Saturday, January 21, 2006

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing

While the base numbers in the latest Strategic Counsel poll don't reflect much change, there's one particularly interesting development underlying the party numbers:
Mr. Gregg said the NDP has grown in support among women voters over the last week. The party of Jack Layton is now supported by 23-per cent of female respondents, up from 16-per cent a week ago.

Mr. Gregg said the NDP is growing at the expense of the Conservative Party in British Columbia. In the Greater Toronto Area, he said, the NDP is stealing some support from the Liberals as progressive voters are trying to find the best way to prevent the formation of a Harper government.
So what's so significant about the numbers among female voters? A couple of weeks back, I discussed a Decima review of the undecided voters within its online survey which isolated various swing voters. The largest swing, representing 8% of all voters, was the following:
Those torn between the Liberals and NDP were more likely to be female, aged 35-54 and members of a visible minority. They tended to think the Liberals were the best choice to govern and that Martin was the best choice for prime minister. However, they also tended to think the NDP had the best approach to issues they care about most.
So what's happened in the time since then? Martin's PM ratings have tanked, removing the main advantage for the Libs within this group. And at the same time, the NDP has won over a significant chunk of female voters. Which tends both to support Decima's identification of the swing group - and to suggest that there's been serious movement toward the NDP within the group.

What about the Con/NDP swing vote? The article on the Decima survey didn't mention the most common characteristics within this group, but at least some voters must also have swung toward the NDP within the group to explain the size of the increase in female support for the party.

More interestingly, it's just yesterday that the NDP's Women's Caucus highlighted the elements of the NDP platform geared toward gender equality...and that fact wouldn't have been picked up by the Strategic Counsel poll. Which suggests that the NDP's existing inroads among undecided female voters may be only the beginning. To the extent that some groups have been concerned about the lack of focus on women's issues within the campaign, there's thus all the more room for the NDP to win the nod of even more swing voters just in time for election day.

The progressive way to stop Harper

While some commentators have gone out of their way to assume that legitimate concerns about Stephen Harper should be equated with endorsements of the Liberals. But the significant critics of Harper at worst never endorsed the Libs over the NDP, and at best have plainly shown their preference for the NDP. And the record is being set straight just in time for the election.

Maude Barlow took the time to correct the misconception herself:
Hebert, like several other media observers, has interpreted the message coming from these groups, which included my own, as a call to vote Liberal. This is entirely inaccurate...

I have spent much of the last twelve years as a vocal critic of Liberal policies. Most of us were cognizant of the important role played by the NDP in the last Parliament in holding the Liberal Party to a more progressive policy agenda and are clear that a return of an even greater number of NDP and other progressive forces to the House of Commons is vital.
For others, let's take a look at their other words surrounding the campaign.

David Miller, mentioned by name by PMPM as someone who supposedly advocated voting Liberal, has endorsed NDP candidate Peggy Nash:
"We don't need another Liberal with no voice. Peggy is our city-builder. We need Peggy Nash to be Toronto's champion in Ottawa."
So what about other members of the Think Twice coalition besides Barlow? The Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada for one prefers the NDP's platform to the Liberals'. Housing advocate Cathy Crowe has endorsed NDP candidate Michael Shapcott. Needless to say, these aren't voices which could reasonably be interpreted to prefer the Libs to the NDP.

There's no doubt that a lot of Canadians want to limit Harper's power as best possible, and I'll gladly count myself among them. But that doesn't answer the question of how best to stop him - and it's being made clear now that virtually nobody besides PMPM himself would rather see the Libs hold than role than the NDP.

On recognizing threats

As if Canadians needed yet another reason to be concerned about socially-conservative Liberals, soon-to-be-ex-PMPM has declared that he won't stop the bulk of his party's MPs from voting to end abortion rights if the issue comes up:
Earlier this week, the prime minister insisted he would instruct all Liberal MPs and senators to vote against a bill that banned abortion and that his new government would stand firmly in favour of a woman's right to choose.

But yesterday, Martin said he would treat a vote on the issue the same way he did last year's decision on same-sex marriage -- by whipping his cabinet, but unleashing backbenchers.

The same-sex marriage vote saw 32 Liberal MPs vote against changing the definition of marriage and, if re-elected, a similar amount are expected to vote against abortion.
It's only fair that as long as PMPM insists on making an issue out of abortion, he should have to answer for his own candidates. And he's now made clear that the loyalty of those candidates is more important to him than a woman's right to choose.

The big question now is whether the issue will get enough public attention to permanently sink the Libs' claim to defend progressive values. Even before Martin's turnaround, pro-choice advocates had tempered their admonition not to vote for the Cons with a statement that disaffected Liberals should turn to the NDP. Now, there are still a couple of days left for Henry Morgentaler and others to acknowledge that some of the greatest threats to abortion rights lie in the Liberal party...and that PMPM doesn't care enough to try to stop them.

(Via Sinister Thoughts.)

(Edit: Correction - it was Carolyn Egan of the Ontario Coalition of Abortion Clinics, not Morgentaler himself, who specifically mentioned the NDP.)

Going dark

The CP notes Stephen Harper's interesting reaction to the last weekend of the campaign, as the Con leader is now refusing all requests from the national media:
Stephen Harper, anxious to protect his party's lead heading into Monday's vote, has cut off news conferences with the national media.

