Saturday, September 05, 2015

On judicious outrage

Following up on this post, let's take a look at the flip side of the possibility that political parties can help themselves out significantly by taking umbrage with competitors' treatment of them - which is the success (or lack thereof) of exactly that strategy over the past decade.

As I've pointed out before, while 2004 might be the last example of an outrage-based strategy substantially shifting poll numbers, there are more recent cases where it's been tried.

Indeed, the Libs have regularly attempted to make political hay out of the claim that the Cons aren't playing fair. And it's undoubtedly been a fair allegation.

But the general public has never accepted any of the Libs' recent complaints as a reason to either support the Libs or turn against the Cons. While there may be some moments where calling out an opponent for playing politics offers a meaningful chance to tell a leader's own story, a failed attempt to tug at the public's heartstrings can backfire significantly by making the leader appear to be out of touch with voters.

To be fair, there is one other noteworthy goal in raising a complaint about an opponent even if it falls short of earning a response from the wider public: it might manage to rally partisan forces, offering a sense of shared grievance which might help keep current supporters in the fold while also serving as practice to amplify a party message for when a more compelling issue comes up. And it's possible the Libs' past complaints about Con unfairness have accomplished that much.

I'd also note as an aside that concerns about fairness are far more likely to be useful as a defensive rather than an offensive maneuver. 

Particularly during the course of an election campaign, though, I'd think a party would want to avoid spending meaningful time and political capital highlighting all but the most obviously-intolerable personal slights - lest it otherwise be seen as missing the point of what voters care about for themselves.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Andrew Jackson writes that the Cons have gone out of their way to destroy the federal government's capacity to improve the lives of Canadians:
When the Harper government took office, federal tax revenues (2006-07 fiscal year) were 13.5% of GDP, a bit shy of the 14.5% peak in 2000-01. In the most recent fiscal year, 2014-15, they are projected in the most recent federal budget to be just 11.4% of GDP, which is lower than in the mid 1960s before the creation of much of the modern welfare state.

With total GDP now just under $2 trillion, a seemingly small decline in federal tax revenues of 2.1 percentage points of GDP translates into foregone annual revenues of $41.5 billion. To put that in perspective, in 2014-15 federal transfers to the provinces for heath care and social programs combined came to almost as much, $44.7 billion.

If federal capacity were at the same level as in 2006, Canada could afford 8 national child care programs on the scale proposed by Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair. Or we could increase by 7 times the current level of federal funding of transit and municipal infrastructure.

Tax cuts have clearly been a much greater priority for the Harper government than investments in programs or services, or balancing the federal budget.
One thing is clear. A progressive alternative to the Harper government and ambitious investment plans will be possible only if some part of the massively eroded fiscal capacity of the federal government is restored.
- Meanwhile, Lana Payne comments on the Cons' economic failures. Nora Loreto examines how Canada's immediate recession and broader stagnation are affecting people in their everyday lives. And Heather Mallick notes that the Cons' fixed election date has played a significant (if less than conclusive) role in forcing Stephen Harper to answer for his broken economic promises.

- Indivar Dutta-Gupta, Peter Edelman and LaDonna Pavetti discuss new research showing how extreme poverty is on the rise in the U.S. And Deborah Orr points out how the UK's court system is creating systematic injustice for people too poor to hire a lawyer or pay a mandatory fine.

- Sara Mojtehedzadeh reports on a study finding that unionized construction workplaces are far more safe than non-union ones.

- Finally, Wendy Martin reports on just how far the Cons' vote suppression efforts have reached, as a former provincial party leader in Nova Scotia is unable to cast a ballot.

Attack and response

Earlier this week, Andrew Coyne mused on Twitter about how parties seek to make hay out of attacks by their opponents, with particular emphasis on the Libs' response to PC and Con attacks on their leaders in 1993 and 2004. But I'd think it's worth noting some distinctions between then and now which may make the tactic rather less effective than it might once have been - as well as discussing the circumstances where it might still work.

To start with, let's look at the threshold a party needs to cross to be seen as going too far - and how it may have been altered by the last decade in Canadian politics.

