Saturday, August 12, 2006

On division

A nice catch by leftdog, as PMS' apparent plan to divide and conquer the Libs on foreign policy is predictably causing some splits within the Con ranks as well:
Conservative Senator Anne Cools says she is not happy with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's position on the Middle East and plans to speak out about her concerns when the upper house convenes in the fall.

"Suffice it to say, I'm not that happy with the position that has been adopted and I remain very very concerned about the entire Middle Eastern situation," Cools said Thursday in an interview.

"I would have liked to see obviously an immediate ceasefire (without conditions). Canada is not a big power...but I do believe that in that part of the world we need to be even-handed."...

Cools...describes the carnage in the area as unspeakable.

"I belong to that group of people who finds the loss of life, the loss of civilian life, the desolation of Lebanon, the attacks on the Israeli people, I just find it so very troubling," Cools said.
Of course, it says something about Harper and company that the loss of life doesn't seem to bother them in the least. But hopefully more Cons will join Cools in pointing out the need for a policy which recognizes that civilians in both Lebanon and Israel deserve better than to be held hostage by militarism in their midst. After all, there's no better antidote to divisive politicking than for the unnecessary divisions to come back to haunt those who create and exploit them.

On poor representation

CanWest reports that the U.S., having failed utterly in its plan to design an alternative to passports for Canada/U.S. travel, will instead impose a full passport requirement next year for travel by air or sea:
In a regulatory analysis of proposed rules that are slated to go into effect Jan. 8, 2007, government officials write that "there is not sufficient time" to properly develop and produce a new piece of identification the size of a credit card an "alternative passport" that could meet all the standards necessary to secure the U.S. border...

The proposed requirements, published Friday by the Department of Homeland Security, require Canadians to present a passport, Merchant Mariner Document or Nexus Air Card when crossing the Canada-U.S. border. Currently, they must only show a driver's licence or birth certificate.
As emphasized by CTV, the U.S. wasn't entirely unwilling to delay implementation of the new requirements. But with the Cons spending more time pushing to force the U.S.' schedule on Canada than to pressure the U.S. to hold off until it has a complete plan in place, the 2007 pause will only be for a single week.

Mind you, the Cons are apparently claiming to have changed tactics belatedly. But judging from Stockwell Day's latest comments, the new stance couldn't be much more tepid:
"There is room within the U.S. legislation to have a delay or a pilot project at some point or region to see how a new card would work," (Day) said. "We're asking for that kind of consideration, but we respect the rule-making and law-making process."
Compare Day's meek suggestion to the active effort from a large group of legislators (including the majority of the U.S. Senate who have already voted to hold off on implementation) and businesses on both sides of the border supporting the view that the restrictions shouldn't be pushed forward without some semblance of a plan. Sadly, the group holding the strongest position from which to defend Canada's interests is once again ignoring a long list of allies and refusing to take a meaningful stand. Which can only encourage the U.S. to keep blindly pushing forward rather than considering the consequences of its lack of planning.

An end to principle

Remember back when Dalton McGuinty was leading the charge for a thorough review of federal/provincial funding rather than looking simply to maximize the amount paid out to his province in the short term? I ask because judging from Ian Urquhart's latest column, McGuinty apparently doesn't:
Premier Dalton McGuinty has narrowed down his federal-provincial fiscal agenda to a single core issue: that help from Ottawa for the have-not provinces should be confined to the equalization program...

(In a preview of a letter to Harper, McGuinty) says that Ontario supports equalization "as part of our historic commitment to ensuring quality services across Canada," but opposes expanding the principle to other programs.

In this respect, McGuinty focuses on two major federal programs that provide funding for all the provinces, not just the have-nots: the Canada Health Transfer and the Canada Social Transfer.
Urquhart's article goes on to note that the effective question will now come down to whether Harper chooses to put a very limited amount of funding toward ending "backdoor equalization" as argued by McGuinty, or adding to equalization as requested by Quebec. Utterly ignored are not only the foundational questions of the purpose of federal funding, but even more technical questions such as how fiscal capacity is to be calculated, and whether McGuinty's new enemy in "backdoor equalization" merely reflects actual costs of service delivery due to greater buying power held by the larger, wealthier provinces.

