Saturday, January 22, 2011

Nicely done

I suspect most readers will have already found their way to it. But for those who haven't, Tabatha Southey duly mocks the Cons' latest act of Harper worship:
The look of the “Rising to the Challenge” ad is Canadian Gothic: Stephen Harper walks alone through the empty corridors of Centre Block, much like Will Smith in I Am Legend. Where is everyone else? Is he locked in? Or has everyone else been locked out? We don't know.

Bright light pouring in through the arched stained-glass windows suggests that either it's daylight outside or an alien invasion is under way. Either way, our Prime Minister is unperturbed.

He makes his way upstairs to his office, where, with the wooden blinds on the windows drawn fastidiously against the light, he works from a few tidy files, writing things on papers – according to the closing shot (Exterior: Night, Parliament Hill), all night long.

There's no computer on his desk. I think this is meant to suggest an old-fashioned work ethic, but when I see a man without a computer, I immediately think, “Oh, condition of parole.”

On counterweights

As promised, let's take a closer look at the reasons for defending per-vote funding to Canada's federal political parties, rather than seeking a deal to eliminate it as suggested in some corners.

To start with, it's worth a reminder as to the relative amount of money currently spent on per-vote funding compared to other types of political communication expenses. A sufficiently cynical federal government faces virtually no practical limits on what it can use to sell its own message to the public. And indeed, we currently enjoy a federal government which isn't interested in following rules about whether public money gets used for partisan advertising.

With the governing party able to control effectively as much funding as it thinks it can get away with to dictate the country's political agenda, I'd hope there isn't much doubt that there's some value in a stable and predictable counterweight. And I'd argue that the need is particularly important from a progressive standpoint, since it's relatively easy for an unchallenged government to tear down in a matter of months programs and services which take decades to build.

So what resources do opposition parties have at their disposal in seeking to counter a government's message which can be reinforced through tens of millions of public dollars?

Most obviously, there are MPs' offices which are well funded through the Parliament of Canada. But those offices face some significant restrictions in terms of both the activities permitted (with direct partisan action normally ruled out), and in the distribution of resources since MP funding mirrors the unfairness inherent in a first-past-the-post electoral system.

And then there's per-vote party funding. Unlike allocations limited to MPs, it doesn't replicate the distortions inherent in a first-past-the-post electoral system: indeed, it actually provides a financial stepping stone for broad-based developing parties, while avoiding the greater benefit to the Bloc or other regional parties found in seat-based allocations.

And direct funding of parties also allows for a far wider range of action than resources run through MP offices. Ideally, I'd want to see as much as possible used on maintaining a party apparatus capable of holding a government to account in the general public at all times. But it also allows for a greater degree of political deterrence, as an opposition party can count on some ability to counter a particularly extreme or excessive ad campaign originating with either a government or a governing party.

Now, as with MPs' offices and privately-raised funds, some parties will make better use of that capacity than others. And it may well be that it's worth tying consistent funding to ongoing activity, perhaps requiring that the subsidy be used to maintain party functions between elections rather than being stashed away as election funding. But the possibility that party-based funding might be better used doesn't serve as reason to get rid of it.

In sum, per-vote funding can be defended in principle as a political stabilizer which helps to prevent a ruthless governing party from drowning out opposing messages and doing a disproportionate amount of damage during its term in office. And we could hardly ask for a better example of the need for such a counterweight than the Harper Cons.

I'll leave the more general argument at that for now. But stay tuned for my take on why the NDP has every incentive to follow the above reasoning rather than looking to barter an end to per-vote funding in exchange for a lower contribution limit.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted reading to start your weekend.

- Chrystia Freeland's piece on the rise of a new global elite is well worth a read, particularly in noting that how the anationality of the rich has led to exploitation of the public everywhere:
the rich of today are also different from the rich of yesterday. Our light-speed, globally connected economy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly. Perhaps most noteworthy, they are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home. Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves.

The rise of the new plutocracy is inextricably connected to two phenomena: the revolution in information technology and the liberalization of global trade. Individual nations have offered their own contributions to income inequality—financial deregulation and upper-bracket tax cuts in the United States; insider privatization in Russia; rent-seeking in regulated industries in India and Mexico. But the shared narrative is that, thanks to globalization and technological innovation, people, money, and ideas travel more freely today than ever before.
- It isn't much surprise that the Cons would think there's no problem setting up a "politically acceptable" donation system linked to tax returns, ensuring that the idea of donating is linked to one of their core fund-raising messages. But to see whether Tom Flanagan actually takes the idea seriously, shouldn't someone ask about setting up the same type of check-off through, say, a mandatory hospital intake form?

