Saturday, April 02, 2011

Well said

Ralph Surette slams the Cons' principle-free politics, but points out who holds the ultimate responsibility to end them:
(C)aught in a barrage of scandals, manipulations and abuses of trust, not to mention being judged in contempt of Parliament, the prime minister’s defence is that everybody does it, so it’s no big deal.

Thus, there is no more even the pretence of principle, and not even the hollowest political rhetoric promising improvement. By definition, the sovereign can do no wrong, and the subject is taboo. Harper is now, by his own admission, calculating that the decline of the democratic instinct is to his political advantage, and he’s encouraging it. If people don’t vote out of disgust, good. That increases the voting weight of his zealous base. Governmental ethics may be in a fetid swamp, but who cares?
You may have noted that the decent guys in the Harper government aren’t running again — Chuck Strahl, Jay Hill, Jim Prentice, Stockwell Day — leaving the ship ever more firmly in charge of the hachetmen from the old Mike Harris government in Ontario, running things with their Bush/Cheney handbook. If we vote for this (or worse, not vote at all) we’ll get the government we deserve. Are we that pathetic?

Saturday Afternoon Links

Content goes here.

- Plenty of others have already pointed out Gerald Caplan's column on the work of Con Senators to keep AIDS drugs from reaching Africa. But let's note that the single vote on C-393 was the least of the problems with an unaccountable and easily-abused chamber that's taken both flaws to extremes since Stephen Harper took power:
Let me readily acknowledge that for my entire life I’ve believed the Senate, a wholly undemocratic 19th century institution, should be abolished and I have never understood how anyone could accept an appointment to it. But I’ve always seen how appealing it is. After all, you’re suddenly handed on a platter one of the great gigs this country offers – a fancy title, instant status, a minimum $123,000 a year plus expense accounts, air travel, pension and optional attendance. Or a high-profile forum if you choose to use it, as a few admirable senators do.

But to whom are senators responsible, if anyone? How do they decide what positions to support or oppose? They’re appointed by the Prime Minister personally and usually carry his party affiliation but they supposedly serve the country, or so it’s claimed. Do they show their eternal gratitude to this one man, which would make them simple hacks, or have they a higher duty to the public good? This is a genuine choice, and Bill C-393 gave us the pathetic answer when a majority of senators chose to slavishly follow the party line. All were Conservatives, no fewer than 35 of them appointed by Stephen Harper in violation of every word he ever uttered about the illegitimacy of an appointed Senate. But that was before he became PM.

There’s hypocrisy upon hypocrisy piling up here. Last November, for the first time in 70 years, this same Conservative-dominated Senate, without a hearing or debate, killed a climate-change bill that had been passed by a majority of elected MPs in the House of Commons. It was a bill Stephen Harper hated – he’s still mostly a global warming denier – and it was at his command that his senators transgressed against democracy, accountability, common sense and the future of our children all at the same time.
- Pay no attention to that inconvenient Nobel laureate and his take on what actually drives business investment. People for Corporate Tax Cuts forever!!!

- Also to be ignored in the interest of better serving our benevolently-self-interested overlords: the NDP's latest ad challenging the Harper Cons' record of corporate giveaways.

- Andrew Coyne offers up a prescription for more substantive and fairer election debates:
I’d like there to be several debates, perhaps one a week for the course of the campaign. That would take away some of the prize-fight nonsense: we would be less obsessed with who “won” or “lost” the debate, as if that were an indication of anything, and more concerned with what we learned about each leader and their positions on the issues, which surely ought to be the point. The leaders, in turn, would be less wired and over-rehearsed if they knew they could recover from a bad performance in subsequent debates.
Holding more debates, each of them bilingual, would open the way for other innovations. Perhaps some of the debates could be devoted to particular subjects. Perhaps instead of just the leaders, they could be between the critics for a given portfolio. Perhaps we could experiment with different formats. And so on.

Best of all, more debates would give the media something to talk about, besides gaffes, and photo-ops, and broken-down bus metaphors. I can’t see us changing otherwise.

Anyway. Whatever format we choose, whatever rules we set, they should be set outside the confines of any one election campaign. We have to stop pretending that televised debates are some sort of novelty. They’ve been with us for 50 years, and are now as integral to any election campaign as lawn signs and all-candidates meetings. It’s time they were incorporated into the election laws.

To be sure, the parties would have their say: there’s no way of setting rules that could not involve them. But if no party knew where it stood in the polls — if the rules were set behind a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” — then it should be possible to agreed on rules that were fair to all, and accepted as such.
- Gavin Friddell interviews Trevor Norris on the role of advertising in dumbing down politics and other personal decisions:
(R)egarding citizenship, consumerism relentlessly promotes infantile values and world views, such as instant gratification, easy commodified solutions rather than those requiring more sustained efforts, and so on. Infantalization is how consumerism compromises democracy because it turns citizens into children.

It is ironic that we don't let people vote unless they are of a certain age, and yet most advertising promotes infantile identities! So the innocence of childhood is compromised by consumerism even as consumerism promotes infantility among adults.
- Finally, while I've stayed out of the debate over CBC's Vote Compass, Simon Kiss' guest post at Pundit's Guide looks to fairly thoroughly evisecerate any sense that the compass is accurate in its treatment of NDP and Green preferences.

