Saturday, March 16, 2013

Light blogging ahead

Off to warmer climes until next weekend, with little or no posting in the meantime. Enjoy the week!

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Jason Fekete reports on the growing recognition that tax evasion and avoidance are serious global problems - and the Cons' attempt to be seen nodding at the issues. Needless to say, that posturing would be far more plausible if the same Cons weren't simultaneously announcing their intention to slash the Canada Revenue Agency's enforcement capability even further (in keeping with their past moves to attack the CRA).

- Meanwhile, the fallout from Peter Penashue's acceptance of illegal corporate campaign donations continues. And it's well worth highlighting the fact that the financial agent now being labeled as an "inexperienced volunteer" in an effort to deflect blame was in fact appointed by Stephen Harper to a patronage position as his reward for that service to his party.

- In a similar vein, Craig McInnes expands on the revelations surrounding the B.C. Libs - featuring a cabinet minister who denied any knowledge of a scheme to use public resources for partisan ethnic voter targeting saying "great job" in response to an e-mail advising of the need to cover the government's tracks.

- Bruce Johnstone rightly criticizes Brad Wall's hot air over Keystone XL.

- And finally, Bob Turner grades John Gormley's paean to standardized testing. Much hilarity ensues.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Musical interlude

Fretblanket - Into the Ocean

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Friday reading.

- Jennifer Ditchburn reports that the Harper Cons are making ample progress in their goal of removing Canada from any list of socially-developed welfare states, as Canada has dropped from being the world's leader in the UN's Human Development Index to a position outside the top 10 countries by that measure.

- Peter Penashue's resignation in the wake of a campaign financing scandal will open up plenty of lines of discussion - as well as an opportunity to flip a seat into opposition hands. But let's ask another question arising out of his stepping down from Cabinet: will anybody notice he's gone?

- Carol Goar expands on the futility of trying to apply business principles to government management (with help from Donald Savoie):
To Savoie, this anecdote encapsulated what has happened to Canada’s public service over the past 30 years: front-line workers have been sacrificed to make way for offices full of paper-pushers, managers, supervisors and evaluators. “It is ill-conceived, costly and misguided.”
The bottom-line doctrine took hold under prime minister Brian Mulroney, who decided the public sector should operate with the same market discipline as private enterprise. His four successors have adhered to it slavishly.
It has never worked and it never will, Savoie says.
The first problem is that the public sector is not in the business of making money. In the absence of profit-loss statement, it has no way of measuring how well it is doing. So it fabricates yardsticks and backs them up with reams of reports showing how efficient, effective and indispensable it is.
The second problem is that government is incapable of “creative destruction,” the process by which industry gets rid of outmoded products and develops new ones. Bureaucrats don’t have the power to pull the plug and politicians seldom do it for fear of offending vested interests. “The problem is not that government is spending more on new things, but that it spends massively on old things.”
The remedy is obvious, Savoie says with the same clear-sightedness that once scandalized his boss. Figure out what a government department is supposed to do, then fit the employment level to the workload.
- David Climenhaga proposes that the Alberta NDP make a concerted effort to become the province's "city party".

- Finally, Scott Feschuk nicely summarizes the effect of the unaccountable Senate - and the futility of trying to defend it:
Having existed for more than a century, the Senate has produced a number of memorable achievements, such as having existed for more than a century. Also, there was one day that a plucky young upstart openly defied the two-nap minimum. He was subjected to a thorough harrumphing.

Being a senator sounds like a pretty sweet gig. You get an office, a staff and an annual salary of $132,000. You are also entitled to collect up to $22,000 a year in living expenses if a) your primary residence is more than 100 km from Parliament Hill, or b) you feel like it.

Are there any downsides? Not a ton. Sure, you become: a drain on the federal treasury; an object of national mockery, stereotype and derision; and a feckless member of a legislative chamber that Liberal and Conservative prime ministers alike have sullied and undermined over decades by treating it as a repository for cronies, bagmen and talentless, self-promoting partisans.

But on the other hand: Taco Tuesdays!

