Saturday, March 26, 2011

Saskatchewan NDP Convention 2011 - Saturday Morning Update

A few quick notes on #policy11, which is taking place in Regina this weekend...

- Yes, the convention is dealing with a full set of policy resolutions to go with the party's policy review. But I suppose if the NDP deals with policy twice and the Sask Party not at all, then it all evens out in the end.

- Among the livelier discussions in the resolution panel I attended: whether to plan for a resource revenue trust fund to fund a guaranteed annual income (which was approved), and whether to revisit the idea of storing nuclear waste (which was defeated).

- Cam Broten introduced the policy review document yesterday, but the convention discussion will begin this morning.

- And the party is putting on a significant push to encourage discussion through social media as well as on the convention floor. Again, you can get the latest discussion on Twitter at #policy11.

[Edit: fixed Twitter links.]

Saturday Morning Links

Content goes here.

- Sadly, the Libs have declined to participate. But as Susan Delacourt notes, the adult conversation on the Canadian political scene includes a discussion on ground rules to make coalitions and other arrangements work. (Though I wouldn't go quite so far as to say parties should defer entirely to the panel discussion rather than including it as an important factor in determining how best to represent their constituents.)

- While the appeal of a strategy based on narrow segmentation is fairly obvious for most political parties, I'll second Paul Adams' assessment as to what figures to cause the next major shift in federal politics:
The parties are fishing in the diminishing pool of voters, and in doing so largely neglecting the concerns of non-voters, which is likely further to alienate them from the system and reinforce their behaviour. The recent vogue for negative ads plays into this even further. We know from American research that negative ads work in large part not by winning voters over, but by persuading potential voters for the other guy to stay home.

Politically, this phenomenon of ever more feverish attempts to cultivate those made of such robust stuff that they still turn out to vote, seems to be treated by the parties as more or less inevitable. But doesn’t it seem obvious that the political future will belong to whichever party or politician is able to tap this growing pool of non-voters?
- Meanwhile, John Ibbitson makes the converse point that every factor that serves to turn off voters can be reversed if people make the effort to support alternatives.

- And finally, who says a party can't have a sense of humour during a campaign?


I wasn't sure Michael Ignatieff would manage to kill the message that replacing the Harper government is a goal worth pursuing (even if it means cooperating across party lines) before the election campaign even started. But apparently he's managed the feat.

Mind you, that does leave a rather obvious response for Canadians who think that a government which was rightly brought down for its contempt of Parliament shouldn't be able to cling to power by continuing to push the same message that the majority of votes in the House of Commons counts for nothing. And if enough voters turn their support to the party who agrees, then the Libs may have no choice but to change their tune either during the campaign or after.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Musical interlude

Massive Attack - Better Things

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- thwap points out what needs to happen for a change in government to lead to more meaningful changes to our federal political system:
We shouldn't become bullies. But we shouldn't be the cynical enablers. We should make sure that the Liberals don't behave like US Democrats, "looking forward, not backwards" and allowing past crimes to go unpunished and past anti-democratic excesses to become incorporated into Canadian politics as capitalism unravels.

One can be law-abiding, classy, and principled, without being a doormat.
My point is that after we take power, we should step up our demands for accountability. We can play by the rules and still be absolutely ruthless in destroying the harpercon mentality and setting the precedent that blatantly undemocratic and blatantly criminal behaviour is not tolerated in this country.
- Aaron Wherry rightly points out that the Afghan detainee document process doesn't contain a clear disclosure process when the House isn't sitting to allow documents to be tabled. Which raises the question: have the Cons ever allowed anything embarrassing to be made public when faced with anything short of an absolutely clear obligation?

- In case anybody thought the Cons might have made their nomination processes somewhat more democratic in open seats than they allowed for their incumbents, think again.

- Finally, Jim Stanford's thorough takedown of John Manley's spin on corporate tax cuts is too consistently on target to excerpt - so go read if you haven't already.

[Edit: fixed attribution as per pogge's comment.]

Case in point

I'm shocked to see Ken Krawetz happily outsourcing the Sask Party's policy development to the Chamber of Commerce, then taking on the job of selling a corporate agenda to the public. Who could possibly have suspected?