On depoliticization

It may not have made for the most glamorous policy announcement, particularly compared to the free money the Cons and Libs are promising to fling around at some point in the future. But in an election where the question of whether we can expect better government hasn't yet been met with answers as to what one might look like, the NDP's good governance plan is worth some discussion (emphasis in original):
The New Democrat plan will:

1. End partisan meddling in professional public service by establishing a code of conduct for ministerial staff, capping partisan appointments of “special advisors” and establishing merit-based public appointments.
2. Respect Public Service employees by improving legislative protection for whistleblowers and strengthening oversight of the Integrity Commissioner.
3. Create real public service jobs instead of relying on temporary help services; modernize hiring mechanisms in consultation with employee unions and managers.
Of particular note is the fact that even as it's pushing for a place in government (whether on its own or as part of a coalition), the NDP is still raising ideas which would limit the abuse of politically-appointed positions. Needless to say, that stands in stark contrast to the Cons' brand of "accountability", which wound up resulting in closer scrutiny for nearly everybody in the public sector except those actually wielding political power.

Mind you, all parties seem to recognize some need to fix Ottawa - with even the sitting government effectively running on major change in who exercises power and under what terms, while the Libs complain about the Harper government without being able to claim that they'd do anything differently. But the NDP stands alone among the national parties in Parliament in having a plan to do something about it - meaning that the choice should be clear for voters concerned about good government.

The longer view

Following up on yesterday's post, apparently the ultimate significance of majority support for a coalition seems to have been lost on some. So let's take a moment and remind ourselves that contrary to what might seem to be the case in the midst of a campaign, Canadian politics won't come to an end on election day.

Indeed, the most likely outcome when the campaign concludes still looks to be one along the lines of where Canada politics have been stuck for the past five years - with the Cons likely in first place in the party standings, but with no natural allies among the parties forming a majority of the House of Commons. And with Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff utterly at odds as to what options are available under those circumstances (with Harper describing a coalition as inevitable while Ignatieff foolishly tries to rule it out), what happens afterward is what will determine who forms the next government.

And on that front, surely we haven't yet forgotten the Cons' plans from 2008: to try to override the effects of a valid non-confidence vote by claiming that "the people" supported their desire to stay in power. Which looks like a rather difficult trick to pull off if "the people" are at worst evenly split on which formation they prefer.

Granted, if Harper can win the vote of every respondent who prefers a majority to a coalition, then the Cons have reason to be happy. But if he can't - and the very same poll shows that a key bloc of respondents fitting that description still plan to support a party other than the Cons - then the latest results suggest that any attempt to go "to the people" to override the majority of the MPs they've elected is doomed to failure.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Musical interlude

Radiohead - Electioneering

On majority support

If there's anything surprising about the latest polling on coalitions, it's that a majority of respondents have come around to supporting the idea even with the two largest federal parties going out of their way to delegitimize it.

But it shouldn't be news to anybody that the Cons' attacks have proven a failure in the long run. And with a coalition led by Jack Layton looking like a particularly popular possibility, Michael Ignatieff may soon have to revisit whether he's willing to lead a coalition - lest his party's supporters decide that one led by Layton is preferable to another term of Stephen Harper in power.

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Purple Library Guy highlights the internal inconsistency behind regressive economics:
If you hold onto the "poor people are poor because they make sub-optimal choices" claim but admit that means free markets will not be efficient, then a compassionate person would suggest that if the economy isn't going to be efficient anyway it should at least try to take care of people. If you hold onto the efficient markets, then people's poverty must happen to them despite their making optimal choices, in which case you have to start wondering just what the "efficiency" is for.

These ideas can both be false, and in the real world they are. But they can't both be true; right wing economics combined with right wing justifications for poverty involve a basic contradiction.
- And both Jeffrey Simpson and David MacDonald rightly criticize the Cons' efforts to make our tax system even more regressive.

- David Olive joins the parade of commentators who have rightly concluded that they've had enough of the Harper Cons' contempt and deception:
Since we've not challenged Harper on his past, we're all condemned to relive it. In the fake costing of 65 jet-fighter planes (Harper cost, $17 billion; real cost, $29 billion) to the non-costing of new and expanded prisons that would be required by Harper's proposed tougher sentencing guidelines. (The outside estimates are roughly $9 billion.) It was a vote on that contempt of the people's house, and not the budget, that brought this government down last Friday.

But this episode is astonishing, a Harper rewrite of events that unfolded just yesterday. To the question of how far Harper will go in insulting the voters, there is no apparent answer.
- Saskboy is looking for a consensus around the idea of "more debates, not fewer debates". I for one couldn't agree more strongly with the idea.

- Finally, Scott Feschuk documents the tragicomedy of errors that's been the first week of the election campaign for the Cons.

