Saturday, December 24, 2011

Parliament in Review: November 2, 2011

Wednesday, November 2 saw the House of Commons debate two bills dealing with democratic reform. And the result was a remarkable gap between the values the Harper Cons presented in justifying their party's policy orders, and the ones they actually apply in practice.

The Big Issue

The bill which received the most public attention - due to the Cons' decision to ram it through Parliament - was the government's new seat allocation legislation. And it was on November 2 that the Cons served notice of their intention to shut down debate - even as they complained about the unfairness of locking new MPs into the deliberations of a previous Parliament when that served as an excuse to scrap potentially-critical committee reports.

But perhaps more interesting was the debate on Mathieu Ravignat's anti-floor-crossing legislation. After all, I'm not sure anybody can remember the last time a Harper Con dared to speak out publicly against his or her leader's actual efforts to suppress any independent thought by individual MPs. And yet, here's what Michelle Rempel had to say as to the dangers of a bill preventing floor-crossing:
This bill would seriously undermine the independence of members of this House and I do not think that is something we should encourage or support.

This bill would have some practical negative consequences. The bill would impose restrictions upon members who wish to express a different position than the one endorsed by a majority of their caucus. This bill would also impede members of Parliament in representing the interests of their constituents, which is one of the fundamental duties under our Constitution.
(T)he roles, rights and obligations of individual members of Parliament are well established in Canada's legislation whereby members of Parliament are central actors in our Westminster system of government. Practically, the caucus system in our Parliament is joined with, but distinct from, the registered party system.

Bill C-306 would go against existing rules and traditions by allowing the party machinery to take precedence over individual rights and responsibilities of each member of Parliament and their caucus choices. This does not correspond to our system of government. As I stated earlier, I believe Bill C-306 would have negative and undesirable consequences on the roles of members of Parliament.
And Scott Reid was similarly concerned with some theoretical MP independence which was wrung out of his own party long ago - without suggesting for a second that he or his party's majority caucus might have any interest in reversing the trend toward total top-down control.

Meanwhile, Ravignat discussed the need to build trust in elected officials. Peter Stoffer pointed out that the Cons had a rather different take on the legitimacy of floor-crossing when it was Belinda Stronach exercising what she saw as her individual prerogative to jump between parties. Kevin Lamoureux rightly noted that Manitoba's NDP government passed a bill based on the same principle. And David Christopherson cited the example of David Emerson as an affront to the ability of voters to make informed and meaningful choices:
If we accept that (party identification) is a legitimate, rationale, understandable and important reason for people to think about voting for a candidate, the platform or the party, if one then bails out, as did Mr. Emerson, which is the richest example, and I do not like to personalize, it takes one's breath away.

I do not think the writs were even returned. The ink was hardly dry on the ballots, and this man was already trotting across the floor to join another party. He believed that was the right thing to do, for him, but what about all those constituents who had a reason to believe that once elected, the member would actually go about enacting the platform and policies of the party that member belonged to?

By crossing the floor, in many cases a member is throwing away what he or she believed in to join a party that is 180 degrees in the other direction. How do we think constituents feel? They would sit there wondering what happened. Constituents went out and voted in good faith, as did all their friends, and they expected that the money they donated to that campaign and the sign that they posted were all to help get enough seats on a particular platform so that the way the constituent would have liked to have seen Canada shaped on a particular issue would have actually happened. Now that would be gone, because the member could just cross the floor in order to remain a cabinet minister. It really is problematic.
Withholding Consent

It was well reported that MPs from the Bloc Quebecois and Greens were denied unanimous consent to make a statement in honour of Canadian veterans. But somewhat less attention was paid to a bevy of motions on other topics which were also denied, including:
- Alexandre Boulerice's motion to introduce the materials he had referred to in noting concerns about money handed to the Perimeter Institute without proper allocation;
- Tom Lukiwski's motion to allow an NDP member to speak first to a government bill;
- Frank Valeriote's motion for committee study into the Canadian Wheat Board; and
- Sean Casey's motion on travel by the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.

And while it's not clear which of those MPs (if any) had reason to think other parties would agree to their requests, it's not hard to see how the Cons' tough line on statements by the Bloc and Greens may have set an unfortunate precedent.

