Saturday, January 07, 2006

A positive comparison

One of Saskatchewan's top Liberal officials hints at where he sees Monday's debate going - and the NDP would be as happy as anybody if he's right:
(Saskatchewan Liberal co-chair Doug) Richardson said the province will also soon see Public Works Minister Scott Brison and Justice Minister Irwin Cotler here. Also, Monday's leaders' debate may see the focus switch to Harper and his own lack of accountability.
If there's anything to Richardson's view, then the Libs' attack on the Cons will be largely intended to point out a lack of accountability within the Cons. But that's great news for Layton and company, as the NDP can point to a far better record of internal accountability than any of the other federal parties.

It's enough of a plus that Layton's party isn't stuck with problems such as the Libs' internal bloodbath or Harper's habit of muzzling his MPs during the campaign. But even better, Layton can point to the fact that in his party, even sitting MPs actually have to justify themselves to their riding associations before securing their nominations. And that's a great message to send to voters who recognize that when it comes to accountability, the proof is in the pudding.

Of course, for that very reason the Libs will surely make their usual attempt to pretend the NDP doesn't exist. But that'll be counteracted both by Harper's need to boost the NDP, and by the fact that internal controls are one area where every party has a lengthy track record.

So bring on the accountability discussion. Unlike the other leaders, Layton has nothing to hide - and the more voters who hear that message, the better.

Directionless

Once again, PMPM's election promises take the form of claiming he'll clean up his own messes:
Canadian shipping companies, like Canada Steamship Lines, and their US counterparts, pump an estimated 2,500 tons of cargo residue into the lakes each year during 11,000 ship transits, according to a 1999 report by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration...

Former CSL employees say the cargo was usually dumped discreetly, either at night or, if in daytime, when planes or other ships weren't nearby, to avoid attracting attention.
Just in time for the final debates, the Libs have opened themselves up for a "going around in circles" label to go along with the "broken promises" one that's fit so nicely already. We'll look forward to seeing just how small the circles get; with PMPM as desperate as he appears, it may not be long before his post-holiday promises start contradicting those from earlier in the campaign.

Working the announcers

Earlier this week, Jack MacAndrew analogized between the coverage of momentum in sports and politics, respectively. But MacAndrew missed the worst part of the link between the two:
It's as though there is some invisible force at work that reinforces the efforts of those who are well-prepared and well-organized. The other team makes mistakes, and the puck or ball or whatever, always seems to slide or bounce the other way.

Some call it “getting the breaks” but I say, it's not luck or pure chance at work here. In practice, “the breaks” come to those who force them, and then move quickly to take advantage of them...

There now seems to be a growing consensus amongst the pundits that the Liberals are losing this election campaign. It would seem so. Slowly but surely the Conservatives have been inching upward in the daily tracking polls conducted by CPAC. Where the polls were showing a ten point difference, the gap is now half that, and the trend line favours the challengers as the campaign enters the crucial final weeks.
The crucial part of the analogy missed by MacAndrew is that in both sports and politics, it's easy for those covering the game to get so caught up in discussing one team's momentum that they ignore what's actually going on within the game. (And that's true regardless of whether the announcer has any real preference as to who emerges victorious.) But the consequences of that coverage are far more severe in politics.

In sports, the only harm done is to the viewer's respect for whoever's calling the game. When a football announcer goes on a rant about how Team A is completely in control of the game, it doesn't do anything to harm Team B's ability to intercept a pass and take it the other way for a touchdown. And when the rant about Team A's invincibility continues even as its content is proven wrong, the only damage is to the announcer's credibility.

But within the election, the declared momentum has a way of influencing the very game that's being described. And the campaign so far has been a textbook example of presumed momentum taking precedence over any realistic description of what's happened.

I discussed yesterday how the NDP's solid campaign has been essentially ignored by those assessing the campaign so far. But let's take a look at what's happened just this week since the Cons really took the lead among the punditocracy:

- Harper both insulted older Canadians by claiming they "aren't in touch with the country's needs", and once again couldn't convince even his own photo-op of any merit to a key Con plank;
- the Cons demonstrated total contempt for the environment by refusing to answer a Greenpeace questionnaire;
- the Cons' child care plan was again panned by interested lobby groups; and,
- Harper both conceded that he couldn't ensure a government any more ethical than the Libs', and invoked the record of one of the few Canadian political figures who deserves to be seen with even more suspicion than PMPM.

Anybody wishing to list further ones that I've missed can feel free. But all of the above stories reflect at least potential bumps in the road for the Cons: any real attention to any of them could easily undermine whatever momentum the Cons supposedly have.

Now ask how prominently these stories have been dealt with among the same pundits eager to declare the campaign won by Harper. My guess is, not very - meaning that to the extent that columnists have talked about the Cons running a clean campaign, avoiding gaffes, etc., they've done so based on wilful ignorance of what's actually happened. This is probably based far more on a desire to be seen telling a story than any real partisanship, but the effect is the same either way.

The problem is that the political game is too big for most voters to be expected to know all the action that's going on. And for lack of any easy ability to do so, all too many people have little choice but to rely on the announcers to provide an accurate description. Meaning that when the announcers keep gushing about Team A's momentum, that description may easily remain the voters' perception of what's going on - no matter how many times Team A fumbles the ball.