Never enough now

Shorter Murray Mandryk:

It should be obvious to anybody with an iota of concern for democratic discussion that unnecessarily excluding voices from official election debates is unconscionable. But it's bad news for Dwain Lingenfelter that he's taken exactly that position.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thursday Afternoon Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Jim Stanford challenges the Cons' spin on how Canada's economy compares to others around the globe:
In reality,...the claim that things may be tough here, but they’re better than anywhere else, has never been statistically valid. And it’s getting increasingly inaccurate, the more it is regurgitated on the hustings.

Among the more than 30 industrial countries that make up the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada’s performance has been middling at best. In real GDP growth, Canada tied for 10th in 2009, falling to 13th in 2010. As for the unemployment rate, Canada ranked a gloomy 21st in 2009, tying for 18th by 2010.

Since OECD countries account for a declining share of total world output, let’s consider a truly global sample. The International Monetary Fund reports annual real GDP growth rates for 107 countries, and quarterly data for about half of those. In 2009, Canada ranked 61st of 107. Over the first three-quarters of 2010 (year-end figures aren’t ready yet), we ranked 25th out of 53 countries reporting.

In labour-market terms, Canada’s relative performance is no better. The International Labour Organization reports unemployment data for about 70 countries. In 2009, Canada’s unemployment rate jumped 2.2 percentage points. That ranked us 56th (of 72) that year. Over the first three quarters of 2010, Canada ranked 28th by the same measure.

That’s not exactly a gold-medal performance. In fact, it sounds more like our ranking in international soccer (84th in the world, according to FIFA), than our glorious domination of world hockey.
- Fortunately, there are some competing visions on what parts of our economy need to be emphasized. And Andrew Jackson sums up the NDP's economic proposals, including by noting that the job-creation tax credit has been on the radar in the U.S. as well.

- Douglas Bell reminds us of the simple truth behind a possible coalition government:
(John Ibbitson writes) about the dangers lurking should the Liberals having won fewer seats than the Tories buck “the popular will” and form a coalition government with the NDP. But here’s the thing, two out of three Canadians voted against the Tories the last time around (and will again if Nanos the soothsayer proves correct).

The popular will as expressed in one party or another seeking the confidence of the House is clear.
- And finally, Joyce Green and Mike Burton weigh in with their take on the Cons' many displays of contempt for Canadian democracy:
This latest expression of contempt of the government for its parliament and its peoples is an indication of poor democratic health, but it is only one of a number of manifestations of that malaise. The widening gap between the very rich and the working and very poor is another measure of democratic and moral failure. The increase in propaganda at the expense of environmental science is another. The demonization of political opponents is a third. The lack of a serious medium and long term national economic strategy, other than obeisance to "the markets," is a fourth. The lack of policy attention to the social supports we all need, such as childcare, elder care, palliative care, and rational affordable health care is a fifth. Our collective inability to provide appropriate education, from post-secondary education to the trades, is risible. Our national lack of concern for Aboriginal peoples is an international embarrassment. We could go on.
The consequence of toxic levels of anti-democratic contempt has left many Canadians questioning the health of public politics. But they must do more than sit back on the sofa and change the channel. That would be contemptible. As we watch brave people in the Arab Spring risk life and well-being to obtain democratic change, we may want to collectively maintain our own democratic practices with rather more vigour.

On consistency

Most of the stories about the NDP's campaign policy announcements in #elxn41 have included a line or two about previous incarnations of similar proposals. And with good reason: the party has talked about ideas like eliminating subsidies for the tar sands and reining in credit card rates and fees for quite some time, so it shouldn't come as any particular surprise to see them front and centre in an election campaign.

In contrast, having concluded that their problem in 2008 was a combination of unpopular policies and too much eagerness to make them public, the Libs are largely starting from scratch in this year's election - indeed reversing course on a large number of issues compared to last time out. And having been in government for the past give years, the Cons too are mostly introducing new policies dating back no further than this month's budget (indeed, it shouldn't escape notice that they seem to be making far more new policy announcements than they did in 2008).

Based on that difference, the current campaign may make for a useful test of the question of whether a party is best off working publicly on policy priorities over a period of years so as to build both familiarity and popularity, or instead using policy more as something to talk about during an election which may never be spoken about again. And it's worth wondering which of those choices we want parties to make in commenting on policy as it's unveiled.

Thursday Morning Riding Links

Stephen Harper will not be taking questions about any of the below.

- For at least a couple of election cycles, one of the names floated as a possible star NDP candidate in Quebec has been Romeo Saganash. And while it's probably not ideal to only have him in place in a campaign that's already underway (particular in an immense riding), his introduction as the NDP's candidate in Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou should nonetheless make the seat into another of the NDP's top targets in the province.

- Graham Thomson tees off on the Cons' disorganization and contempt for outsiders in Edmonton Strathcona:
It's still early in the election and a lot can happen in the next month. But at this point, the Hastman campaign is behaving like a campaign in trouble. For all the talk of a new, young candidate, Hastman is right now behaving like the same old politicians we've seen so many times before -unaccountable, silent, absent.