McGuinty's transformation may be only the most obvious about-face in the question of whether to genuinely seek a renewed federal vision, or merely to turn the "fiscal imbalance" into a one-time fight between the provinces for slight increases in federal funding. But it appears plain that any sense of principle or fairness (however often the term is used by premiers) has now been eliminated from federal/provincial talks. And with so many provinces plainly looking out only for number one, few if any will have a reasonable basis to criticize Harper for imposing a solution based on his own political gain.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Financial statements

The CP reports that Frank McKenna donated $3,000 to Scott Brison's Lib leadership bid. Which should all the more conclusively suggest that McKenna isn't planning on changing his mind at the behest of a party movement. After all, it would be awfully tough for McKenna to enter the race based on a lack of viable candidates when he himself has put his money behind one of them.

Of course, whether the loss of the most prominent unifying candidate dissuades some Lib strategists from shooting their party in the foot in the name of future unity remains to be seen.

On invisible procurement

Maxime Bernier is outraged at the prospect that anybody would suspect the Cons of patronage based merely on their unnecessarily and inaccurately invoking a national-security exemption to avoid any oversight for $8 billion in military spending. Has anybody explained to Bernier that the "invisible hand" of the market doesn't mean that all transactions should be hidden away from public view?

Losing the core

Greg at the now dearly-departed Sinister Thoughts sometimes commented that pro-Con polls must have been carried out inside Legion halls to explain their end results. But now, even the Royal Canadian Legion is angry at the Cons for accepting an overpriced proposal for the administration of an exchange program which the Legion had supported in the past, and was willing to administer in the future. And there's nothing like being caught on the wrong end of the Cons' waste and favouritism to help make sure that even a Legion hall may not be such friendly territory in the future.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Choosing sides

The CP reports that Lib MP Wajid Khan will be too busy advising Stephen Harper to maintain his role as a critic. And yet most of the Libs speaking out on the issue are either outright supportive, or more concerned with the potential implications for caucus confidentiality than the certainty of offering political cover and support to PMS.

On needed investments

The Tyee reports that while the potential threat of flooding may be greater than at any time in recent memory, the B.C.'s Lib government has been cutting the flood warning system which could help to contain the damage:
A return of floods seen in the past would overtop existing dikes by as much as three feet at Mission, a new modelling study predicts. The report, funded by local, provincial and federal agencies and overseen by the Fraser River Council, is due to be distributed later this month to local governments and First Nations in the affected areas. The year-long study used highly detailed updated surveys of the Fraser River and records of historic floods in 1894 and 1948, in conjunction with powerful hydrological models, to forecast what would happen if the same water flows returned today. The last time such a study was done was 1969, using less detailed information and weaker modelling tools...

More worrying still, the historical record used as a basis for the updated forecast may no longer be an adequate measure of flooding in the future, Litke warns. Precipitation across the Fraser River basin has been increasing at two to four per cent a decade in the nearly 60 years since the last serious flood on the Fraser, leading Litke to ask: "How valid is that historical peak flow? Climate change is an obvious big question. Something bigger could occur."...

How much warning residents would receive that flows upriver could threaten to overwhelm the dikes is also in doubt -- thanks to cuts in provincial funding for the network of hydrometric monitoring stations that track rivers in the province. The network, which stood at 600 stations a decade ago, and which experts say needs as many as 1,000 stations to adequately monitor British Columbia's many rivers, has been reduced to about 400. That number may fall to as few as 230 when the current funding commitment expires in the spring of 2009...

The total amount the province could save by decommissioning the early-warning network is $5 million, its budget for 2005-2006. A review of risks from a return of historic flood levels, conducted before the latest study calling into question the reliability of dikes along much of the lower Fraser, estimated potential economic losses at more than $1.8 billion, with as many as 300,000 people directly affected.
In fairness, there's no guarantee that the monitoring system itself will be able to prevent future damage. But given the potential harms, one would think that at the very least it would be a high priority to ensure that the best possible information is available - as well as putting funding into putting an improved dike system in place rather than waiting for the worst to happen. And we can only hope that a more responsible B.C. government will be in place before the risks materialize.

Haven't we seen this one before?