Well said

Simon Enoch provides the definitive response to the Sask Party's budget:
Despite an obvious and acute housing crisis, this budget offered a paltry $1.7 million for two new affordable housing initiatives while the immediate need for new housing in the province is approximately 3000 units. For those who cannot wait for the construction of new housing, no relief was forthcoming to prevent the regular rent increases that seem to have become the norm in our province.

Despite ranking dead last among the provinces in child-care space, the budget offered to fund the creation of only 500 new child-care spaces when the need is closer to 5000. Currently, Saskatchewan has licensed child-care spots for only 9.1 per cent of children between the ages of zero and five, compared to the 20.3 per cent national average. While we applaud the government for committing to the creation of these new spaces, our province desperately needs a much more aggressive and long-term policy to address our child-care needs.

Despite the desperate need to replace the only psychiatric hospital in the province, this budget offered absolutely nothing for those suffering from mental illness.

In contrast, business owners will reap almost $80 million in tax savings due to the reduction of the small business tax while off-sale beer vendors will enjoy a $5.1 million discount. While the government has made much of it’s low-income tax reduction policy, a tax cut on nothing is still nothing. If we were to measure what constituencies this government covets by the amount of largesse given to them in yesterday’s budget, it is obvious where the poorest in our province rank.
But an even closer look at the meager housing funding in Ken Krawetz' budget makes the Sask Party look even worse. There, the brand-new province-wide fund to encourage the construction of affordable new homes (through tax abatements of course) has been allocated a paltry $200,000 per year - or less than the cost of a single average home in one of Saskatchewan's major cities.

Of course, part of the problem is that a focus on property tax utterly misses the point as to what makes housing unaffordable for those who need it. But it also speaks volumes that while feeling the need to pretend to do something, the Sask Party saw no problem with such an embarrassing excuse for a plan.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

On empty promises

My first reaction to the theory that some Afghan detainee documents might be released during an election campaign (which doesn't seem to have any backers from the party that's fought hardest to keep the truth about Afghanistan from seeing the light of day) was that if any material is released, it most certainly won't be anything embarrassing to the Harper Cons.

But ultimately, there isn't much that could be released without meeting that standard. Any documents that contain meaningful content about the handling of detainees will be embarrassing in substance, while any which don't will be a source of embarrassment to the extent they've been needlessly covered up.

So there's even more reason than usual to be dubious about the latest round of excuses and promises from the Libs and Bloc. And the smartest bet in the election campaign may be that the detainee documents will stay under wraps until it's done.

On unintended consequences

I've already posted some thoughts on Dennis Dawson's discussed by Susan Delacourt. But it's well worth noting some of the potential downside to counting a party's non-election advertising against an election cap.

After all, during an election period, the party spending cap is accompanied by strict limits on third-party advertising. Which means that there's a balance drawn between parties and outside forces, as well as between the parties themselves.

But the rest of the time, any third party can choose to spend money attacking a political party without any restrictions. And won't anybody looking influence the political scene have a strong incentive to do exactly that when the party can't respond without limiting its own ability to participate in a future election campaign?

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday...

- Susan Delacourt rightly questions why any political party would work as hard as the Cons to tell Canadians not to bother participating in their democracy:
It's worth thinking about how we keep being told that participating in the country is a nuisance.

Canada's long-form census is now voluntary, not mandatory, just like our elections. In other words, feel free to throw that census form or ballot in the garbage can, and go back to whatever you were doing before that intrusive question was foisted upon you. And don't forget taxes. They too are annoying, if you listen to the political noise. Parliament -- that thing you elect -- just a place where people play games. The public service -- a burdensome obstacle. Is there anything about the civic life of this country that stands above insults from the political class?
The politicians we've elected ought to stop pandering to this democracy-is-so-annoying stuff. It's not consistent with the praise that's repeatedly (and rightly) heaped on the Canadian troops, who sacrifice much for democratic ideals. It also assumes that people, other than the soldiers, are idiots.