I suppose, if nothing else, he's displaying the necessary qualifications to be another backbencher in a Conservative government.
- And Murray Mandryk notes that at least some Cons in Regina aren't standing idly by while being silenced by their party:
Former Saskatchewan Party MLA Jason Dearborn -one of those once interested in the Regina Wascana nomination -has written a commentary raising concerns about the above process and wondering if this was a "direct attempt to suppress the democratic process...perpetrated by unelected party staff intent on controlling a tight message for national consumption."

Other Conservatives are -at least privately -far more pointed, talking about the Darth Vader-like control of Harper and the nastiness of the staff that surround him. "They're just a bunch of mean buggers," said one Conservative, seeking anonymity for fear of retaliation.
- Finally, if you're looking to figure out which parties are actually involved in races in various regions of the country rather than buying into the false assumption that only the Cons and Libs matter, Alice charts the two-way races that actually took place across the country in the previous four election cycles. And perhaps the most noteworthy change is that the NDP has entirely lived up to its promise to challenge the Harper Cons at every turn: while its 2004 two-way races involved 45 against the Libs to only 24 against the Cons, by 2008 those numbers had changed to 30 and 70 respectively.

On limited questions

Greg has already commented on the Cons' sudden refusal to discuss anything that happens at the riding level. But let's add a couple more points to the discussion.

First, this may be the most blatant example yet of Harper trying to micromanage the media with no justification: surely it's not up to a politician to determine what questions the media is entitled to ask. And so I'd hope that the few journalists who get a chance to ask questions will either ignore the dictate, or better yet challenge it directly.

That said, the restriction does leave some obvious room for discussion.

First, there's the possibility of questions dealing with similar issues at the national level. And while I agree with Greg that a restriction on that point is probably the next step, it would seem to be well worth the media's while to get in their questions about national Con figures participating in the campaign under questionable circumstances (i.e. Doug Finley and Irving Gerstein) while they still can.

More importantly, though, if Dimitri Soudas is telling the media to ask questions about local campaigns at the local level, then anybody following those instructions should expect to get an immediate response that doesn't have to be run through the party's war room. And if and when that proves not to be the case, then there's every reason to double back to the subject with yet another example of complete dishonesty in hand.

New column day

Here, on why Canadians should vote out of self-interest if nothing else - and why we can't count on political parties to make it happen.

And for reference on the motivations of political parties, I'll point to Warren Kinsella's advice to war room staffers (caps and italics included):
What does a war room do? As I have told every youngster who falls into my clutches at the start of every campaign, OUR JOB IS NOT TO WIN THE WHOLE CAMPAIGN BY OURSELVES. Instead, I tell them, yelling entirely in caps, our job IS TO WRECK THE OTHER SIDE’S CAMPAIGN DAY, ONE DAY AT A TIME. And, if you do that for nine days out of a 36-day writ, you have eliminated the other side’s ability to tell their story for a quarter of the campaign. And that’s a campaign that cannot win. Thus, poor Sebastien Togneri. The hapless Tory aide, being probed by the RCMP, helped the Liberal war room to stomp all over Harper’s message of the day on Tuesday. That’s a win, in my books.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

By way of illustration

Following up on this post, let's consider a couple of hypothetical questions about the election which most clearly highlights the absurdity of allowing two party leaders to take the national stage for themselves by choosing to exclude all others from a debate.

Suppose the 1993 election had seen a similar debate procedure, with the Libs and PCs choosing to square off against each other while leaving the NDP, Bloc and Reform out of the picture.

Would the end result then have been that the "real contenders" debate would have been presented an entirely misleading two-way choice, including a party which ultimately wound up in fifth place?

Or would it have been that the seat counts would have changed, as the ideas which in fact won out over those of the PCs were suppressed rather than being compared directly in one of the most important phases of the campaign?

And can either of those alternatives be seen as a remotely acceptable development?

The false dichotomy coalition

The two party leaders who are going out of their way to present a false binary choice to Canadian voters are both eager to exclude the rest of Canada's party leaders from a debate in order to reinforce that spin. Who could have guessed?

On family situations

Kevin Milligan makes a case as to why income taxes should be applied at the family level. But I can't help but think that his argument actually describes precisely why income splitting is about the worst possible tool to do so:
One of the goals of income taxation is to -- gently or more forcefully, depending on your taste -- soften the inequalities generated by the market distribution of wellbeing. But does someone’s wellbeing depend on their family situation? For example, if someone is earning $20,000 per year and living alone, is that person better or worse off than someone with the same income living with a spouse earning $100,000? It seems likely that the ability to share food, housing, and other costs renders the person with a high-earning spouse better off. These family circumstances push toward the argument that the family is the right unit to measure wellbeing. Ignoring one’s family situation -- as strict individual taxation would do -- seems like we would be throwing away important information for assessing wellbeing.
Of course, the problem with income splitting is that it doesn't "soften" the presumed advantage of the individual with a high-earning spouse at all. Instead, it rewards the individual with a high-earning spouse by allowing an election to apply a lower rate to the spouse's higher earnings - while the individual earning $20,000 on his or her own gets no opportunity to turn that low income into a tax advantage.