The Cons' supposed momentum is the flip side of the NDP's perceived lack of momentum: both find their source more in the self-reinforcing views of pundits describing the game according to their own storylines than in a complete view of what's happening. And it's one of the great tragedies of Canadian politics that the best team on the field may again be losing out because of the broadcasters' unwillingess to call all of the action.

(Edit: typo.)

A message worth copying

The management of Progressive Bloggers offers an anti-endorsement against Sarmite Bulte and Bev Oda based on the funding sources of the two heirs to the Heritage Ministry:
Here at Progressive Bloggers, we agree with Professor Geist and the growing chorus of others who are not comfortable with the appearance of American-style lobby-group politics in Canada. In the US, the Republicans, led by Tom Delay and his supporters (most notable among those the recently convicted lobbyist Jack Abramhoff) have shown how this type of influence can lead to corruption and pork-barrel politics and can seriously endanger the political process's integrity. We at Progressive Bloggers want nothing to do with this, and want it kept out of Canada.

Therefore, the staff at Progressive Bloggers are announcing our opposition to Sam Buite's and Bev Oda's attempts to be re-elected, and we ask the voters of those respective ridings to vote for a candidate who is not beholden to the pro-copyright lobbyists, and to oust them.
It seems clear that both Bulte and Oda have an advantage over their rivals based on the added funding from the copyright lobby. But it's the voters who'll get to decide whether or not to allow that advantage to stand. And if they make a strong enough statement that such meddling in our election won't go unpunished, that could do wonders to help prevent similar interference in the future.

Friday, January 06, 2006

On each others' turf

In response to Harper's big policy re-announcement today, the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada points out the air of unreality surrounding the Cons' child-care plan:
Pledging $250 million to create child care spaces through tax breaks to businesses is an old idea that Mike Harris tried in Ontario. No business took up the offer and not one space was created. Tax incentives will not create a child care program. It's the same patchwork approach that has left so many parents scrambling to make child care arrangements without access to regulated child care services.
The choice on child care is all too clear - between two plans which claim to be able to create a lot more spaces than could possibly come from the amount of money promised, as opposed to one which is actually designed to work. And the more Harper tries to pitch his own sad excuse for a plan, the more likely Canadians are to notice that distinction.

Meanwhile, the NDP presented its justice plan today - to rave reviews from Con bloggers. While I'll agree with those who are skeptical that reverse-onus bail will withstand Charter scrutiny, the policy nicely positions the NDP as demanding punishment for those who deserve it, while also ensuring a better chance for those who do play within the rules.

Update: This post is the best the CBC's Blog Report can find for a criticism of the NDP's crime-fighting plan? Clearly the party must be doing something right.

Hold your head up and vote for me

Rick Salutin starts off by asking a very important question:
One of the abiding mysteries of Canadian politics is how the NDP manages not to succeed. I say this because it seems to me they represent exactly what mainstream Canadian political culture has come to be about. What is that? It's mild social democracy — a strong central government with a positive role in social programs, balancing regional and other inequities etc. — all the things Paul Martin proclaims as his vision when he's running for office, and which the NDP can only make him deliver under the severe duress of a minority Parliament...

(W)hat I don't see is why voters were...reluctant to move toward Jack Layton's NDP. The NDP has always whined about how the Liberals stole its program and its rightful place in the political landscape. With the Liberals largely nullifying themselves, why couldn't the NDP reclaim that place? Why don't voters move toward them, at least in part?
Unfortunately, to the extent that Salutin tries to answer the question, he couldn't be any further from the mark:
Is a big part of the problem Jack Layton's leadership? Sure. Even as a new face, with lots of media slack cut for him, he couldn't bring the party up to the low level required to form a coalition with the Liberals and make some demands. He probably acted as a drag and cost seats. He made some real gains for Canadians when he struck his budget deal with Paul Martin. Then he opted to help bring down the government, perhaps losing whatever credits he acquired for actually acting to improve our society...

What would I like to hear Jack Layton say when he sums up at the end of next week's debates? How about: Hold your nose and vote for me.
Needless to say, Salutin couldn't be much further off base - both in blaming the NDP's problems on Canada's most trusted leader, and in claiming the party should change its message to one that makes the Dippers sound no more principled than the Libs or Cons. But let's go back to the initial question for a moment.

By any objective standard, the NDP's campaign so far should be a roaring success. The NDP is the only major federal party to have avoided both major gaffes and internal controversies during the campaign. The party has stayed on message and released a solid platform which has never really been questioned. The NDP was the source of the campaign's most-acclaimed ad, and also contributed the best humourous addition so far. And when asked about the New Democrats, voters see the party both as deserving of more seats, and as no less viable as a government than the Cons or the Libs.

So what's missing? The obvious problem is a lack of exposure during the campaign as a whole. While the NDP has done well when it's managed to get its voice heard, there's been a strong tendency for the media to report on the NDP as at best an afterthought. When the NDP gets a relatively equal stage (such as during the days surrounding the debates), its poll numbers rise; when the race gets pitched as Lib versus Con for weeks at a time, the numbers drop.

That's not so much an issue for those actively seeking out content, as the dedicated election pages have generally covered the parties fairly equally. But looking at a typical polling headline, would a Canadian voter have the slightest clue whether the NDP was gaining or losing ground at any point during the election? Or even that the NDP was running?

In turn, the lack of coverage naturally leads voters to worry about the danger of "wasting" a vote on the NDP compared to the Libs or Cons. I'll cover the different ways in which a principled vote is anything but a waste even if it doesn't elect a candidate later on. But for now, suffice it to say that strategic voting is obviously alive and well, and that there's far too much danger of a 2004-like stampede at the end of the campaign.