The fact that folks got angry about Parliament being prorogued, about the mandatory census being scrapped, tells me that Canadian citizens are not stupid at all, and they don't like being called lazy or uninterested. Besides, practically speaking, insulting the electorate doesn't seem to be the best way to get people's votes.
- But not all the parties are that cynical. And Brian Topp nicely sums up the NDP's position going into the federal election campaign:
Mr. Layton is the most liked, respected and trusted national leader on the opposition bench. The New Democrats are working from the base of the largest caucus of incumbent MPs they've had in two decades. The New Democrats came in first or second in over a hundred ridings in the last election -- excellent room for growth. They will field the best-funded campaign in their history, led by a seasoned team who have worked together in three recent previous campaigns. Given that Mr. Ignatieff agrees with Mr. Harper on substantially all of the key issues before the country, Mr. Layton is, on the issues and in much of the country, the most credible alternative to Mr. Harper.

Which is to say that while Mr. Layton and his party weren't anxious to have this election, and worked seriously to see if Canadians could see some progress in this Parliament, they enter this campaign in excellent shape.
- Now the bad news: the federal election campaign will of course take place under #harperball rules (as per CC's astute idea). Read and contribute for reference during the campaign.

- Murray Mandryk notes that the Sask Party's budget yesterday may be falling into a familiar trap, with overly optimistic projections making it likely that today's promises will again turn into tomorrow's excuses:
Finance Minister Ken Krawetz's 2011-12 budget, presented Wednesday, was filled with pre-election, pie-in-the-sky nonsense, beginning with a predicted 4.2-per-cent increase in real gross domestic product when private forecasters are only predicting 3.9per-cent growth for 2011. Finance officials attribute this to early, more-pessimistic forecasts, but it should also be noted this economic growth number is based on an average crop year. Considering the 10 million unseeded acres last year and similar snowfall this year, that's overly optimistic.

Also overly optimistic is a mere 5.5-per-cent spending increase (to $10.7 billion) in the face of potential spring flooding problems and simply unsustainable spending initiatives. For instance, the budget sets aside a meagre $1.5 million for its 300 rental housing units under the Saskatchewan Rental Incentive Program. (Surely, there's got to be more here?)

And while credit should go to Krawetz and company for the $335-million debt paydown that will slice an additional $10-million worth of interest charges out of general revenue fund (departmental) spending, it's noteworthy that there will (sic) no more such debt reduction for the entire second term of the Sask. Party government (working on the logical assumption that this budget gets the Saskatchewan Party re-elected) and that Crown and overall debt will continue to rise. This government's policy of stripping dividends from all Crown corporations except SaskPower (to the tune of 70-to 90 per-cent this year) to pay for departmental spending and tax cuts is short-sighted. We inevitably wind up paying for it on our utility bills.
- Finally, from the "simple answers to simple questions" department, here's pogge's post title:
Remember the Afghan detainee docs?
Not if the Cons, Libs and Bloc have anything to do with it. This has been another version of "simple answers to simple questions".

Speaking out of turn

Following up on yesterday's post, today's Leader-Post column highlights the limited amount of consultation the Sask Party has been prepared to accept. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Saskatchewan NDP Policy Review: Public Consultation

Having pointed out a couple of the highlights of the Saskatchewan NDP's policy review document, let's turn to part of it which looks like it'll need to be fleshed out in advance of this fall's election campaign:
Saskatchewan people believe that the provincial government has a responsibility to engage in meaningful consultations before implementing significant legislative and policy changes. This ensures that the voices of those who will be affected by the legislative and policy changes will be heard, which will lead to stronger, more effective legislation and policy.

Saskatchewan people want a New Democratic government to:

o Commit to engage in meaningful consultations with all those affected by proposed legislative and policy changes, with a particular emphasis on reaching out to those who will be most affected by the decision.
Now, I doubt there will be much disagreement in principle with the idea of ensuring that affected parties are consulted before changes are made. And there's certainly ample room for contrast with the Sask Party on that front.

However, the question of exactly how to engage the public remains an open one. And I'm not sure the Sask Party hasn't inadvertently highlighted its own narrow view while providing the NDP with an ideal structure to be adapted toward general consultation.

Part of the Sask Party's effort to turn Saskatchewan into Ireland included the development of Enterprise Saskatchewan's sector teams, which are touted as being industry-led bodies responsible largely for identifying business priorities.