In effect, Milligan looks to be making a case to make a general practice of adding all household incomes, and applying income taxes to the total. Which may well be worth some further discussion - but suggests that income splitting to provide added benefits to families with a single high earner is utterly misguided.

Wednesday Morning Links

Assorted content for your mid-week reading.

- Gregory Lang makes the case for targeted tax breaks designed to encourage the types of corporate activity we most want to see, rather than constant slashing of general corporate tax rates in hopes that it will produce the desired results:
The variance between corporate income tax rates and the actual tax corporations pay represents the tool kit of social policy and the means to support every corporation in becoming a better corporate citizen. Low corporate income tax rates necessarily mean that tax-benefit incentives are less valuable to the corporation. For example, capital equipment investment tax write-offs are more attractive the higher the corporate income tax rate.

Tax credits and other tax accounting “loopholes” simultaneously provide a government with mechanisms to influence the competitive conditions in our economy and may also be the least expensive and most effective regulatory tools available. Environmental policy and carbon emission regulations, for example, while now seeming “so last recess,” can be more effectively implemented when the incentive for the corporation is lower actual taxes instead of increased regulations. Corporations are already keenly aware of their bottom line, and an available tax policy that serves to improve it will be pursued when it makes economic sense for them to do so.

High corporate income tax rates, along with aggressive social policy-driven tax accounting benefits, can create the conditions for the lowest effective corporate tax burden and the most efficient social policy mechanisms in the world.

Zero corporate income tax has merit only where every citizen is employed and paying personal income and sales taxes. The tax burden must fall somewhere. High corporate income tax rates, along with social policy-based tax credits, can create the conditions for zero corporate taxes payable – when corporations cause zero unemployment.
Low corporate income tax rates are both an unsustainable “cost” advantage globally and a disincentive to innovation for other competitive advantages. Low corporate income tax rates empty the proverbial social policy tool box and make our economy less flexible. And with less flexibility, we inherently increase our risk of succumbing to catastrophic failure: an economic recession.
- Which leads nicely to the NDP's proposal to target tax breaks toward businesses who actually create jobs:
If the NDP formed the government, Mr. Layton said he would cut the small business tax rate to 9 per cent from 11 per cent. But he would also boost the corporate tax rate to the 2008 level of 19.5 per cent from its current 16.5 per cent.
“I’ll ensure that Canada’s corporate tax rate contributes to our competitive edge,” Mr. Layton said. But the Conservative “money for nothing” scheme has led to the disappearance of 600,000 “family-supporting, highly skilled” jobs, “many of them in communities like Oshawa.”

The New Democrats would also bring in a job creation tax credit for employers of $4,500 for every new hire. And they would extend the capital cost allowances for the next four years.
- Sure, the fact that it's sex-scandal-ridden Bruce Carson makes for a nice addition to the story. But shouldn't it be enough of an embarrassment for the Cons that a member of Stephen Harper's inner circle specifically worked to turn an environmental research group funded by millions of public dollars into a PR front for the tar sands?

- Finally, I'm not sure that shaming and scolding the public is quite the best way to go. But David Akin's appeal to Canadians to vote is nonetheless worth a read.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Sun-seeking cats.

On brand challenges

The NDP has unveiled its first election ad, featuring one noteworthy continuation from past campaigns and one direct (if subtle) attack on the Cons' brand:

Now, the first point worth noting is the NDP's continued choice to keep its election ads playful, following in the footsteps of the 2008 Chalk Talk theme with a bright colour scheme and deliberately unsophisticated animation at the start of the ad. That makes for a direct contrast against anything on offer from the Libs or Cons - serving at the very least to set the NDP apart from its competitors, but also raising the possibility that a lighter touch may make a policy attack more effective.

And that leads to the most interesting element of the ad - being the choice to focus on the story of Tim Horton's being used as an emergency room, rather than any other example of a need for change in Canada's health-care system.

On its face, that focus looks like a curious one, as there are probably more stark stories to make the case for greater investment in health care. But it does give rise to a golden opportunity to turn the Cons' brand against them: while Harper tries to paint himself as a Tim Hortons politician, the NDP wants to make sure that any association between the Cons and a basic element of their preferred brand instead leads voters to think of a crumbling health care system under Harper.

That might not seem to be an issue at the moment, as the Cons haven't used the Tim Hortons line as much recently as they did in previous campaigns. But with the Tim Hortons/Starbucks coffee contrast serving as one of their favourite shorthands to define Harper in comparison to Michael Ignatieff, they may not be able to resist as the campaign goes on - which may help the NDP's opening message to last throughout the election campaign.

Tuesday Morning Links

Some general reading to start your day.

- Armine Yalnizyan chimes in on the problems with the Cons' income-splitting plank:
But the families that will most benefit from Harper’s income splitting promise will be those who need the least help. The higher the income, the bigger the tax break, and a much lesser challenge of keeping one parent at home.
Today’s reality is that it is getting harder for young families to get into and stay in the middle class. Today, with rare exceptions, it takes two to do it. We need policies that meaningfully address that reality.
- Meanwhile, the CCPA has unveiled its new Making it Count blog - which looks to be a must-read for the balance of the campaign.