- Speaking of which, Thomas Walkom points out that the Cons' health care agenda is far from hidden:
Like Cameron, our prime minister says he is a big supporter of medicare. He brags that he and his family uses standard medicare doctors rather than the pricey executive clinics preferred by some politicians.

But at the same time, Harper’s Conservative Party platform contains important caveats.

It says provinces should have “maximum flexibility” to deliver health care. This is a hint that Conservative governments won’t be overly worried if provinces try to introduce two-tier care.

It also calls for “a balance” between public and private delivery. Currently, virtually all Canadian hospitals are public.

More to the point, it talks of limiting Ottawa’s use of the federal spending power in areas of provincial jurisdiction such as health.

If that platform promise were honored, medicare – a social program based upon Ottawa’s ability to withhold federal funds from provinces that don’t adhere to national standards – wouldn’t exist in its present form.

So, no. Harper’s agenda isn’t hidden -- for health care or anything else. Like Cameron’s, it is all visible. You just have to look. Carefully.
But Walkom actually manages to miss the best example - as the normal Harper spin about supporting the Canada Health Act is thoroughly contradicted by the fact that his government has chosen not to enforce it.

- Finally, while a court challenge to the Cons' decision to overrule the CRTC on telecom ownership might not be the ideal ground to set limits on cabinet power, it's well worth noting how the government's arguments might apply to a ridiculously large range of other situations:
Lawyers for Ottawa argue cabinet’s power under the legislation is largely unbounded. “The Supreme Court has affirmed that the power exercised by [cabinet] under section 12 … is virtually unbounded,” the Attorney-General’s office said in a submission to the federal court.
Which looks to make for just one more example of the Cons claiming that executive discretion trumps actual laws.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Musical interlude

Everything But The Girl - Before Today (Chicane Remix)

On cultures of defeat

It sure was annoying trying to figure out how to enforce the softwood lumber winning streak Canada enjoyed before 2006. Which is why we should be grateful the Cons had the foresight to turn Canada into a perpetual loser.

Just wondering

Before anybody declares that the Libs are positioning themselves "to the left" of the NDP, shouldn't they be expected to explain what about the Libs' stance is (a) different from the NDP's position, and (b) different in a way that is actually further left than the NDP? Because two Lib ads which fully reflect the NDP's position don't seem to me to fit the definition.

Granted, they do reflect that the Libs are trying to position themselves as the main left-wing option for voters. But the message isn't that the NDP is to the right of the Libs, so much as that the Libs hope to talk loud enough to drown out the NDP's genuine left-wing voice. And I'm not sure many Canadians will be fooled if the Libs claim they can make up in noise what they lack in sincerity.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Top of the class

Now if only there were some progressive opposition leader seen positively enough by Canadians to offer a meaningful contrast to the barely-tolerated Stephen Harper. Say, what's this?
Canadians rate NDP leader Jack Layton higher than any other elected federal party leader according to a popularity index constructed from a recent survey of eligible voters. Based on data provided by Angus Reid, the popularity index generates a single letter score for each leader, with Jack Layton scoring “A”, Conservative Stephen Harper “C+”, Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe “D”, and Liberal Michael Ignatieff “F”.
Ranked first for seven of nine positive leadership qualities, Jack Layton scores a remarkable 34 out of a possible 36 points (94%). Stephen Harper finishes second overall to Layton with 25 out of 36 (69%). Gilles Duceppe receives 18 out of 36 (50%), while Michael Ignatieff finishes with a 12 out of 36 (33%).

While the index indicates Layton is held in higher regard than his competitors, the size of gap between Layton and the second-place finishers provides additional evidence as to the extent to which he is liked by Canadians. For example, in terms of being “down-to-earth”, Layton is 13 percentage points ahead of second-placed Harper. When it comes to being “honest”, Layton is 16 percentage points ahead of Harper. In terms of being “open”, Layton is 20 percentage points ahead of Ignatieff and a whopping 22 percentage points ahead of Harper and Duceppe when it comes to being “compassionate”.