But the underlying structure will include teams of civil servants who have developed some specialized knowledge of a particular sector. And that could make for an ideal support structure for PLG's proposal for scaled participatory democracy featuring a combination of experts and self-selected citizens serving to steer policy on specific issues, with the ability to escalate decisions to broader but similarly participatory groups if they're sufficiently controversial to warrant it.

From there, it looks like a simple pitch to voters as to who they want making decisions with support from a civil-service sectoral team. And the choice between a hand-picked, industry-led group with a narrow set of priorities under the Sask Party's structure, or a self-selected group of interested citizens under the modified version, would look like an ideal contrast for the NDP's purposes.

Of course, it could be that something along those lines would be a natural policy result of the general consultation principle in any event. But in case nobody's made the connection yet, I'll hope to see the current business-based structures put to better use to ensure that all interested citizens can be heard on issues which affect them.

On belated disclosure

Leftdog highlights some of the issues with the Sask Party's Enterprise Club emerging from the revelation that one of its $1,000 donations was paid for by St. Peter's College. But there looks to be plenty of reason for concern with some parts of the story which haven't yet been covered in detail:
It came to light last week that the former CEO of two Humboldt-area colleges attempting a now-dead merger had charged the $1,000 political contribution to his expenses.
(Frank Quennell) also noted the 2009 purchase of the membership did not appear on that year's Sask. Party financial statements. The party said the membership could have been for 2010 and would not appear until the release of financial statements for the year.
So what's wrong with that picture? Under Saskatchewan's Election Act, 1996, provincial parties are required to report all money in the year in which it is received, including contributions, the proceeds of merchandise and other sales, and "all other income and receipts from any source". So the statement that a membership was intended to be for 2010 wouldn't seem to affect a party's obligation to disclose having received money in 2009.

And there's an obvious reason why that's the case. After all, it would make a mockery of political disclosure rules if supporters could make a donation which is available for the party's use immediately, but is only reported at some later date when a membership takes effect. ("Buy a $5 million 'Super Deluxe Platinum Executive Membership' for the 2045 fiscal year today! No need to report the source of the money until then!")

So the explanation we've heard so far as to why Glen Kobussen's Enterprise Club membership was omitted from the Sask Party's financial disclosure forms doesn't hold water. And if the Sask Party makes a general practice of taking in money in the present to be disclosed only in some future year, then it's well worth wondering how many more contributions are similarly hidden in the party's books.

Wednesday Morning Links

Assorted content for your mid-week reading.

- We probably won't hear of this particular proposal again - at least until after another election. But Stephen Hui points out that the Harper Cons' latest budget includes more efforts to divert public money toward private profits through P3s, including by requiring that large federal projects consider be "screened" for P3 potential.

- Susan Delacourt nicely sums up the NDP's response to the Cons' seemingly-stillborn budget:
It seems to me that Jack Layton has just managed to fuse the (the economy and democracy) into one big rejection of the Harper government. Yes, he didn't like what was in the budget, but he also didn't like the way Harper treated the parties in a minority Parliament. That latter point is what seemed to make Layton look truly outraged in his post-budget interviews.

And Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is only likely to have inflamed that anger even more when he said, in his post-budget interview with CBC, that the government didn't believe it was its job to work with the opposition parties in crafting the budget. The government consults with Canadians, Flaherty said, not political rivals. That sounds an awful lot like the back of the hand to Parliament -- the same thing that prompted the historic Speaker's ruling against Harper's government.
- Meanwhile, for all the criticism of the Cons' divide-and-conquer strategy, it's worth noting that it proved to be no less of a failure than the budget itself. Which looks like just one more piece of evidence that the Cons' bullying tactics don't work so well against a party which actually stands for something.

- Finally, with an election campaign looking to start very shortly, it's always great to see that Alice is apparently ready and raring to go. So check out her baseline election metrics as the starting point for the campaign to come.

Wednesday Morning Cat Blogging

Awe-struck cats.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Deep thought

I'm pretty sure we'll see a quick and emphatic round of apologies from the spinners who have spent the last two months claiming the NDP would grasp at any possible excuse to support the Cons' budget (or better yet pretending that it already had). Yessiree, any minute now...