In Brief

Tyrone Benskin both celebrated the 75th birthday of the CBC, and worried about the Cons' witch-hunt against it. Andrew Cash demanded answers as to the lack of accountability for police abuses at the G20 in Toronto. Jean Crowder pointed out the absurdity of saying "get a job!" as an answer to poverty when a significant number of food bank users are children, while Linda Duncan highlighted the problem of poverty for First Nations in particular. Nycole Turmel raised the concerns of Quebec, Ontario and B.C. alike at being stuck with the bill for the Cons' dumb-on-crime policies. Mylene Freeman questioned the Cons about Canada's poor performance in pay equity, only to be told by Tony Clement he's proud that women receive 73 cents on the dollar. Scott Simms introduced a private member's bill to remove the GST and HST from funeral expenses. James Moore's answer to a question seeking information about cuts to Canadian Heritage "broken down by employee status, by title, and by program activity" helpfully identified cuts of 578 jobs with no further information about what had actually been slashed. Yvon Godin pointed out that the Cons' job posting for the Auditor General position actually failed to include any aptitude in French as even a preference (let alone a requirement). And Brian Masse questioned the Cons' cuts to border communications at the same time they were funnelling what was supposed to be border funding into Tony Clement's pork-barrel projects.

Saturday Afternoon Links

This and that for your weekend reading.

- Thomas Walkom tries to be optimistic about the year ahead, and likely settles on the best reason for hope that Canada's politics will see some change for the better:
Canada, like Australia and Brazil, is getting by on sales of raw materials whose prices are kept high by seemingly insatiable Chinese demand.

But the key word here is “seemingly.” The world has seen so-called Asian miracles before, starting with Japan in the 1980s and running through various so-called Tigers such as Thailand in the ’90s.

In the end, these miracles proved less than miraculous. And unless China’s Communist leadership has discovered how to operate a capitalist economy without boom and bust, the same must inevitably happen there — with effects that will ricochet across the globe.

Politically, Canada has entered a kind of deep freeze. The New Democrats have discovered, to their horror, that gaining official Opposition status at a time of majority government is largely meaningless.

The NDP hopes this will change when it chooses a permanent leader in March. To the extent that Parliament gives political leaders a pulpit, the party’s optimism is not entirely misplaced.
- But Joseph Stiglitz points out that a complete lack of perspective as to the relative importance of financial-sector profits and social priorities figures to be a problem for a long time to come.

- Alice dissects Nathan Cullen's joint nomination proposal:
It's a big leap to assume that the public will be accepting of a process run by a tiny proportion of the whole riding population to conspire to eliminate certain choices from the ballot in the hopes of torquing the election outcome. It's another big leap to assume that this would be done in a vacuum, given that the Conservative Party would be following along closely, and reserving all their strategic and tactical options.

Of course, for the NDP and the other parties, there are other strategic and tactical considerations, such as:

* would it actually even work, or would enough orphaned voters switch to the Conservatives or stay home if their preferred choice was not on the ballot?
* is it democratic or politically wise to be advocating the elimination of political choice for the public by a small group of political activists
* in particular could the NDP then run as effectively as one of the two main choices in the "consideration set" of the general election (a term coined by Innovative Research's Greg Lyle to describe the process by which consumer choice is whittled down to two viable choices, and drawing parallels to voting behaviour), if it was at the same time enabling the election of one of its non-"consideration set" competitors.
* tactically, what criteria would be applied for deciding whether a joint nomination would achieve the intended result or not in a riding with newly formed boundaries
* what is the cost-benefit analysis of foregoing the opportunity to build in that riding next time, foregoing the room under the national spending ceiling (which is affected by how many candidates a party runs in an election), and foregoing the rebate, organizational opportunities and other team-building in a riding association that result from waging a local campaign, even if it doesn't win, as against the probability of being able to defeat the incumbent in a riding
- Finally, Occupy Vancouver tracks the social benefits provided by its camp.

On sure signs

I'd think Don Martin would have dealt with political actors enough to know when he's being spun. But since his latest post suggests otherwise, let's offer up what looks to be a sorely-needed hint.

When partisan spinners declare that they can't lose, it isn't evidence of cleverness or insight. Instead, it's merely a common instance of self-interested actors using all means available to spread a sense of inevitability to their own self-interest - and it's only newsworthy as evidence of hubris.

Indeed, if the Cons honestly believed that any possible outcome to the NDP's leadership race presented nothing but upside for them, that would be as sure a sign as any that they're vulnerable to some serious losses to come. But I'd give them credit for enough of a link to reality not to fall into such an obvious trap - making it all the more inexcusable that Martin didn't think to question the spin.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Musical interlude

Chicane - Daylight

Parliament in Review: November 1, 2011

Yes, a couple of the Cons' more odious bills have already made their way into law. But let's at least resume a look back at the arguments they so flippantly ignored in pushing through their first set of legislation - with the November 1 debate on the gun registry offering plenty of cases in point.

The Big Issue

Once again, the main topic of discussion was the Cons' choice to trash the gun registry and the underlying data - with particular emphasis on the Privacy Commissioner of Canada's public statement that the gun registry data could be shared with a province by agreement. Both Dennis Bevington and Pierre Jacob questioned the gap between the Cons' privacy spin and the public position of the Privacy Commissioner, and Kevin Lamoureux, Anne Minh-Thu Quach and Rosane Doré Lefebvre noted that the effect of destroying the gun registry data was to impose utterly gratuitous costs on the provinces who have stated an intention to create their own versions. But of course, those points were met with precisely no substantive response - even when Quach posed her question to Peter Penashue, whose role as Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs would seem to make him the cabinet member with direct responsibility to deal with the provinces on such issues.