Friday Morning Corporate Tax Reading

As the discussion over corporate tax slashing heats up, there's plenty worth reading on . Let's start with Andrew Jackson's observations on what actually drives investment, and how small a role corporate income tax rates play in the picture:
Ultimately, an investment will be made if expected returns exceed a hurdle rate of return. Canada does not have to be the lowest tax jurisdiction in North America or the world to sustain a set of good corporate investment opportunities so long as corporations can find other things they value - accessible natural resources; cheap power; good infrastructure; skilled workers; low benefit costs due to public health care etc. etc. (Many of these things have, of course, to be financed through taxes.)

Further, at any given time, especially in periods of strong economic growth, some corporations will be earning profits which exceed average and previously expected rates of return. If they anticipate continued high rates of return, an increase in effective rates of tax will not decrease investment so long as profitability remains above the threshold level. And any tax cut would make no difference to the investment decision but would simply result in lost government revenue.

This is the case today in much of the energy and minerals sector. An increase in the effective rate of corporate income tax would not slow investment, and any cut in the corporate tax rate will simply divert high resource rents from citizens to corporate shareholders (and half of the assets are foreign owned.)

Similarly, profitability has in recent years generally been much higher in the financial sector, and there is little reason to believe that bank and insurance profits are a major driver of business investment in the real economy. Higher taxation of excess corporate profits in these sectors could raise additional revenues at little cost in terms of lower real investment.
And Erin follows up by describing how that theory will play out in practice:
With Jim Flaherty’s target corporate tax rate of 25%, investments would need a pre-tax return of only 13.3% (13.3*(1 - 0.25) = 10). So, recent corporate tax cuts should prompt the corporation to make some tranche of new investments with pre-tax rates of return between 13.3% and 15.6%.

But as Andrew notes, investments with pre-tax returns above 15.6% would have happened anyway. On all of those investments, corporate taxes were a perfectly efficient and costless source of public revenue. Corporate tax cuts were a pure giveaway that did nothing to improve incentives.

Also as noted by Andrew, pre-tax rates of return are not constant. If there is insufficient demand for a corporation’s output, the potential return on new investments will be close to zero. Public spending financed by corporate taxes can get potential investments over the hurdle by increasing demand and/or by providing needed inputs like infrastructure.
To a substantial extent, corporate taxes just skim off excess profits from investments that are already over the hurdle. Rather than simply defending corporate taxes as a necessary source of revenue, there is a case to be made that they are a particularly efficient means of raising revenue.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

On just sentences

Yes, motive and sincerity matter. Which is why an absolute discharge for a conscientious objector to the census is probably justified.

And which is also why thorough (political) punishment for the disingenuous manipulators making use of such people for their own political ends is also sorely needed.

On disagreement

I try not to spend too much time on reading tea leaves trying to determine the timing of the next federal election. But it's worth correcting the bizarre argument that Jack Layton's focus on seniors should be seen as reason to think the NDP would end up supporting the Cons.

After all, Layton's message is entirely consistent with the NDP's list of policy priorities, which include one issue (pensions) which applies solely to seniors, another (home heating expenses) which can be seen as particularly important for those on fixed incomes, and only one (home retrofitting) which can be seen as primarily applying to other age groups. So Layton's focus on seniors doesn't look to reflect any change from the NDP's starting point.

But it does seem to serve as a thorough rejection of the Cons' list of approved discussion topics, which includes a couple of issues relevant to older workers but absolutely nothing with any effect on seniors.

So if anything, Layton's choice of reference points makes it less likely than before that the NDP will see enough of value to make it worth passing a budget. Which means that it may not be long before the Libs are back in the position of deciding whether they'll support another budget based on nothing more than the desire to avoid an election.

On safe choices

If we needed more evidence that the Cons' constant fearmongering about crime is far less effective among the general public than the political sphere, Angus Reid provides it:
Canadians are feeling secure in their communities, with 57 per cent rating their safety as excellent or good. Yet Canadians don’t appear willing to give credit to the Conservatives and their law-and-order agenda.

Just 14 per cent say they feel safer than they did five years ago while the majority (62 per cent) said they didn’t see a difference.
So a significant majority of Canadians are rightly rejecting the idea that we need to build and pack dozens of new prisons in order to feel safe in our communities. And even of those left over, a majority don't see the Cons as having done any good.

What's all the more remarkable is that the poll comes after a five-year span where the Cons have gone largely unchallenged in bleating constantly about crime to distract from their lack of interest in governing in more important areas. And the fact that the public has proven so resilient in disagreeing with the Cons' dumb-on-crime position should make for reason for the opposition parties to be far more confident in both minimizing the importance of crime compared to the issues Canadians really care about, and strongly countering the Cons' rhetoric on the subject.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading...