If the attacks mentioned by Coyne gave rise to a public backlash, it's surely because they represented a significant departure from what Canadians had seen in the time preceding them. In 1993, any political ads between elections would have been utterly unknown, making a seemingly personal image sprung without warning during a campaign look like something far beyond the realm of the familiar and acceptable. And in 2004, Stephen Harper's attacks on Paul Martin likewise came out of the blue.

But now, the situation is rather different - whether the consequence was intended or not.

The Cons' habit of launching personal attacks early and often might once have been explained by the instability of minority Parliaments. But they've continued the pattern throughout three terms in office including one as a majority government - meaning that few voters now figure to be taken by surprise. And the Cons can hardly be said to have been punished politically for doing so.

Moreover, especially over-the-top ads such as the glittery ones which mocked Justin Trudeau may actually leave room for campaign attacks to appear reasonable and measured by comparison.

I'd thus argue that the Cons have not only planted their specific messages in the public consciousness, but also substantially moved the bar as to what will actually inspire public outrage. (Indeed, the exact same charge which arguably hurt Harper in 2004 didn't seem to do much lasting damage to the Cons when it became part of their message while in power.)

Now, it's true that the Cons' credibility is in tatters - and it may be that attack fatigue represents a contributing factor. But there's a difference between weariness with an incumbent and a willingness to be outraged on behalf of a competitor. And while we can't rule out the prospect that something during the course of the campaign will still manage to cross a line which the public won't tolerate, we shouldn't be under the illusion that the line is in the same place now as two decades ago.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Musical interlude

Basement Jaxx feat. ETML - Never Say Never

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Kate McInturff puts forward some big long-term goals which deserve to be discussed as we elect our next federal government. And Leah McLaren discusses how a lack of child care affects every Canadian:
The single most shocking thing to me about becoming a mother was the lack of affordable child care, both in Canada and in Britain (where I was living when my son was born). It was an issue I had heard responsible people around me banging on about for years, but one that had sort of floated above my comprehension, like the sound of the grown-ups talking in the animated Charlie Brown.

Like car insurance or taxes, I expected organizing child care to be a pain – one of those annoying but ultimately surmountable aspects of grown-up life. What I did not expect it to be was a financially crippling, life-paralyzing quagmire.

In Canada (as in Britain), I was shocked to find little or no access to affordable child care during my son’s first years of life. Like most families, we shouldered the heavy financial burden of full-time child care all on our own with no help from the government or extended family (everyone lives out of town). It was either that or one of us quit working. Not a pretty choice, or a realistic one for most parents, either.
Child care is not a women’s issue. It’s not even a family issue. Like health care or education, it’s an all-of-us-in-it-together issue. And yet it’s also something many of us don’t think about until we are hard up against it, confronting the impossible life choices that materialize when you live in a society with a lack of affordable daycare – a society that sentimentalizes children but not the act of actually caring for them.
- Lindsay Tedds discusses how the Cons' tax giveaways for resource exploration represent all that's wrong with public policy which serves only to enrich investors rather than serving the public interest. And David Dayen highlights how mortgage foreclosure fraud continues in the U.S. even after being publicly exposed.

- Derek Seidman notes that in addition to improving conditions in specific workplaces, the push for a $15 minimum wage is also serving as a rallying point for the labour movement as a whole. And Unifor highlights the importance of an improved Canada Pension Plan as another means of ensuring financial security regardless of one's immediate employer. 

- Finally, Terry Glavin follows up on Alan Kurdi's tragic story with some suggestions as to what can be done next - though it's worth noting that the convention he points to as a barrier to the Kurdis' effort to seek refuge does nothing to prevent a country from doing more than the bare minimum.  Ratna Omidvar, Joseph Yu and Kai Wong make the case to bring 1,000 refugees to the GTA alone. And Aaron Wherry takes a broader look at our options in dealing with refugees and other displaced persons, while Karl Nerenberg and Michael Harris are particularly pointed in criticizing the Cons' callousness.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Following up on this post, it was Terry Glavin who broke the story about refugee children dying after being refused admission into Canada. And the Guardian recognizes that the tragic image of Aylin Kurdi represents only a reminder of a a long-running human tragedy.

