Saturday, April 14, 2012

Saturday Afternoon Links

This and that for a sunny Saturday.

- Paul Wells discusses the clash shaping up between the Cons and the NDP:
Some 57 per cent of respondents said they’re dissatisfied with the Harper government, compared to 36 per cent who like it. Last month’s federal budget drew more unsatisfied reaction than satisfied, and respondents who associated themselves with “the left” outnumbered those sympathizing with “the right” everywhere except Ontario (where they tied) and the three Prairie provinces.

Those numbers don’t spell Conservative doom. They do suggest a non-Conservative alternative has a fighting chance. So too does another poll from Environics for the fledgling Broadbent Institute, which is dedicated to bankrolling polls that gladden the heart of one-time NDP leader Ed Broadbent. This one sure did the trick. It found majorities concerned about income inequality, willing to pay higher taxes to reduce inequality, and positively eager to watch the rich pay higher taxes to reduce income inequality.

So there’s potential traction for a larger-government alternative to the Conservatives. The more thoughtful people around Stephen Harper admit as much. They don’t think their man has shut down the political left, merely that he has managed to stay one step ahead of it while beginning to build a conservative alternative that can stay in the game for the long haul. More Canadians voted against the Conservatives last May 2 than for them. If those Canadians could unite behind one leader or party, Harper would be in trouble.
Today Harper clearly thinks he has global environmentalists on the run. He has dismantled his government’s in-house climate analysis capacity, he’s shutting down arm’s-length advice from the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, and he plans to clamp down on foreign financing of environmentalist groups in Canada. His current environment minister, Peter Kent, can hardly believe how lucky he is to help Harper get all this done.

If the population still believes the environment is worth a fight, such callous disregard for the pieties to which he once paid careful lip service will hurt Harper big time. But that’s a big “if.” Harper’s full-tilt promotion of oil sands development and natural-resource exports has so far caused much less public controversy than, say, his decision to prorogue Parliament unnecessarily at the start of 2010. Harper is betting that in a shaky economy most people will be in no mood to ask fancy questions about sustainability.
- But then, Matt Price points out how the Harper Cons' extreme anti-environmental stance is thoroughly alienating plenty of the B.C. voters who have contributed to their existing western base:
It is an irony that Stephen Harper, a proponent of decentralizing power to the provinces, now wants to override B.C. objections by declaring this pipeline to be a matter of "national interest" and attacking anyone opposed to it. But, now that his Ottawa runs on oil, the industry must get its way, regardless of what the people want.

Has Harper miscalculated? Since going on the attack in January, his party has dropped 16 points in B.C. polls. To be sure, B.C. has pockets of deep blue sympathetic to the Conservative cause, but as with B.C. culture in general, these are populists who don't like to see far-away Ottawa throwing its weight around like a bully.
In sum, the battle over the proposed Enbridge pipeline represents the clash of the new oil-driven Conservative coalition versus an unwilling province packed with people who have never been known to roll over and play dead. This will rock the country.

The last time a political party in Ottawa used a "national interest" argument to impose its energy agenda on a province, it poisoned the well there for generations. And as the planet burns, this time around it is about more than political poisoning, but about the actual poisoning of our atmosphere that those generations need for security and prosperity.
- Andrew Leach offers up a primer on some of the decisions to be made surrounding natural resource royalty rates. But it surely can't escape notice that he leaves out one rather important alternative - as there's no reason (other than an ideological refrain from the corporatist right) why profitable resources can't be developed by public entities rather than private ones if the result is a better deal for the citizens who own them.

- Finally, Bruce Johnstone criticizes the Cons for resolutely refusing to learn from their own mistakes. And in that vein, Sheila Dabu Nonato reports that in pushing their online surveillance bill, the Cons are following a path that's just been found unconstitutional when it comes to existing wiretapping law.