- Peter Thurley responds to Michael Ignatieff's appearance in Kitchener by pointing out that Lib MPs in the area's seats wouldn't have made a lick of difference thanks to the choices of Ignatieff and previous Lib leaders:
(I)f Ignatieff hopes to take back Kitchener, he’s going to have to account for the fact that his MPs voted alongside Stephen Harper’s Conservative government on 114 different confidence motions, effectively handing Mr. Harper carte blanche to impose his will on Canadians.

The partial privatization of Canada Post, cost thousands of postal workers their jobs. The siphoning of $57 billion from the Employment Insurance fund, away from Canadians when they needed it the most. One of the lowest corporate tax rates in the western world, in a time when the poorest Canadians need goods and services more than ever before.

That’s the Liberal record.

There is one question every voter must ask themselves before they go to the polls in the next election: If Karen Redman had been MP in Kitchener Centre since 2008, would her votes on matters of concern to Canadians have been any different than the votes that Mr. Woodworth cast? And if not, wouldn’t a vote for a New Democrat make more sense?
- And James Travers rightly notes that the trend of increasing inequality has been, and figures to remain, equally strong under Con and Lib governments alike:
Michael Veall, an economics professor at Hamilton’s McMaster University, makes the case this way. “Had the Liberals been in charge of the last few budgets, it’s arguable that the differences today would be very small.”

As Veall agrees, the single most significant point of departure was the politically popular, fiscally suspect Conservative decision to twice trim the GST. Savaged by most economists as regressive, those cuts, coupled with record spending, set the country’s return course for deficits long before the 2008 recession.

It’s also true Conservatives spread the loose change of small tax cuts more widely than program-oriented Liberals. But on the big buck stuff — stimulating the economy, bailing out the auto industry, rebuilding the military and lightening the corporate tax load — Liberals made or would have made similar choices.

Parallel courses lead to more or less the same destination. In Canada’s case, that’s a place where the wealth divide is widening and inequality, with its inherent threats to social cohesion and collective advancement, is rising.
- Which leads to Alex Himelfarb's question as to how increased awareness of inequality and a seldom-questioned free-market ideology can coexist. But given that the level of public focus on inequality is itself a fairly recent development, I'd see reason for hope that we're actually at a turning point when it comes to the economic assumptions that have led to our current gilded age.

- And finally, Eric Sager offers a reminder that the Cons' choice to gut long-form census doesn't need to be a done deal - and that it's well worth reversing:
If you think the fuss is over, think again. Far too many groups require the reliable data that only the long-form census provides. The "save-the-census" website lists more than 350 organizations that have condemned the prime minister's decision.

Those who use data from the long-form census include federal and provincial government departments, municipalities, city planners, health organizations, charities, non-government organizations, academics and many others.
There is another reason why the fuss isn't over.

The long-form census is required for other surveys. It provides the basis for sampling for the Labour Force Survey (which remains mandatory, by the way). The Labour Force Survey is used to calculate unemployment rates and other essential economic data, and is also the starting point for many other surveys.

This is why economists and business groups have argued that cancelling the long form census will have snowballing negative effects throughout society.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On costly advertising

I don't think I was alone in largely presuming that the Harper Cons were perfectly happy pointing to executive authority as their answer to any attempt at accountability. But could it be that through their latest set of ads, the Cons have inadvertently outed Canada's very own answerable-to-no-one Fourthbranch?

Ya know, there might just be a story there

Not that I disagree with this part of John Ivison's latest:
A large number of the “broken promises” revolve around accountability for which the Conservatives lost their enthusiasm once in power. This is a government that has long believed if Canadians don’t know what the government is doing, they don’t know what it’s doing wrong. Hence, the complaints of Suzanne Legault, the federal information commissioner, that the Access to Information regime is “at rock bottom”, in part because her office cannot order the release of information — another thing the Tories said they would facilitate.
But is there any particular reason why the Cons' belief in keeping Canadians in the dark for their own political protection should be a mid-paragraph throw-in, rather than a major issue for Ivison and others to highlight at every available opportunity?

On technicalities

Stephen Harper:
That doesn’t mean all Canadians agree with this government. Certainly many don’t. But I think most Canadians understand that we’re a government that is – whether they agree with us or not – reasonably confident, focused on real issues, on trying to make the country better, not trying to enrich or glorify ourselves.
Which is technically accurate. After all, most of the ridiculous self-glorification under the Cons has focused on Harper in the singular sense, not his government's members plural.

