Saturday, February 11, 2006

Human wrongs

Another of the Cons' frequent topics of discussion in opposition has predictably been tossed by the wayside, as Jim Flaherty gives no indication that he's the least bit concerned about human rights in Russia as long as he personally gets treated well:
(Flaherty) shrugged off widespread criticisms that Russia has been backsliding on human rights and democracy development since Mr. Putin came to power.

“They've hosted a very good meeting here, and we appreciate it,” he said. “I'm not going to talk about Russian internal affairs, that's for sure.”

A British think tank, the Foreign Policy Centre, last week published a G8 Scorecard that gave Russia failing marks in a dozen areas that count as core values among most of the group's members, including openness, free speech, transparent governance, rule of law and civil society.
Of course, given the Cons' similar turnaround when it comes to the "transparent governance" issue in Canada, it shouldn't be surprised that key government ministers aren't the least bit interested in discussing whether Russia is living up to any standard. But just in case anybody thought the Cons would at least try to present a less cynical picture abroad than at home, Flaherty's initial trip abroad strongly suggests otherwise.

On failing to learn

Alberta's labour minister shows both an incredibly short memory and a remarkable lack of foresight, declaring that it's not worth the province's time to even talk about first-contract legislation now that the Lakeside Packers violence is over with:
Three months ago, Mike Cardinal said he would be giving serious consideration to so-called first contract legislation following the settlement of a three-week strike at Lakeside Packers. But Cardinal told The Canadian Press Friday that he no longer sees a need for a law that would force an arbitrated settlement for a first contract if the two sides fail to bargain a deal.

"I don't plan to make any changes," he said in an interview after touring the Lakeside slaughterhouse in Brooks, Alta. "Let's leave things as they are."...

"We're deeply disappointed that the minister hasn't taken this opportunity to improve our labour laws," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour...

Tom Hesse, the chief union negotiator in the Lakeside dispute, was also dismayed that Cardinal had decided to drop any further discussion of a first-contract law...

Hesse said a first-contract law could have prevented the violence during the Lakeside strike that sent three pickets to hospital.
Now, nobody would expect the Klein government to take any action beyond the bare minimum to protect workers. But even in the face of those low expectations, it shows nothing but contempt for workers that the Lakeside dispute is apparently being treated as an aberration rather than evidence of a need for at least some changes to protect Alberta's workforce. And that's doubly so when Cardinal had already promised action in the past.

Cardinal's justification seems to be based on the prospect that in a tight labour market, workers shouldn't need any added protection. But workers will have the option to vote both at the polls and with their feet - and Alberta's government has plenty to lose in both areas if it refuses to do anything to help the workers needed to carry out the province's plans.

Continued development

While much of Saskatchewan's improved financial outlook over the past year-plus relates directly to oil and gas prices, word comes out that those aren't the only industries prospering in the province:
Potash production surpassed 16 million tonnes last year, beating the previous year's record by five per cent.

The value of potash sales also peaked at a record $2.7 billion -- a 26 per cent increase over 2004...

The province made significant changes to potash taxes starting in 2003 to encourage more sales and investment.

They say the changes encouraged the industry to invest an extra $600 million to expand potash mines.
It's especially impressive that the potash industry has been able to get that much mileage out of its new investments despite having to compete with oil and gas over a limited supply of construction workers. Both the tax incentives and the investment have been money well spent so far - and the added economic activity will be all the more important for the province if oil prices don't stay at their current levels.

Friday, February 10, 2006

On justified suspicion

We can add Murray Mandryk to the list of typically-conservative commentators opening fire on Harper and company - and better yet, Mandryk draws the provincial connection as well:
The clear message this week is that ethics are something you talk abut while in opposition, rail about during election campaigns, but immediately dispose of the first time you encounter a politically inconvenient situation as the government.

With all due respect to Saskatchewan Party leader Brad Wall and his party's bid to force its members to behave in an ethical way during campaigns, this was a very bad week for a right-wing Opposition party to be taking the moral high-road on ethics...

At the risk of sounding overly suspicious, my sneaking suspicion is that (the ethis package which the Sask Party plans to debate) may be more for the Saskatchewan Party's own benefit than ours. What better way for the Saskatchewan Party to distance itself from a wingnut? And what better way for it to ride herd on its membership?...

So here's the depth of the Conservatives' ethical commitment, folks -- something that can be wiped out in a couple of key strokes.