- After accurately describing Stephen Harper as "a bit chilling...(in) his willingness to self-righteously attack his opponents for things that he would do himself" and exhibiting "excessive aggressiveness", and Michael Ignatieff as "ill-prepared" with a "confusion" stance on coalitions, Stephen Maher has this to say about Jack Layton:
Unlike any of the other leaders, Layton has had a consistent and mature line on coalitions throughout his career. He is willing to work with other parties to get things done.

Layton looks good as the campaign begins. Having rejected a Tory budget that did not go far enough to meet NDP requests, he can hold his head high in front of his supporters.
- And he's now able to do so in several new ways, as the NDP has release a suite of new online tools for the campaign.

- Finally, as much as the Cons have been slammed for trying to act like a majority government even with only a minority of seats, Murray Dobbin points out that matters could indeed get worse if they actually held the majority they're shooting for:
One of the few checks on Harper's power has been the parliamentary committee structure, where the Opposition -- which controlled the committees through their numerical majority -- could do far more than they could in the House of Commons: deciding what issues would be investigated, calling witnesses (and even subpoenaing them), demanding documents and shining the public eye on otherwise secretive workings. The committees infuriated Harper the control-freak, to the point where he produced a book of dirty tricks for his MPs to use to scuttle their work.

With a majority, all of that will end. The committees will be effectively shut down. The Conservative majority will decide what's discussed, who testifies and what documents are asked for. There will be no Afghan detainee scandal, because the relevant committee (if it still exists) won't be asking for any embarrassing documents.

Tuesday Morning Riding Links

With #elxn41 in full swing, let's take a quick look at a few noteworthy developments at the riding level.

- First, the sudden retirement of Lib MP Raymonde Folco may result in a fascinating riding battle in Laval-Les Îles - a seat which was nearly won by the Bloc in 2006, and saw substantial improvements for the NDP and Cons in 2008. With the Libs starting from scratch in the middle of a campaign (and the Cons also apparently without a listed candidate), the Bloc might be a slight favourite to start - but it's not hard to envision a true four-way race which leaves all parties guessing until election day.

- There's much less doubt who's in contention in Palliser. And it's worth noting that Jack Layton's Regina and Moose Jaw stops yesterday were both in the riding - signalling that it's rightly at the top of the NDP's list of Con seats which can be won with a strong local effort.

- Meanwhile, the Cons' attempt to target Linda Duncan in Edmonton Strathcona has taken a turn for the embarrassing, as disgraced former staffer Sebastien Togneri is taking a break from being the subject of an RCMP investigation to lend his services to Ryan Hastman's campaign. I only hope we'll also get to see Hastman live-tweet about door-knocking with Bruce Carson.

- Finally, just in case we needed a reminder as to whose side the Cons are actually on, it shouldn't pass without comment that the Cons are apparently entirely happy to recruit a military procurement lobbyist to carry their banner against NDP MP Carol Hughes in Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing.

Monday, March 28, 2011

File away for future use

Not that anybody should believes a word of any declaration that he didn't plan to take power in 2004 if he'd had the opportunity. But as long as Stephen Harper is publicly taking the position that opposition parties are within their rights to approach the Governor General to rein in an abusive minority government, we may as well make sure he has to repeat the message as many times as possible to help rein him in if he manages to cling to power.

Into the wayback machine

With the Cons campaigning to campaign again on income splitting in 2015, now seems like the right time to revisit my take from the first time the policy was discussed at length.

On job descriptions

One final note from #policy11, as it's worth pointing out a shift in tone from Dwain Lingenfelter which looks to nicely fit the message the Saskatchewan NDP will need to develop in the lead up to this fall's election.

Since 2009, the NDP's message about Lingenfelter's role has focused mostly on the goal of leading the party's fight against Brad Wall. That can be explained in part by the fact that the policy review process hadn't yet been completed, meaning that there wasn't a lot of current party-approved policy to talk about in the interim. But it still left an open question as to what Lingenfelter would see as his relationship to the party's ideas once they had been developed.

In effect, Lingenfelter faced a choice as to whether to cast himself as the single Strong Leader, the lone decider who would determine which ideas deserve to be discussed and implemented - or as a public servant in the fullest sense of the term whose primary function is to act as a conduit for the values and ideas put forward by his party. And this weekend, he went out of his way to emphasize the latter as being his proper role, noting that it would be his responsibility to ensure that the party's ideas find their way into provincial policy, and that he'd expect to be able to check off the party's platform commitments during the course of a term in office.

So what does that choice mean? As best I can tell, it figures to produce a couple of positive results in the lead up to this fall's election campaign.

First, it serves to reassure NDP members who may have wondered what impact the policy development would have. Of course, there's still one vital step to go as the policy review document gets converted into a platform - but as long as that gets done without any surprises, Lingenfelter has offered a clear signal that he expects to be held accountable for his success in bringing about the change called for by party members.

And as a bonus, the choice also serves to differentiate Lingenfelter from Brad Wall on what looks to be one of the Sask Party's main weaknesses. After all, Wall has gone out of his way to shut down any member-driven policy discussion within his own party, implying a desperate desire to maintain top-down control while engaging with members of the public only through the filter of his MLAs.