- Which is why Canada's treatment of newcomers was already emerging as a significant issue - with Harsha Walia rightly slamming the Cons' policy of jailing refugees and favouring temporary immigration. And Jason Kenney's response was to offer spin which was readily debunked by his government's own numbers.

- Zi-Ann Lum reports on another international embarrassment for Canada, as Barack Obama and John Kerry are calling out the Cons for refusing to take climate change seriously.

- Jeremy Nuttall examines how a recession and continued economic stagnation will affect different segments of Canadian society. And Trish Hennessy offers ten reasons why nobody should be taking Stephen Harper's economic advice, while Andrew Jackson makes the case for more investment as the best way to move us back toward real development.

- Finally, Frances Russell repurposes the Cons' "Stand Up for Canada" slogan as a compelling reason to vote Harper and company out of office.

New column day

Here, condensing this post about the lessons the federal NDP can and should learn from past provincial elections.

For further reading...
- Michelle Gagnon notes that one area where matters don't seem to be in doubt is Quebec, where the NDP looks set to hold or even build on its 2011 wave. And with the NDP's numbers looking strong in B.C. as well, that leaves Ontario as the largest piece of the puzzle which remains in substantial doubt.
- Susan Delacourt comments on the ghosts looming over each of the federal parties. 
- Finally, John Ivison writes about the contest between the NDP and the Liberals for the large number of voters who have had enough of the Harper Cons, while Robin Sears discusses the Libs' rebranding and how it affects all of the parties' strategies.

Juxtaposition II: Humanitarian Boogaloo

From one stunt...
The news of McCain's suspension drew gales of derision from the press. No one was willing to give him the slightest benefit of the doubt...that his motivations were anything less than craven...

McCainworld had assumed that the suspension would be viewed as an authentic, characteristic act of putting country first. But...McCain was now seen as a typical, and faintly desperate politician - and his campaign a campaign of stunts. another:
Conservative candidate Chris Alexander has suspended his campaign for re-election in the riding of Ajax, Ont., in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Alexander cancelled a Thursday morning media appearance and is returning to Ottawa to focus on his ministerial responsibilities. They include looking into a case brought to the forefront Wednesday after disturbing images emerged showing a Syrian toddler's body washed up on a beach in Turkey.

In a statement, Alexander said "the tragic photo of young Aylan Kurdi and the news of the death of his brother and mother broke hearts around the world."
Meanwhile, Tabatha Southey calls out Alexander for still caring only about optics:
And Tonda MacCharles notes how the Cons' campaign-only mentality will prevent Alexander from running even a public relations exercise from his office:

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

On reasonable responses

Let's offer a quick reminder to the Libs' spin machine, and particularly to the people who should know better who are choosing to echo it.

No party is under an obligation to reflexively attack or belittle everything another party proposes in its election platform.

If a platform plank or general principle raised during the campaign can't reasonably be opposed, the appropriate response is to at least recognize that fact before trying to start spinning. And one Lib spokesperson roughly followed that course in addressing the NDP's push to fund women's shelters to ensure nobody in need of a safe place gets turned away.

Another did not. And it's no excuse to say that Ralph Goodale chose to respond to a specific idea by ignoring the subject at hand, and instead reverting to his party's most tired, off-topic talking points.

It's absolutely true that the goal of combating violence against women should be so obvious that no reasonable public representative could pretend it doesn't matter. That leaves plenty of room for response to any proposal - including general agreement in the context of the wider campaign, an offer of alternative solutions, or pointing out a valid reason why the proposal fails to meet the purpose.

But if Goodale or any other politician is so caught up in negativity as to pretend both a policy and the undisputed issue it addresses don't matter, surely the fault lies with him - not with the party pointing out his unreasonableness.