Frankly, we don't need grandiose ethics codes from opposition parties that serve their purposes more than ours. We just need politicians who truly live by what they promise and propose.
Mandryk does take an obligatory shot at the NDP in the column. But let's face it, without that part of the column nobody would have believed that Mandryk really was the writer.

What's particularly significant is that Mandryk seems to be encouraging Saskatchewan voters to learn from their mistakes in the federal election, and cast a critical eye on an opposition which pushes for the toughest ethical rules imaginable only as long as those rules are binding somebody else's actions. There's plenty of time before the next Saskatchewan election...and the more than message resonates in the meantime, the better off the province will be in the long run.


Robert points out a handy site listing the orders-in-council made by Harper so far (as well as by previous PMs). And for sheer chutzpah, these ones may top anything else Harper has done yet this week:
Amendment to Schedule I.1 to the Financial Administration Act designating the MINISTER OF CANADIAN HERITAGE as the appropriate Minister with respect to the Office of Indian Residential Schools Resolution of Canada, effective February 6, 2006.
Registration: SOR/2006-0039
And for those holding out hope that's an accident or a misprint, you'll be sorry to note that it isn't:
Order transferring the OFFICE OF INDIAN RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS RESOLUTION OF CANADA to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, effective February 6, 2006.
Registration: SI/2006-0047
Just by way of review, let's take a look at the Canadian Heritage mandate:
Canadian Heritage is responsible for national policies and programs that promote Canadian content, foster cultural participation, active citizenship and participation in Canada's civic life, and strengthen connections among Canadians.
And in the department's expanded mission statement:
Promoting the creation, dissemination and preservation of diverse Canadian cultural works, stories and symbols reflective of our past and expressive of our values and aspirations.
Just for added effect in that context:
Amendment to Schedule I.1 to the Financial Administration Act designating the MINISTER OF CANADIAN HERITAGE as the appropriate Minister with respect to the Office of Indian Residential Schools Resolution of Canada, effective February 6, 2006.
I for one would think there has to be a difference between past policies and programs which are properly the subject of apologies and compensation, and ones which we celebrate as part of the heritage which defines us as Canadians. And it's plenty disturbing that Harper has signed onto the idea that Canada's shameful residential school legacy should appropriately be classified under the latter.

The pro-ad campaign

CanWest Global has brought a court action claiming that regulations on prescription drug advertising are contrary to its Charter right to freedom of speech:
The court action, launched by the company's MediaWorks division, comes amid a lobbying effort by Canada's broadcasting, newspaper and magazine industries, which have been trying for several years to have the rules changed...

The regulations date back several decades and were put in place to prevent drug companies from fear-mongering or from making false claims about the effects of a particular medication...

However, critics of drug advertisements say the laws must be kept in place to ensure consumers aren't exposed to overly aggressive advertising campaigns. A report prepared for the Health Council of Canada by a researcher at the University of British Colombia (sic) recommended last month that the government not only preserve the rules, but strengthen them.

Providing detailed information on drugs should not be left up to commercials, the report said. Rather it should be a publicly funded service.

CanWest chief executive officer Leonard Asper told the company's annual meeting in Toronto last month that several regulatory changes are needed in Canada's media sector to ensure companies can be profitable.
Off the cuff, it seems highly unlikely that the case itself will go far. While there's an apparent surface limit on freedom of expression, there's almost certainly a sound basis for the policy under s. 1. And the case should be all the weaker since the law isn't being directly challenged by the drug companies who might want to advertise and thus engage in the suggested expression.

Instead, the challenge comes from a media conglomerate whose sole purpose is to charge the greatest amount of money possible for the privilege of allowing advertisers to express themselves. And it's worth noting that based on the article, a good chunk of the national media (with CanWest merely taking the lead in the litigation) seems to consider itself entitled to be a compensated conduit for whatever information big pharma wants to spread - whether or not that could lead to harmful effects for Canadian citizens.

Unfortunately, even if the court case fails, it sounds like CanWest may have a sympathetic ear in the Con government. Harper himself may be ready to reward the media for the campaign gone by, and we should all know that Harper himself has argued that unlimited advertising is a Charter right. Which means that any hope of stopping the lobbying effort may require that Canadians make clear that the U.S.' lax standards aren't an example that we want to follow.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Meanwhile, back in the real world...