The Conservative leader brushed aside questions from reporters as he campaigned in the Liberal stronghold of Toronto.

His spokeswoman, Carolyn Stewart Olsen, says Mr. Harper no longer has time for formal question-and-answer periods.

Still, the Tory leader says open, accountable government will be one of his top priorities if he becomes prime minister.
As if there was any doubt, the tactic makes it all the more clear that Harper's vision of openness and accountability means revealing only whatever truth will help the Con cause. But leaving that aside, it's also hard to see how the move will help the Cons in the election.

After all, the national media which Harper now refuses to speak to still has a couple of days to report on the campaign before Canadians go to the polls. And Harper's unwillingness to deal with them could readily lead to more reporting on the Cons' general strategy of avoiding public scrutiny than there's been so far in the campaign. Surely a couple more days worth of well-coached soundbites would be preferable to the risk in amplifying Canadians'concerns about what the Cons have hidden...unless Harper doesn't even trust himself to stay reined in until the end of the weekend.

Friday, January 20, 2006

More excuses in advance

While Con candidates in Saskatchewan have spent much of the campaign touting their supposed intention to ensure an equalization accord for the province, one member of the Con caucus has now made it clear that the Cons plan to do as little as possible for as long as possible in response to pressure from other provinces:
The issue is equalization, the complicated system of federal transfers that ensures poorer provinces can provide the same level of services to their residents as richer ones without raising taxes to uncompetitive levels...

Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert, a New Democrat, has offered his veiled endorsement of a Conservative promise that would see non-renewable resource revenue removed from the equalization formula...

Calvert's assurances come from page 43 of the Conservative platform and from Saskatchewan's 14 Tory candidates, who are quick to cite the promise at every turn.

A Conservative government would "work to achieve with the provinces permanent changes to the equalization formula which would ensure that non-renewable natural resource revenue is removed from the equalization formula to encourage economic growth," the platform reads...

Conservative incumbent Tom Lukiwski, chair of the Conservatives' Saskatchewan caucus, has said it could take up to an entire term of government to negotiate the changes.

"It doesn't take four years for a federal government to make up its mind about a federal program," Calvert said.
I'm not sure that anybody seriously disputes the need for change in Canada's equalization system generally. But as Lukiwski points out, the Cons' supposed commitment to action merely papers over the fact that they refuse to do anything until full agreement can be reached on an issue which lends itself to years of contentious negotiations. And that vague long-range promise does nothing to address the nagging matter of what should be done in the meantime.

Meanwhile, the NDP has committed to making sure that however long any agreement takes to reach, Saskatchewan won't get a worse deal than its Maritime counterparts in the meantime. Which makes the prospect of an NDP balance of power in Parliament (particularly if that features a strong Saskatchewan contingent) the province's only hope of seeing action anytime soon.

On the virtues of leaders

The latest SES poll is good enough news for the NDP in terms of the party numbers. But for the even more important development, take a look at the leaders' numbers in the poll - which are supposed to be a fairly reliable indicator of future party numbers.

For Best Prime Minister, PMPM (who has been as high as 33%) is now down to 21% and falling, while Layton (who has been as low as 9%) is now at 18% and rising. Or to put it another way: the incumbent PM, who was PM-in-waiting for a decade before that, is now three points ahead of a man who in the debate less than two weeks ago wouldn't admit to aspiring to move into 24 Sussex Drive. And less voters list themselves as "unsure" than at any other time during the campaign.

Harper's 31% seems to have the Cons well-positioned to win government. But on the likely opposition side, all the momentum is with Layton.

Need more? Check out the leadership indicators, where Layton has (just barely) passed Martin for the first time, 59 points to 58 (Harper is at 75). That's thanks in large part to Martin's woeful 14% trust score, which ranks him in 4th place behind Harper (26%), Layton (23%), and "none of the above" (18%). And that score can't bode well for any chance of recovery: if Canadians trust Martin that little now, there isn't much reason to think that voters will believe PMPM's latest claim that only he stands between Canada and certain doom.

Which means that even voters who believe that the Libs are just as progressive as the NDP have reason to think that PMPM is well past being able to claw his way back into the race. Both the Libs and the NDP have plenty of momentum - but it's Layton's party that's headed in the right direction, leaving only the question of how far the NDP can go in the next few days.

On caring enough to show up

It shouldn't be a surprise given that it's the not far off the position taken by the Health Minister this fall. But here's a reminder that when it comes to defending public health care, Liberals (like their supposed adversaries in the Conservative party) can't even be bothered to appear:
The Nova Scotia Citizens' Health Care Network invited all Halifax-area political candidates to its breakfast meeting on Thursday at St. Matthews Church in the city...

Debbie Kelly, organizer of the event, said she invited the Liberals and Conservatives, but no one from the parties showed up.

"It's very disappointing because the kind of groups that were out here today are the voters, the people who are part of organizations, grassroots community people," Kelly said. "We did get some regrets but some didn't bother to answer, which is, to be honest, disgusting."
Don't worry, though, as the Liberals had at least as strong an excuse as usual:
A Liberal official said the party isn't commenting.
Apparently the Libs have taken a page out of the Cons' playbook in refusing to even show up to events which have the slightest chance of proving embarrassing. And in fairness, I'd be embarrassed to try to defend the Libs' record on health care too.