So what can be done? To briefly agree once again with Salutin, there most certainly isn't an easy answer as to how to change things - particularly from the NDP's standpoint, since so many of the factors shaping the race (particularly the media's coverage and the other parties' angles) are inherently out of the Dippers' hands. Part of the answer must be for Layton to make sure his voice gets heard in the campaign...which may necessitate a few more attacks and a few less policy announcements. (Sadly, it does sell...and if it's going to happen, better to be able to have the trust of the voters onside when they have to decide which attacks to believe.)

But the bigger issue has to be to highlight the gap between what Canadians think and how the race has been covered...and to point out that it's only by proving wrong the media's perception of a two-horse race that voters can actually cause meaningful change in the long term.

Voters know they can support the NDP without having to hold their noses, and Layton most certainly shouldn't do anything to change that fact. The key instead is to make sure voters know that the most pleasant choice at the ballot box will also lead to a better-smelling political scene in the long run - based on both a voter's own choice, and based on the number of voters willing to turn a stampede the NDP's way if the polls reflect the desire for a cleaner system.

Environmentally irresponsible

Remember UK Conservative leader David Cameron's effort to make his party environmentally friendly? Word comes out today that not only has Stephen Harper refused to take any such steps in Canada, but the Cons didn't even bother responding to Greenpeace's election questionnaire:
Greenpeace surveyed the five major parties on key environmental issues, but did not receive any responses from the Conservatives.

They will release the survey results today, in order to help "green" voters choose a candidate.
From a quick review of the submissions so far, there's plenty to like in both the NDP and Green responses. The NDP simply commits to the bulk of the measures, the Greens do the same with a bit more explanation.

Meanwhile, the Libs go with their typical strategy of claiming that they've already solved every environmental issue that matters, so if it hasn't been dealt with yet, it's nothing to worry about. Which is of course tremendously comforting when it comes to the continued generation and as-of-yet unplanned disposal of nuclear waste.

Yet even the Libs' dismissive view toward key issues is less worrisome than the Cons' apparent view that the environment isn't even important enough to be worth the time involved in putting forward the party's stance. While the Cons were called on their neglect in the article, it'll take a lot more attention to the environment within the campaign for voters to properly focus on the parties who are genuinely concerned about the issue.

(Edit: revised last paragraph.)

Thursday, January 05, 2006

A funny type of friendship

One more sign that if PMPM doesn't like the reality he's in, he has no qualms about making one up:
Martin panned Layton's "new-found friendship" with Stephen Harper, even as Layton was denouncing the Conservative leader's "offside" views elsewhere on the campaign trail...

(Said Martin), "for the better part of this campaign, (Layton) has been out there publicly saying, 'I'm with Stephen Harper.'"
Let's check the smell test on this one. What has Layton had to say about Harper since the campaign started?

From January 3:
When you vote Liberal, bad things happen. Sometimes it means you get a Liberal. Bad enough! But in Oshawa it got worse – it meant getting a Conservative.

From January 2:
Can you name anything the Conservatives accomplished? Under whatever name they’ve been calling themselves.

From December 22:
If you voted Conservative or Reform or Alliance in the past because you thought their MPs would fight to clean up government – to make it accountable. But found they didn’t and they won’t.

From December 20:
I just came back from the West. People there told me about all their do-nothing Conservative MPs – the ones who came to Ottawa, but forgot Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

People in Saskatchewan and British Columbia told me there is nothing more unproductive than a Conservative MP.

From December 18:
Conservatives don’t deliver. It’s a two-party race here, and the Conservative who’s running this time is just as ineffective and he won’t get the job done either. People know that a vote for Alex Atamanenko and the NDP is a vote to defeat do-nothing Conservatives...

You saw Stephen Harper in the debates. Wrong on the issues. Out of touch with Canadians’ values. Stephen Harper, the Leader of 22 do-nothing BC Conservative MPs, who have been sitting comfortably in Ottawa for years and have absolutely nothing to show for it – because they aren’t very good at their jobs...

Let’s call it as we see it about Stephen Harper. Stephen Harper and his do-nothing Conservative caucus. They want to roll back human rights in Canada. Does that deserve a vote in BC? They’ve been sitting in Ottawa for twelve years. Did they accomplish anything for BC? Do twelve years of Conservative do-nothings in
Ottawa deserve a vote in BC? I don’t think so either.
If any Lib supporters would like to try to find a comparable number of pro-Harper comments out of Layton's mouth, feel free. Here's a hint: it'll be a waste of your time - just like trying to defend PMPM.

Now, if this is Martin's idea of a friendship, there's plenty of reason to wonder just how Martin maintains any friends of his own. But considering how Martin has treated some of his supposed political friends in the past, and the fact that the next Libs in line are doing their best to push their "friend" PMPM overboard, maybe the relationship between Harper and Layton would pass for friendship in the Liberal Party.

The problem for Martin is that since the same standard wouldn't apply for anybody else on the face of the planet, voters won't give him the benefit of the doubt when he gets the definitions of "friendship" mixed up. And he's not getting any closer to being in touch with Canadians by being so far off the mark.

On believability

It's amazing how contrite PMPM can get when political expediency demands it:
Liberal Leader Paul Martin has apologized for the head tax policy that charged immigrants up to $500 to enter Canada, under pressure from B.C. MPs facing tough fights in ridings with large Chinese populations.