The NDP continues its mission to show that it's possible to work toward getting things done in Parliament, unveiling plans for child-care legislation modelled on the Canada Health Act:
“We aim to enshrine childcare in Parliament through this National Childcare Act just as healthcare has been enshrined with the Canada Health Act. As with healthcare, childcare must become a cornerstone of Canada,” said Chow. “Only through legislation can we protect and build on the existing childcare agreements the federal government has forged with the provinces.”

“The NDP will put forward legislation based on the principles of quality, universality, accessibility, educational development and inclusiveness,” said Chow. “This legislation will ensure two-way accountability between the federal and provincial governments.”
The NDP's strategy should offer a nice contrast to Harper's "money without accountability" angle on child care. And while it's doubtful that the NDP plan will pass given the Bloc's likely preference for free money for its home province, the legislation will both help to highlight the importance of the existing child-care deals, and ensure that the issue won't die away before the next Canadian election.

Yet to be determined

As a follow-up to this post, let's note that Harper himself doesn't yet look bad as a result of Emerson's involvement in the softwood lumber affair. But while the Libs seem jealous of the idea that Harper could claim credit for the agreement, if Harper does indeed choose to accept an agreement which grants Canada less than it's already won before the NAFTA tribunal, then there'll be ample reason to doubt that he plans to "stand up for Canada" rather than happily settling for whatever crumbs Bush wants to toss our way.

(Update: The Wingnuterer expands on the same point.)

Softwood power

While BCer in Toronto notes that David Emerson is supposedly ethically bound to avoid taking any action in the softwood lumber dispute, the Star points out that Emerson apparently didn't let those concerns keep him from making the call as to whether a planned deal would be announced. And neither Emerson nor the Libs comes out of this one without some serious damage:
Former colleagues as well as officials and diplomats privy to the secret, backchannel talks insist Emerson was instrumental in delaying a breakthrough in the decades-old dispute that cost thousands of Canadian jobs. They say the former Liberal industry minister worried that a pre-election announcement would damage Liberal prospects in key British Columbia ridings...

Liberals and non-partisan sources...say the B.C. government and its powerful forestry industry only lost interest in the plan after meetings with Emerson. His objections, along with concerns in Paul Martin's office that a pre-election deal would stop the then-prime minister from using George W. Bush as a campaign punching bag, convinced Liberals to delay formal negotiations at least until after the January election.

Informally discussed on parallel tracks here and in the U.S., the plan calls for Washington to reimburse about 75 per of the disputed $5 billion in tariffs imposed on Canadian lumber in return for Ontario and Quebec export quotas. In B.C., there would be higher stumpage fees to keep mills in the province's interior from flooding the U.S. market with cheap wood culled from forests hard-hit by mountain pine beetle infestations.

(W)hile making noisy demands that the U.S. abide by the letter and spirit of cross-border treaties and by threatening a trade war if it did not, Martin's government was quietly building a Canadian consensus. First, the three biggest softwood provinces tentatively agreed to the hybrid formula, and then key parts of the industry were brought into the talks on condition of strict confidentiality...

Other sources, including diplomats, confirm the template was complete before Martin's minority government fell. But for reasons Liberals now blame on Emerson, it stepped back from a deal that now falls into Stephen Harper's lap.
Emerson certainly comes out of this looking bad - in his failure to avoid involvement on the file as promised, in his being one of the Liberals who actively demanded that the U.S. meet its international obligations while aware of a deal which would entitle the U.S. to keep over a billion dollars worth of illegal tariffs, and to the extent that the Cons appear likely to push forward with the deal that Emerson kept the Liberals from announcing. And it's likely that all opposition parties will do their best to point that out.

But let's not pretend the Libs are off the hook in the least. It's also clear that PMPM's bluster over softwood lumber was (predictably) nothing but posturing designed for political gain. Indeed, the entire Liberal party was perfectly happy to sign away both money which rightly belongs to Canada, and B.C.'s ability to determine its own forestry policy. And the only reason the Libs didn't announce the deal was that Emerson persuaded them that political concerns should trump policy.

It's particularly amusing that the Libs seem to be leaking the information now in an effort to get retribution on Emerson. The facts seem to show nothing more than that Emerson's hunger for power and pattern of dishonesty made him the poster boy for how the Libs operate - and it's impossible to point that out about Emerson himself without seeing the parallels within the party as a whole.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The role model

While Harper continues to suffer from the fallout of his opening shenanigans in power, his party's godfather (and Harper's ethical model) gets dragged back into the limelight:
Former prime minister Brian Mulroney received $300,000 from a secret Swiss bank account after he left office because he was strapped for cash, German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber has told The Fifth Estate.