Wednesday Morning Links

Content goes here.

- Les Whittington nicely summarizes the fiscal consequences of five years of Con government:
More than two decades later, Harper is still pursuing the goal of transforming Canada into a more right-wing nation along the lines envisioned by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

During five years in power, the Prime Minister and his colleagues have relentlessly anchored their economic strategy on this goal. They have done so by shedding government programs, shifting cash resources to the provinces and, above all, hamstringing Ottawa’s ability to act in future by reducing its financial clout through personal and corporate income tax cuts.

“I said for a long time, and nobody listened to me for the longest time, that my goal was to make conservatism the natural government philosophy of the country,” Harper said in a published interview during the 2008 election campaign. And he believes it’s working, he told reporters.

In practice, this five-year campaign has quietly reshaped the socioeconomic face of the country by altering the way Canadians pay for programs and services funded by the national government.

Altogether, tax cuts decreed by the Conservatives since 2006 will result in foregone federal revenues of $220 billion between 2007 and 2013. Of that, $60 billion in tax savings go to Canadian corporations.

And much of these tax reductions will be paid for with borrowed money. Over the same period, Ottawa will record a cumulative $169 billion deficit.
The overall impact of the Conservative tax reductions in Canada has been to intensify the inequalities in wealth across society.

According to Toronto research agency Investor Economics, the richest 3.8 per cent of Canadian households controlled 66.6 per cent of all financial wealth (not counting real estate) by 2009, up from 60.6 per cent in 2005 just before the Conservatives came to power.

And the agency predicts the portion of financial wealth controlled by this richest group of Canadians is headed for 70 per cent by 2018.
- Frances Russell leads the response to the Cons' attempted spin about "ethical oil".

- Apparently Thomas Walkom is celebrating five years of Harper government by recycling ideas that became far-fetched within weeks of the Cons taking power. Which isn't to say that looking at PR as a huge part of the price for supporting the Cons didn't make some sense before the Bloc and Libs permanently destroyed any opposition leverage - but at this point the idea couldn't look less plausible.

- Finally, while there's been plenty of talk about the CRTC's move to permit false news, I'm not sure there's been enough attention paid to the standard for enforcement even once a broadcaster fails to clear that low bar:
The CRTC is not empowered to fine or imprison radio or TV executives who breach regulations.

The agency typically tries to persuade broadcasters to change bad behaviour and only takes punitive action — cancelling or refusing to renew broadcast licenses — when a broadcaster systematically and deliberately flouts the regulations.
So even "news" which is both false and damaging under the new test won't figure to result in any consequences if a broadcaster puts on even the slightest show of innocence or inadvertence.

Let me win and there'll be nothing to talk about

Shorter Lorne Gunter:

Most talk about "civility" really only represents one side of a debate about the role of the state wanting to silence the other. But if we just ran everything my way by rendering government irrelevant, then actual civility would be sure to follow.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Cats at play.

On riot control

One followup point on the Cons' latest set of attack ads doesn't seem to have been noted elsewhere, but serves to thoroughly undermine the Cons' attempt to brand themselves:
For example, one ad about the Conservative government's record begins with images of riots -- seemingly connected to the economic troubles in other nations.

"Troubles far away can still reach us at home," says the narrator. "Our economic recovery is still fragile. That's why we can't stop working."
So guess which party has directly threatened to bring exactly the kind of troubles depicted in the ad to Canada if it lost a democratic vote in the House of Commons?

Yes, that's right: Stephen Harper's minions have made it clear that the chaos they claim to be guarding against will be the price of removing them from office. Which should serve as reason to want to get that done at the first opportunity.

Well said

Murray Dobbin discusses how top-end incentive structures affect our broader society:
The CEOs' virtual control of the public policy process which allows for this obscene level of inequality delivers another message: democracy, whose essence is equality, will not be allowed to mess with the "natural" order of things. Samuel Huntington, one of the U.S. elite's longest-running apologists, pined 35 years ago for the good old days: "Truman had been able to govern the country with the co-operation of a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers." He pines no longer. How is it any different today as the financial sector, supported by the resource and manufacturing giants, effectively dictate economic policy to whatever government is in power.