"Do I regret this? Yes," Mr. Martin told Vancouver's Fairchild Radio, a multicultural station, Tuesday night. "Do I apologize? Yes."...

Just days before the Liberals lost power, the government announced $2.5-million to help fund education programs, such as museums and stamps, to make the public aware of the head-tax policy that ran from the 1880s to 1920s. But it would not apologize saying that would open the gates to litigation.
Just a month and a half ago, a refusal to apologize was both proposed by the Cons as an essential part of any program to address the head tax, then included as a requirement by the Libs in their deal with some affected groups.

Obviously the movement in the time since then represents progress of a sort. But nobody concerned about the head tax issue should be fooled by the competing false senses of outrage from the Libs and Cons. Only one party recognized the issue before it made the headlines, and continues to press for an official apology in the House rather than a campaign-trail conversion with all the sincerity normally associated with Liberal campaign planks.
NDP candidate Ian Waddell who is running against Mr. Emerson in the Vancouver-Kingsway riding said the Liberals announced the policy without properly consulting all the groups.

"I'm happy that there's an apology. I think it's a good example of why New Democrats are needed in the House. The issue came from the community, but we've pushed it for 20 years," he said Wednesday night. "Now Mr. Martin has to make the apology in the House."
About the only problem with Waddell's take is that it assumes PMPM will still have a seat in Parliament by the time the campaign is done with. But we'll find out who really cares about ensuring a full apology next time a Prime Minister rises in the House to deal with the head tax - or, more likely, next time the NDP points out a continued failure to do so.

Avoiding the issue

PMPM has apparently decided that he can put an end to the income trust story simply by refusing to talk about it. But the story isn't close to going away:
Paul Martin, trying to end the income-trust controversy that has dogged his campaign, told reporters yesterday to stop asking him questions about the issue.

Mr. Martin, citing an RCMP investigation, also refused to name the officials in his office who were given advance notice of the income-trust announcement.

Three members of Mr. Martin's staff and two cabinet ministers knew about the announcement, Finance Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters Tuesday when discussing a meeting with RCMP investigators.

It became clear yesterday that some aides to the other cabinet ministers also knew of the information in advance, with Revenue Minister John McCallum confirming he was informed hours before the announcement and told two staffers.
One can understand Martin's never wanting to hear the words "income trust" again and wanting to keep his campaign focused on other issues. But this is obviously a dangerous tactic on a couple of levels.

First, nobody can reasonably expect the income trust question to be ignored the rest of the campaign. If Martin refuses to deal with it, that merely leaves the opposition unopposed in questioning what happened. And given that Harper can never refuse the chance to make up allegations far beyond whatever facts are known publicly, it'll be interesting to see just how far he's able to take the issue before PMPM at least has to step in and address the plausibility of Harper's latest theory.

Second, PMPM's apparent effort to strong-arm the media on an issue of public interest could simply highlight the fact that he can't be trusted as to what's relevant and not during the course of the campaign. And if that leads the media to turn any serious scrutiny on Martin's perennial attempts to exclude the NDP from consideration, then the Libs' left-flank strategy may be in just as much trouble as their fading reputation for competence.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A promising message

While the Liberals in general have deserved almost nothing but criticism throughout the campaign, let's give due credit to Irwin Cotler (who's generally toward the upper end of the mediocre lot) for uttering a phrase seldom heard during a campaign:
Federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said today he was as horrified as anyone by the Boxing Day shootings in Toronto but he’s not feeling pressure to make a “quick fix” to solve the guns and gangs problem in the country’s biggest city.

“I didn’t park my principles at the door when I became justice minister,” he said. “I maintain an open and responsible approach ... and in the end I’ll be able to make an informed, principled judgment.

"I am not going to be rushed and I am certainly not going to be pressured. There is no easy answer and there is no single answer.”
Of course, Cotler's response does raise the spectre of the concurrent Lib problem of studying issues to death rather than doing anything. But at the very least he isn't making promises which will be forgotten within minutes of the results coming in on Election Day. Which is a lesson that his party's leader could certainly stand to learn.

Untrustworthy

The Tyee's Matt Price covers the neglected reality about the income trust fiasco:
(T)he bigger scandal than alleged insider trading is that income trusts represent a brazen effort to rid Canada of corporate taxes with some accounting magic that even the Bush administration has disallowed in the USA...

(T)he bigger story here is...that the income trust boom represents a wholesale transfer of the Canadian tax burden away from capital and onto labour.

Anyone with money to invest - the rich, the retired - will benefit, but those who work for a living will shoulder an ever increasing share of paying for our public services.

This is a fundamental transformation of Canadian society taking place without the benefit of public dialogue.
I made the same point when Goodale announced his decision, though aside from one article cited by Price I'm not sure the mainstream media ever paid much attention to the position. As I said then:
(Goodale)'s decision is only a recipe for more loopholes - and more consequential tax cuts - down the road, rather than a system that creates incentives to play by the existing rules. And that means a comparatively greater share of taxes for those Canadians who don't have sufficient resources to develop the new loopholes.
It's indeed stunning that the Libs' bungling of the wider issue hasn't surfaced yet during the campaign, and Price rightly notes that even the NDP has dropped the ball in challenging Goodale's decision in substance as well as in form. Presumably that avoidance has been out of fear of losing votes among those whose pension plans have invested in income trusts. But even if it is too late to change the income-trust system now, there still seems to be a promising issue available for the taking.