A Fifth Estate investigation has revealed new details of the money trail between Mulroney and Schreiber, raising questions about whether the former prime minister misled Canadians about their relationship.

Mulroney received $300,000 from a secret Swiss bank account controlled by Schreiber, the German-Canadian businessman told The Fifth Estate in his first sit-down interview...

Schrieber said he gave Mulroney the money after being approached by former Mulroney chief of staff Fred Doucet. According to Schreiber, Doucet told him Mulroney was not financially well off and needed some help.
In fairness, the report does suggest one important ideological difference between the Cons and the Libs, as Mulroney appears to have been the beneficiary of a far more privatized culture of entitlement. But the reminder of what happened last time the Cons got a majority, particularly in the context of Harper's own demonstrated lack of principle, should only help to ensure that Harper never gets near that result for himself.

The bare minimum

It's been fairly well-reported today that the judge in charge of the Milgaard inquiry has ruled that Milgaard will have to testify by videotape. But more interesting than content of the decision is the reasoning behind Justice MacCallum's ruling:
Justice Edward MacCallum said Wednesday that Milgaard must testify, but added that he could do so on videotape and be questioned solely by the inquiry's lawyer in order to reduce the stress of the event...

On Wednesday, the judge said in a 10-page written decision he hadn't been convinced there are medical reasons Milgaard can't testify. It didn't help that Milgaard wouldn't turn over his medical records, he said.

He said he could allow the videotaping option because all the lawyers said they could agree to it.
Now, it's to the credit of the other parties to the inquiry that they were willing to allow for some concessions based on Milgaard's health. And the compromise is a reasonable one supported by expert evidence.

But the end result is that Milgaard receives only the concession that counsel for the other parties would allow him, and not an inch more (aside from refusing one lawyer's request to have a right to cross-examine which would have completely undone the good of any accommodation). And indeed, Justice MacCallum indicated that it was only the agreement of the lawyers that led him to grant any accommodation at all. While it's fair enough that the evidence in support of Milgaard's application could have been a lot stronger, the ruling doesn't bode well for any attempt to repair the rift that's already apparent between Milgaard and the man responsible for figuring out why Milgaard was jailed.

Even worse than it seems

At least a few commentators have drawn the comparison between Harper's cabinet surprises and Dubya's nomination of Harriet Miers to SCOTUS. And the analogy may be accurate in terms of the grassroots reaction within the leader's own party. But the comparison is misleading to the point of unduly flattering Harper when considered in the context of what the leaders had actually promised to do.

When Bush made his nomination, the outrage from within his own party wasn't based on his violation of any explicit promises. In fact, the nomination could at least plausibly be seen as one of Bush's few efforts to actually keep his explicit promises (i.e. some degree of bipartisan cooperation since Harry Reid had suggested Miers for the job, and an absence of "litmus tests" on particular issues).

Sure, there were unseemly overtones in Miers' presence in Bush's inner circle...and there were valid concerns about whether Miers was truly qualified for the job. But the nomination itself did nothing to undermine any of Bush's genuine promises. The backlash from the religious right was the result of an unspoken expectation (which Bush couldn't publicly promise) that any Supreme Court nominee would be at least as reactionary as Antonin Scalia. And while Bush deserves plenty of criticism for meeting the terms of that bargain with his subsequent nominee, he certainly can't be considered to have violated any positive principle in nominating Miers to begin with.

In Harper's case, on the other hand, the situation is reversed. The Cons' entire platform was based on trying to make a change from the Libs' bad habits of doing absolutely anything to stay in power...and his action in luring Emerson (as well as appointing Fortier both to cabinet and to the Senate) violated at least the plain meaning of prominent campaign statements. As a result, it isn't just the Cons' base that is (or should be) up in arms: whether or not they voted for Harper, voters across the spectrum have reason to be angry with the new PM for not even waiting until the end of his first day in office to start ignoring what got him elected.

