monday Morning Links

I'm pretty sure the tabs are multiplying on their own...

- Erin rightly slams Michael Ignatieff's complete reversal on EI - from threatening an election over it just last year, to voting with the Cons to keep the status quo this fall:
(A) modest decline in the unemployment rate reflects an increase in employment, rather than any decrease in unemployment. In both September 2009 and August 2010, 1.5 million Canadians were officially unemployed. By this measure, Ignatieff is flat wrong to claim that “the situation has changed.”

The Liberals had championed lowering the entrance requirement to 360 hours to make EI benefits more accessible. For that proposal, the issue is not total unemployment, but the number of unemployed workers who cannot access benefits.

In September 2009, there were 818,000 EI recipients among 1,549,700 unemployed workers, leaving 731,700 without benefits. In July 2010 (the last month of EI data), there were 672,200 EI recipients out of 1,493,100 unemployed workers, leaving 820,900 without benefits.

So, the problem that the Liberals said they wanted to address has actually gotten worse. Ignatieff’s claim that EI improvements “are no longer required” lacks credibility.
For more from Erin, you can check out his personal blog at Beer with Weir.

- Alison rightly criticizes the Cons and Libs for pushing a free trade agreement with Panama. But while I fully agree with her critiques, let's note that one of them isn't one that the Cons are the least bit concerned with: far from being concerned whether any of our trading partners are seen as tax havens, the Cons want Canada to be branded as one as well.

- Predictably, the Cons' dumb-on-crime measures are doing particularly significant damage to poor and Aboriginal communities. One can practically hear "Yes! Two for two!" echoing from the closed-door meetings.

- And similarly, pogge's criticism of Jason Kenney misses the genius of the Cons' combination of a constant PR campaign about Kenney's busy schedule of political appearances, and an overburdened immigration department which is forcing requests to go through MPs' offices instead. What better way to both keep one's political opponents busy, and set up an argument for junking large swaths of the civil service as ineffective while claiming to personally be doing everything possible?

- Finally, Dan Leger nicely criticizes right-wing parties and politicians in general for offering nothing but simplistic non-solutions to complex problems:
Beyond the anger and cynicism, perhaps the most troubling trend is a growing belief in simple solutions to our confounding problems. Ban the immigrants. Cut taxes. Lower power rates. Dumb down government. Round ‘em up and hang ‘em high. Build more jails. Cut everything except my personal entitlements.

But we should be leery when politicians promise simple solutions to the complex problems of our communities and our country. Complicated matters are rarely sorted out by simple solutions. Yet it’s an undeniable trait of the political right to claim simple solutions for just about everything.

Problem: the long-form census is annoying. Simple solution? Kill it and label anyone who disagrees an elitist. Problem: the long-gun registry is intrusive. Solution? Kill that, too.

Crime on the streets? Build more jails. Not really more crime on the streets? Build the jails anyway. Planet heating up? Close your eyes and it will just go away.

We have all these real-life problems. Do we really think they’re going to be fixed by simplistic solutions, accompanied by lots of screaming?

Sadly, you don’t get rid of a deficit by cutting taxes. You can’t tackle economic stagnation by creating phoney crises over guns and census forms. Any adult can tell you that yelling won’t pay any bills or solve any problems.

On minority influence

John Ibbitson's report on the Cons' immigrant recruitment strategy is rightly getting plenty of attention this morning. But let's take a moment to point out the good news behind the Cons' attempts to manipulate the immigration system for their own gain.

First, there's the fact that even among the new immigrants who are seen as more receptive to socon values, there's reason to think that any party willing to defend progressive principles can compete for votes:
A survey of visible minorities and immigrants done by the Canadian Election Study shows both groups tend to be more conservative than the rest of Canada on bedrock Canadian issues. Both groups, for example, are more likely to say it should be possible to pay for medical treatment and that getting an abortion should be more difficult. Visible minorities, a category that’s 84 per cent immigrant, are more likely to support private hospitals, lower taxes and paying parents individually rather than funding daycare.

(I)t’s not all tilting to the right. On most other issues in the survey, such as cutting welfare spending, opposing the death penalty, having troops in Afghanistan or spending more on defence, both immigrants and visible minority groups are to the left of the Canadian population.
What's particularly striking is that a number of the issues where the survey classifies visible minorities and immigrants as falling to the right of the general population are exactly the ones where the Cons most fear to tread. It may be worth seeing what the Cons are telling minority communities about privatizing health care, restricting abortion or revisiting same-sex marriage, but they certainly aren't prepared to take those policies to the general public - and can expect to be torn to shreds if they're trying to sell different messages to immigrant communities.