But for Nova Scotia voters who attended the event to see who's standing up for their access to health care, the Liberals' refusal to appear is only made all the worse by the lack of any explanation. And that apparent apathy is in stark contrast to the NDP, which sent two candidates to the event. Which should work wonders in helping voters decide which party will work to preserve and strengthen Canada's health care system.

Out with a bang

The man who should have been Prime Minister delivers his final public statement as an MP. And Ed Broadbent's words should nicely help to ensure that the current leader of his party won't fall into the same traps that kept the Libs ahead of the NDP during Broadbent's time at the helm:
Mr. Martin accuses the New Democratic Party of partisanship. Were it not for the NDP putting its interests aside and putting working people’s interests first, the Liberal Party would have been fed to voters last spring.

It now is. And it has run a campaign that at best is incoherent, and at worst is deeply offensive. To women. To members of our armed forces. And to people who long for intellectual honesty in politics once more...

Mr. Martin’s team is running a campaign based on intellectual dishonesty. Cynical manipulation. And recklessly using significant issues for the sole purpose of continuing Liberal entitlement.
Like Greg, I agree entirely with Broadbent. But just as important as the strong content is that unlike all too much NDP news, Broadbent's final stand has managed to win plenty of press coverage (currently among the top headlines at CBC News, Canoe's Canada Votes, and Canada.com's Decision Canada page among others). Which means that an essential message from one of Canada's most trusted public figures seems very likely to get through to Canadians just in time for Monday's vote.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

On who stands to gain

The CP takes a look at who would stand to benefit most from the Cons' tax-cutting proposals - and it should come as no surprise that Canadians who already make less money stand to get far less than their wealthier counterparts:
By simply offering every family a flat $1,200 for each child under six each year, (the Cons' child-care plan) will inflate incomes of poorer parents which will then trigger clawbacks of other income-based support programs...says (Ken Battle of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy).

That could ultimately leaving these families less well off.

"The face value (of $1,200) ... is an illusion: the scheme's true value for the vast majority of Canadian families would be less than that -- considerably less, in many cases,'' Battle says...

"I don't think they're just focusing on higher income families but -- if you take the child care allowance -- whether they intended it or not, it does end up benefiting one-income and higher income families the most'' (said Battle).
But what of the much-vaunted GST cut?
In a recent report, (Finn Poschmann, associate director of research at the C.D. Howe Institute) determined the lowest-income earners -- people reporting less than $12,500 per year -- would save about $64 each year from the GST cut...

Very modest income families -- between $12,500 and $25,000 annually -- would save about $97 per year, he figures...

"The GST reduction will help low and modest income families, they (Tory policy makers) are not just looking at high-income families,'' he said.

"But in the end, that's who will get most of the benefit.''
And those are the relatively progressive tax cuts put forward by Harper - the article doesn't examine the relative benefit involved in the Cons' capital gains tax policy. Needless to say, as appealing as "less taxes" may sound, there's nothing in the Cons' plan that'll have any real positive effect for lower-earning Canadians...particularly when the likelihood of either additional inflation or compensatory interest rate increases is taken into account.

Not that the Libs have been any better at acknowledging the upper-class bias of their own tax proposals. But there is one party whose tax policy is actually aimed toward Canadians who can better use the help rather than those who will see it as a luxury. And if enough voters realize which party's plan will do the most to help them, then the NDP may just end up in a position to make sure the next government can't carry out a reverse Robin Hood operation.

A party divided

The Libs' effective concession in Saguenay-Lac Saint Jean would be a comical enough development on its own in light of PMPM's admonition that only he can fight the evil Cons. (And let's be clear that while it's obvious that Gilles Savard hasn't dropped out officially, his campaign manager has defected and a federal Liberal spokeswoman merely confirmed the facts rather than stating any objection from the party generally.) But in the larger picture, it only helps to highlight the biggest problem with the Libs: PMPM's party is so determined to be seen as the strongest force against perceived enemies that it can't even be bothered to agree as to which enemies are worth fighting, let alone to stand for anything itself.

Within Quebec, Savard's concession is only a symptom of the Libs' wrong-headed efforts to turn the campaign into a referendum - which has led to far bigger names than Savard's campaign manager suggesting that it doesn't matter who Quebeckers vote for, as long as it isn't the Bloc. Meanwhile, the ROC Liberals have gone all out to vilify the Cons with no regard for the number of Libs who would fit seamlessly into Harper's caucus.

What's missing from the equation, of course, is any reason why Canadians should want to vote Liberal based on the Libs themselves. A party with so many internal contradictions obviously can't claim to hold particularly strong principles. And any time the Libs claim to speak against conservatives, or separatists, or any other group, there's always someone within the party eager to undermine that message in order to demonstrate their devotion to fighting somebody else.

Mind you, this wouldn't be such a problem if the Libs had a strong core of values to which to retreat. But then, unlike each of their competitors, the Libs can't really claim to have that: the Libs' current platform is just as much an incoherent mishmash as the composition of the party, and Martin's one attempt this campaign to present something resembling a Liberal vision was panned by his own party as well as most observers.

That combination has left individual Libs undercutting their own campaign at every turn, whether they mean to or not. And with the Cons poised to win government and the Bloc still solidly ahead in Quebec, the only question now is whether progressive voters will do the same as their conservative and separatist counterparts and vote for the party which actually stands up for their beliefs.