Meanwhile, Mike Sullivan countered another of the Cons' lines of spin (about not being responsible for deregistering sniper weapons since they hadn't changed the classification structure) by pointing out that the classification structure itself was only becoming relevant due to the choice to scrap the long gun registry, while Carol Hughes pointed out that the bill was sorely lacking for consequential changes to patch over obvious holes in Canada's gun control system. Pierre-Luc Dusseault wondered why victims of gun crimes apparently don't rate any consideration as part of the Cons' usual spin about concern for victims. Quach noted the importance of the gun registry in border enforcement. Elizabeth May was appalled by the Cons' mockery of the importance of archiving and data preservation. Nathan Cullen lamented the gun registry bill as an example of wedge politics, and criticized the Cons for neither knowing nor caring what it would cost to destroy the data from the existing registry.

On the Cons' side, Lynne Yelich made an interesting statement about how she came to be elected:
On how many calls have come into my office, when we were elected, I would venture to say that 99.9% of my votes were what mandated us to end the gun registry alone. That is how many calls I received. People told us to get ride of the gun registry now that we had a majority government. They said that that they had sent us to Ottawa to get rid of it and that if we did not, they would start their own party and get rid of it.
Needless to say, the assertion that Yelich was elected solely to get rid of the gun registry would look to be a rather useful concession anytime the Cons try to claim a mandate to do anything else at all.

But in the end, the Cons voted down the NDP's proposed amendments and forced through the bill as written.

Hunger for Action

The other main theme of the day arose out of new data on food bank use - with Sean Casey and Jean Crowder focusing on the overall 26% increase since 2008, while assorted NDP MPs highlighted the even more drastic increases in food bank use among people with disabilities, seniors, Quebeckers and northerners and criticizing the Cons' utter lack of interest in addressing the deprivation that's led to those shameful figures.

But the Cons did make clear what type of social priority they do value - as Shelly Glover responded to questions about increasing food bank use by chastising the NDP for failing to support non-refundable tax credits carefully crafted to offer as little as possible to the families who might actually need to use one.

In Brief

Another bill also found its way to committee, as Joe Comartin's bill to eliminate a Criminal Code prohibition against single-event sports betting won all-party support on its way to passing at second reading. The Cons and Bloc voted down the NDP's asbestos motion. Romeo Saganash's question on the oil and gas sector received several remarkable answers, including that Natural Resources Canada hasn't bothered to conduct the slightest bit of analysis either as to how a carbon price would affect natural gas use, or as to how natural gas use might affect Canada's ability to meet its greenhouse gas emission targets. And Don Davies introduced a private member's bill to provide for a renewable energy development strategy.

Friday Afternoon Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- If there's a more accurate description of the Cons' entire political strategy than "taking advantage of the prejudice that’s already there", I haven't heard it yet. And Chris Lawson is rightly frustrated that Canadian politics are being dominated by such cynical and destructive motives - though I'd argue that we should be less concerned with the Gerry Nicholls of the world who are willing to call it by name than the Harper Cons who try to pretend their minority-bashing is somehow based on the national interest.

- No, we shouldn't be surprised to see a National Post discussion on pensions devolve into a debate as to whether seniors in general or public employees in particular should be attacked first in the name of tax slashing. But it's worth pointing out that we've had plenty of opportunity to test whether throwing the federal government's fiscal capacity into tax cuts and investment incentives for the wealthy would produce the virtuous cycle of magical retirement freedom that all the Post's pundits seem to take as a given - and the fact that Canadians are less secure now than they were a decade ago would seem like rather compelling evidence to the contrary for anybody willing to look at such a thing.

- Which suggests that maybe it's time to take some advice from Seth Klein in dealing with inequality for all age groups:
(R)ising inequality hasn’t been driven by low incomes. Rather, as the Occupy movement rightly highlighted, the growing gap has been driven by the runaway-rich; the wealthiest 10% of households, and especially the wealthiest 1%, have been breaking away from the rest of us (as outlined in this CCPA report a year ago).

So if we are going to reduce inequality, we need to revisit our top tax brackets.
I’d argue that the BC government should not restrict itself to adjustments to the top rate alone. I think there is room to modestly increase the 3rd and 4th brackets as well (which kick in at incomes of about $73K and $84K respectively; again only impacting a small minority of taxpayers). As I noted in a blog post a couple years ago, I find my personal income tax rate to be remarkably low, given what we receive in public services, and the scope of unmet social and environmental needs.