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- I'm sympathetic to Greenpeace's argument that Bruce Carson should be seen as having lobbied the Cons on the tar sands as well as on water. But I'm not sure it entirely holds up based on another of the most obvious loopholes in the Cons' lobbying scheme.

Based on the regulations designed by the Cons, if the government asks for input from a person or group, the resulting discussion doesn't count as lobbying. Which means that the Cons' lobbying rules serve mostly to impose additional obligations on anybody presenting a message they don't want to hear, while ensuring that their cronies can pitch and develop self-interested schemes at the Cons' invitation without having to disclose a word of it.

- In case there was any doubt, even the Cons' numbers confirm that corporate tax measures have been by far the least effective form of stimulus over the past several years - to the point where they feel obliged to include a vague footnote about their having "among the higher multiplier effects in the long run" to justify the obvious lack of near-term benefit. Notably missing, of course, is any actual comparison of the multiplier for any other type of investment.

- While I still take the view that a real defence of a coalition stands to benefit all opposition parties, John Geddes is right in noting that more talk of cooperative politics is ultimately a plus for the NDP:
The coalition issue remains so novel in Canada that how it might play out over a full campaign is impossible to predict. Public opinion turned against the concept in the fall of 2008, but a senior NDP campaign strategist says debate surrounding it could actually help them in an election. The NDP has long struggled against the reluctance of many voters to cast a ballot for a party that doesn’t stand much chance of winning. If the possibility of a coalition with the Liberals gains wider acceptance, the strategist says, then Layton’s platform will be have to be viewed more seriously as a potential part of that government policy. Winning outright won’t be everything anymore. Some NDP organizers hope that realization will force the media, and the public, to pay closer attention to Layton’s positions on the issues.
- Finally, Linda McQuaig highlights the glaring gap between the supposed need to give the wealthy everything they could think to ask for and more, and the expectation that everybody else will pitch in to make up the difference:
(W)hy is greed and love of money considered good in the case of a wealthy investor, while the wider desire for simply a decent living standard is increasingly considered an expectation that may have to be curbed in ordinary citizens?

As deficits pile up, we are soon to be inundated with the message that we are living beyond our means and must learn to do with less.

Certainly, our small wealthy super-elite seems determined to ensure that nothing gets in the way of its right to fully indulge its greed, and that the burden of deficit-reduction is imposed on others.
(T)here’s nothing “realistic” about the conclusion that the middle class — either here or in the U.S. — must learn to do with less, that we must accept a world where parents are forced to choose between affording their retirement and sending their kids to college.

Both Canada and the U.S. were deficit-free not long ago. Indeed, Canada was running major surpluses until the 2008 Wall Street crash sent the world economy reeling.

What is unsustainable is society’s willingness to accommodate the greed of the super-rich.
The solution isn’t to censor (Kevin O'Leary) and his billionaire friends, simply give them less air time and tell them, sweethearts, we’re just going to have to raise your taxes.

On strategic considerations

A couple of thoughts for the federal budget day...

First, let's note that for all the Libs' efforts to avoid being the party to decide on the fate of the budget, there are still some opportunities for the NDP to put the pressure back on them if it so chooses.

In particular, it would make less than zero sense for the Libs to precipitate an election based on the argument that the Harper Cons are unfit for office, then decline to bring them down on a confidence vote in another minority Parliament.

So the NDP may want to consider issuing a challenge to Michael Ignatieff: show us your commitment to actually replacing the Cons if the opportunity arises (including through a coalition), and we'll be more inclined to go to the polls. And either possible outcome would look to be a plus for the NDP: a strong statement by Ignatieff that a change in government comes first would limit his ability to attack the NDP later on, while any weakness in his commitment to toppling the Cons would undermine his own narrative.

Second, assuming we do end up in an election campaign, it's worth noting that Jack Layton's health issues may actually give rise to an opportunity for the NDP.

After all, there's little room for doubt that part of the momentum of an election campaign involves a party's ability to exceed expectations. And with the NDP having run what was generally seen as a highly effective campaign in 2008, there didn't seem to be too much room to impress the commentariat.

But with pundit after pundit now questioning whether Layton can hold up through a campaign, the NDP may be in the unique position of having a leader who's already highly popular and experienced, yet who can also expect to be the subject of good-news stories merely for doing what he's already done multiple times before. And if the campaign narrative features Layton as the plucky leader who's kept on fighting for his principles in the face of personal adversity, that may well give the NDP the boost it needs to keep trending upward.