The Cons have set a deadline of August 21 to determine whether there's enough industry support for their softwood capitulation to justify following up on it. And if there's anything you can count on, it's an arbitrary, needless deadline from the Cons.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Potentially-fatal PMS

In Harper's world, inconveniencing PMS by keeping a plane full of passengers safe is officially considered cause for immediate dismissal. And the Libs consider it a point of pride for one of their own to be a special advisor to this man.

(Edit: typo.)

Due attention

The Cons may be doing their best to try to create a military purchasing process free of public scrutiny or accountability. But the NDP isn't letting them off the hook, demanding that the opaque procurement process be balanced by clear Parliamentary oversight:
The NDP says a parliamentary committee must be given the opportunity to investigate the Conservative government's plan to override controls on $8-billion in military spending and steer contracts to the West, Quebec and the Atlantic.

The federal government will choose where the contracts will be doled out by invoking a national-security exception on the purchase of military airplanes and helicopters.

New Democratic defence critic Dawn Black said the government should discuss its plans with Parliament to ensure that everything is above board. She said MPs must be able to grill the ministers of Defence and Industry on this topic in the fall, when the House of Commons returns from its summer break.

"The potential is there for favouritism, the potential is there for pork-barrelling, and hopefully . . . we can examine the government's rationale for this and look at where they are thinking of letting these contracts," Ms. Black, MP for the B.C. riding of New Westminster-Coquitlam, said of the planned purchases.

"It makes sense that there be some regional aspects to it, but it should be done in an open and accountable manner so that any questions that members of Parliament and the public have are seen to be answered."

Ms. Black made a specific reference to the outrage that surrounded the 1986 contract to maintain CF-18 fighter jets, which was initially destined for Bristol Aerospace in Winnipeg and redirected to Canadair of Montreal by the Mulroney government. "I'm from the West, and we haven't forgotten that debacle here," Ms. Black said. "At a minimum, [these new purchases] should be put before the defence committee of the House."
It would be all the better if the Cons were willing to face the usual procurement process, which as noted before already includes a regional development component. But if they are indeed able to insulate the purchase from AIT scrutiny, then a thorough Parliamentary review is likely the next best means of ensuring that the purchase itself really is aimed toward national security rather than purely political gain.

Introducing the Lieberman Party of Canada

Let's take a closer look at what it means for PMS to have appointed Lib MP Wajid Khan as his special adviser on the Middle East with the blessing of the Libs - and how the Libs have given PMS a massive gift with their willingness to play along.

First, the move effectively absolves Harper of serious scrutiny for his train wreck of a foreign policy, particularly to the extent such attention would have come from the Libs themselves. After his embarrassment of the country over the past couple of weeks, now should be the time for the opposition to hold his feet to the fire.

But Khan and the Libs have singlehandedly stopped Harper's slide. Now, Harper can now say that any missteps are in the past, that he's learning more about his role with Lib help and encouragement, and that he just needs more time to hear from his Lib adviser before setting things right. And particularly when any Lib tries to question him, he'll be able to point to that Lib's party-mate who was willing to drop everything to run to his assistance, and ask why the Lib questioner doesn't approve of Khan's contribution. It may fall slightly short of a Joe Lieberman publicly denouncing his own party at every turn, but the impact is the same - and in fact the endorsement of Bill Graham takes the Libs' complicity to the top of its party structure.

Of course, the impact goes further than foreign policy alone. The move suggests that for all their public posturing, the Libs honestly believe that Harper is reasonable enough and open enough to criticism to be willing to change his policies based on the input of a single adviser. After all, why else would it be worth their while to send one of their own MPs into Harper's sphere? After two campaigns of nothing but "fear Harper!" from the Libs, their sudden turn toward "Harper's not so bad!" can only squelch any credibility the Libs were otherwise in danger of building up, while at the same time improving public perceptions of PMS.

And it's happening already. Based on the newfound party approval some bloggers are now saying explicitly that Harper really just needs some time to hear the Libs' side of the story. Which means that Harper can now refuse to listen to absolutely anybody (not that this would be much of a change), yet still have Libs on the record saying they consider him well-intentioned and willing to listen - a claim which can then spill over into domestic policy no matter how far the Cons go out of their way to avoid hearing dissenting views.