Electoral Boundaries Commission Submission

For those interested, here's the text of my submission to the Saskatchewan Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission. I've added to and tweaked the analysis from my earlier column on the subject, but the themes should be familiar.
Dear Commissioners:

I write in response to your call for preliminary comments on Saskatchewan’s electoral boundaries. I am a Regina-based lawyer and writer commenting solely in my personal capacity.

While I will leave to others the task of proposing new boundaries, I will discuss briefly the disconnect between Saskatchewan voter preferences and representation under the current riding boundaries.

Over the course of the four federal elections conducted under the current boundaries, Saskatchewan has seen a more glaring gap between party preferences and the resulting representation in the House of Commons than any other Canadian province:

- In 2004, the Conservative Party won 93% of Saskatchewan’s seats with 42% of the province’s votes. This was the widest gap in Canada in any of the past four elections.

- In 2006, the Conservative Party won 86% of Saskatchewan’s seats with 49% of the province’s votes. This was the second-widest gap in the country behind only the Liberals’ sweep of Prince Edward Island’s four seats with 52.5% of that province’s votes.

- In 2008, the Conservative Party won 93% of Saskatchewan’s seats with 54% of the province’s vote. This was the widest gap in Canada.

- Finally in 2011, the Conservative Party won 93% of Saskatchewan’s seats with 56% of the vote. Once again, this was the largest gap in Canada.

Moreover, the distortions in every other province at least fluctuated over the course of four elections which saw a wide variety of outcomes, as only Prince Edward Island placed among the top two distorted outcomes more than once in the past four elections (and not since 2006). In contrast, Saskatchewan’s gap between seat distributions and vote distributions ranked as worst or second-worst of any Canadian province in all four elections.

As a result, there would be a compelling need to revisit the “rurban” riding structure as it stands even if there had been no other changes in the meantime. Over the past decade, the current boundaries have benefitted the Conservative Party. However, it is entirely plausible that a relatively small shift in voter preferences among relatively uniform groups of voters (urban or suburban) could create a similar distortion in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, the preservation of a “rurban” riding structure is becoming less justifiable with time as Saskatchewan as a whole becomes more urbanized. Unlike in previous redistribution cycles, there is now an ample population base in each of Saskatoon alone and the Regina-Moose Jaw urban corridor to justify the allocation of three seats apiece to these areas, while ensuring focused representation for rural areas through constituencies centered on their differing needs and interests.

I thank you for your consideration and your participation in the boundary review process, and I look forward to your proposals.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- John Cassidy neatly contrasts growth in the postwar period against that in recent decades - with the former seeing a "picket fence" growth pattern where all segments of society benefited roughly equally, while the latter produces a "staircase" effect (aside from an utterly unreachable jump between the top 1% and those below).

- Meanwhile, the CP corrects Jim Flaherty's blatantly false spin about the effect of slashing corporate tax rates by pointing out that it'll be another 5 years before we return to past revenue levels. And Thomas Walkom weighs in on the developing recognition that many voters see a commitment to tax fairness as a plus:
Tax fairness is back as a mainstream topic of conversation. For years, it was consigned to the margins, championed by a few advocates such as author Linda McQuaig or economist Armine Yalnizyan, but pretty much ignored by everyone else — including the NDP.

Now it’s back in style.

The Occupy Movement, with its talk of the richest one per cent, has made tax fairness cool. Rumblings from the U.S., where even billionaire Warren Buffet argues that the rich pay too little, has given it a new air of respectability.

Here in Ontario, a campaign by a group called Doctors for Fair Taxation has gained a surprising amount of attention. A poll commissioned by the left-leaning Broadbent Institute argues that almost two-thirds of Canadians would pay “slightly higher taxes” to protect social programs.

I’d take that poll with a grain of salt since it never specified what was meant by “slightly higher.”

Still, there is something going on here. If even the ultra-cautious NDP is willing to talk about higher taxes, the public mood must be shifting. Perhaps more understand the simple truth of government finance — that we can’t have public services without paying for them.
- Terrence McCoy discusses the sophisticated data mining now happening in U.S. politics - with a particularly interesting set of charts comparing both turnout and voter preferences to consumer preferences.