There's one final key difference based on the nature of the respective actions: unlike with the Miers nomination, there's no way for Harper to make up for his action after the fact. Miers was a loyal enough Bush soldier to be willing to give up her appointment without turning on her nominator in the process, and Bush could at least be seen to meet the far right's expectation when he tapped Alito later on. But even if Emerson were to step aside from the spotlight and into a backbencher role out of some bizarre sense of loyalty to his "worst enemy", Harper's promise to conduct politics differently can't be unbroken.

In sum: as harmful as the Miers nomination was to Bush, there's every reason to think that Harper's actions will be all the more damaging to his party in the long term - and you don't have to take my word for that. The only question now is whether there's enough anger to tempt the opposition parties to move up their plans to bring down Harper, or whether the issue will simply linger for a couple of years before Harper truly faces the consequences.

Choice quotes

Apparently a few Con MPs, while not willing to identify themselves, aren't any happier with Harper's cabinet antics than most of the blogosphere:
"This looks like expediency, even hypocrisy," a veteran Conservative MP from Western Canada said of the appointments of David Emerson, who was elected last month as a Liberal, and Conservative campaign co-chairman Michael Fortier, who didn't run but will get a Senate appointment.

"This is shocking. It's just unbelievable. Who was Stephen talking to? We campaigned against this kind of stuff," the MP said.

A rookie MP said: "I'm not sure how I'm going to explain these appointments to my constituents. It's bewildering."
Unfortunately, no Con MPs who were willing to be named spoke out specifically against the Dear Leader, though a couple were willing to similarly mention the difficulty explaining the turnabout to their constituents. But with even Con MPs joining the fray, it should be glaringly clear that Harper's sudden anti-accountability turn won't be forgotten anytime soon. And nobody should be surprised if these quotes (combined with a few of Harper's campaign entreaties about the need to clean up government by preventing precisely what he did) end up making a huge contribution to future NDP campaigns on the issue.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Getting ready for the blame

Vic Toews makes his first comments since taking over the federal justice portfolio - and unfortunately, it looks like the Cons' promise-breaking won't extend to the selection process for Canada's next Supreme Court justice:
Following the first cabinet meeting, Toews said he would like to hold public hearings on the qualifications of the next top-court judge. There is currently one vacancy...

But on Tuesday, Toews said public hearings would make the process more transparent and give parliamentarians the opportunity to "demonstrate their maturity.

"It falls on the shoulders of parliamentarians to demonstrate restraint and appropriate questioning. If that fails, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves."
Of course, if (and when) the questioning of the next justice goes off the rails, there will certainly be room to blame the questioner as well. But Toews himself should bear a heavier part of the responsibility.

After all, it's Toews who's apparently determined to push through with a policy change which relies on Parliament suddenly acquiring a degree of civility and maturity that's been sorely lacking for ages. And it seems all too likely that Canada's judiciary will be worse off for his insistence.

Clash of the turncoats?

As much appeal as there is to the Emerson-recall movement, wouldn't it be even more fun to see David Schreck's proposed matchup next time Canada goes to the polls?
When questioned about Emerson, Prime Minister Harper said that it is important to him to have representation from the city of Vancouver. If he is going to keep that representation, Emerson will have to find another seat for the next election...

The seat where the Conservatives would probably stand the best chance in a 2007 election is Vancouver South, currently occupied by Ujjal Dosanjh, who won 20,991 votes, while the Conservative, Tarkok Sablok, came second with 11,856. The Liberals won by almost 12,000 votes in Vancouver Quadra, and they were more than 13,000 votes ahead of the Conservatives in Vancouver Centre. It's no wonder that Dosanjh was particularly agitated when interviewed shortly after the announcement about Emerson's change in parties.
It has to be a plus to know that whoever won that matchup, there'll be at least some element of justified schadenfreude in seeing the other one defeated. And if the NDP could sneak up the middle (Bev Meslo was a couple of thousand votes behind Sablok this time around)...well, that's one to file under "we can only hope".

Putting the "pal" back in municipalities

The timing may not have been the greatest since nothing was going to push Harper's first day in office away from the front page. But the impending Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association convention provided the backdrop for some key provincial news yesterday:
Calvert's announcement, in a speech at the annual convention of the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association provides an extra $52 million in grants to local governments...

The package announced by Calvert includes a permanent $10-million-per-year increase in revenue-sharing grants to local governments plus an additional one-time $10-million increase for this fiscal year.