Those are the shorter-term effects. But in the long term, things look even worse once Khan's advice could plausibly play a role in policy formation (though I'm rather dubious that Harper is particularly interested in listening). If Harper avoids any further gaffes, then the spillover effect will only increase, making his domestic policies appear more moderate than they are and undermining any Lib efforts to challenge him. And if he does screw up again, then he'll have the choice of either blaming Khan's input and forever repudiating any need to listen to other political actors, or suggesting that the failure is a national one rather than a political one due to the Libs' willing involvement.

So what's in it for the Libs? Aside from some increased profile for Khan personally, the best excuse for their willingness to play along probably sounds something like "We fail to cooperate with our Prime Minister at our nation's peril". Which should be setting off more than a few alarm bells.

The flip side of the Libs' self-neutering is that the NDP will be left all the more clearly as the only national party willing to oppose Harper rather than cover up for him. Which will present a great opportunity, but also a massive challenge for a party which still needs to build capacity before it'll be able to stop the Cons on its own.

The question now is whether the Think Twice coalition from 2006 will itself think twice about its own misguided belief that the Libs would be effective at keeping Harper in check. If that group unites behind the NDP, then there may yet be a chance to keep Harper out of majority territory, and indeed perhaps to put an NDP administration in power sooner than conventional wisdom would suggest. But yesterday proves that the Libs have their own strategic reasons for undermining the effort - which will only make stopping Harper all the more difficult for those of us who recognize the dangers that he may pose to Canada.

Update: And to think I may have understated the case, as several prominent Libs are worried that Khan might act as an outright double agent rather than just a one-time pawn of Harper's.

(Edit: revised wording of update.)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Lessons unlearned

It's probably just a coincidence that the Libs have bought into Harper's scheme to win bipartisan cover for his Mideast missteps on the same day that Joe Lieberman was finally given the boot by Democrats who've learned better. But the good news is that unlike their counterparts to the south, Canadian voters wanting a real opposition to Harper won't need to wait multiple election cycles or take over the Libs from within to have a real alternative.

History repeating

The current commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan is sure we'll be able to tell whether the mission is a success if he gets just four more months. Has the world really learned no more from the Iraq debacle than to occasionally change the usual time frame in which to claim that everything will turn for the better?

Needed neutrality

The (relatively) good news is that the need for added security in Haiti hasn't yet been completely forgotten, as the UN is planning to step up its security presence. The bad news, though, is that any such increase seems all too likely to follow the pattern of blaming only one side of the existing gang wars:
The peacekeepers were dispatched to Haiti to help restore order following the 2004 revolt that toppled then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, now exiled in South Africa.

U.N. officials have said the latest crime wave may be an attempt to destabilize the country and pressure Preval into allowing Aristide to return. Preval has said he does not believe the violence is politically motivated.
Preval's statement may be on the simplistic side given the interrelationship between political rivalries and the gang wars. But it's certainly closer to the truth than the apparent UN assumption that any violence must be linked to Aristide supporters alone when the battle has always been bloody on all sides.

While plenty of damage has been done to Haiti's attempts at democracy, it's not too late for the world to start improving matters. But as long as international involvement continues to be based on blaming Aristide and his supporters rather than ensuring that Haitians can be secure from both sides of the gang conflict (as well as from abuses by the security forces themselves), no number of added troops can really make Haiti more stable in the long run.

Not buying it

The Globe and Mail reports that the Cons plan to invoke the "national security" exemption in the Agreement on Internal Trade in order to improve their ability to dictate the regional content of any contracts:
The Conservative government has used an extraordinary “national security” clause to take control of $8-billion in recently announced military spending, allowing it to dole out contracts to the West, Quebec and the Atlantic.

The federal government lost the power to steer contract work to specific parts of the country with the 1994 signing of the Agreement on Internal Trade with the provinces. But as part of the continuing purchase of new planes and helicopters, the government has decided to invoke a national-security exception (NSE), which effectively removes these contracts from reach of the agreement.

A federal official said the net result is that Ottawa will be able to impose regional quotas on the economic benefits of the contracts...

Leah Clark, a director-general at Industry Canada, confirmed in an interview that the government is likely to impose quotas in the distribution of the benefits in Canada.