Surely there's plenty of room both to cast blame on the party which failed to address the issue before it was too late, and to promise to ensure that future policy decisions are made before new loopholes manage to distort Canada's tax system. And I'd hate not only to see the NDP miss that opportunity to make those arguments, but also to see Goodale's stealth corporate tax cut pass forgotten into the history books.

Nicely contrasted

Jack compares the NDP's plans to address health concerns with those of the Libs:
If you compare the prescription drug proposal I’m outlining today to Mr. Martin’s proposal, you see the basic difference between Mr. Martin and New Democrats.

The NDP is proposing a real, concrete, costed plan that speaks directly to making health care available to Canadians wherever they live and whatever they earn. Our prescription drug plan was a core recommendation of the Romanow Commission.

Stripped of rhetoric, Mr. Martin seems to be proposing to buy people airline tickets with a one-time fund. That is addressing key issues in the health care system with a band-aid. I think Canada’s seniors and all Canadians deserve better.
Amen to that. My one concern is that it may take more than election soundbites to point out the emptiness of Martin's claims to be able to solve problems in perpetuity through one-time funding. But at the very least, Layton's doing about as well as can be done on that front.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Harper

As a follow-up to this post, I took a closer look at the Cons' moves this week - and the more closely one looks, the less sense they make.

To start with, note that for all the talk about whether the Cons' latest ad campaign can be considered negative, Harper himself apparently feels that 1,000 pages of kickbacks and cover-ups, along with the Finance Minister going before the RCMP, didn't make for quite enough ammo against the Liberals for his taste. As a result, he pulled out the trusty tin-foil hat to try to drag PMPM personally into the sponsorship scandal, thereby going negative by anybody's measure:
As he has in the past, Harper accused Prime Minister Paul Martin of deliberately limiting the scope of the inquiry by Justice John Gomery.

By not looking at government polling contracts, he said the prime minister made sure that the actions of the Finance Department, while Martin was minister, were not investigated.

"I'm suggesting it's always been awfully convenient for Mr. Martin to set up a commission to investigate his political opponents in the Liberal party," Harper said, referring to supporters of former prime minister Jean Chr├ętien, "but not necessarily his own actions, which may have been dubious."
I'm not sure there's a more direct way of undermining the Cons' own "positive" message than that. But we're just getting started.

As noted yesterday, Harper also decided to bring up the spectre of Brian Mulroney to try to win votes. As difficult as it may be to seriously debate policy during the campaign, surely an attempt to rewrite history during a campaign has to be all the more problematic - especially when that history has been entrenched again in Canadian minds as recently as Mulroney's.

And it's not as it if had to be that way for Harper. After all, it's been well documented that the Libs never followed through on many of their promises to change the results of Mulroney's government. Surely Harper could have made up plenty of mileage pointing out the similarities between Martin and Mulroney (including the ethical difficulties within both governments), rather than by praising Mulroney and trying to slam Martin over a fine distinction between their respective reactions to ethical misdeeds.

So what of those ethics? Here's the especially fun part. By praising Mulroney and trying to blame Martin alone for failing to act swiftly enough rather than addressing the Liberal party as a whole, Harper has essentially abandoned any claim that his party will be any more ethical than the Liberals themselves, or Mulroney's Cons before them. Instead, as with most types of crime, Harper comes off as far more concerned with swift and brutal punishment than with actually preventing the crime in the first place. And surely that type of attitude is even more dangerous with respect to government than it is elsewhere.

So the Cons have wilfully ignored a party tainted by scandal in order to try to make shaky allegations stick on the PM himself, and implied that as long as a PM is angry enough, anything goes within the governing party. But could they also find a way to undermine their own policies in the process?

Of course, the answer is "yes". After all, the Cons' main policy goodie is to try to partially undo one of Mulroney's best-known acts as PM. As a result, if they succeed in rehabilitating Mulroney's image to any degree, that only raises more questions for Harper to answer as to why he's focusing on cutting the GST rather than other taxes.

While some of his party members are sticking to making the same mistake twice, Harper himself seems to be exploring radical new frontiers of senseless politics. And we'll know the Libs are truly in trouble if Harper's latest outburst doesn't attract enough attention to sink the Cons.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Meanwhile, over in Camp Tweedledumber...

Harper tries to inspire the confidence of voters by invoking the glorious memory of...Brian Mulroney.

No, seriously:
Mr. Harper praised former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for taking a hard line toward internal scandals...

"I do think it's important to point out that Mr. Mulroney received a lot of criticism and a lot of focus for the fact that a large number of ministers had to resign because of scandal.

"But the truth of the matter was that Mr. Mulroney did not tolerate scandal in his government," he said. "There was obviously a political problem with that because Mr. Mulroney ended up tarred with the label that his government was full of scandal, when in fact, what he'd done was deal with the problems that were before him."
I'm not entirely sure how best to explain Harper's desire to invoke the legacy of a PM who left both his party and the country's finances in ruins, and yet has managed to look nearly as bad in the last few months as he did when he left politics over a decade ago.

So far, two theories seem vaguely plausible. Most likely, it could be a cunning plan by the Cons to avoid getting so far out in front as to avoid a backlash, no matter how thoroughly the Libs shoot themselves in the foot. If so, then well played, and I'll look forward to PMPM's salute to John Turner in response.