Nice

The NDP Rapid Response is compiling a handy list of the socially conservative Liberals receiving PMPM's support as part of his supposed attempt to speak for progressives. Needless to say, voters in these ridings who want to do their best to promote progressive values have no reason to look anywhere other than the NDP - particularly keeping in mind the likelihood of these same MPs voting with the Cons when presented with a future free vote in Parliament.

Worth a look

Scott Piatkowski is right on target:
Even though many advocates of strategic voting say that they favour a continued Liberal minority with the NDP holding the balance of power, that's not what the Liberals themselves want. If they did, they wouldn't have recruited high profile candidates to run against NDP incumbents. Likewise, they'd be telling people in ridings featuring Conservative-NDP races to support the NDP. You won't hear that from a single Liberal, because they are clearly aiming to crush the NDP. That way, they can return to their habit of campaigning from the left and governing from the right, without anyone to call them on it.

Moreover, even if it happened that we end up with another Liberal minority, I don't support the view that only the total of Liberal and NDP seats matters. I would submit that it is always better to have an NDP MP rather than a Liberal MP to represent your riding. In the last Parliament, there were votes on several key issues in which the Liberals lined up with the Conservatives, including the defeat of federal anti-scab legislation. The only sure way to get an MP who supports NDP policies is to vote NDP.
Not much to add here, other than "amen to that". Give it a read.

On consistency

So let's get this straight. According to Stephen Harper, Canadians don't need to worry about a Con majority doing anything extreme because of the counterbalance offered by the Senate. But at the same time, Harper fully expects that Senate to be as inactive as possible:
"The Liberal Senate in the past was extremely unco-operative when their party wasn't in power so it's a worry," Mr. Harper said.

"I hope that better judgment will prevail and the unelected Senate will play the role that historically it has played, which has been a useful technical role, but will not try to interfere with the democratic will of the elected House."
Needless to say, Canadians shouldn't buy the second line from Harper. If he does manage to win a majority, that will have been based in part on his promise that his actions will be kept in check by the Senate as well as the courts and the civil service. And as a result of that promise, the Senate at least (as the only partisan-based body of the bunch) should hold a solid mandate to use its better judgment as needed on the legislation before it, whether or not that judgment happens to line up with Harper's.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

On poor excuses

It should be embarrassing enough for the Liberals that during their reign, Campaign 2000's name has become anachronistic rather than future-oriented, without any progress actually being made on poverty issues. But an election report card on child poverty from the anti-poverty coalition (note for PMPM: see what the term means when it's used correctly?) shows that the Libs aren't even pretending to take positive action.

The Libs receive two "Yes" rankings (both on aspects of their child-care plan) and two "Partial" rankings out of eight issues, with glaring "No" rankings on the Child Tax Benefit, on EI and on the minimum wage. Meanwhile, the NDP wins seven "Yes" rankings and one "Partial". Which indicates that when it comes to poverty issues, in contrast to the NDP's genuine commitment to getting results, the Libs can't even be bothered to put up the appearance of caring. (And that's all the more damning given that even a Liberal promise doesn't tend to lead to action until a decade later.)

So which of the NDP or the Libs is best suited to oppose the Cons' wall of "No"s? Martin may think, as usual, that the right answer is "whatever benefits the Libs". But if you're primarily interested in ensuring that meaningful action is taken to reduce poverty in Canada, the NDP is plainly the party of choice.

(Via Vote for a Change.)

(Edit: cleaned up first paragraph.)

Game over

While PMPM would like Canadians to pretend otherwise, Buzz Hargrove doesn't speak for all unions in the election campaign. And according to a poll commissioned by the SEIU, that's for the best, as Hargrove's voice has ultimately helped the Cons at the expense of both the Libs and the NDP:
While 80 per cent of respondents said Hargrove's endorsement of the Liberals has made no difference to their voting preference, 15 per cent of respondents who identify themselves as traditional Conservative voters say that they were less likely to vote Liberal as an alternative to their traditional party of choice since Hargrove supported 'voting strategically' for the Liberals.

"For some conservative voters, Hargrove's support of the Liberals has been good enough reason to discount voting Liberal all together," says Stewart.

The poll also shows the CAW's advice did not produce the hoped-for momentum of NDP voters toward the Liberals. Only seven per cent of traditional NDP voters said they were more likely to vote Liberal.

"Workers expect clear leadership and guidance from their labour unions, and that is why SEIU has supported the NDP throughout this election. The stakes are too high to play political games, and Buzz Hargrove's ill-advised announcement proved it," Stewart says.
And it looks like the poll was conducted even before Hargrove went off the deep end today. (Sorry to Dr. Dawg in response to the comment to this post, but Hargrove finds no sympathy here: nothing forced him to encourage a vote for either the Cons or the Bloc, as surely somebody with his experience in the public eye should know enough to promote his own party/parties of choice rather than biting on a trap question.) We'll see how long it takes PMPM to shed Hargrove from his entourage now that there's clear evidence to suggest that the Cons have benefited from the affiliation - or whether Martin cares little enough about his supposed progressive coalition to ignore the evidence.