Calvert brought the total up to $52 million by also announcing a one-time "Community Share 2006" program that will provide local governments across the province with an extra $32 million for capital projects.
While the one-time funding should be a boost in allowing municipalities to look at capital improvements, the more important part is the permanent increase in revenue-sharing grants. Thanks to Calvert's announcement, municipalities will have the opportunity both to make immediate capital investments, and ensure that sufficient ongoing funding is available to allow those investments to be maintained. And if indeed the end result is also some added ability for municipalities to avoid higher taxes while making those improvements (which unfortunately appears to be the central theme of the CP article), then all the better.

(Edit: typo.)

Monday, February 06, 2006

A cabinet candidate in the making?

Amidst the Emerson furor (and who thought the outcry among Cons would be even louder than that among Libs?), another former Liberal cabinet minister sounded like he was giving a belated audition for a role on Harper's team:
"We need to invest a great deal in the effort to re-establish the proximity of our relationship with the United States," Manley said at a Toronto forum on security issues.

Manley said he has long believed that a prime minister's biggest responsibility, outside of national unity, is managing Canada's relationship with the United States, its largest and most significant trading partner...

"Whether it's now Prime Minister Stephen Harper or whether it has been other prime ministers in the past, we need to cut the prime minister a bit of slack," Manley said.

Manley called on Canadians to support Harper in efforts to improve border security without harming trade between the two countries, which became heavily scrutinized after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Which by my count makes two recently-mooted Liberal leadership contenders going out of their way to make life easier for Harper. And here I thought the Libs generally had already done pretty much everything they could to hand as much power as possible to the Cons.

Message received

While most of the talk today is about the messages sent by Harper's cabinet choices, the undertones of his latest policy announcement (which I'm not surprised to see buried under the cabinet news) may say a lot more about the course of Harper's government:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he will move forward July 1 with his child-care plan, including a $1,200 payment for each child under age six.

Harper, speaking after his first cabinet meeting today, said he will put his proposal before the new minority Parliament in the federal budget this spring. He also announced that the House of Commons will resume April 3...

He said he will end the current national child-care funding deal with the provinces effective March 31.
The most obvious content of the announcement is that regardless of the fact that all three other parties want to see some form of child care funding to the provinces, Harper has no intention of putting a cent toward that. And indeed he's apparently willing to let his government fall on the principle that public daycare shouldn't be offered anything. While it's a bit more adversarial than I'd expected Harper to be before unveiling a budget, nobody should be all that surprised to see the Cons ideologically opposed to any positive government action.

But while the stop to public funding is telling, Harper's attitude toward child care is best reflected in the timelines involved. In his view, it shouldn't make the slightest bit of difference to Canadians if there's a three-month gap where not a single cent gets put toward child care under either the existing agreements with the provinces or under the Cons' "child-care" plan. And in fact Harper won't even call Parliament back to debate the issue until after the existing money has stopped flowing.

I'm sure more than a few Canadian parents might have their own opposing opinion as to what a difference a few months may make in the life of a child. But in Harper's government, offering nothing whatsoever to parents is a legitimate way to save the cost of three months worth of child care policy. And any parents caught unexpectedly short in the meantime, whether based a need for an affordable child care space or merely for the cash offered instead under the Con platform, shouldn't forget that lesson next time Harper claims to be standing up for families.

Pragmatism and principle

The two subplots receiving the most attention in the Cons' cabinet announcement today are Harper's success in luring David Emerson across the floor, and the naming of Michael Fortier with the expectation that he'll then find his way to the House of Commons through a byelection. Both moves are significant tactical gambits to help Harper keep power for now. But while the Cons will gain somewhat in their immediate ability to govern, it's the NDP that should be the largest long-term beneficiary of the moves.

After all, the significance of the Emerson switch is to ensure that any Con deal with the NDP will be able to pass in the House so long Peter Milliken (as rumoured) continues as speaker. And assuming that Fortier waits and wins a seat now held by the Libs or Bloc (or alternatively if Andre Arthur jumps to the Cons), then the NDP will hold a true balance of power no matter who's in the Speaker's chair.

At the same time, though, anybody who genuinely opposed either the Stronach defection or the Senate appointment system has no reason to be anything but disillusioned with the Cons. And that could well represent enough votes to continue the Cons' drop in B.C. seats next time Canadians go to the polls...particularly since the NDP can point out its consistent stance against Emerson/Stronach-style party jumping.