If you too think that our upper tax brackets should be increased, may I recommend that you let our political leaders know. Too often our leaders are overly cautious, and presume we will not abide such increases. If we really want action on inequality, we need to tell them otherwise.
- Meanwhile, Emily Dee worries that the Cons have set up a ticking time bomb with their giveaways to Canadian banks.

- And finally, Jason Warick highlights how First Nations students are being shortchanged in Saskatchewan.

Leadership 2012 Candidate Profile - Thomas Mulcair

From the moment Thomas Mulcair chose to run as an NDP candidate for Parliament, he's earned both more scrutiny and more attention than any other NDP represenative other than the leader who recruited him. Indeed, during slow news months there were even highly speculative stories about Mulcair trying to take over the NDP on Jack Layton's watch - though those figure to have had more to do with political gossip columnists wanting to wring some additional use out of their "Liberal infighting" story templates than with any basis in fact.

Naturally, it can be problematic to try to cover today's story by simply substituting new names into coverage from the past. So rather than speculating about an "anybody but" movement or a personality conflict, let's take a look at the factors which figure to be most important in assessing Mulcair's prospects.


On paper, there's little doubt that Mulcair has plenty going for him. He alone out of the leadership contenders can point to experience as an elected government official; he spent several years before this May's election as both the NDP's main national voice and liaison on the economy and its all-purpose spokesperson in Quebec. And that experience has shown in Mulcair's forum performances and public appearances.

Moreover, as I've pointed out before, Mulcair is the only leadership candidate who can claim to be a popular household name in one of Canada's major regions. But that leads to the biggest question about Mulcair's campaign.


By all accounts Mulcair had plenty to do with the NDP's emergence in Quebec - and his organizational work has been reflected in the support he's received from dozens of the party's new MPs. And based on his positive public profile, he's naturally positioned to reap the rewards as new voters join the party.

But it's still a wide open question as to whether Mulcair's work has reached the point where the NDP can develop a level of Quebec membership in line with its vote and seat counts. And while Mulcair has put together at least a nominal organization across the country, his path to the leadership still looks to be a difficult one if he couldn't count on a large number of votes from his home province.

Key Indicator

Which means that the most important factor for Mulcair - or at least the difference between a possible romp and a nail-biter - will be the number of Quebec members signed up in the course of the leadership race.

Even members signed up by other candidates with a strong Quebec presence figure to work to Mulcair's advantage in light of his personal recognition in the province. But if the membership stalls at a number which leaves Quebec with no more influence than any one of B.C., Ontario or the prairies, then Mulcair will be limited to trying to persuade a lot of existing members to join his camp with a relatively modest organization.

Key Opponent

Naturally I'd see Mulcair's key opponent as the one who figures to loom closest among his competitors. But Peggy Nash's relative positioning is all the more important for two reasons: first, Mulcair's plan B looks to involve winning over exactly the urban professional voters who might be expected to gravitate her way; and second, she looks to have a relatively strong chance of winning over second-choice support from other candidates if the race comes down to a contest between her and Mulcair.

Plausible Outcomes

Best-case: First-ballot victory based on significant Quebec membership growth and strong national support
Worst-case: Little second-choice support leading to elimination on a late ballot

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thursday Afternoon Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Alice offers her own take on Ian Capstick's leadership musings by questioning why a current candidate would see more prospect of influencing the race by dropping out now rather than staying in the field:
* It is worthwhile being able to win the second choice support of members supporting the candidates most likely to drop off the ballot first, in order to create a sense of momentum at the top.
* A leadership candidate may not have control over the direction of second choice support for his or her supporters, but there is one thing he or she can control after the first ballot – and that's when to drop out. If candidates have a good handle on the amount of second choice support they themselves have elsewhere, and also know where their own supporters are likely to go next, they can optimally time when to withdraw from the race, so as not to forego second choice support that might come their way soon, but also to free up second choice support they might be able to send elsewhere (or prevent it from being counted by staying in).

None of this is true before the first ballot is cast though. Which is why any suggestion that a candidate might drop out for strategic reasons now to "stop" someone, would have to be taken with a grain of salt, unless they could also deliver some other benefit, such as campaign organization, information, or something else.
- Sixth Estate points out another classic example of the Fraser Institute producing prepackaged spin on what looks to be the issue of a sponsor's choice. But it's worth noting in fairness that a firm commitment to non-disclosure is a part of Fraser's own business plan.

- Erin highlights some of the flawed assumptions in Kevin Milligan's attack on full taxation of capital gains.

- Finally, Sandy White asks rhetorically whether we want to be a society that encourages hope or extinguishes it in criticizing the Cons' crime policies. But I'm not sure the answer actually is all that obvious from the Harper Cons' standpoint: after all, isn't their long-term anti-government direction based largely on a desire to convince citizens to abandon hope that their public institutions can create a better society?