A meaningful endorsement

The Libs continue to trot out Buzz Hargrove and his increasingly-incoherent semi-endorsement as reason to believe they're winning momentum on the left. Hargrove's bizarre outburst today even forced Martin into the position of defending Harper at the expense of whatever credibility he had left.

But with a lot less fanfare, the NDP has won a surprising endorsement based on principle rather than lust for power:
The leader of the Nova Scotia Green Party, Michael Oddy, is sold on the idea of switching allegiances and is urging Green Party members to vote NDP.

"We're in a situation where climate change is running amok and therefore we need to do something soon, and we're going to need some NDP MPs who are going to be holding these guys accountable," said Oddy, who ran federally for the Green Party in 2000 and 2004.

Oddy said the federal Green Party is now more right-wing than the Conservative party on many issues, and that's why he has abandoned it.
Keep in mind just how uncertain Atlantic Canada's voting outlook is at the moment. With so much still up in the air, Oddy's endorsement could provide just the push needed to win some close ridings for the NDP if even a small number of current Green voters are persuaded to shift. And unlike the Libs' star endorsement today, Oddy's message is one that Layton can wear with pride rather than embarrassment.

On best cases

One less-reported note from Layton's Town Hall appearance last night (unfortunately there's no full transcript yet): it was certainly a plus to see Layton mention both the possibility that enough votes for the party could lead to an NDP government, and the fact that the NDP is prepared in case that happens.

I'd like to see that concept (accompanied by Layton's proviso that it's Canadian voters who'll make the decision) mentioned a bit more often as the campaign winds down. After all PMPM's "only we can beat the Cons!" hysteria will look all the worse if, as appears to be the case, Canadians are opening up to the prospect of Layton as a PM-in-the-making.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

On failing to attack the Cons

As a followup to PMPM's accusation that the NDP isn't doing enough to counter Harper: let's not forget which party's MPs have encouraged Quebeckers to cast a vote for the Cons.

Of the coerced and the bribed

PMPM fires what's apparently the last bullet left in the Liberal gun, trying against all available evidence to claim to be a coalition-builder on the left:
Martin is calling for a "coalition of progressive voters," to unite behind Liberal candidates in order to deny the Conservative party an electoral victory.
Let's leave aside the questions as to whether or not the Liberals can be considered to be progressive at all, and look mostly at the strategy involved. PMPM's idea of a coalition seems to closely resemble that of another prominent North American politician. Rather than such a coalition actually making room for differing viewpoints and legitimate challenges to Martin's direction, the plan is for Martin to continue to give orders, and for more people than usual to make themselves subject to them.

The problem is that it's exactly that type of attitude that's pushed the Libs into electoral purgatory already. And NDP/Lib swing voters don't have any real incentive to heed Martin's call, only to drive a few more voters into the Con camp in an effort to end the culture of entitlement for once and for all. A vote switched to the NDP, on the other hand, helps to defuse Con support - not only by shifting the balance in ridings where it's the NDP and the Cons slugging it out, but also in giving the wider public a better idea of the fact that there is a progressive choice that isn't mired in more than a decade's worth of scandal.

Mind you, if Martin really wanted to form a coalition, this Dipper for one would be more than willing to play along. (Not to speak for the party of course.) But that would involve the Libs showing some humility, backing the NDP in races where doing so would likely defeat the Cons, and focussing their own resources on the Cons rather than trying to eradicate other progressive voices.

Of course, Martin's ego (along with the number of his pet MPs running against strong NDP opponents) would never let that happen. And Canadian voters have learned their lesson after the scare-from-the-left, govern-to-Harper's-satisfaction strategy the Liberals used in 2004. Which means that while Martin continues to claim entitlement to lead a coalition of the willing-to-be-duped, Canadians know better than to think he speaks for the benefit of anybody other than himself.

On foresight

Within the campaign, this may well be an effective way for Stephen Harper to calm the fears of what he could do with a majority:
As for a Tory majority being able to do whatever it wants in Ottawa, Harper said that isn't the case because of a Liberal-dominated Senate and bureaucracy appointed by Liberal governments.

"There are checks and balances, and that is the reality."
But should somebody point out to Harper that he's effectively invited the Senate to challenge his policies if he does manage to eke out a majority?

For lack of an honest argument...

Does anybody else find it funny that while the Cons were able to mount an entire national advertising campaign against the Libs based on actual quotes and headlines, they couldn't even come up with one anti-NDP ad without making the whole thing up?

While the NDP's Rapid Response looks at the issue as one of Con hypocrisy, even that may understate the significance of the ad. After all, if even the hyper-prepared Con war room doesn't have anything approaching a genuine case against the NDP, surely that has to make voters think twice about whether there's any reason at all not to cast their ballot for the Dippers.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The full message

Kevin Brennan posts another interesting article on the NDP's direction. But while Kevin seems to see his proposal as a radical change of course for the NDP, it looks to me largely like the party's existing plan - if perhaps with a slightly different focus:
(T)he NDP has to do two things: articulate a powerful message, and do it fast. It also needs to be a message that clearly differentiates them from the other parties, and one that can pull in voters. There may be others, but one that I think might be effective is to come out swinging in defence of federalism and the role of the federal government.