Alas, now that Canadians have been made aware of the existence of the Senate, a lot of them want to abolish it—simply because it’s a wasteful appendage that costs hundreds of millions of dollars a year and provides no tangible or intangible benefits to any human.
The bottom line is that even though our senators are beleaguered, they have the opportunity to be viewed by Canadians with a more sympathetic eye—if only they can draw attention away from every aspect of their job, everything they do and all that their institution has come to represent.

On sick strategies

Shorter Harper Cons:

The public-service beatings will continue until employee wellness improves.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Yves Engler highlights the two-tiered justice system exacerbated by the Harper Cons, as anybody with a sufficient level of privilege avoids any punishment for wrongdoing:
One law for the rulers and another for the rest of us -- wasn't that supposed to have ended with feudalism?

If a poor person is caught taking a computer or some other piece of property from a federal building you can bet police will be called and the thief will go before a judge to decide if she/he goes to jail. Yet when a Senator who is paid at least $132,000 per year in salary illegally claims many times the value of a stolen computer as a "living expense" they simply have to return the money.

Of course so-called white-collar crime is generally treated less severely than other forms of illegal activity, which is another way of saying there are different rules for 'important people' than the rest of us. If you have high enough status you can usually buy your way out of crime.

For example when Griffiths Energy recently pled guilty to bribing officials in Chad to gain access to lucrative energy properties, the Calgary-based corporation agreed to pay $10.35 million under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act. But no individual at the privately held company will be pursued criminally. Apparently, you can pay a multi-million dollar bribe to gain access to a poor country's natural resources and then simply pay some more money when you are caught.
- But Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher report on what may turn into be a rare exception, as Elections Commissioner Yves Cote has recommended that charges be laid against the Conservatives perpetrators of the Robocon election fraud.

- David Climenhaga nominates the Canadian Taxpayers Federation for a "Turfy" award in falsely claiming to be a grassroots organization:
(U)ntil recently I had no idea just how pure and refined an example of Astroturfing is the clever-boots organization that gave Canadian political discourse the “Teddy Award” – allegedly to highlight government waste.

But the fact is – and we have CTF Operations Vice-President Shannon Morrison to thank for this revelation – the organization has only five members. [Ed. note: later updated to six without explanation in another sign of true transparency.]

Let me say that again, just to make sure there is no misunderstanding: The Canadian Taxpayers Federation has only five members!

Now, you may have had the impression that the CTF – which is almost invariably referred to by the mainstream media as a “taxpayer watchdog” – has something like 70,000 members, every one a concerned Canadian frowning grimly at the idea of governments wasting their hard-earned tax dollars on things like pensions for public employees, the long-gun registry and the long-form census.

Mind you, if these taxpayers also happen to be concerned about wasteful plans to spend bazillions on easy-to-shoot-down F-35 stealth bombers or mere billions for unneeded and counterproductive prison cells, of course, they’ll need to look elsewhere for support. Notwithstanding its claim to be “non-partisan,” the CTF is reliably pro-Conservative and has nothing bad to say about those particular Tory boondoggles.
MORRISON: “Tony, I apologize for my delay in answering. In law, the CTF is a federal not for profit corporation. Technically the only ‘members’ are the board directors themselves. … The bylaws you quote are extremely out of date but even with that we have never had a membership other than the board directors. We have worked very hard to use consistent language to reflect this over the last several years. The financial summary found on our website is what we have for our donors and supporters.” (Emphasis added.)

So there you have it. The entire membership of the CTF is made up of five people. As it was, it is now and ever shall be. And the finances of their organization are none of your business – even if you thought you were a member.
- Alice Funke and Andrew Coyne both see the Libs' leadership campaign going off the rails.

- Finally, Dan Tan discusses the opportunities available for the NDP in building cross-border connections - as well as Tom Mulcair's strong start on that front.

New column day

Here, on how Brad Wall's first set of utterly implausible attacks on Cam Broten seems to reflect a failure to learn from the mistakes of the Saskatchewan Party's Republican cousins.