There is nothing in this compensation pattern that benefits the corporation itself or the economy more broadly. In fact it is clear that just the opposite is the case: compensating CEOs for the share price (over which they have almost no control) rather than profitability, stability, employee loyalty, long-term growth, modernization and strong capitalization actually weakens the corporation and distorts proper management. And inequality, to which this disparity contributes, damages competiveness, innovation and productivity.
It is rare for any commentators in the business press to even raise the question as to whether or not any of the CEOs receiving multiple millions in compensation are actually worth it. The pay levels, including bonuses, imply that the CEOs are geniuses -- uniquely responsible for the success of their companies. But there is nothing in management theory or practice to support such a conclusion. One of the most famous management gurus, Peter Drucker, who conducted a ground-breaking study of General Motors, stated: "No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under leadership composed of average human beings. No institution has solved the problem of leadership... unless it gives the leader a sense of duty and a sense of mutual loyalty between him and his associates...."

That "sense of mutual loyalty" has long since been tossed in the dust bin of business history. Loyalty now has to be paid for in the millions.

On representative samples

We may have to send up a Weir Signal for a more thorough debunking of Jack Mintz' latest call for handouts to the corporate sector. But to see what we're dealing with, let's take a closer look at just one paragraph:
Again, the recent economic literature has provided a new perspective on corporate tax revenue and rate reductions, suggesting that revenue losses are minimal, especially when a country has a high corporate income tax rate by international standards.
Of course, this comes only paragraphs after Mintz notes that Canada's current rates are at or below the levels of countries like Japan, Australia and New Zealand which are cited as "international standards" for comparison. So if there is a point where rates might be reduced without too much fiscal pain, that point would have long since passed.

Moreover, Mintz' statement suggests that trying to lead the race to the bottom produces diminishing returns. Yet somehow Mintz considers that reason to hurry up our pace.
Multinationals easily shift their profits to low-tax jurisdictions with financial transactions and transfer pricing.
Or in the case of a substantial number of multinationals in Canada based on our location, the result of tax breaks in Canada is that they simply pay more tax in the U.S. instead.

But if one were concerned about financial shenanigans and transfer pricing, there are ideas around to deal with such problems. Who wants to bet that Mintz will lead the charge in rejecting them?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the correct observation that Canada collects as much corporate income tax revenue today as it did earlier when rates were much higher.
If by "correct", one means "patently false". But then, accuracy never seems to be much of a concern when it comes to handing money to the corporate sector.

So take the rest of Mintz' column with the appropriate mine's worth of salt.

Forest for the trees

Aaron Wherry raises some additional questions about Stephen Harper's latest position on the timing of any move toward a coalition government. But once again, I'd think the overriding question is the fact that Harper's quibble is with timing at all: isn't the concession that a majority in Parliament does have the right to determine the composition of Canada's government itself enough to utterly demolish the Cons' regular spin that single-party seat counts are the sole measure of legitimacy?

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Michael Warren pushes the conversation about a cooperative effort to topple the Cons toward what looks to me to be more fertile territory, suggesting a policy accord as an alternative to a non-compete agreement or merger.

The main issue I'd raise is whether it's necessary or desirable to work out detailed policies in advance, or whether the better course of action is to develop complimentary messaging that encourages as many non-Con votes as possible without eliminating the differences that bring out different groups of voters. But it's well worth noting that there are plenty of options between merging and rejecting the idea of cooperating - and it may not take much to shape the narrative of a campaign in a direction that both parties would seemingly have reason to pursue.

- But of course, that narrative also needs to be directed toward winning seats. And there's good news on that front, as at least one of the parties to any potential coalition is working on expanding its Quebec base.

- I'll deal later with the substantive question of how the NDP in particular should see per-vote funding based on an interesting Rabble discussion. But for now, Duff Conacher notes why per-vote funding is a plus for Canada's broader political system:
The annual per-vote subsidy of $1.95 for federal political parties should not be eliminated as Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper proposes because it is one of the most democratic aspects of Canada's political finance system as it gives a cash boost to parties that do not elect as many members of parliament as they should because of the flaws of our first-past-the-post voting system.
- Finally, Warren Kinsella is right on target in noting the weak spot in the Cons' latest attack ads:
Canadians aren’t frightened about a coalition. English Canadians don’t like the Bloc very much — but if Duceppe’s party is out of the equation, voters are quite OK with a coalition, in fact.

The issue was hotly debated last summer. A poll conducted by Harris-Decima right afterwards found more than half of Canadians, from coast to coast, were fine with some sort of co-operation between the Liberals and the NDP. About 60% said they supported ideas ranging from a non-compete agreement to an outright merger.