Why? Well, it’s a position that is neglected in Canada today. The Conservatives are a decentralist party that wants the federal government to do the absolute minimum demanded of it by the Constitution. The Liberals aren’t a hell of a lot better; in practice, they have drifted to the point where the federal role is mostly economic–redistributing money and balancing growth among regions. Both parties are content to leave most hard decision-making to the provinces, although for differing reasons (Harper because that’s what he actually believes, Martin because it’s easier). But I don’t see any party actively making the case that Canadian federalism is a good thing, and that the federal government should be actively doing stuff–even though a very substantial number of Canadians believe it.

It’s a winning message in Atlantic Canada and in Ontario, at a minimum. I think the only provinces where it would turn off a majority of voters are QuĂ©bec and Alberta–not exactly NDP strongholds. In fact, it might even improve their vote count in those provinces, since nobody else is campaigning for those voters there. It could hardly cost them seats in either province. And (i)t would give Jack Layton a much stronger message than his current one, which amounts to little more than a collection of small things he wants to do for Working Families.
I certainly won't disagree that the NDP's strongest role in this election is as the true defender of federalism. But I'll have to disagree with the view that the NDP isn't doing that already.

Kevin seems to view the party's current focus on "getting results for people" as being different from an argument in favour of a strong federal government. But even to the extent that the NDP is now able to brag about its record, the party's signature policy accomplishment (the 2005 budget) reflects the NDP's hand in reversing a policy which would have shifted influence from government to the corporate sector, and achieving a positive result for Canadians with the money freed up in the process. And it would have been an awfully empty victory merely to cut out the tax cut with no prospect of putting that money to good use.

Stronger federalism is thus the means; results for people are the end. And it certainly won't do the NDP much good to try to focus on the former to the exclusion of the latter.

So what about the NDP's policy positions within the campaign? The strongest underlying theme within the NDP's platform is again the premise that the federal government is currently failing to take action in areas, ranging from health care to the environment to housing to education, where it could be doing a lot more good if it chose to take action...and the NDP is alone in making sure that added funding in those areas is based on concrete rules and results. In other words, while the NDP promises more funding from the federal government, it's the only federal party proposing to be at least a manager rather than a headwaiter (or worse).

At the same time, though, nobody's going to vote for the party merely because it presents the image of a federal government taking power back from the provinces - particularly if the provinces themselves have time to respond. Hence the NDP also making the case that in the areas where it proposes to exercise more influence, the effect is a genuine improvement in the lives of Canadians - not merely an expansion of power for the PMO.

In sum, the NDP's platform has been based on Kevin's suggestion all along. But instead of an empty argument based on promoting federalism solely for the sake of having a stronger central government, the NDP's platform is based both on showing that federal intervention is necessary, and on showing the concrete ways in which that federalism can help Canadians. Which should be enough to win over anybody primarily concerned about federalism swinging too far toward provincial control - but also to show Canadians looking for more tangible results that the NDP will benefit them as well.

No Show Mo

It's tough to argue with the sentiment behind the Vote Out Vellacott movement, and more than a few bloggers have picked up on the effort. But while there's plenty of reason to criticize Vellacott's positions on the issues, the site's focus on Vellacott's woeful attendance record in Parliament is misguided on two levels.

First, remember the context of the current Conservative campaign, which is apparently operating on the principle that you can't make a fool of yourself if you don't show up. For those with any inclination to vote Con, Vellacott was the poster boy for this year's campaign theme since back when the party was known as the Alliance...and that makes him more likely to be seen as a visionary than a truant.

Second, consider that the Cons are likely to win at least a minority government, which in turn would inevitably lead to at least a few free votes on issues which should have been long decided. If that's the case, then the best hope for same-sex marriage and abortion rights may be for Vellacott and his ilk to sleep through a key vote...so why send the message that his constituents will punish him for doing so?

Sure, I'd love to see Vellacott voted out of Parliament. But there's no indication that either his constituents or the Conservative Party sees his sleep-based strategy as a bad one...and as long as he's all too likely to win, best to encourage him to keep up the nonexistent work.

Block the vote

When I first posted about Elections Canada's last-minute decision to cancel an advance poll at the University of Toronto, I'd optimistically assumed that it was an operational decision of Elections Canada rather than one encouraged by any political party. Sadly, that assumption turned out to be wrong:
(According to student organizer Paul Bretscher,) "(t)he Tony Ianno campaign informed us that it was Liberal legal council in Ottawa that had filed something with Elections Canada that resulted in these polling locations being removed from campus."

Ianno campaign manager Tom Allison says Elections Canada agreed that the impromptu polling sites weren't allowed.
On a quick reading of the special ballot provisions of the Canada Elections Act, it's hard to see any merit to the apparent objection. The statute doesn't distinguish between permanent and "impromptu" polling locations, and doesn't offer any specific authorization or prohibition toward the campus procedure. Section 231 implicitly provides that any elector who wishes to use the special ballot procedure may do so - which suggests that there shouldn't be any strict limitation on where the procedure is applied.

And most importantly, section 179 grants the Chief Electoral Officer discretion to adapt all existing procedures in order to execute the intent of the special balloting procedure. Surely that intent must be to facilitate voting through means other than the standard ballot, rather than to limit access to the polls.