It may have been tempting for Lingenfelter to try to assume a similar level of micromanagement in the interest of trying to control the NDP's message going into a campaign. (And of course it's worth keeping an eye on how the rhetoric translates in reality.)

But having chosen to emphasize genuine grassroots input over the all-too-common top-down alternative, he'll now be able to point out Wall's failure to listen without facing any credible counteraccusations of similarly shutting out citizens' voices. And particularly with the campaign looking to come down to a fundamental choice as to who should benefit from a resource boom, it looks to be a huge plus to be on the side that's taken meaningful steps to allow people a voice in their own province.

Monday Morning Links

Assorted material to start your week...

- It's always worth being cautious about the results of a single poll. But

What makes the latest CROP poll particularly interesting, though, is that the good news for the NDP arising out of the latest Quebec numbers doesn't necessarily stop at the provincial border.

For the longest time, one of the primary factors seen as holding the NDP back nationally has been its trailing position in Quebec. But if it's managed to build a comfortable lead over the Libs even in the province that previously served as that party's home base, then it's worth considering the possibility that the spillover effect from the NDP's rise and the Libs' decline in Quebec might serve to swing votes elsewhere as well as the campaign develops.

- There are two key takeaways from the portion of Jack Layton's Speaking Out Louder now making the rounds.

First, as has already been noted by Brian Topp among others, Layton had a clear choice between Harper and "Not Harper" in 2004. And to his credit, he stayed true to his party's principles and chose "Not Harper" - which is far more than one can say for Michael Ignatieff either in January 2009 or today.

And second, regardless of whether one interprets the 2004 proposal as a "coalition", it's glaringly obvious that Stephen Harper was entirely prepared to take power while relying on the Bloc's votes as a necessary part of the arrangement to replace a sitting government. Once again, the appropriate takeaway message is that it's entirely reasonable for all parties to consider doing the same.

- Meanwhile, Wilf Day offers a needed reminder that the supposed fear about a coalition is more a product of Stephen Harper's desperate to stay in power than a reflection of action public opinion - even at the time that an actual coalition was last discussed in detail.

- And finally, Erin points out a rather stunning change in rhetoric from the Cons, who having spent the last few months insisting on corporate tax cuts have stopped discussing them at all now that they're facing the voters. Needless to say, it's our job to make sure voters are aware that whatever baubles get put on the table to try to win votes, big business always comes first with the Cons.

Missing the target

Yes, it's significant that Canadians don't believe Michael Ignatieff when he says he wouldn't pursue a coalition. But there's an even more important flaw in the Libs' choice to rule out any sustained cooperative efforts:
(A) significant majority of Liberal, NDP and BQ voters support the idea of a coalition government in which MPs from those parties are participants.

Leger found that, among those who identify themselves as Liberal supporters, two-thirds "approved" of a Liberal-NDP-BQ coalition
. It was the same with the NDP, with two-thirds of that party's supporters giving such a coalition the thumbs up.
In other words, by ruling out a coalition, Ignatieff is delivering a slap in the face both to his base and to the centre-left voters he's trying to attract from the NDP and Bloc. And all based on nothing more than the utterly unfounded hope that the Cons might switch messages from one which Stephen Harper has obviously chosen as his preferred line of attack.

Needless to say, Ignatieff's stance isn't about to produce the intended result. But that still leaves the question of whether his party's own voters will realize that Ignatieff isn't listening to their desire for cooperation to replace the Harper government - and turn their support to the party that shares the view.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Saskatchewan NDP Convention 2011 Wrapup - Discussion Models

#policy11 is now in the books - and I won't spend a lot of time documenting what happened since others have done that over the course of the weekend. But I'll note a couple of broad themes worth discussing based on the weekend's activites - starting with the difference between the two policy development models on display at the convention.

For the Saskatchewan NDP, the default convention policy development process has been through resolutions - with stakeholders submitting their choice of wording on a policy issue to be distributed in advance, then passed, amended or defeated by the convention. And there are certainly times when that results in passionate and well-argued debates over important public policy issues. But there are elements of the resolution process which can probably stand to be improved.

In particular, the resolution process gives rise to two conflicting goals. On the one hand, the need to address a large number of different types of resolution generated independently by dozens of different actors (and not necessarily measured against past party policy) makes it impossible debate every issue raised at convention, particularly in the plenary session where a resolution can actually become party policy.

And that issue is exacerbated by the current lack of a resolution ranking mechanism (in comparison to the one used by the federal NDP). Of course, such a mechanism comes with its own costs in the amount of panel time spent on rankings rather than substance - but at least it allows delegates to make a conscious choice whether to deal first with the biggest issues, the most contentious debates or the greatest volume of resolutions.

In contrast, the arbitrary ordering of resolutions means that there's a strong incentive to let resolutions pass without discussion in order to get through the list. And that's what happened with a substantial percentage of the resolutions dealt with this weekend.

At the same time, the resolution system also leads to debates over minor wording issues and other matters which don't go to the substance of party policy. Which is problematic when a convention is supposed to serve as the primary means of determining the will of a party's members for the purpose of developing policy positions.