The main focus of the Reformatory ads are off the mark because, one, the Conservative Party itself is the result of a coalition. Two, in 2000, Harper himself secretly signed a deal for a coalition with the Tories and the Bloc. Three, some of the most revered Canadians — Jean Chretien and Ed Broadbent — like the idea. Four, even Harper’s most ardent suitors, like Lorne Gunter, call his coalition fear mongering “fairy tales.”

I’ve put together a few attack ads in my day. To work, they have to “surface feelings” about something.

Problem is, these ads “surface feelings” about something Canadians aren’t afraid of. At all.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Nicely done

People for Corporate Tax Cuts. Need I say more?

Update: Though I suppose it's fair to say that satire should try to stay more than just one day ahead of reality.

Burning questions

Did somebody slip Jim Flaherty a set of talking points from 2009 for his remarkably limited declaration of areas where he's willing to so much as talk to the opposition parties about the budget? Or have the Cons just been so focused on attack politics that they haven't bothered updating anything since then?

Now that's a twist

It wasn't much secret that the Harper Cons' attacks on the possibility of an opposition coalition would be based on a ridiculous message that parties shouldn't cooperate with each other. And I look forward to seeing how the debate plays out if that does become one of the main battlegrounds between the Cons and the NDP.

But I'll admit the Cons have gone an extra step in also flailing away at the concept of "planning". So can we look forward to Harper adopting "proudly making it up as we go along" as his own slogan?

Monday Morning Links

Assorted content to start your week.

- Jim Stanford points out the real gravy train that's been ignored thanks to the faux populism of the right:
American economist Emmanuel Saez has painstakingly assembled a century-long statistical series on U.S. income distribution. On two occasions, the share of income captured by the richest 1 per cent reached about a quarter of the national total. The first time was in 1928, the second in 2007. As we all know, both peaks in wealth concentration were followed by financial catastrophe and depression. Indeed, maldistribution clearly contributed to both meltdowns.

But there’s a startling difference in the political reverberations that followed the two conflagrations. In the 1930s, outrage at the pre-Depression extravagance of the rich, contrasting with the dislocation experienced by masses of Americans, sparked a decade of left-leaning foment. Government expanded income security, directly hired millions of unemployed, and actively supported a new generation of unions to fight for the common folk. Meantime, it reined in business excess through tough financial rules, anti-trust policies, and high taxes on the rich.

This time around, there’s been plenty of populist anger – but (so far) it’s been steered in exactly the opposite direction.
(I)n Canada, too, the political bandwagon lurches to the right. There’s been infinitely more hot air expended since the financial meltdown over the salaries of unionized garbage collectors than those of high-flying financiers. Our home-grown plutocracy, meanwhile, keeps raking it in. Bonuses at the Big Six banks alone reached $8.9-billion in 2010, the highest ever. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives recently documented that the typical Canadian CEO made as much by 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 3 as the average worker makes all year long.

Imagine a city the size of Saskatoon hogging a third of all the new income generated by the entire country. Imagine folks who earn as much in a few hours as the rest of us do in a year – yet still lecture us on the need to tighten our belts. Imagine 25,000 families earning as much as the bottom seven million tax filers put together. How long will these excesses fly under the public’s radar, while we bicker over wage gaps between unionized garbage collectors and non-union fast-food workers? Not long, I hope.
- Meanwhile, David Akin points out how a U.S.-style system - including the Senate model the Cons are seeking to copy - only serves to make matters worse.

- The North Shore News nicely summarizes why the Harper Cons are so eager to cut off per-vote funding for political parties - and why citizens should be worried about the results:
(T)aking $1.75 out of each voter's tax bill to ensure the balance is spent for our benefit is, on the whole, a pretty good deal.

Harper wants to undo this, and it's obvious why. Reverting to a reliance on private donors is clearly most helpful to parties who serve the interests of wealthy individuals and organizations. The Tories certainly fit that description.

Harper's plan has nothing to do with fairness to taxpayers and everything to do with giving his party an edge. It should be rejected.
- Finally, Jim Travers notes why we look to be headed toward a federal election:
Conservatives are effectively locking into a self-fulfilling prophecy. While solemnly swearing they don’t want an election, the ruling party is prescribing poison pills it knows the opposition will find hard to swallow.