In contrast, issues like defence spending and military deployment have been front and centre thanks in large part to the Cons' being consistently on the wrong side of both Canadians as a whole, and the minority groups who have even stronger views than the general public. So there's plenty of room to tap into the values of new Canadians to oppose the Cons.

And that's just in the first generation of new arrivals, as Ibbitson notes that subsequent generations don't seem to be taking long to abandon any vestiges of social conservatism:
(T)here is one demographic shift that should keep Mr. Kenney awake at night. However economically and socially conservative new arrivals may be, their children are almost invariably more liberal.

Subir Mann, a 22-year-old student, came to Canada from The Punjab as a child. He says he supports same-sex marriage, even though his more traditional father has trouble with it.

“For me I think it’s important that gay people are considered equal,” he said. “Part of the reason I’m anti-Conservative is that they often mix religious issues with politics. That can be very dangerous.”

And though Helen Poon is giving serious thought to voting Conservative, her 12-year-old son, a proud cadet, has a very different view.

He came home from school one day urging her not to vote Conservative, Ms. Poon said.
So the Cons' much-hyped immigration strategy looks to be little more than a one-off effort with nothing but diminishing returns to follow. After all, the few social issues where they have any hope of persuading new arrivals to join their camp are exactly the ones where second-generation immigrants are joining the younger population at large on the other side.

Of course, the Cons could still do plenty of damage even with a single majority followed by a demographic turn against them . But there's no indication that the Cons are anywhere near achieving that despite their efforts to buy off new arrivals with public money - and there's ample reason for optimism that both new arrivals and their children will see their values better reflected in other parties.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Saskatoon Sutherland - NDP Nominates Naveed Anwar

It may make for an anticlimactic end to the NDP's nomination race. But as expected following Ryan Meili's decision to step aside, Naveed Anwar has won the NDP's nomination in Saskatoon Sutherland.

The 2011 race between Anwar and Paul Merriman may involve new faces in both of the main parties, but should still nonetheless make for an interesting battle for one of the seats which figures to be hotly contested on both sides. Congratulations to Anwar on his successful nomination campaign, and we'll look forward to seeing how much of his success recruiting members thus far can translate into a volunteer base for the general election.

Why it matters

Following up on my earlier posts commenting on Michaelle Jean's decision-making process in granting Stephen Harper the opportunity to avoid democratic accountability for his government's actions, let's note briefly why the issue still matters now.

For one, the effect of Jean's decision was primarily only to kick the can down the road. In granting prorogation, she only delayed any confrontation between a Prime Minister bent on keeping power and the combined force of a majority planning to vote him down - and the Libs' subsequent decision to keep the Cons in power hasn't changed the issues at play. And indeed, many of the developments since then - from the Cons' blatant executive power grabs to the popular outcry over prorogation in 2009 - can be traced directly to the same underlying conflict.

That might only leave the general debate to be dealt with at some undefined point in the future...if not for the fact that the Cons see their destructive mood of December 2008 as establishing exactly the political environment that's most beneficial for their electoral prospects.

By now, it should be clear that Harper and company are doing everything in their power to try to recreate that exact dynamic. And anybody wanting to stop Harper in that effort will need to recognize exactly what happened and why in 2008, as well as how best to counter it.

Now, the Cons' strategy has plenty of dangerous implications that I'll deal with in a future post. But for now, suffice it to say that anybody who thinks it's safe to relegate the events of December 2008 to the distant past is missing the boat - and we'll need all hands on deck to get Canada moving in the right direction.

Sunday Morning 'Rider Blogging

This past offseason, much was made of the arrival of Todd Reesing as one of the 'Riders' quarterback options. And there were two obvious reasons why Reesing captured so much attention before washing out due to a lack of arm strength: his strong college numbers, and his superficial similarities to Doug Flutie - who more than a decade after his departure from the league is still considered the prototypical CFL quarterback.

Of course, it's not surprising that a team and its fans might project such hopes onto a young prospect without much regard for his chances of meeting expectations. But for those looking for the next Flutie in style and in results, I'm not sure there's a need to look any further than the top spot on the 'Riders' depth chart.

After all, Darian Durant has put together a skill set not far short of the Flutie model that gave defences fits for so long - featuring a combination of speed and elusiveness that makes the defence work overtime to try to bring him down, to go with an effective soft-touch passing game.