Monday, March 21, 2011

On long-term choices

With most of the focus on the NDP's budget decision based around (often inaccurate) Lib messaging and the Cons' apparent attempt to earn a bare 50% passing grade when compared to the party's demands, I'll return to a point I made earlier.

Nearly all of the Cons' apparent concessions look to be time-limited policies which don't offer any compelling reason to keep a government in power. But the point I'd watch for is the nature of changes to the GIS, which could easily be handled in one of two ways.

If the Cons' budget includes a permanent GIS boost, then the NDP can rightfully take credit for keeping seniors out of poverty for decades to come. And that would at least leave room for a serious discussion about whether it's worth allowing the Cons to pass the budget provided that it doesn't include any poison pills of an equal and opposite effect.

Conversely, if the Cons only provide for a single year of improved GIS funding which would stand to drop retirees back into poverty for 2012, then there looks to be no long-term benefit to make up for the short-term cost of supporting the Cons' general policies. And in that case, it shouldn't take long to conclude that the best option is to seek a trip to the polls.

Monday Afternoon Links

Assorted content to start your week.

- The Cons may be able to de-fund and silence Canadian analysis which might show how useless their choice of priorities has been. But they can't stop the UK from concluding that their stimulus program created 154,000 less jobs than it should have while simultaneously missing opportunities to make a positive environmental impact.

- Erin points out another entirely valid theory as to why a potash royalty review is called for. But the need for a review now looks to be the most important conclusion - whether one thinks the 2002 review was reasonable but has been overtaken by events, or whether one thinks it should have provided for higher royalties in the first place.

- Yes, it's sad to see some confirmation of the twenty-eight percent theory based on the number of respondents who place inexplicable trust in the Harper Cons. But there's a bright side: on the same question, twenty-two percent of respondents overcame any bias against seeing the NDP as capable of winning power to declare it the party most capable of "providing honest, open and trustworthy government". And with the NDP well ahead of the Libs on the question, there looks to be plenty more room to convince Canadians that the "government" part is close enough to be worth pursuing.

- And in other good news, Andrew Coyne sees reason for hope that Parliament's start at pushback against the Harper Cons' arbitrary secrecy might just be the beginning:
Knowing they were all but incapable of pulling together the votes to bring the government down—for when one opposition party is up in the polls, the others are sure to be down—they were not only obliged, but in a way freed to pursue other means to bring the government to heel. In a more typical minority, the opposition might have simply defeated the government rather than appeal to the Speaker to defend their rights. Instead, a precedent was set, and then another. Muscles that had long atrophied were given a workout. MPs began to stand a little straighter.

It isn’t only in matters of privilege that Parliament is showing signs of life. Committees, accustomed in the past to deferring to government, are acting with new vigour under opposition control—why, they’ve even begun (gasp!) to issue summons to recalcitrant witnesses to appear before them. Half as many private member’s bills were passed in the first Harper minority as were in three majority governments under Chr├ętien.

The question is whether any of this new-found feistiness will survive the current Parliament. It has not, after all, been widely observed on the government benches. When, someday soon or later, the opposition is returned to power, will they remember the heady days of 2011, when they fought for their rights as MPs? Or will they go back to sleep?

One just can't win

Shorter John Ivison:

The NDP's success in having its well-publicized and popular policy proposals included in a federal budget is bad news for the NDP.

On reasonable projections

Alice has nicely set out how an election resulting from a non-confidence vote in a minority Parliament can generally only be expected when at least one party misreads its political prospects. (Of course, an election precipitated by the government alone such as the one in 2008 requires no such miscalculation.)

But in case anybody is wondering how it's possible for all parties to conclude they have something to gain from an election when that seems impossible on its face, take a look at the latest Nanos poll:
Nationally, the popularity of the Conservative Party declined by a single percentage point, to 39 per cent, with both the Liberals (28 per cent) and NDP (20 per cent) up one point from the month before. These numbers are well within the margin of error (3 per cent) and suggest little or no change in support for the three national parties.
In other words, all three of the national parties in Parliament are slightly above their 2008 vote share numbers, giving each the opportunity to reasonably foresee circumstances where it could gain seats. And the Bloc is less than a percentage point down from its 2008 vote share in Quebec, which combined with more vote splitting among the federalist parties will provide plausible scenarios where it could add seats as well.