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Jim Stanford, Iglika Ivanova and David MacDonald each highlight how there's far more to be concerned about in Canada's economy beyond the GDP dip alone. Both Thomas Walkom and the Star's editorial board write that it's clear the Cons have nothing to offer when it comes to trying to improve on our current stagnation, while Balbulican notes that the Cons' economic message amounts to little more than denial. And David Climenhaga calls out the laughable attempt by Alberta's right wing to shield Stephen Harper from blame for a decade of failed federal economic policy while declaring the NDP to bear full and sole responsibility for a province it's only governed since May.

- Gillian Steward explains why B.C.'s First Nations are wary of the Northern Gateway pipeline. 

- Michele Biss argues that we can best combat poverty with a rights-based approach. And Mark Lemstra, Marla Rogers, and John Moraros study the connection between low incomes and heart disease.

- Kady O'Malley takes an interesting look at the types of basic information requests which have been met with no response whatsoever from the federal government. And Elizabeth Thompson exposes the Cons' proclamation of dozens of secret Orders in Council which serve no purpose but to prevent anybody from holding the government to account.

- Finally, Marc Spooner laments the commoditization of post-secondary education as audit culture replaces any interest in new or creative forms of education and research.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Capped cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Sherri Torjman comments on the importance of social policy among our political choices, while lamenting its absence from the first leaders' debate:
(M)arket economies go through cycles, with periods of stability followed by periods of slump and uncertainty. Canada has weathered these economic cycles, and even major recessions, largely because of our social-policy initiatives. Income-security programs, in particular, are vital economic measures. The problem is that most of these have withered and shrunk in recent years and are in need of major repair.

Why is social policy so important to the economy?

First, income-security programs act as household shock absorbers when times are tough. Employment Insurance, childcare benefits, public pensions and welfare are intended to ensure that all Canadians have at least some money to pay for necessities such as food, clothing and shelter.
Second, income-security programs act as fiscal stimulus when the economic wheels start slowing. They put money directly into the hands of large numbers of Canadians, whose collective spending can jump-start our economic engine and help keep it running.
Finally, certain income-security programs stabilize the economy by bolstering low wages. These earning supplementation programs are controversial, with many arguing that decent living wages should be employers’ responsibility. In the meantime, millions of Canadians struggle on low and unstable incomes.
Shock absorber, fiscal stimulus and economic stabilizer: These are all crucial roles of social policy and of income-security programs, specifically. They blow wind into the sails of the economy and help ensure a smoother economic ride.

While their vital roles are central to the country’s economic health, they are relegated to the sidelines in most debates. An economic-policy discussion without its intrinsic social-policy component is definitely incomplete.
- Angella MacEwen challenges the theory that deficits necessarily have anything to do with progressive policy, while Nora Loreto fact-checks the Libs' spin about the opposition parties' placement on the political spectrum.

- The CCPA's Good for Canada project offers an important summary of what we should be looking for in order to reduce inequality. And Jim Hightower writes that some of the wealthiest Americans are looking to fight inequality for everybody's good including their own.

- Michael Harris calls out the Cons' continued reign of fear. But Chantal Hebert writes that the goal of scaring voters away from opposition parties no longer seems to be in reach for Harper and company, as they're the party spooking away voters they need to form government. Which goes to show that the Harper propaganda discussed by Andrew Nikiforuk is far from having its intended effect.

- Finally, Sandy Garossino notes that the revelations about Mike Duffy's bribery, cover-up and trial represent just the latest example of Stephen Harper's war against the law. And David Krayden comments on the laughable plea of knowing nothing from the PMO when it comes to one of its most significant issues from the Cons' time in office.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Branko Milanovic answers Harry Frankfurt's attempt to treat inequality as merely an issue of absolute deprivation by reminding us how needs are inherently social:
“[Under necessities] I understand not only the commodities that are indispensable for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without.” (Book 5, Chapter 2)
Smith’s observation has far-reaching consequences. If our needs depend on what is socially acceptable, then they will clearly vary as between different societies. They will depend on the wealth of such societies or wealth of our peer groups. Consequently, our needs are (1) even in theory endless (because development has no material limit), and (2) they are thoroughly relative. We cannot distinguish between that part of the needs which is presumably due to ourselves, our “real” needs that, according to Professor Frankfurt, determine whether “[we] have good lives, and not how [our] lives compare with the lives of others” and the other part which is presumably due to the environment.