On growth strategies

Plenty of commentators have piled on Ian Capstick in the wake of his musings about the number of candidates in the NDP's leadership race. And I won't belabour the same point others have already made in refuting speculation about particular candidates dropping out.

But there's another part of Capstick's analysis that I'd think deserves a bit more of a challenge:
Capstick: “I can only hope that this bout of common sense is contagious and that we can slim down the field to a little bit more manageable number. [Ed: With Chisholm gone, eight are still vying for the job] I don’t think that Niki Ashton can go toe-to-toe with the prime minister. I don’t think that Romeo Saganash is somebody who can go toe-to-toe with the PM.
Now, the above passage is obviously a matter of opinion rather than a declaration of fact as to the prospects of Ashton or Saganash in serving as the NDP's leader. But I'll argue that it somewhat misses the point as to what NDP members should be seeking in the leadership race.

After all, none of the leadership contenders currently have anywhere near the national profile to go "toe-to-toe" with Stephen Harper in an election campaign if one were called for April 2012. And that's not a matter of personal weakness or failure: instead, it's inevitable as a contrast between a prime minister whose public image has been crafted by a decade's worth of headlines, advertising and careful image-building, and a challenger who hasn't yet been on the receiving end of the same level of attention.

And that's as much the case for the perceived upper-tier candidates as for, say, Ashton and Saganash. Thomas Mulcair is the only arguable exception to the extent he might qualify as a popular household name in Quebec - but for all but one candidate in one province, a leadership win will only be the start of building a personal profile to compete with Harper's.

Which is exactly why my focus in the leadership campaign is less on the profile any given candidate has enjoyed from day one, and more as to how effective the candidate proves in building on that base. Ultimately, the question of whether an NDP leadership candidate can go toe to toe with Harper by 2015 depends more than anything on the candidate's capacity and plan for growth - and the thinner and less diverse the field, the less likely we'll be to take our opportunities to expand beyond what might seem within easy reach at the moment.

New column day

Here, on the stark contrast between an election campaign where the Saskatchewan Party went out of its way to talk about nothing and the flurry of new legislation introduced within days of the legislature reconvening.

For further reading, the full list of bills introduced so far this fall is here. The Saskatchewan Party's 2011 platform is here. And any resemblance between the two is largely coincidental.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wednesday Evening Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Lawrence Martin notes that the Cons' push for yet more layers of bureaucracy is based purely on a desire to cater to prejudice rather than any intention to improve the lot of Canada's First Nations:
Shortly after Stephen Harper’s Conservatives came to power in 2006, they moved to scrap the Kelowna Accord that had been negotiated by Paul Martin’s Liberals. It was Mr. Martin’s pride and joy. It had been so difficult to get a consensus from native leaders. But for this agreement, a new funding deal to improve living conditions for first nations communities, he had found one.

Conservatives were more concerned about the health of the existing funding than about any new funding. They wanted increased oversight. As part of their new system of accountability, they were broadening the auditor-general’s powers to scrutinize a whole new range of organizations. In so doing, they wanted Indian bands audited.

They went to auditor-general Sheila Fraser, whereupon Ms. Fraser, sources recall, told them to go jump in a deep river. She would have none of it. There was no need for her department to audit band chiefs, she reasoned, because they were already being audited heavily. They were being audited by municipalities, by provinces, by the private sector, as well as, in some instances, by Ottawa.

Ms. Fraser’s department had done a report before the Tories came to power showing that an average band produces close to 200 reports a year. If the bands didn’t file audited financial statements, their funding was cut off or delayed. The AG’s office thought that for any government to pretend it didn’t know where the money was being spent was foolhardy. There was likely some abuse, but no more or less than most other organizations.

The Conservatives’ motivation in pushing for the band audits was political, the AG’s office suspected. They wanted to score points with their base and the chiefs were an easy target.

This might help explain why the reaction in Attawapiskat to the government’s sending in a third-party manager to monitor the band’s financial affairs was so hostile.
- But when it comes to their own government, the Cons are rather less interested in listening to the many voices calling for more effective oversight.

- Meanwhile, Linda McQuaig points out that it isn't just in Canada that the Cons are managing to make life worse for the people who can least afford it:
What the Harper government is doing is disastrous for Canadians, but even more disastrous for those most directly under the heel of climate change — notably the one billion Africans who will be the first and hardest hit by climate change, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

So the Harper government, working arm-in-arm with some of the world’s least vulnerable people — international oil interests — has done its best to sabotage a process aimed at preventing the catastrophic climate impacts that particularly threaten the world’s most vulnerable people: food and water shortages, crop reductions, flooding and loss of land.

Such callous disregard for the plight of the globe’s most defenceless citizens — it’s not really a stretch to label this an “animus” toward the world — is distinctly out of line with Canada’s traditional approach as a leading nation working with other nations to advance international goals.
Sadly, we’re now using our considerable power to destroy any hope of heading off climate disaster. It turns out that we’re just as effective at undermining attempts to solve the world’s problems as we once were at attempting to find solutions.