So do the Libs gain anything on principle? Not for a second. After all, none of Harper's actions look any different from what the Libs have gone out of their way to deliver over the last decade-plus. And what's worse for the Libs, the jump by Emerson helps to show that even where a vote for the Libs doesn't deliver a three-way race to a Con in name, it can also result in the NDP losing out to somebody who's willing to jump to the Cons at the first whiff of added power. Meanwhile, the tactical implications are obviously a problem as well, since the Libs will no longer have any stronger voice in policy-making than the NDP.

In sum, Emerson's move is a disaster for the Libs on all counts, and at best a guarded win for the Cons given both the complete repudiation of the principles the party has claimed to speak for in the past, and the energy the party put into tearing him down through past campaigns. For the NDP, though, it means that Layton holds both the balance of power, and the ability to speak out as the only national leader whose party doesn't make a habit of offering inducements to other parties' members to jump ship. And it's tough to imagine a much better starting point for the Dippers going into the next Parliament.

No blank check

The Globe and Mail reports that the Liberal Senate majority is prepared to grant Harper his party's campaign promises. But there's a downside for Harper, as those promises include his promise that the Senate will keep a close watch on the Cons:
Liberal senators say they won't deliberately hold up the main policies of the incoming Conservative government, but any measures that were not part of the Tory platform can expect a rough ride in the Senate.

Prime-minister-designate Stephen Harper raised eyebrows during the election when he said the Senate would be a check on his power. Senators are now debating just how big a check they intend to be...

"If a government [has] run on an issue, as they did in 1988 on free trade . . . we passed it without further ado because they had a mandate," (outgoing Liberal Senate leader Jack Austin) said. "We look to see, 'is there a mandate? Does the government in our view have an endorsement by the Canadian electorate of the policy?' Basically, our role is the same, whichever party is in power."
It'll be interesting to see the interaction between the Commons and the Senate this time out. The upside from a "keeping Harper in check" standpoint is that the Libs in the House could well choose to allow their partisans in the Senate to take the job of defeating any overly harmful money bills where the Commons opposition doesn't yet want to precipitate an election. And that could be particularly useful in reining in Harper's first budget.

But then, any extended use of Senate control could also give Harper a chance to run a populist campaign against entrenched Liberal power in the upper chamber...which in turn could help set the groundwork for a Con majority in protest. And that may not only make it difficult for the Libs to defeat some bills in either chamber, but it may also provide some incentive for Harper to test the limits of the Senate's planned oversight.

In other words, the impact of Senate oversight is bound to work both ways. And whether it's the Libs or the Cons that best coordinates its strategy between the two chambers, the party which makes the best use of the upper chamber will be well-positioned next time Canada goes to the polls.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The wrong way of communicating

While some provinces are trying to win Harper's favour through public attention and the media, others are looking at other ways to try to influence federal policy:
Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm was set to officially open the province's new office in Ottawa on Monday in a bid to improve communication with the federal government...

Last month, Hamm appointed Ian Thompson to head the office. Thompson, a prominent Tory supporter, is set to earn $130,000 a year and receive a living allowance...

Prince Edward Island has taken the idea in another direction, asking prime minister-designate Stephen Harper to set up an office in P.E.I.
The Nova Scotia model seems particularly questionable in the degree to which it's apparently created a plush job to be handed out on a political basis. (Surely after spending the bulk of the last year hearing about Gomery, there should be at least some shame about such partisan appointments, particularly if there's some appearance of benefitting the federal government as well in rewarding one of its supporters.) And while the P.E.I. proposal at least doesn't add lobbying to the problems associated with partisan appointments, it too seems all too likely to turn into a way for Harper to reward his own supporters in the province, with any real policy influence ranking a distant second in the visible effects.

There's undoubtedly a need to ensure communication between the provinces and the federal government, and it's understandable that both Nova Scotia and P.E.I. want to make sure that they're heard within the new government. But surely there's a way to ensure that dialogue is on merit-based grounds rather than partisan ones...lest a brand-new culture of partisan entitlement become the standard for federal-provincial relations.

That which should be beyond debate

Awhile back, Canadian Cynic suggested that the best way to pin the right down on war crimes is to ask them to define just what is beyond the realm of acceptable conduct.

By that theory, one can at least give Bushco credit for not being hypocritical. In the administration's view, absolutely anything goes for the president, and the only question is how long it takes to convince the public that the War on Terra necessitates the action.