For further reading (and a quick response to the spin), Broten's policy development proposal is here.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Tim Harper reminds us why Brad Wall is thoroughly off base in claiming that it's the duty of every Canadian politician to demonstrate constant fealty to his resource-sector puppet-masters:
The Conservatives, of course, would like the entire country to come together behind their view of resource extraction, but the nice thing about democracy is it accommodates dissonant voices.
Keystone faces credible and determined opposition in both countries.
There is a longstanding protocol in the U.S. that politicians do not criticize the government while abroad, but if that ever was the convention in Canada, it flew out the window after Harper took aim at successive Liberal leaders while representing this country abroad during his minority years.
Mulcair owes Canadians consistency. Without that, he cannot ask them to make him prime minister.
If U.S. President Barack Obama eventually kills the Keystone extension in a decision expected this summer, expect the Conservatives to blame Mulcair for “talking down” Canada while abroad, just as they tried to blame then-opposition leader Michael Ignatieff’s comments for costing them a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2010.
The UN blame-game generally drew laughter. Blaming an opposition leader who carried a consistent message south of the border for a Keystone failure should similarly be met with guffaws.
- Meanwhile, Clare Demerse tries to fact-check the Cons' attempt at greenwashing their atrocious track record - only to conclude that there are few facts to be found in their spin.

- Don Lenihan writes about the problem with a pay-wall model for online media - as many people seeking to read news online have rightly come to value the ability to respond and comment without others being excluded.

- Emma Burnell highlights the importance of "critical loyalty" in ensuring that political parties can build close connections while still evolving and growing. I'm pretty sure this isn't what she has in mind, but from my own set of loyalties I'll happily ask someone to pass the popcorn.

- Finally, Pat Atkinson and Scott Stelmaschuk both offer their end-of-campaign analysis at the end of the Saskatchewan NDP's leadership race.


Bert Brown today, trying to justify the public footing a nine-figure annual bill for a cesspool of patronage and corruption:
“It’s one of the five major institutions of the Canadian government and if you were to take that away, you’d just be creating a dictatorship,” Brown said in an interview in his office overlooking Parliament Hill. “Anytime you get a prime minister that won’t listen to anything but his own advice, you get some of the crazy things that we’ve seen.”
Bert Brown less than two years ago, explaining his own belief that Senators should avoid questioning any of the Prime Minister's actions lest they be seen as disloyal:
"Every senator in this caucus needs to decide where their loyalty should be and must be. The answer is simple; our loyalty is to the man who brought us here, the man who has wanted Senate reform since he entered politics, the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper," Brown wrote.
So Brown's idea of a bulwark against executive-branch dictatorship is...a branch of government whose responsibility is to maintain perpetual loyalty no matter how unreasonable the executive branch becomes. As if we needed another reason to abolish the institution designed to allow Brown and his ilk to interfere with the operations of Canadian democracy.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Contained cats.

#skndpldr - Super Happy Mega Fun Pundit Navel-Gazing Post

I'll have plenty more to add in later posts about the opportunities the Saskatchewan NDP holds under Cam Broten's leadership. But before this weekend's convention is too far in the rear-view mirror, I'll take a few minutes to assess my own analysis of the leadership campaign.

And I'd like to think I had my share of successes.

My first-ballot best guess numbers were closer to pegging the candidates' positioning than any other poll or source, getting within 3% of each of the candidates' support levels. And my first-ballot analysis was on target in identifying exactly what Cam Broten needed to accomplish to have a chance on the second ballot - even if I underestimated his likelihood of managing to leapfrog Ryan Meili. 

But therein lies the rub: I failed to account appropriately for what proved to be the deciding factor, even after identifying Broten's potential down-ballot appeal as his biggest strength from day one. So where did I go wrong in expecting Meili to hold enough down-ballot support to win based on the first-ballot results?

My working assumption is that I failed to account for an "I like him, but..." factor.

For all the post-campaign spin about a divided party, all indications I've seen are to the effect that each of the leadership candidates was broadly liked by a range of NDP members extending well beyond his immediate supporters. And Meili in particular stood out on that front, with at least one internal poll placing his net favourability rating at +67%.