It is futile to try to distinguish between the two. We do not know what are our needs until we live in a society and observe the needs of others. So, pace Professor Frankfurt, we cannot just imagine that others do not exist as he enjoins us to do. All our needs are social.
- Meanwhile, John Rentoul reports on a new poll showing just how many social needs are going unmet in the UK, as two-thirds of people don't see themselves having any meaningful influence in shaping their own society. And Robyn Benson comments on the Cons' silencing of anybody who has anything to say beyond their own talking points.

- Guy Boulton discusses new research into the link between poverty and brain development. And Amy Traub points out that equal pay for women would go a long way toward reducing poverty in the U.S.

- Lobat Sadrehashemi, Peter Edelmann and Suzanne Baustad highlight how the Cons' rushed policy on refugees is designed to prevent valid claims from being fully assessed. And Dean Beeby takes a look at the Cons' costly broken promise of a database to track missing persons.

- Finally, Rick Salutin writes that whatever its end result, Donald Trump's presidential run should offer us a disturbing indication as to how anti-democratic leaders can use democratic systems to take power.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

On transitions

Bob Hepburn makes clear that while the Libs may still be in denial about the importance of cooperating to remove the Harper Cons from power, their best friends in the media are under no such illusions. But the most noteworthy contribution to Canada's discussion about post-election options comes from Aaron Wherry - particularly in highlighting what factors have, and have not, been taken into account in determining who gets a chance to form government:
(A) Progressive Conservative government in Ontario in 1985 was defeated in the legislature and replaced by a Liberal government that had signed a governing accord with the NDP caucus. Interestingly, it is recounted in this piece for Canadian Parliamentary Review that when the defeated premier, Frank Miller, tendered his resignation with Ontario’s lieutenant-governor, he advised that an alternative was prepared to govern: “It would appear that the Honourable Leader of the Opposition is able to gain the confidence of the House at this time.”

The lieutenant-governor of the day, John Black Aird, then issued a statement to explain the change:
In my capacity as Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario and as the representative of Her Majesty the Queen in Ontario, I have this day asked Mr. David Peterson to form a government, he having assured me that he can form a government which will have the confidence of the Legislative Assembly for a reasonable length of time.
On the advice of counsel with whose opinions I agree, I have advised Mr. Peterson that the agreement between the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party, a copy of which had been delivered to me, has no legal force or effect and that it should be considered solely as a joint political statement of intent and that the agreement cannot affect or impair the powers or privileges of the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario nor of the members of the Legislative Assembly.
Wherry goes on to note that there are also two precedents in which alternative governments might have had the opportunity to form government without the consent of the incumbent: the federal Parliament in 1980 when other parties did not seek the opportunity to replace Joe Clark's PCs (who had already won a confidence vote), and again in 2004 when no confidence vote was brought against Paul Martin's Libs. And there's one example of a party actually finishing second in seats and forming government over the objections of the incumbent which had lost a confidence vote (that being Saskatchewan's legislature in 1929).

But the review of the historical record suggests a few points to keep in mind. The Governor General actually holds a great deal of discretion in determining what factors matter in assessing an incumbent's request for dissolution and/or the right to continue governing - with a previous confidence vote and a signed agreement encompassing a majority of representatives being less than determinative (if significant at all) on their own. And the transition process (like so many other aspects of our system of governance) relies in substantial part on the good faith of the leaders involved in assessing their prospects of winning Parliament's support, which we can't take for granted from Harper.

All of which means that we shouldn't consider a seeming defeat for the Cons - whether the loss of a majority or a drop in the party standings - to completely close the door on Harper clinging to power. And we should thus stay motivated to make sure the electorate's verdict leaves Harper and the Governor General no choice but to allow for a transfer of power.