Unfortunately, that seems to be precisely the effect for students at the U of T. Those who live close enough to the campus will still be able to vote easily enough using the standard ballot process - assuming, of course, that polls near the campus are equipped to deal with a rush of students who'd expected to vote elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who are away from their home ridings will have to track down a local returning officer before the end of tomorrow in order to go through exactly the same special ballot process which would otherwise have been available to them on campus.

Note also that similar special balloting went ahead on other campuses - and there doesn't seem to have been any lack of interest from students in making use of these polls. Which begs the question of whether all those students will now see their votes called into question if the procedure used wasn't authorized under the Canada Elections Act.

It's truly sad that on the Day of Action where groups are making an effort to get younger Canadians interested in voting, a roadblock thrown up by the Liberal Party is getting in the way of a significant number of those same voters. Hopefully the move won't dissuade too many of those who planned to vote on campus - and the voters will remember which party considers a procedural objection more important than allowing young Canadians to cast their votes as planned.

A brief reminder

In the aftermath of yesterday's attack in Afghanistan which killed a Canadian diplomat and wounded three soldiers, most of the media focus has rightly been on the efforts of the victims themselves rather than the impact back home. And most of the coverage of this tragedy has thus been completely removed from election talk. But let's not forget that only one federal party insists on public debate before any more Canadians are put in harm's way.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Making one's vote count

I've never been shy about noting that I don't generally see a strategic vote (defined as voting for a party other than the one which best reflects one's own values and priorities) as a viable means of expressing one's democratic will. While other bloggers have done their best to set criteria under which strategic voting makes sense, I tend to the view that it's only in the rarest of cases that a strategic vote can possibly do more good than harm. This post will explain the reasoning behind that view.

My argument starts from the question of what one can actually accomplish with one's vote - and I'll note initially that media coverage of the campaign bears little resemblance to the plausible impact of one's vote. The media coverage focuses largely on who will form Canada's next government, with very little consideration given to the local races that shape such a national outlook, how that government will function or how the country's political spectrum will shift as a result of the election.

I'll accept that there's a lot more to report on a daily basis about what the leading candidates have done in a given day as opposed to what may be relevant in determining Canada's future direction - after all, speculation doesn't make for easy or compelling news. But the focus of the "horse race" coverage, no matter how many parties are included or excluded, is to simultaneously miss both the smaller picture (the races in individual ridings) and the bigger picture (the long-term direction of the country). And that leads to a problem where even for a voter who wants to vote strategically, there's very little information to determine where a strategic vote would could actually have any effect.

But what of the smaller picture? If a person has reliable information that one's riding will most likely come down to parties other than one's first choice, does that justify strategic voting?

Here too, one needs to be careful; no matter how good that information during the course of the campaign, it doesn't necessarily reflect the way voters will ultimately cast their ballots on election day. But if there's a relatively large difference between two parties' marginal chance of winning and a relatively small difference in their apparent values, then in theory a strategic vote could be the most likely to produce a positive result.

The problem with this view is that a vote does more than to just decide one's local riding. Let's take a look at some of the effects of an individual vote beyond merely electing a local candidate:

Your vote helps to allocate party funding until the next election. Granted, that $1.75 per year alone won't make a huge difference - but then neither is an individual vote likely to be the deciding factor within a riding. And the effect of systematic strategic voting can be a massive transfer of money from one's first choice to one's second choice. In 2004, the NDP's share of the vote dropped 2% from most of the polls to election day based largely on strategic voting. If those votes had stuck with the Dippers, then the NDP would have had an extra half a million dollars per year in the meantime with which to make itself heard - instead of that money being in Liberal hands to try to scare voters away from the NDP.

Your vote helps to influence governments and party platforms. The more popular a given party's platform appears to be, the more likely other parties are to adopt similar measures in the next election - or even to implement them while in power in order to appeal to the greatest number of voters possible. See e.g. the Liberals moving quickly toward balancing budgets in response to pressure from the Reform opposition in the mid-'90s. If, on the other hand, your vote goes to a party with an "appealing to everybody" type of platform (which in most cases will be the party most likely to benefit from a strategic vote), then that gives parties no real information as to your policy preferences - and helps to ensure that those preferences are ignored when political parties choose their future direction.

Your vote helps to influence the way your preferred party treats your riding in the next election. Frustrated with the fact that your first-choice party doesn't seem to be running a winnable campaign in your riding? There are probably many people similarly frustrated - but if the party doesn't see potential for growth in the riding, it's not likely to do anything other than write off the riding all the more in future elections. On the other hand, if a relatively weak campaign manages to win more votes than expected, then the party will see the riding as more fertile ground that it may have before. And that may mean a more "electable" candidate and a better campaign next time out.

Your vote helps to shape the media narrative surrounding the election. While all parties do their best to spin election results, it's ultimately the media which makes the final call - and however a party's results compare to the initial expectations becomes part of the conventional wisdom surrounding the election. Regardless of how many seats a party wins, it's likely to win credit for its campaign strategy if it can pull out more votes than expected...and that only makes it easier for that party create momentum for itself in the next election. In contrast, the late 2004 losses for the NDP have put the party on the defensive this time out, as the party has had to spend far too much time and resources trying to prove that an election-day switch to the Libs isn't inevitable.

Ultimately, in deciding whether or not to vote strategically, a voter gets to choose between the following priorities:
(1) the chance that, if the presumption of a strategic voting situation is accurate, one's vote may help to elect one's second choice ahead of a lesser choice; or,
(2) the certainty that one's vote will benefit one's first-choice party in terms of finance and public perception, along with the chance that the vote will affect the riding result due to the preexisting assumption being wrong.