It then didn't seem plausible to me that an electorate where a strong majority of members even outside of Meili's supporters had a positive view of him would line up strongly against him on a second ballot. (And that went doubly when his second-ballot opponent had been tagged with a marginally higher "will not support" number, and when an army of volunteers was at the ready to chase down the vote of anybody with a marginally positive impression of Meili.)

But ultimately, there is a difference between liking a candidate personally, and actually casting a ballot for him. And Broten looks to have convinced a substantial number of voters who have a favourable view of Meili generally to throw their support elsewhere in choosing their party's leader.

In retrospect, there were some signs which I could have taken into account in seeing that as a possibility - including some actual second-choice data and Broten's slight improvement on my expectations for the first ballot. And indeed, both campaigns look to have been far closer to the mark than I was in assessing the meaning of the first-ballot outcome.

So my takeaway from the just-concluded campaign is this: as much as the HOAG factor matters, a modest lead in favourability may not matter much at all when party members face a one-time vote. 

On first steps

I'm skeptical about Paul Adams' argument that some type of electoral non-compete agreement between the NDP and the Libs is inevitable an election cycle or two down the road. But he does hint at something close to the type of cooperation that I could see as useful in the meantime:
(T)here is a very slight possibility that there will be yet another opening to the idea [of a non-compete deal] before the 2015 election. If the Conservatives were to start polling quite a bit stronger — say nearer the 40 per cent mark — and the Liberal and the NDP were deadlocked in the mid-20 per cent range for long enough, there might be internal and external pressures for Trudeau and Mulcair to temper their intransigence about cooperation.

That’s not the likeliest scenario. Much more probable is that the Liberals and the NDP will insist on at least one more election running on their own.

If it comes to that, progressives should at least demand that their party leaders swear off demonizing each other as they compete for support in the common pool of voters from which they draw.
In effect, the first step toward progressive cooperation could be to at least avoid doing Stephen Harper's work for him by echoing and validating the most damaging parts of the Cons' spin. And I'd argue that the messages worth avoiding include not only gratuitous attacks on each other, but also right-wing tropes which feed into the argument that we shouldn't expect our government to be a force for positive social change.

Of course, even that level of non-competition may not be achieved as easily as it sounds at first blush: the Libs' traditional means of differentiation from the NDP involves parroting Con "tax and spend" soundbites which reinforce a reactionary worldview, while the NDP's ethical and trust arguments against the Libs similarly figure to have a spillover effect in generating cynicism about politics in general. And it's far from clear that either party will give up on those familiar arguments without a fight.

But if our existing parties can't even manage the minimal level of agreement involved in shaping messages which don't undermine long-term values for short-term gain, then it's all the more futile to think they'll do better in assembling a complex and time-consuming non-competition scheme. And if it is in fact possible to agree the priority for the next couple of years is to focus on challenging the Cons' plans for Canada rather than other opposition parties, that might go a long way in ensuring that there's an opportunity to cooperate in governing in 2015 and beyond.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has unveiled its alternative federal budget - which highlights the choice between the Cons' needless austerity, and the 200,000-300,000 extra jobs which could be created alongside important social improvements which could be brought about through well-placed public action.

- Meanwhile, Murray Dobbin worries that the use of interest rates alone as an economic growth strategy is feeding an unsustainable housing bubble - offering anpther indication as to why we should work on expanding socially productive activities rather than hoping that unfettered (and indeed exacerbated) market forces will somehow serve the greater good.

- Vincent Gogolek points out that the Cons are going out of their way to make it more difficult for Canadians to find accurate information about their government online.

- Craig McInnes expands on the B.C. Libs' attempt to erase any remaining line between governing and campaigning:
Citizens have a right to expect that governments separate activities that are rightfully supported by political parties and govern in the name of all the people. The Liberals acknowledge that line was crossed in the ethnic outreach memo.