Canada is still punching above its weight. But, under the animus of the Harper government, those punches are now low blows, landing on some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.
- Finally, Thomas Walkom and Tim Harper both point out some of the consequences of the Cons' unilateral move to deflate future health care funding.

Leadership 2012 - Robert Chisholm Ends His Campaign

As might have been clear from my most recent candidate rankings, Robert Chisholm's odds of winning the NDP leadership have seemed limited for some time. But Chisholm's announcement that he's ending his campaign will nonetheless have a couple of important consequences for the remaining candidates.

Most obviously, Chisholm's exit leaves an opening for the remaining candidates to win over Atlantic establishment support. And it's an open question whether that will end up directed more toward Martin Singh as the remaining local candidate, or other front-runners as they add pieces to their existing campaign organization.

But perhaps more interestingly, there's also the question of what will happen to Chisholm's ideas page - which has served as the gold standard for user interactivity in the leadership campaign so far. It will be up to Chisholm to decide whether to maintain and expand that portion of his site from here on in - but I'd hope that we'll see either Chisholm's version or another candidate's equivalent develop as a magnet for policy discussion as the race develops.

On clear symbols

I've theorized before that one of the most important tests as to how Canadians view their country over the next few years figures to involve public perceptions of Tim Hortons and other brands which have managed to tap into anti-elitist sentiment for the benefit of their own developing upper class.

So needless to say, I wholeheartedly endorse Ron Joyce's choice to put himself forward as the face of Canadian billionaires demanding public sympathy. And while the Cons may well share Joyce's belief Canada's tax system should be designed around the whims of those who have the most, I'd suspect there's reason for optimism that many Canadians may disagree.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Acclimatized cats.

Tuesday Afternoon Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Kady highlights the Cons' combination of complete incompetence in rejecting positive amendments to their dumb-on-crime bill, and dishonesty in pretending not to introduce exactly the same changes later. And if the Cons were the least bit concerned with *good* government rather than all-controlling government, there would indeed be a lesson to be learned:
In fact, aside from the occasional intervention to grumble about how much scrutiny the bills in question had undergone during previous parliaments -- an occurrence that diminished in frequency as the hours ticked by -- the Conservative contingent was largely silent throughout the discussion, popping up only to make the occasional point of order or when the chair called for a recorded vote.

Given all that, Van Loan's suggestion that he had given careful consideration to the Cotler amendments before deciding to proceed down a different route -- one that, as it turned out, would ultimately be blocked by the speaker -- is difficult to reconcile with the facts.

More importantly, though, it should also raise a red flag for the government on the wisdom of sending MPs to committee to act as automatons, rather than heed the recommendations that come forward for ways to improve a particular piece of legislation, whether it comes from a witness or from the other side of the committee table.
- Paul Wells rightly points out the trend line that's seen federal fiscal capacity drained at every turn over the past decade:
The money isn’t rushing out of Ottawa. Taken in isolation, there’s a kind of fiscal responsibility in the reduced-after-2017 rate of “health”-transfer growth. This isn’t a fire sale. Canada’s ninth-longest-serving prime minister, still seven years younger than Jean Chrétien was on the day Chrétien became prime minister, can afford to be patient.

But he will spend ever more money on jets and jails, while taxing less as a fraction of GDP than any federal government has since the 1960s, and sending a constantly-increasing share of money to the provinces, which can spend those dollars as they like. You can hear the air going out of the federal government’s — any federal government’s — ability to “encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction.” From day to day this prime minister zig-zags in ways that would break a snake’s back. From 2001 to 2011 the line is as straight as a ruler.
But it's worth asking whether that trend figures to continue for long, or whether Canadians will be willing to listen to a strong pitch in favour of the type of social programs most detested by the Cons by the time 2015 rolls around. And if so, then the NDP may be in exactly the right place at the right time to present that alternative.

- Meanwhile, Leona Aglukkaq answers a few of Wells' rhetorical questions: yes, she is still around. And she is indeed pretending that the provinces will care in the slightest what she has to say now that her party has already dictated the amount of funding they'll receive for 13 years to come without any consultation or strings attached.

- Finally, Paul Dewar has launched the first major video ad of the NDP leadership race, with a strong combination of policy and personal appeal:

Monday, December 19, 2011

Monday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your afternoon reading.

- Dan Leger worries about the consequences of the Cons' faith-based government:
Despite the big majority and many years left in its mandate, the government seems to operate in a constant state of fear and insecurity.