If Harper is rolling the dice, Ignatieff is playing Russian roulette. A restless party’s resistance to approving another budget is forcing Ignatieff to bang the drum for an election Liberals aren’t prepared to fight and that could cost core Toronto seats, perhaps even his own in always hotly contested Etobicoke-Lakeshore.
It’s entirely possible that Layton or even Duceppe could still save Harper and Ignatieff from themselves. Both the NDP and Bloc leaders have publicly priced their budget support and Layton’s is notably low. All that’s required for Conservatives to extend their stay in power is to let the NDP claim victories for helping homeowners with heating and renovation costs.

Little things help prevent accidents, but someone still has to slam on the brakes.
And as expected, Jim Flaherty is hitting the gas instead of the brakes.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Feel the altruism

Having apparently reached the bottom of its list of nitpicks about the CBC, QMI is helpfully making another effort to shape Canada's future media in its favour by decrying loud advertising compared to the audio of normal TV shows. And what better way to stoke demand for shrieking, incoherent programming than to suggest that it's needed to balance out the volume of commercials?

The Hyde agenda

Brian Topp's latest assessment of the relative position of Canada's national parties is well worth a read in general. But it's particularly worth noting his take on the opposition parties' secret weapon:
(T)hen there is that nasty Mr. Hyde Harper. He is a very different proposition. Mr. Hyde Harper is back on his dime of wanting to bankrupt the opposition parties by bringing big money back into politics on terms that will only work for his party. Mr. Hyde Harper believes that middle-class families wake up in the morning worried that Canada needs to proceed with the purchase of billions of dollars worth of new military fighter jets. And Mr. Hyde Harper demands support in the election or, he threatens, the opposition parties will... will.... WORK TOGETHER. Yes they will, and that must be stopped.

Mr. Hyde Harper is no sale to the majority of the people of Canada. So, hopefully, we'll be hearing lots more from him about bankrupting other parties, buying military jets, and why parliamentarians must not be permitted to work together. The last thing Canada needs is a majority Conservative government. Mr. Hyde Harper is the politician in the best position to make sure that doesn't happen.

A rich history

The Globe and Mail helpfully reminds us of the history of the Canadian Senate:
The Senate has always been a House under a cloud.

The Fathers of Confederation cobbled it together in part to protect people like themselves against the rabble, which is why senators still have to meet a property qualification: “We must protect the rights of minorities, and the rich are always fewer in number than the poor,” as Sir John A. Macdonald put it.
And on this point at least, Stephen Harper can proudly claim to be the heir to MacDonald's legacy of using the Senate as a means for the better-off to override the will of the masses. Just ask Larry Smith:
Recently appointed Conservative Senator Larry Smith on Wednesday denied he’s using the Senate to boost his chances of becoming an MP, saying he has taken a “dramatic, catastrophic” pay cut to serve the public.
“In simple terms, he added, “the money I was earning in my last profession to where I would be in this profession is what I would call a dramatic, catastrophic pay cut. And I have a family — I have obligations.”

Senators are paid an annual salary of $132,300.

Remedial Math for Liberals

Lib supporters seem to be drawing some rather interesting conclusions from polling showing that a Lib-only government and a coalition both hold roughly equal support to a Con counterpart. But for the benefit of those who want to see the Harper Cons gone, let's remind ourselves exactly what needs to be done to replace them under the two obvious scenarios available to Michael Ignatieff.

On the one hand, he can keep on trying to run a two-party race based on the message that he'll only take power if the Libs alone exceed the Cons' seat total. In that case, the Libs start from a 12-point deficit based on the 2008 election results, and roughly a 6-point deficit based on current polling. Or put another way, the Libs would need to knock the Cons' level of support down to roughly 32 per cent for there to be any hope of a change in government. Which is no easy task given the Cons' well-documented base of 30% who are firmly in their camp, not to mention the preferences for a Con government in the mid to high 30s.

On the other hand, Ignatieff can send the message that he's willing to work with other parties to replace Harper based on a majority of votes in the House of Commons. In that case, Ignatieff effectively starts from ahead in the race, since both the current Parliament and all available polling leave the Cons with short of a majority on their own. And Harper would then face the need to boost his support level to the 39-40% range to have a chance of holding onto power - which of course reflects the absolute top end of the Cons' recent support levels.

So unlike the choice among parties, this does resolve to a simple either-or choice: the Libs can pursue a message that makes it a near certainty that Harper will be replaced following the next election based on the Cons holding their usual mid-30s vote share, or they can voluntarily set themselves up to lose based on exactly the same voting results. And the fact that they've chosen the latter should cause nothing but reason for suspicion among Canadians who want to see Harper gone.