Alternatively, maybe it's a cry for help from Harper out of frustration at the NDP's ability to bring up a party legacy which may actually win votes. I'd say the Cons couldn't be that crazy, but those have to be high on the list of famous last words in Canadian politics. (See Grewal, Gurmant.)

Either way, it's looking all the more like there's only one party which is actually trying to succeed in this election. And the other parties' bizarro campaign may just make success a lot more likely.

(Edit: typo.)

Short memories and weak loyalties

I'm not sure what's a worse sign for the Liberal campaign: the fact that one of its own cabinet ministers is campaigning against the party's current policies, or the fact that PMPM has been reduced to promising to undo his party's own damage:
Liberal Leader Paul Martin will pledge to kill a costly immigration landing fee in an effort to lock in the traditional support of new Canadians.

Martin is expected to announce during a campaign stop in B.C. later Tuesday that he will roll back the $975 fee if he is re-elected in the Jan. 23 election.

The fee was introduced by the Liberal government in 1995 and applied to adult immigrants. But children and orphaned relatives applying for immigration were exempt from paying the fee.
Not only was the fee introduced by the Liberal government, guess who cited it himself as a specific example of what he felt was "fair" belt-tightening as part of that infamous budget?
Because so many of those affected have given so many years of valuable services to Canadians, we are committed to downsizing the public service as fairly as possible...

As a second example, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration has made clear our commitment to a fair, affordable and well-enforced immigration policy. Therefore, a form of financial guarantee will ensure that sponsors of immigrants meet their obligations.

In addition, a $975 fee will be charged all adults immigrating to Canada to offset the costs of immigrant services.
Judging from Emerson's attempt to position himself as an outsider cabinet minister and PMPM's willingness to forget who was behind the landing fee in the first place, the Libs apparently doesn't think much more of immigrant voters than they do of Canadians generally in telling them which parties are and aren't relevant within the election. But it shouldn't take too long for such blatant politicking to backfire - as so much of the Libs' campaign has so far.

(h/t to TDH Strategies.)

Haiti crimes

CTV notes that the issue of Canada's involvement in Haiti has come up in Quebec - and for those who thought the Libs couldn't get any less principled, Pierre Pettigrew is willing to sink to new depths:
Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew downplayed demands for a Canadian withdrawal from Haiti on Monday, labelling protesters outside his office as "a marginal group of Haitian Montrealers."

Saying the protesters were "fixated on the past and nostalgia," Pettigrew dashed any hopes of a Canadian pullout, expressing his belief that Canada is helping bring stability to the strife-torn Caribbean nation.
Or, to put it another way, in Pettigrew's view the concept of a democratic Haiti is mere nostalgia which should be forgotten. Instead, he'd like Canadians to embrace a vision featuring:

- massacres of civilians by Canadian-trained police;
- "get out of jail free" cards for the perpetrators of past massacres;
- detention of leading political figures based solely on politically motivated accusations;
- detention of journalists for shooting factual footage; and,
- a plan designed to impose unwanted and irreversible policies on the people of Haiti before the democratic process can get started again.

The article notes that the Bloc's candidate running against Pettigrew may not benefit much from the story, since the Bloc itself is on side with Canada's current course of action in Haiti. Instead, the NDP is also the only Canadian political party which cares enough to try to reverse some of the damage in Haiti.

Minority bashing

Within the Globe's discussion of how bank mergers may be affected by the election, one commentator has a rather misplaced view of why mergers haven't yet been dealt with:
Harry Ort, who runs KPMG LLP's financial services practice, said he doesn't read very much in Mr. Martin's comments and that he doesn't expect any major developments until one party is in clear control of the House of Commons. “It's really become a political issue — it's on hold until you get a majority government.”
Let's see just how difficult the issue would have been to deal with in the last Parliament. It seems clear that the opposition was perfectly willing to deal, as all three parties expressed their willingness to support bank mergers under the right conditions.

The only holdup? Well, that was the party whose complaint at that time matched Ort's current claim that the political situation within a minority Parliament made mergers impossible - and who accordingly kicked the can down the road all the way to 2007 rather than brokering a deal among willing parties.

The lack of any movement on bank mergers had nothing to do with any inherent problem in a minority Parliament, and everything to do with the party in charge being unwilling to work with its colleagues. Which means that with another minority Parliament likely in the works, those looking to achieve approval for bank mergers would do much better to question the Libs' track record than to parrot Goodale's excuses.

Monday, January 02, 2006

On desirable governments

Decima releases more interesting poll results - these showing that if there's going to be a minority Parliament, Canadians would narrowly prefer to see the NDP in charge over either the Cons or the Libs:
A Liberal minority was acceptable to 47 per cent (within Decima's sample of 6,380 voters), undesirable to 44 per cent and desirable to nine per cent. A Conservative minority was acceptable to 48 per cent, undesirable to 44 per cent and desirable to eight per cent...

An NDP minority was deemed acceptable to 44 per cent, undesirable to 44 per cent and desirable to 12 per cent.
Not that the numbers show any overwhelming endorsement of any party. But the poll should certainly give pause to any pundits trying to claim that Canadians don't take the NDP seriously as a potential governing party, as the NDP's numbers aren't far off those of the other two major federal parties in terms of what voters want generally (falling only slightly behind the Libs and Cons in terms of the numbers for a potential majority). And in a minority situation which seems a highly likely outcome, the NDP fares better than any other party as to who Canadians desire to see in charge.