The latest evidence comes from Newsweek, as it becomes clear that Bushco considers the president entitled to order the extrajudicial killing of any "terrorist suspect" in the U.S.:
In the latest twist in the debate over presidential powers, a Justice Department official suggested that in certain circumstances, the president might have the power to order the killing of terrorist suspects inside the United States...

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked Bradbury questions about the extent of presidential powers to fight Al Qaeda; could Bush, for instance, order the killing of a Qaeda suspect known to be on U.S. soil? Bradbury replied that he believed Bush could indeed do this...
The administration's public response has been to claim that the discussion is purely theoretical. Which, as pointed out by one commentator, is exactly what Alberto Gonzales said when discussing wiretaps in 2005 - before the then-ongoing program was made public.

Not that there's any indication that the same has yet happened with killings - but given that the administration's stance is identical on the two issues, it's hard to be confident that it'll treat the issue differently in the long run. And in keeping with CC's example, we can only hope that Bush's term as president runs out before Bushco's legal advisors start floating similar trial balloons about the president's inherent authority to publicly torture innocent children to death if he deems it necessary to fight terror.

(Via two Kos diaries.)

(Edit: typo.)

Waiting for the next step

The Financial Post's Claudia Cattaneo covers the high expectations for development in Inuvik:
(I)n the rest of the country, debate is sure to continue about whether this nearly untouched wildlife haven should be opened to the oil and gas industry so consumers can satisfy their insatiable thirst for energy.

But in this tough town on the top of Canada, the most affected by the project, residents are not only ready for the project after 30 years of preparation -- they're getting impatient...

With their checks and balances in place, aboriginals put to work some of their government money to build new businesses. Entrepreneurs pressed ahead, too, with their own money, in anticipation that the North's vast hydrocarbon deposits would eventually be developed...

(R)esentment is building toward the many forces seen as standing in the way of development -- from the federal government and its slow decision-making process to the oil companies that have been sitting on huge reserves for decades, to the militant Deh Cho First Nations in the Central Mackenzie Valley opposing the project to gain leverage in their land claim negotiations with Ottawa, to all those holding on to an unrealistic image of the North.
The article is naturally somewhat biased toward development at the expense of everything else. But it's certainly worth noting that many of the groups who were concerned about development in the 1970s and 1980s have managed to secure assurances that future development won't be at the expense of the well-being of the local people and environment.

As a result, the most significant factors standing in the way of development now are based on inertia and bargaining power rather than any principled basis to avoid getting started on the pipeline. And those are obstacles which the incoming federal government should make sure to overcome to help share prosperity with Canada's north.

The race to break promises

The Star reports on some rumours surrounding the Con's effort to fill cabinet positions and other government jobs. But buried in the article, one finds that having taken over government, the Cons are already making noises about avoiding the governmental ethics that formed the basis of their campaign:
Then there's the question of the Tory ethics package, which has caused reticence among some likely candidates for senior jobs because of the provision that will prevent ministerial staff from lobbying the government for five years after they leave...

An Ottawa-based Tory, who has been approached about playing a senior role in an as-yet unspecified minister's office, said the party's accountability plan still has to clearly define what activities would be subjected to the five-year cooling-off period.

There are whispers the Tories won't object if a parliamentary committee waters down some of the tough new rules, which only adds confusion to the party's official stance that the rules will stay as they were drafted.
It doesn't surprise me in the least that the Cons are now sending signals about encouraging future lobbying now that they see greater potential for future power as a result. But while the Cons appear to be demonstrating their own lack of principle, it's the response of the other parties that'll determine whether or not there's a meaningful obstacle against the revolving-door cycle of government work and lobbying in the future.

Note in particular the Cons' plan to get the rules relaxed in committee. Presumably the committee's makeup would reflect the proportion of seats in Parliament, such that the Cons couldn't make any change on their own. And given the relative lack of lobbying power in each party, it's hard to see why either the NDP or the Bloc would want to water down the bill.

Which means that with the Cons sending signals that they're willing to lower the bar now that they're in power, it'll be up to the Libs to determine whether or not to relax the restrictions on both the Cons today, and possible Lib governments to come. And that should give Canadians an excellent opportunity to see whether a reforming Lib party really wants to clean up government, or whether both the Libs and the Cons see criticism of the culture of entitlement as merely a means to set up new cultures in the future.