Of course, the parties should also be able to recognize the risks involved in reading the opportunities and dangers incorrectly. (And of course nobody is about to make decisions based on a single commercial poll.) But particularly when the message for ages has been that nobody can expect to gain much out of an election, recent trends seem to offer everybody at least some reason for hope of improving their current standing - and that may well be enough to result in an election.

On turnout

Susan Delacourt is right to point out that turnout figures to be a major factor in the next federal election, with the Libs seemingly having the most to gain in terms of winning back votes they've held in the immediate past. But it's well worth noting that the Libs themselves have seldom acted as if boosting overall turnout is a goal worth pursuing.

Remember that after taking power, the Cons decided to implement a strict voter ID bill with the obvious effect of making it more difficult for people who want to participate to do so. And the Libs joined the Bloc in passing it, with only the NDP standing up for the principle that we shouldn't be putting needless roadblocks in the way of citizen access to the polls.

And while that might be dismissed as a mistake under Stephane Dion, the Libs' general message is still far from a strong appeal in support of voter participation. In fact, they're spending more time telling 36% of current voters that their effort is wasted than they are making any appeal to citizens turned off by the current political climate. Which means that the occasional message about boosting turnout (usually linked to the message "as long as it goes to us") needs to be taken with a heavy grain of salt.

Now, there's a fairly obvious reason why the Libs have decided to take such a contorted position. An increase in general turnout also creates obvious costs for a party whose main priority is to assemble a majority coalition: after all, the more groups make the effort to participate, the more a party will need to win over in order to take power. So from the standpoint of tracing the shortest path from opposition to a 38% majority, it makes some sense to focus less on bringing out the disaffected and more on convincing current swing voters while keeping disaffected voters on the sidelines.

But if that means the Libs are in the same boat as the Cons in looking to take the largest possible piece of the smallest possible pie, that hardly serves to position Michael Ignatieff and his party as defenders of Canadian democracy. And it may be that the Libs' failure to make any progress stems in large part from voters seeing through the contradiction.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Saskatchewan NDP Policy Review: Provincial Water Grid

With First Nations water safety issues serving as the background to one of the major federal stories of the moment and rural water advisories also a perpetual concern in Saskatchewan, the NDP's policy review process should make for an ideal time to discuss how best to ensure that safe water is available for all Saskatchewan residents. And the issue is dealt with head-on in what looks like a noteworthy change from the province's historical strategy:
As of February 2011, 260 separate Emergency Boil Water Orders or Precautionary Drinking Water Advisories are listed on the provincial government website. The reasons for these orders and advisories include the presence of E. Coli bacteria.

Saskatchewan people want a New Democratic government to:

- Use our Crown corporation, SaskWater, to develop a provincial-wide water grid to provide a secure, long‐term source of safe, potable drinking water for municipal and residential users.
So how does that suggestion differ from the status quo? At the moment, the province plays a coordinating and funding role, but leaves management of water supplies primarily in the hands of municipalities. And that leaves the potential for highly inconsistent efforts in providing safe drinking water.

In contrast, the NDP proposal would acknowledge a provincial interest in ensuring that safe water is available throughout the province, and as a result set up a provincial grid (presumably with associated funding) to meet that priority. In the short term, that would look to cut down on the number of communities with systemic problems, while in the longer term a concerted effort at building a better grid would also allow for more flexibility in dealing with problems when they do arise.

Of course, there's bound to be some pushback against any effort to bring more control to the provincial level - even if the effect on current management structures would be left to be determined. But I'm not sure the NDP would mind arguing against the few municipalities who would fight for the authority to provide inadequate water to their residents. And a secure and reliable provincial water grid would look to be a natural fit for a party whose legacy includes consistent efforts to extend infrastructure to rural Saskatchewan.