Based on these numbers, the public doesn't believe that the NDP would likely be any less effective than the Libs or Cons in dealing with power. And it's plain that the public wants to see the NDP win more influence in Parliament. Now, the NDP needs only to convert one more set of positive perceptions into votes - and once again convince Canadians to vote based on their own views rather than a media-driven horse race.

Water, water everywhere

Manitoba's NDP government takes another step to keep the party on the leading edge of environmental responsibility - this time through a plan to both map and manage the province's water resources:
The Water Protection Act, which took effect New Year's Day, gives the provincial cabinet sweeping powers to limit or restrict any type of activity near sensitive rivers or lakes.

The law is part of a plan to map out water quality management zones across the province and determine what areas should be off-limits to industrial or other activities.

It's the first time Manitoba has taken a big-picture approach to water quality, said Water Stewardship Minister Steve Ashton.
I noted yesterday that the federal Libs have dropped the ball on both counts. But lest there be any doubt, the NDP (on both a provincial and national level) has once made clear that it alone among the major national parties recognizes the importance of Canada's water reserves. And NDP gains in the upcoming election are the only way to make sure that responsibility finds its way into federal action.

Campaign Phase Two - Operation Who Do You Trust?

Layton takes on the Libs' "strategic voting" argument head-on, pitting his credibility against Martin's in what has to be a winning battle for the NDP:
Today’s Liberal Party isn’t what it once was. And for anyone considering voting for it because they think Liberals are the same as the NDP, just remember. Mr. Martin’s budget this spring did have an opposition leader supporting it. His name was Stephen Harper.

So voting Liberal isn’t being smart – it’s being played.
In general Layton's speech looks like a much more aggressive stance than the NDP has usually taken. And as a result, the public's general distrust of the Libs has to be applied to PMPM's repeated claims that the NDP should be ignored.

For a party which needs only to get the two main parties and the mainstream media to acknowledge its existing popularity, that challenge will be hard for PMPM either to ignore or to refute directly...which at the very least should make for a fun set of debates. And at best, if the media starts paying attention to Layton before the debate forces it to do so, this could be the message that solidifies the NDP's current soft support.

Update: In typical style, the Globe somehow spins Layton's speech with the title "Layton worries about strategic voting". Because apparently "Layton argues against strategic voting" would be too accurate.

Your CanWest Writers' Guide

Does the latest poll show a one-point Liberal lead within the margin of error? According to your headline, that's a tie.

A one-point Conservative lead within the margin of error? That's a lead.

Predictable effects

Linda McQuaig draws a link between the Harris tax cuts and the recent increase in gang crime in Toronto:
Ten years ago, Mike Harris slashed Ontario's welfare rates by 22 per cent, thereby cutting by almost one-quarter the incomes of Ontario's most vulnerable families.

The young kids in those vulnerable families are now teenagers. Recently, there's been an upsurge in violent crime by gangs of teenagers. Is it far-fetched to think there might be a connection?...

The Harris government also cut spending on an array of programs aimed at ensuring disadvantaged kids integrate into the mainstream. It cut funds for teaching English to immigrants, for social workers in the schools, for community recreation.

And when some kids behaved badly, it banned them from school with a “zero tolerance” policy. Where did we think they would go?...

(I)f we really want to make this a liveable society, not just enjoy the satisfaction of locking up bad people, we should intervene much earlier.

We still don't seem to grasp the connection between slashing social supports and social breakdown, including violent crime.
It may take a few more years to see how close any link really is. But nobody ultimately stands to benefit if we spend the meantime ignoring the obvious intuitive connection between a lack of integration into mainstream society and consequent integration into antisocial groups. And in order to actually deal with the issues which readily lead to criminal activity, voters will need to look past the claims of "tough on crime" from the same ideological group which has helped to cause the crime in the first place.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The upside reveals itself

Decima Research releases a poll on the numbers underlying the NDP's current support. And the party has plenty more national support than conventional wisdom seems to dictate:
The online survey of 6,380 voters, released Sunday, suggests that half of those surveyed would like to see more New Democrats in the House of Commons.

But only about one-third (note: actually 35%) would favour that if voting NDP might split the ballot and ultimately mean a Conservative victory, says the survey, considered accurate to within 1.6 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Consider the strategic voting question this way: what would the comparable numbers be for the other federal parties? Do any partisan Dippers or Cons (Buzz Hargrove aside) want to see the Libs increase their numbers? Does anybody voting for the NDP or the Libs think that increased Con numbers would be a positive outcome? And if the answer to both of the above is "no", what does that say about the ability of the Libs and Cons to appeal to anything but the most partisan of Canadians?

In contrast, 50% of Canadians want to see the NDP increase its numbers, even as 76% (based on the latest Decima numbers) are now counted expressing a voting preference for the Libs, Cons or Bloc. Or to cut those numbers another way, over a third of all voters already marked in the column of the Libs, Cons or Bloc also want to see an NDP boost as part of the election result. And that number only goes up for every undecided voter who doesn't also favour an NDP boost. The NDP thus appears to have far more cross-party appeal than any of the other parties to lay claim to.

Note also the importance of the 50% number in the context of what's being pitched as a referendum election. While the Libs want to highlight the proportion of votes in Quebec alone, the survey shows that the NDP is effectively the only federal party which actually appeals to a majority of Canadian voters in any way. Surely that must mean that the NDP can be a far better symbol for national unity than any other party in the race.