The secret platform

It never figured to take long for the Cons to start making up numbers for lack of any legitimate criticism of the NDP's platform - and Jason Kenney has charged into the breach. But it's worth noting the source of many of the supposedly-costed items, which consist of NDP MPs' committee reports.

To be clear, committee reports represent an important contribution in Parliament's governance of public policy. And what makes them stand out is that fact that they offer independent review by representatives tasked with assessing particular issues - who can then be expected to reach their own conclusions on the optimal solutions for those issues in a vacuum.

But because reports are necessarily focused on specific areas of review, they can't generally be taken as a statement of the decisions which a party might make in balancing competing priorities. And that's exactly where voters normally have reason to look to a party's platform as an integrated set of policy choices for the next term of office - and to ignore any attempt to let opposition parties treat committee reports as a substitute.

That said, there is one exception which is only highlighted by Kenney's stance.

It's well-known (and recently confirmed) that due to the meddling of Stephen Harper's PMO, Conservative caucus members - MPs and Senators alike - don't have the freedom to conduct independent reviews of legislation or policy choices that we'd expect from the rest of our parliamentarians. And so it's probably fair to treat the Cons' committee reports as reflecting Stephen Harper's judgment - a conclusion which is only reinforced by his right hand man in saying he consideres other parties' representatives' reports to be party policy.

That means that Harper is on the hook to answer for, say, the proposals from his Senate caucus to pursue government certification of imams, or to gut the CBC. And the opposition parties may want to take a far closer look at the Cons' committee reports as the campaign progresses - since no less a figure than Jason Kenney considers them to be part of his party's platform.

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Dana Flavelle examines how many Canadians are facing serious economic insecurity. And Kevin Campbell discusses how the Cons are vulnerable on the economy due to their obvious failure to deliver on their promises, as well as their misplaced focus on trickle-down ideology:
During this election it is essential to understand that we live in an era of persistent financial insecurity among the majority of the population. Household balance sheets are in a tenuous state throughout the industrialized world, particularly in Canada. This inevitably affects how citizens choose to vote. Healthcare, education, ethics and the environment — they all matter a great deal and undoubtedly influence voter behaviour. But the party that secures economic confidence wins elections in this country.
The reality is that the parties of the left actually focus heavily on the well-being of the most vital driver in the economy: you. The household. And by that, I do not mean nuclear families alone. I mean any household, including single people, single parents, childless couples and widowers. I mean everyone who orbits around the average or the median, and certainly those who survive on less. The household is the engine to which the rest of the economy responds. It is a strong foundation of employment, consumption and tax revenue that propels everything else in the system.

Corporations and investors simply respond to demand — and aggregate demand is not powered by the top one per cent or even the top 10 per cent. Disposable income flows when we create the conditions for the average household to adequately feed, clothe and shelter itself, supported by the opportunity to be healthy and educated.
A Leger poll released last week placed “stimulating the Canadian economy” as the top issue for the October election, sequentially followed by the related subjects of “helping middle-class families” and “job creation.” The NDP leads on the latter two items and is nipping at Harper’s heels on the first. If recent history is any guide, victory will come to the party that evokes the greatest confidence on such issues.

Progressives can, and must, earn that confidence.
- Meanwhile, Roderick Benns talks to Alax mayor Steve Parish about the benefits a basic income can provide in both fighting poverty and ensuring economic security. 

- Martha Friendly highlights the need for child care in Canada - as well as for the federal government to be involved in funding and developing a functional system. And Joey Porter reports on the Cons' gross failure to deliver even approved funding for clean water for First Nations.

- Dave Cournoyer takes a first look at Alberta's royalty review panel and the benefits it should produce for the public. And Mike De Souza reports on what happens when environmental regulators actually do their jobs - as Nexen is being required to demonstrate it can operate pipelines safely in the wake of its spill, rather than being let off with a promise to do better.

- Finally, Harriet Sherwood examines a global crackdown on human rights organizations and other civil society groups. And Sheena Goodyear reports on how Tony Turner's Harperman fits into the wider issue of allowing public servants some voice in the political system in which they work.