- Finally, while there's ample room for doubt as to whether the Cons have made any case for taking an axe to public services in the first place, Susan Riley points out that they're going about it all wrong even if there was some reason to do so:
(W)hile it is theoretically possible to improve service while shedding jobs, this government's management style has been so arbitrary, contradictory and - especially with the F-35 project - dishonest, it doesn't inspire confidence.

Cabinet's stunning lack of curiosity about the costing of the F-35s and the government's readiness to downplay the true costs of the warplanes to blunt public reaction undermine its supposed commitment to fiscal prudence. So do Clement's Muskoka shenanigans, shifting money for border infrastructure to build gazebos in the minister's riding.

Yet the government is ready to deny free Internet service to the homeless, the disabled and the poor by cutting a small Industry Canada program that helped libraries and social agencies provide computer access. Industry Canada says the service isn't needed since 79 per cent of Canadians have home access, and it isn't, except by the poor.
Meanwhile, some federal services have already been "streamlined" into uselessness. Service Canada, which is supposed to help with everything from citizenship to pension to EI inquiries, is so under-staffed that it doesn't answer its phones. Passport offices are as crowded as emergency rooms. Government websites are useless for anything but general information.

Luckily for Conservatives, widespread indifference to the fate of public servants and general failure to connect today's spending cuts with deteriorating services, provide some cover. But, when the smoke clears, we could well be left with dial tones instead of answers, longer lines at the border, more incidents of food poisoning and some very expensive jets. That's when the chickens come home to roost.
[Edit: fixed link as per comments.]

Friday, April 13, 2012

Musical interlude

Dobenbeck feat. Joanna - Please Don't Go (Chris Reece Radio Edit)

Friday Afternoon Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Murtaza Hussain nicely sums up why we should be pushing for businesses and wealthy individuals to contribute their fair share through a progressive tax system rather than through self-aggrandizing charity:
The private social safety net, provided by corporate donors as compensation for the public one which their tax avoidance helps shred, is a poor substitute for democratically accountable public spending. Besides being poorer, free of public oversight, and geared primarily towards public relations efforts, the private safety net is a rug that can and will be pulled out from under its beneficiaries at the slightest notice. Goldman Sachs, which generously gave $320M in charitable contributions in 2010 and $500M in 2009, drastically cut its charitable budget to $78M a year in 2011 in response to reduced profits while making minimal cuts to employee bonuses and other compensation. “Doing God’s work”, as Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein famously described the companies activities is apparently an elective commitment based on market conditions. Whereas...a strong public safety net is managed democratically by its beneficiaries, corporate charity can and will disappear the moment it is deemed necessary which exemplifies clearly why it is no substitute for government spending.
- Gregory Beatty points out the remarkable returns Canadians have achieved through the Canadian Pension Plan, and rightly asks who other the financial services industry than stands to benefit from pushing retirement savings toward more risky and costly programs like the ones preferred by the Harper Cons.

- Of course, if the Cons know that reality doesn't support their desire to demolish governments at every level, they're perfectly happy to pretend the facts don't exist. And evidence-based experimentation couldn't be further from the Cons' plans.

- But it can get awkward when the dogma runs into more thoughtful governments. And the comparison between the Cons and their Latin American counterparts on drug policy is reflecting rather poorly on Canada. Meanwhile, Paul Krugman points out that there's an important economic lesson to be learned from Brazil and other social-democratic countries in our hemisphere.

- Finally, Ryan Meili points out how investment in prescription drugs can result in positive results in terms of both health costs and outcomes.

First impressions and lasting involvement

Others have already commented on the NDP's first set of ads with Thomas Mulcair as party leader. But I'll take a few minutes to highlight both the job the ads seem perfectly suited to do - and the more important work only hinted at in Mulcair's first set of leadership messages.

Here are the ads:

As Bruce Anderson notes in the At Issue segment linked to above, one of the obvious purposes of the ads is to lock in the initial positive impression of Mulcair that naturally follows a leadership victory. And the ads are highly effective on that front - creating positive impressions about Mulcair while leaving plenty of different paths for future definition.