But they don’t see any problem with using tax dollars to promote the interests of the government at a time when they are insisting that the Opposition has a duty to behave as though we are in an election.
As a journalist who often feeds off dysfunction, I’m happy to see a government that already has its full attention on election day. As a citizen and taxpayer, I think if the government wants to hear from the Opposition, it should shut down the legislature, stop using tax dollars to pay for ads and get on with a real campaign, funded by Liberals.
- Finally, Rob Bluey comments on the importance of effective data collection and analysis in Barack Obama's successful re-election campaign - and the lesson is one which Canadian progressives would do well to keep in mind.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Bea Vongdouangchanh reports on Kevin Page's concerns that the Cons are set to effectively destroy the PBO. And the Star's editorial board slams Stephen Harper's war against transparency and accountability in general:
Stonewalling, foot-dragging and contempt for Parliament pay. At least that’s what the federal government appears to have concluded in the wake of the 2011 election. Toppled two years ago after being found in contempt of Parliament for failing to disclose fiscal information, the Conservatives were nonetheless rewarded in the polls with a majority government — a victory that has served as positive reinforcement for their modus operandi of obfuscation.

Things have only gotten worse. As Kevin Page, Canada’s first parliamentary budget officer, prepares to leave his post later this month, he remains locked in a legal battle with the government — the culmination of a year-long struggle to access details on the specific nature of the deep cuts contained in the last federal budget.
Evidently, the Conservatives are tired of fighting with the PBO. The job description for Page’s replacement, released last Thursday, seems to be a direct rebuke to the outgoing watchdog. The suitable candidate will be “tactful and discreet,” it says, and capable of “achieving consensus.” (Though why an economic analyst whose job is to crunch numbers would ever need to “achieve consensus” is a mystery to us.)
Until the government starts to show some respect for Parliament and the transparency necessary for good government, we can only wonder what it has to hide.
The compensation issue, which had previously more or less been confined to boardrooms and corporate insiders, was no longer about income clarity and disclosure of packages, perks and products. Instead, the debate shifted to themes of inequity and lack of fairness, spilling into public space, both physical and virtual. In Canada, the disgraceful behaviour of Nortel corporate executives who ran off with inflated bonuses while Nortel pensioners were left to salvage scraps, served as a stark reminder that we too must be mindful.

It’s ironic that Jim Collins’ well-regarded 2001 business book Good to Great concluded: “We found no systematic pattern linking executive compensation to the process of going from good to great... the purpose of a compensation system should not be to get the right behaviours from the wrong people, but to get the right people on the bus in the first place, and to keep them there.”
In other words, are we really sure there’s a link between excessive compensation and higher performance?
- Finally, Thomas Walkom highlights how the Cons' obsession with oil exports over all other forms of economic development has made all of Canada vulnerable to the bust cycles inherent in resource economies.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

#skndpldr - The Dramatic Conclusion

After the first ballot results were announced yesterday, I pointed out the 20% net margin of support that Cam Broten needed to turn a close first-ballot result into a narrow win. And that turned out to be exactly what materialized: of the 2,393 votes cast initially for either Trent Wotherspoon or Erin Weir, the final result showed 18% attrition, with 51% to Broten and 31% to Ryan Meili - leading to Broten's election as the Saskatchewan NDP's new leader.

But in retrospect, there was another, even closer vote comparison which may have hinted at the same end result.

Notwithstanding an entirely different type of leadership campaign and plenty of new participants within his own camp, Meili's final vote total of 4,120 was a jump of exactly 18 votes from his second-ballot total in 2009. And while I'm not sure if Broten's campaign focused on that number to any great extent, it turns out that past performance almost exactly paralleled Meili's results this time - as Broten's winning vote count was based on his accumulating just enough down-ballot support to eke past the total Meili had earned before.

So what comes next for the NDP? Well, I've been one of many commentators pointing out the diverse and complementary set of skills among the leadership candidates. And Broten's experience and support should make for a seamless transition within the current NDP caucus.

At the same time, there will be plenty of work to be done in keeping the new supporters of all of the candidates engaged - particularly Meili's grassroots base which produced so many of the creative ideas which emerged during the leadership campaign. And while Broten took some important steps yesterday in echoing Meili's vision and reaching out to the other camps, I'll hope to see plenty of people from all leadership camps looking for ways to stay connected and involved - both within the NDP and in the broader social democratic movement.