Given that balancing of factors, it seems to me highly unlikely that strategic voting can lead to the best outcome in any but an exceptional case. And that's true regardless of which party stands to gain or lose from a strategic vote.

I leave for another time the question of how to determine which party best shares one's values: I certainly wouldn't suggest taking any political party's platform at face value and ignoring a track record which casts reasonable suspicion on the sincerity of a party's claims. But where a voter can identify a party which best fits that voter's vision for Canada, it's never a wasted vote to cast one's ballot accordingly - and all too likely to be a wasted vote to vote otherwise.

Independently unverified

The Conference Board of Canada has qualified its conclusion that the Cons' platform can be sustained within a balanced budget, as some of the elements within the Cons' platform were never included in the plan submitted for evaluation:
Paul Darby, deputy chief economist of the Conference Board of Canada, originally concluded that Stephen Harper's Conservative platform "is affordable in each fiscal year from 2005-2006 through 2010-2011."

The Conservative party promoted that conclusion last week as evidence its election platform had been "independently verified" by the Conference Board, an Ottawa-based think-tank.

But Darby says the version of the platform he was given to vet didn't include a Conservative party health-care guarantee which states patients will be transported to another jurisdiction if they can't get timely care at home.

It also omitted a Tory platform promise to redress the so-called "fiscal imbalance" between Ottawa and the provinces.
The Conference Board's representative noted that since those platform planks weren't costed, he assumed that they weren't serious commitments from the Cons. But the Cons themselves have claimed otherwise, justifying the lack of any current numbers for these commitments based solely on the fact that their amount would remain to be negotiated.

It may be fair to say that it's tough to know the amount of those commitments in advance. But a budget predicated on a zero cost for those items is bound to look a lot different when any real numbers are put in place. And that means that the Cons' "independent verification" has really only confirmed that the Cons can't keep their promises without going into deficit or passing along the cost to Canadians in other ways.

Higher political education

The Canadian Federation of Students claims that Elections Canada decided to eliminate special ballot voting for University of Toronto students with next to no warning, leaving students wondering how to cast their vote:
The Students' Administrative Council, the central undergraduate students' union at the University of Toronto, had been working with Elections Canada to ensure that students living in campus residences could vote by "special ballot" in the Federal Election from Sunday, January 15 to Tuesday, January 17. This voting accommodation for was meant to ease the confusion among students living away from home during the election and improve voter turn-out amongst youth.

Elections Canada had officially notified the students' union, as well as candidates in the riding, that special ballot student voting would occur over three days, at seven locations in campus residences. The students' union had widely publicized these arrangements, in an effort to encourage students to participate in the Federal Election. On Saturday, January 14, at 9:45 pm, the evening before voting was set to begin, Elections Canada informed the students' union that these voting arrangements were being cancelled. No explanation was provided.
I'd certainly hope there's either a very good explanation or an alternative means of voting in the works. But for those students who may feel that their input through voting isn't valued, Elections Canada has done nothing but to reinforce that impression.

That said, it isn't yet too late for students to take initiative for themselves - though it will be soon. According to the Elections Canada website, any student wanting to vote through the special ballot process (which they'll have to if they're outside their home riding) will need to:
- register for the process through any Elections Canada returning officer by 6:00 PM Tuesday; and,
- ensure that the ballot reaches either the Ottawa office of Elections Canada, or the returning officer for the student's own riding, by 6:00 PM on the 23rd.

In sum, if students wait until the end of the period when Elections Canada was supposed to be on campus, it'll be too late to register for the special ballot process . Hopefully word will get out soon enough for students to find another way to register - and Elections Canada's sudden reversal won't affect the results in Trinity-Spadina or elsewhere.

On knowing one's power

The CP answers the question of whether writing a letter to the PM's office can make a difference with an all-too-definitive "no":
Altogether, Prime Minister Paul Martin received more than two million missives from Canadians in the year leading up to the Nov. 29 election call.

And their complaints and concerns bear little resemblance to the issues popping up in the headlines and newscasts of the last seven weeks.

Internal monthly analyses of this tsunami of correspondence, obtained under the Access to Information Act, show that water exports, an Arctic national wildlife refuge and debt relief for developing countries have been uppermost on the minds of correspondents.

Gun control, income trusts and taxes -- favourites of the campaign trail -- are far, far down the list of issues prompting Canadians to sound off directly with the prime minister.
The article doesn't draw the connection directly. But it seems fairly obvious that the issues which were subject to a great deal of letter-writing compared to little media exposure (particularly that of water exports) weren't the subject of meaningful action, while the ones which received media attention (e.g. income trusts) were subject to immediate action even if there was no particular groundswell of letter-writing.

Which means that for Canadians wanting to send a message to their government, a pen and paper won't do much to make a dent in the status quo. Instead, the main tools which may actually make a difference are the media, to the extent that an individual has access to such a platform; and the ballot box, in its ability to register the voters' desire for a government which responds in a different way. And Canadian voters, particularly those who have seen their concerns build up in a pile in Paul Martin's mail room, get their chance next week to send a message that no future Lib government would dare to ignore.