How else to explain the attempts to closet Commons committee hearings behind closed doors? What else would explain denying every single amendment proposed by the opposition, restricting debate and invoking closure on so many bills, muzzling the public service or employing "reprehensible" dirty tricks to undermine a sitting Liberal MP? In Harper’s Ottawa, even cabinet meetings are scheduled and held in secret.
How about debate? To the current government, parliamentary debate is mere distraction. No sooner is a bill introduced than the government invokes closure and the legislation is hustled down the track. Some people think democratic debate is fundamental to parliamentary rule. The government wants us to believe that we can now do without it.

Judging by their success in the election, a lot of Canadians took a leap of faith on the Tory promise to create a new era of accountability after the misdeeds of the bad old Liberals. They were supposed to make government more democratic and responsive. It hasn’t turned out that way. Government has become ever more remote and hostile.
- And sadly the Cons offered a jarring case in point today, proclaiming that they intend to hack away at future health-care funding levels contrary to their election promises.

- Alison does some digging on the history of Campaign Research - and it shouldn't come as much surprise that the Cons' dirty tricksters have been on the receiving end of government largesse as well as partisan spending.

- Finally, John Geddes chronicles how CAPP earned itself a veto over museum exhibits about the tar sands.

On selective concerns

The past decade-plus in Canadian politics has seen a non-stop series of changes to tax rates and structures - with a particular focus on handing yet more money to those who already have the most. And I'll challenge readers to find a single commentator suggesting that we hold off on the next proposed giveaway because it might lead to imbalance against other forms of taxation - even though some of the major changes (such as year after year of corporate tax slashing) would obviously have a potential impact on the form of corporate structure chosen by Canadian businesses.

Naturally, though, that nonchalance only applies in one direction, as it's impossible to suggest increasing taxes on those who can afford it most without being met with a declaration that we shouldn't do anything unless we're absolutely certain it won't change incentives in the slightest. And it's worth noting that the selective concern says far more about the pundits applying a radically different standard to tax increases than to tax cuts than it does about the merits of the policy choices involved.

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Mia Rabson comments on the dangers of eliminating any public debate over Canada's future direction - as the Cons are trying to do:
This is one of the most important committees in Parliament. It looks at all government operations and examines spending estimates reports in detail.

To push all the discussions except witness testimony out of the public eye is to allow MPs a free ride and reduce the kind of scrutiny good government requires.

Wallace's motion was postponed on a technicality but it will resurface.

And it's not the only one of its kind.

Also on Tuesday, Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett wanted a debate on her motion before the aboriginal affairs committee to hold two emergency meetings to discuss the housing crisis on reserves. The Conservatives on the committee forced the debate on the motion behind closed doors.

That same day, a motion to go in camera was also introduced at the official languages committee.

Apparently, open and accountable government means Canadians don't get to see or hear what their elected officials think about whether it is worthwhile to debate the housing crisis on reserves. There likely are legitimate arguments on both sides of the debate. We wouldn't know because the debate took place in camera.

The trend to have more and more committee business conducted out of earshot of anyone but members of the committee is something that should concern all Canadians.

When government doesn't operate out in the open, there is no accountability.

When there is no accountability, democracy is harder to achieve.
- Meanwhile, Chantal Hebert is more concerned that the media didn't pry more into Jack Layton's health during this spring's election campaign. But it's at least worth noting in hindsight that the media was indeed far too slow to give the NDP coverage as anything more than a curiosity.

- Meanwhile, Bruce Anderson is horrified to discover that the NDP's leadership candidates are actually running to lead the NDP rather than the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation.

- Finally, Stephen Hume pinpoints the source of the state of deprivation facing Attawapiskat and other remote First Nations:
Let's be clear about what reserves are. They are a government invention. Reserves were created by government to concentrate, for administrative purposes, peoples who roamed those landscapes and exploited their resources.

So perhaps the reasonable question is: Why is Attawapiskat not viable?

It's not viable because the community was separated from the economic resource base that would otherwise sustain it.

Could Prince George be viable if it were denied the vast forest hinterland that sustains it? Arguing that Prince George is viable because its economy is sustained by forest resources appropriated from around Fort Ware, while Fort Ware is by some magical thinking then declared economically unviable, begs some re-thinking.

The forest, mineral and energy resource base surrounding Attawapiskat was appropriated by the Crown, which receives the rents from its exploitation by corporations. A minuscule proportion of those rents is returned to the original occupants.
Perhaps the question that Canadians should be asking of their federal government is why, after a century of responsibility for aboriginal communities that are entirely creatures of Ottawa, is the system such a disgraceful, chaotic, festering mess of bungling, red tape, bureaucratic incompetence and political prevarication? Why are we still blaming the victims of our policies?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Leadership 2012 Candidate Rankings - December 18, 2011

We now have at least a bit of pollster data to compare to Skinny Dipper's online poll on the relative positions of the NDP's leadership candidates. But Forum Research's results look to largely match the previous candidate positioning - which combines with relatively little news from the candidates' travels to make for another very quiet week in the candidate rankings.