But there's a second factor the NDP needs to focus on now that members have elected a new leader.

Contrary to the impression might might be left by Anderson and Andrew Coyne, the missing piece of the NDP's puzzle isn't a broad constituency willing to consider the party as a potential government. Indeed, on the indicators which actually signal whether voters have an aversion to a particular party - such as a lack of second-choice support or perception of extremism - it's the Cons who stand out as turning off a substantial chunk of the Canadian electorate.

In order to win over soft supporters, though, a party needs enough resources from its stalwart supporters to move public opinion when it counts most. That's been the Cons' strong suit for ages, as multi-million dollar ad campaigns funded largely by o perpetually-outraged base have been crucial to their destruction of the Libs' recent leaders. And it's where the NDP still has a ways to go: indeed, at last notice the NDP still ranked behind the Libs in fund-raising even in the wake of the shift in party standings.

Now, part of the answer may be to professionalize the NDP's image to encourage donations from backers looking to get on the right bandwagon. But the other factor in getting the NDP onto at least a manageable long-term financial footing - and one that I've tried to highlight in the latter stages of the leadership race - is the need for a consistently strong activist constituency which can be motivated to donate and volunteer based on NDP issues and values even when the political winds aren't in the party's favour.

On the plus side, the new ads at least hint that there's more at play than merely encouraging passive impressions of Mulcair, as the closing exhortations of "now let's get the job done" and "ensemble batissons l'avenir" both recognize the need for viewers to get involved.

But while those warm and fuzzy messages may encourage Canadians to see involvement as something positive, they probably fall short of actually spurring people to action. And as important as it is to build positive impressions, Mulcair's honeymoon period should also be treated as a crucial opportunity to assemble the movement needed to support an NDP government in winning and exercising power.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Thursday Afternoon Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Lawrence Martin comments on the growing resonance of inequality as an issue for Canadian voters. But the most telling sign may be less the Ontario NDP's steps to highlight the need for more progressive taxation (as Martin recognizes), but the McGuinty Libs' response - which in rebuffing the NDP's proposed social spending rather than the tax measures seems to signal that even one of the parties which has contributed so much to growing inequality doesn't want to be caught supporting it.

- David Macdonald contrasts two decades of perpetually-growing personal debt for individual Canadians against the pattern of corporate cash hoarding (even as the business sector has been handed billions upon billions of free dollars based on the assurance it'll invest in the economy).

- James Munson duly rebuts the Con's attempts to take credit for greenhouse gas emission reductions caused by provincial policies. Meanwhile, the David Suzuki Foundation calls out Saskatchewan as one of the worst provincial laggards, and the province's response only confirms the lack of interest in taking climate change seriously:
Saskatchewan, meanwhile, has the highest greenhouse-gas emissions per capita in the country, has no plan to close its coal-fired power plants and has eliminated its Climate Change Secretariat and its Office of Energy Consumption. “It is difficult to imagine any jurisdiction taking the threats of climate change less seriously than Saskatchewan currently does,” the Suzuki report says. Saskatchewan officials did not respond to a request for comment.
- Andrew Coyne sees the F-35 fiasco as a litmus test as to how Canadians will react to being deliberately and blatantly lied to by the Harper Cons.

- Finally, I'll offer a reminder that Sunday is the deadline for first-phase submissions to Saskatchewan's Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission. (For those interested, other deadlines apply elsewhere - see here for more information by province.)

New column day

Here, on the distinction between healthy optimism and dangerous boosterism - and how both the Harper and Wall governments are dragging Saskatchewan toward the latter.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Slightly Aged Column Day

Here, on how the latest round of cuts at multiple levels of government has been conspicuously designed to avoid having the wealthiest pitch in to improve public balance sheets. And while the column discusses earlier polling, the Broadbent Institute provides the best confirmation yet that the selective pain has nothing to do with public values.