So what do the above numbers mean within the election itself? Consider what would happen if half of the voters who want to see the NDP increase its seat totals choose to place their vote with the party. (This would require some votes now counted in other parties ending up with the NDP - but given the NDP's apparent success with swing voters, that shouldn't be too implausible.)

With 25% of the vote nationally (which, it should be pointed out, is still 8% lower than the number of voters who want increased NDP representation even if the effect would be a Con victory), the NDP would be certain to gain a bundle of seats - likely enough to prevent either the Cons or Libs from being anywhere close to majority territory. There would be no risk of reversal of same-sex marriage thanks to the additional clout held by the one federal party truly dedicated to same-sex rights; nor would there be any risk of an aggressive right-wing economic agenda short of a Lib-Con coalition to that effect. And what's best, the NDP's added seat count would place it in position to take a serious run at government just one more Parliament down the road - meaning that the "lesser of two evils" argument could be put to rest for good.

The only problem is that Canadians aren't hearing the entire message: even the CP article in question starts off from the downside premise (that enough Con strength could hurt NDP support) rather than the upside which seems to be the far more new and significant finding from the poll. And the current media spin is exactly the type of message that could easily drive people away from their easily-achievable best case toward the worst-case scenario.

The challenge for the NDP now is to change that perception in both the media and the public, such that the will of the 50% of Canadians who agree on more NDP representation won't be ignored through the rest of the campaign. But there are certainly worse positions than to have to show the Canadian public that it should believe its own collective opinion as to where the NDP belongs after the election.

(Edit: cleaned up wording.)

The PR consensus

It shouldn't come as any surprise that the NDP continues to push PR as an election issue, today through Bill Blaikie's appearance on Question Period:
"The way our current electoral system works exaggerates regional tensions," NDP candidate Bill Blaikie told CTV's Question Period Sunday.

"It creates Parliaments … which lie to us about the Canadian people. It gives us the impression that all people from Quebec are separatists, that everyone in Alberta is a Tory. If we had proportional representation we would have national caucuses that had representatives of all regions, so there'd be less of a tendency or a temptation to play regional politics, and we would have a Parliament that would be more representative."

Proportional representation gives parties seats in relation to their total national vote count, instead of by the number of electoral ridings won. Blaikie said such a system would cost the Bloc party several seats in Quebec, where it wins many of its ridings by a slim margin.
What might be more interesting is that neither other party representative seems to have bothered presenting an argument against PR. Peter MacKay's take focused on giving more seats to Alberta and B.C. (repeating Harper's erroneous view that it would be possible to alter the number of Senate seats). Meanwhile, Anne McLellan merely doubted that the racial violence now seen in France and Australia would occur in Canada.

It surely has to be the mark of a good idea that even the parties which might seemingly have the most to lose from it don't dare to argue directly against it. Indeed, it could be that the sense of PR's inevitability is accepted as much among current Parliamentary higher-ups as among the groups dedicated to promoting it. If so, then the main question now is how to make sure that sense of inevitability gets turned into action.

Under the bridge

While some voices on both sides of the border seem to see water exports to the U.S. as a necessary step, the CP points out that Canada has gone backwards in determining just what water is actually contained on Canadian territory:
Due to budget cuts in recent years, the federal government has cut back on water research, closing monitoring stations and reducing data collection on water supplies. The underground aquifers that store the nation's groundwater haven't been mapped, so there is no way to know if they are being depleted or contaminated.

"As a society we are largely forging ahead blindly when it comes to our management of water," the Senate environment committee said in a report tabled just before the government fell on Nov. 28. "We are in essence gambling with our most precious but often under-appreciated natural resource."

The committee recommended that Ottawa create a National Water Council to develop strategies on key water issues. But its report went virtually unnoticed amid the excitement of the election call.
I'm not sold either way as to whether or not water exports could be desirable under the right circumstances. But it should be absolutely clear that whatever decision Canada makes on that issue needs to be based on complete information - and for now, necessary information on our fresh water supply (including the potential for contamination and/or depletion) is sorely lacking.

The issue hasn't made it into the election campaign just yet. But there's no reason to exclude it from consideration, as a party's take on one of Canada's most important resources should surely help to determine whether that party genuinely values sustainable resource management. And especially for the opposition parties, the Libs' willingness to reduce our knowledge of the issue should provide one more useful example of Lib shortsightedness.

A position of leadership

While a more immediate election looms at home, the top position in the U.N. is also up for replacement this year, and the Star examines some of the politics surrounding the next possibilities for Secretary General:
Working against (Louise Arbour) is the fact she has alienated Washington with outspoken remarks on the downgrading of rules against torture, sparking a rebuke from Washington's controversial ambassador, John Bolton.

Bolton's remarks brought a brisk defence from Secretary-General Annan, who said he had "absolutely no disagreement with the statement she made" as the UN's human rights chief.

"I can't imagine anybody I'd rather have as secretary-general," says Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN.

"But there are countries that want a secretary rather than a general, and so she has no chance at the job."
While Arbour may be the ideal candidate for the position, it does appear likely that her past willingness to criticize the U.S. where criticism is due would make her virtually certain to face a U.S. veto. But hopefully the next Secretary General will have at least some element of that willingness to speak truth to power...lest the U.N. otherwise become as irrelevant as the U.S. already believes it to be.