All that's been missing has been some accuracy and consistency in Durant's passing attack. And the first half of yesterday's win over Toronto may offer a hint that Durant is about to put the full package together.

Granted, that had much to do with the Argos' strategy. From the first snap of the game, it was obvious that the way to attack the Argos was with short, quick passes to take advantage of a defence that didn't want to give up big plays. But it still requires a rare combination of awareness and accuracy to respond to that scheme - since a single pass going astray can torpedo a drive.

So how did Durant respond to a game plan which could cause serious trouble for a quarterback who played with less than perfect precision? The most obvious hint comes in his stunning 19-for-21 completion ratio in the first half. But the team's results relying almost exclusively on Durant are even more telling.

The 'Riders had four possessions in the first half - and didn't once end up with less than three first downs before giving the ball back to Toronto. In fact, the first time the 'Riders failed to hold the ball for at least 7-8 plays and 3 minutes of time off the clock was the first possession of the second half - where Andy Fantuz was able to find the end zone on the team's first play.

And all this despite both a nonexistent ground game, and a Toronto defence which did a fairly effective job limiting the 'Riders' yardage after catching the ball.

Now, Durant predictably cooled off somewhat in the second half, keeping the game closer than it might otherwise have been. But until the 'Riders had a two-score lead, he consistently met the challenge of keeping the ball moving with little but precise short throws and the occasional quarterback sneak.

And that has to be rather scary for teams scheming to stop Durant. For the most part, the danger in allowing the 'Riders to throw the ball short has been the risk of receivers running wild after catching the ball - while the prospect of streaky throws from Durant has offered reason for opponents to hope the 'Riders might stop themselves.

But if Durant can present a credible threat to complete 80-90% of his passes when opponents play a bend-but-don't-break style, then it's not hard to anticipate that defences may soon be as helpless against him as they were against Flutie during his stay in the CFL. And it'll be far more enjoyable for 'Rider fans to watch that kind of artistry in action than to simply hope that one of our prospects might get there someday.

Canada held hostage

While I don't share the concern others have with Peter Russell's revelation that Michaelle Jean decided to grant Stephen Harper's 2008 prorogation request only after securing key promises from Harper, today's news about some of the other considerations taken into account looks to be downright scary:
In fact, though, Jean did believe there was a Plan B and that it did involve going over the head of the governor general — not to the Queen, but to the Canadian people, as loyal Harper cabinet minister John Baird had warned in a CBC-TV interview. Plan B, Jean and her constitutional advisers believed, would involve a direct, public-relations assault on the legitimacy of the governor general and her decision. That, and not an appeal to the Queen, was far more concerning to Jean on Dec. 4, 2008.

Peter Russell, the distinguished constitutional scholar at the University of Toronto, was one of the experts summoned to Rideau Hall that day and one of the rare ones to say publicly that he was there.

In the back of his cab, coming from the airport to Rideau Hall, Russell only needed to look out the window to see Plan B in action. Demonstrators, holding signs denouncing the coalition, had amassed outside Jean's residence while she was meeting with Harper.

“You can imagine how that would have escalated,” Russell said in an interview this week. “It would have embroiled the country in a constitutional crisis” — one that would have tested Canadians' faith in the entire system of government, including the institution of governor general. The Conservatives' use of the term “coup d'├ętat” was especially worrying, Russell said.

Russell said this wasn't the only consideration in Jean's decision to grant Harper's request, but it was an important part of the context — one that hasn't been discussed publicly so far in the wake of the prorogation.
Now, it would be problematic enough if the small number of paid Con staffers who showed up to "protest" at the GG's residence were able to exert any meaningful influence on a determination as to whether or not Canada's elected representatives would be permitted to carry out a confidence vote. But from Russell's current take, it sounds like the fears went far beyond that, with Jean making her decision in order to avoid an assault on her own position as well as the Cons' promises of chaos if they didn't get their way.

Which might be defensible if the fears were based on any outcry actually originating in the general public, rather than the Cons' strategy of whipping up as much of a frenzy as possible. But as events played out, a party which lied to Canadians about the nature of their democratic system and threatened to make the country unliveable if it faced a democratic vote in the House of Commons was ultimately rewarded for its willingness to tear Canada apart. And it's hard to see how the temporary conflict avoidance achieved by Harper's prorogation - whether framed in terms of the role of the GG alone or the wider threat of party-based protest - is worth the long-term cost of a precedent that a governing party which lacks legitimacy can cling to power by threatening to torch the country.