At #policy11, however, that resolution process was contrasted against a discussion process based on the policy review report. There, sessions were based entirely on a desire to gather input to fill in any gaps in the existing policy document, with every participant having a chance to speak to the issues raised (albeit at a limited number of the groups set up for review). And the result was far more immediate collaboration and group idea development than normally surfaces from the resolution process.

Now, there's one obvious problem with the policy review process on its own, as it doesn't generate a finalized and approved version of the sense of the convention on matters discussed. In effect, the policy review sessions at #policy11 served as an excellent example of group brainstorming and idea development, but left some room for improvement in terms of setting binding party policy.

That said, I'm not sure that can't be fixed through a couple of key steps.

First, there's the potential to develop an ongoing policy manual along the lines developed by the federal party - in contrast to the 2011 review which was expressly oriented toward this year's election alone. That ongoing document would provide the base for discussion at convention, as well as serving as the public face of a party's priorities once the convention is over.

But once a policy manual is in place, it may be worth opening up the amendment process to allow for proposed edits to be sent in not only by constituency associations and party sections, but also through individual input both before and at a convention. Those ideas can then be distilled by a review committee at the convention to be made subject to panel review (including the ability to prioritize what edits are seen as most important), then voting in a plenary session.

That process would have a couple of potential downsides: it risks the possibility that a committee edit might not capture the exact intention of an individual or stakeholder who raises an idea (though that can seemingly be addressed in panel), and it raises the danger that issues might be raised at convention which weren't foreseen by delegates beforehand. But on the balance, I'd think those concerns would result in less of a limitation on the ability of participants to meaningfully shape policy than the current rules around submitting and debating resolutions. And that can only help to reinforce the NDP's reputation for giving the greatest possible voice to its members in defining the party's direction.

[Edit: fixed typo.]

The coalition progression

It's a great sign that the NDP and the Bloc are both making clear that Stephen Harper was downright eager to become Prime Minister as leader of Canada's second-place party in 2004 if he could arrange to remove the sitting government from power.

But as the campaign wears on, the more important message on the coalition question will be to make clear that it's not just legitimate but outright desirable to reflect the will of as many voters and MPs as possible in a sitting government. And hopefully we'll see the focus shift from why Harper can't be trusted in evaluating when cooperation is legitimate, to why the parties willing to work together should be.

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted material for your weekend reading.

- Francis Woolley posts on the need for people to be able to delay gratification in their own long-term interests. But while I agree with his observations generally, I'd think that a huge part of a potential solution is missing.

After all, if the temptation of short-term personal spending (traceable in substantial part to rational advertising choices by businesses) is causing significant social risk, then shouldn't it be expected that we'd be best off addressing the imbalance between that temptation and any countermessages at a social level? And doesn't that necessarily involve a closer look at the quantity and type of advertising that would normally be experienced by citizens, rather than falling into the trap of hoping that individual education and training will be enough to inoculate against a substantially unlimited bombardment of messages?

- Thomas Walkom sums up how the combination of weak opposition and an ever-more-arrogant government has led to both terms of the Harper Cons' stay in power failing to reflect the will of voters:
For all of its imperfections (and they are many), the only thing close to a democratic national body in Canada is the House of Commons.

To be contemptuous of its members is to disdain those who elected them. Canadians get precious few chances to determine what their leaders do. When voters elected a minority government in 2008, they were signalling that they didn’t trust Stephen Harper’s Conservatives (or indeed any other party) to run the nation’s business single-handed.

Instead, they wanted the opposition parties to check government — to act as watchdogs, moderate its ideological excesses and keep it in line.

But throughout the life of this now-dead Parliament, Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to accept the voters’ verdict. His decision to operate as if he controlled a majority of Commons seats may have been good short-term politics. But it contradicted both the spirit and reality of the very limited mandate voters had given him.
- Meanwhile, the Libs may be shocked to learn today that the Cons aren't about to let a denial that Michael Ignatieff wants to form a coalition stop them from repeating the term at every opportunity - now secure in the knowledge that the Libs won't say a word to defend the possibility. Needless to say, nobody could have predicted.

- Finally, a few links from the start of an NDP campaign which looks to be nicely planned to appeal to voters who want a change from the Harper Cons and recognize that the Libs aren't interested in providing it. First, there's the launch message:
“I am asking Canadians to join me to defeat Stephen Harper,” Mr. Layton said to wild applause. “This time, it’s not enough to keep Stephen Harper from his majority. This time, we have to replace him.”
Which leads to this from the campaign's Edmonton rally:
"Your health care here in Edmonton is as bad as it's ever been. You've got cutbacks, you've got long waits in the emergency room, you've got doctors being intimidated for defending the patients, and you don't hear a peep about it from Stephen Harper and his Conservatives," said Layton, who promised more family doctors, improved home care and affordable prescription drugs.
And that in turn gives rise to the strategy noted by David Climenhaga and others of highlighting health care as an issue and asking who Canadians trust to negotiate a new agreement with the provinces.