Compare and contrast

A Lib who gets it:
People don't give a tinker's damn if Harper is rotten to his political opponents. They care if he's rotten to them. And so far, the Liberals have not convincingly made the case that Harper's contempt of Parliament translates into a threat that resonates personally with the public.
And one who doesn't (emphasis added):
In response, (Michael Ignatieff) accused the Tories of twisting the facts and acting outside the bounds of decency. “Their attack on me is a disgrace. They’ve attacked my patriotism. They’ve attacked my commitment to the country. And now they’re attacking my family.”

Sunday Morning Links

Content goes here.

- Donald Savoie's analysis of politics in the U.K. is no less applicable at home:
We ought not to be surprised that voters today are less inclined to identify themselves (with parties) as their parents tended to do. They have little reason to do so given that political parties are increasingly election-day machines. This has important implications for representative democracies. When we move away from political parties to pursue more narrow interests, the connection between citizens and government is further fragmented. It also speaks to the rise of more "personalised realities".

The problem is that the economic and political interests of the political, intellectual and economic elites are heard at the expense of the broader community. The power and influence of political parties and even formal policymaking processes have given way to powerful individuals and actor-centred institutionalism. This, in turn, has made it virtually impossible for many elected representatives, let alone ordinary citizens, to play any meaningful role in shaping public policies or even holding government to account. We ought not to be surprised at voter apathy and the growing cynicism about government in society.
- From the "how to use Twitter" department: Edmonton-Leduc NDP candidate Artem Medvedev has responded to a request for more ideas (instead of negativity) with a steady stream of policy proposals.

- In contrast, from the "how to abuse Twitter" department, the Libs are apparently trying to draw nonexistent connections between the deliberately nonpartisan CAPP and the explicitly partisan (at least in the sense of directly challenging the Cons) Unseat Harper site. Which isn't to say I disagree with the aims of the latter in the least - but surely it's worth being honest about who's actually part of what project.

- And finally, Dr. Dawg notes that any commentary about police abuses is apparently off limits for publicly-displayed art in Ottawa. Place your bets as to whether Canada's Speech Warriors (TM) choose to ignore the suppression of speech entirely, or justify it based on their fondness for abuses of authority as long as it's directed toward people they don't like.

On irregularities

Sure, it may not be the most salacious of the details from the Cons' First Nations water scandal discussed by Stephen Maher. But it's well worth noting that Bruce Carson's sales pitch looks to have received a positive response from the Cons' government, even while the First Nations involved were highly suspicious of the scheme:
Rules brought in by Harper restrict public office holders like Carson from lobbying government officials on behalf of clients for five years, but he met officials in the Indian Affairs department four times between September 2010 and January 2011, The Canadian Press has reported.

And emails obtained by The Chronicle Herald show Carson made a direct sales pitch to Lysane Bolduc, senior infrastructure engineer in the infrastructure operations directorate at Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in Ottawa.

Carson called Bolduc early on the morning of Feb. 17 to discuss the proposal.

She emailed him at 6:39 a.m.: "Items discussed this morning include your raising of H20 Pro’s desire to install between 50 and 100 point-of-entry drinking water systems in the Mohawk Bay of Quinte community."

She sent copies of the email to four officials directly involved with funding decisions.

He replied to all the officials: "As set out in this email, one method to move forward on this matter could be for the Mohawks of Bay of Quinte to pass a band council resolution."

The Mohawk band near Bellville, Ont., is under a permanent boil order, so they were receptive to the pitch from H20, which would have placed water purification units, costing $3,600 each, in homes with bad water.

In an Oct. 14 letter to the band council, Hill said that if the Mohawks passed a resolution, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs would pay.

"Should you decide to participate in our water treatment and purification program, you and your community will benefit from this project, which will be completely funded by (the department)," he said.

The council, which found the pitch irregular, checked with the department last week, before the story broke.

"I was very concerned that there was name dropping to get the council to buy into it," said Chief Donald Maracle.
Now, it remains an open question as to how much of the willingness to put Carson in touch with civil servants responsible for funding decisions was simply a matter of DIAND generally cooperating with proposals received from outside actors, and how much was based on Carson's connections to Harper's inner circle. But it seems rather striking that a government which is supposed to be concerned with accountability and propriety seems to have been far more lax than the First Nations on the opposite end of Carson's plans - and the question of how that came to pass looks likely to keep the story live for some time to come.