1. Thomas Mulcair (1)

Naturally Forum's results are more positive for Mulcair than for any other candidate. But it's worth sounding somewhat of a cautionary note since they're based on a poll of NDP voters rather than members - and one of Mulcair's most important challenges from day one has been to turn general positive impressions (particularly among NDP voters in Quebec) into member votes.

2. Peggy Nash (2)

No news is also good news for Nash, who placed a solid second in Forum's polling and has confirmed some of her down-ballot growth potential by pulling away from Mulcair in later-ballot results in Skinny Dipper's poll.

3. Brian Topp (3)

Meanwhile, the low starting point for every other candidate in Forum's polling means that my analysis will focus slightly more on growth potential than current starting points. And while Topp obviously hasn't managed to make himself the favourite at this point, he still has a strong organization set to help him build both name recognition and favourability.

4. Niki Ashton (5)

With the Canadian Wheat Board in the news Ashton has taken the opportunity to trumpet her theme that the NDP needs to rally support in the West. But it's still an open question as to whether enough will end up in Ashton's camp to keep her on the final ballots.

5. Paul Dewar (4)

Yes, his organization on paper is still a top-four machine. But if Forum is right in placing his current support then Dewar looks like he's running a far safer campaign than he can afford - with his "Your Canada Year" plan in particular looking like it's better seen as an election goodie for swing voters rather than an inspirational idea for the NDP's membership base.

6. Romeo Saganash (6)

He hasn't yet earned a place in major media headlines for it. But if the Harper Cons' push for private property on First Nations reserves becomes a major news story into the new year, it may well be exactly the boost Saganash needs to emerge as the leading defender of collective values as the leadership race progresses.

7. Nathan Cullen (7)

With the Libs pointing to a couple of polls as evidence that they're back on the upswing nationally, it's looking less and less likely that their activists will be desperate enough to cross party lines to back Cullen. And that figures to narrow his path to victory even further.

8. Martin Singh (8)

A quiet week for Singh extends his stay above the bottom rung of the ladder. But we'll have to see whether he has more on offer from a policy standpoint to draw attention as the campaign develops.

9. Robert Chisholm (9)

No, Chisholm isn't necessarily stuck here for the duration of the campaign. But no news for the week means no chance to improve his standing.

[Edit: fixed title.]

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your weekend.

- Bruce Anderson worries that the Cons might think they face no restriction on their ability to get away with dirty tricks. But Noah Richler suggests that the best way to fight back against the Cons' disdain for democratic debate is to treat them as a joke. And Dr. Dawg and deBeauxos start with an apt one.

- But Jeffrey Sachs reminds us that we shouldn't use justified cynicism over our current government to make the right's case to eliminate the concept of public service altogether.

- And Livio Di Matteo notes that if it weren't for the Cons' reckless tax-slashing, we'd never have faced the federal deficits which are now being used as an excuse to attack social funding.

- Finally, Bruce Johnstone slams the Cons' refusal to let farmers decide the fate of the single-desk Canadian Wheat Board.

Leadership 2012 Candidate Profile - Martin Singh

With the NDP's leadership contestants otherwise consisting entirely of sitting MPs or media-anointed favourites, Martin Singh has faced a tougher job getting noticed than anybody else in the field. So how has he done trying to start from that disadvantage?


So far, the answer looks to be "not badly at all". Singh has presented a couple of detailed policy proposals, albeit with a strong bias toward his own areas of personal experience (though health care and small business aren't exactly a bad place to start in winning over NDP support). In addition, he's held his own in both official languages in the first debate - and perhaps most interestingly he's assembled a more ambitious ground game than many of his opponents, having opened up two campaign offices in the early stages of the race.


Unfortunately for Singh, while he's done everything possible to get himself into the thick of the race for first-ballot support, it's far from clear where he can go from here. At best Singh may have a realistic chance to be the last Atlantic candidate standing, but it's still doubtful that there's enough support to be won from Robert Chisholm on that front to hold up against the far larger membership numbers elsewhere. And while Singh's policy themes aren't hugely controversial, it's also doubtful that they're going to inspire a lot of second-choice support.

Key Indicator

If there's anything that can radically change Singh's standing in the race, it would be an influx of activity from Canada's Sikh community. And on paper, there's enough potential strength to be found to at least keep Singh on a few ballots, and maybe to propel him toward the top of the race - meaning that Singh's ability to rally his religious community will tell the tale as to whether he can move into the middle tier of candidates.

Key Opponent

As noted above, let's stick with Robert Chisholm as the key factor here - since he looks to be both the candidate closest to Singh in the rankings, and the one whose support has the most obvious reason to shift Singh's way.

Plausible Outcomes

Best-case: A strong mid-tier finish which positions Singh for a high-level cabinet position in a 2015 government
Worst-case: A bottom-tier finish as an also-ran