“It is not usually our practice to specify minimums for regions,” she said, adding that the “the use of the NSE allows us to talk about minimums.”
It sounded more than a bit sketchy that national security is being used as the excuse for regional patronage which has nothing at all to do with national security. But on a quick review of the Agreement on Internal Trade itself, the action is even more indefensible than it appears at first glance.

The national security exemption reads as follows:
Article 1804: National Security
Nothing in this Agreement shall be construed to:
(a) require the Federal Government to provide, or allow access to, information the disclosure of which it determines to be contrary to national security; or
(b) prevent the Federal Government from taking any action that it considers necessary to protect national security interests or, pursuant to its international obligations, for the maintenance of international peace and security.
Frankly, I'm not sure how the Cons could defend a position that a decision based on regional development could be classified under this provision. Clause (a) refers plainly to information alone, not to any right to opt out of any contracting obligations entirely. Clause (b) could conceivably be stretched to apply to contracting, but then only if there's a genuine "national security interest" at stake - and by implication, only to the extent that such a national security interest is indeed at issue.

There is one other provision which could be invoked (Annex 502.2A). But this annex would have the effect of entirely removing a given government entity from the application of the Chapter Five procurement rules under the AIT. And if that provision is being applied to Industry Canada generally, then the problems go much further than merely the military procurement at issue: Industry Canada would be excluded from any future obligation of fair procurement, and all based on what's at best a questionable classification for the moment.

It gets worse, though, as contrary to the Globe and Mail's suggestion the Agreement on Internal Trade plainly allows for regionally-oriented measures under appropriate circumstances:
Article 508: Regional and Economic Development
Exceptional Circumstances
1. A Party may, under exceptional circumstances, exclude a procurement from the application of this Chapter for regional and economic development purposes, provided that:
(a) the exclusion of the procurement does not operate to impair unduly the access of persons, goods, services or investments of another Party;
(b) the exclusion of the procurement is not more trade restrictive than necessary to achieve its specific objective;
(c) notice of all such excluded procurements is provided by one or more of the methods specified in Article 506(2) and the notice provides details of the exceptional circumstances; and
(d) the Party seeks to minimize the discriminatory effects of the exclusion on suppliers of the other Parties.
In sum, even if there's no problem at all with the Cons' apparent goal of ensuring some regional parity in the benefits of their contracting, that could have been accomplished while still allowing for a transparent process. But instead of ensuring that any regional provisions in a contract satisfy the seemingly reasonable requirements of Article 508, the Cons have chosen a route based on factors utterly unrelated to regional development as their basis for insulating huge expenditures from any review.

Needless to say, the mere invocation of the words "national security" without a rational basis shouldn't be permitted to undermine either the public's right to scrutinize government expenditures, or the rights of contractors across the country under an agreement which the federal government signed to ensure fairness in contracting. And while the likely regional squabbling over the contracts at issue may itself punish the Cons for their poor decision to date, Canadians will need to keep the Cons under careful scrutiny to ensure that this decision isn't being used to hide even wider swaths of procurement from the public eye.

Monday, August 07, 2006

On truth suppression techniques

It doesn't look like the range of Canadians who have made Afghanistan their top issue in writing to PMS will have reason to stop anytime soon, as the CP reports that a report into possible "friendly-fire" Canadian deaths will be subject to a veto by the countries whose soldiers may have contributed that fire:
A closed-door investigation into the possible friendly fire death of a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan has concluded, but the board of inquiry's final report won't be released until it is vetted by U.S. and Afghan military officials.

The board investigated the death of Pte. Robert Costall, who was killed last spring during a fierce firefight between coalition forces and insurgents at Sangin, west of Kandahar...

The inquiry's terms of reference, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, order Brig.-Gen. Chris Davis, the board president, to "determine what information, including any that has been received from coalition partners, is releasable under Canadian law."

The April 13 document also confirms testimony from the inquiry has been designated as secret, and U.S. and Afghan officials have a veto over the release of what they consider "classified" information.
Needless to say, Canadians won't have much reason to be confident in the outcome of the report when the other countries involved will be entitled to exclude any inconvenient information from the final report. And even the unaltered report may itself rest on shaky ground, as the terms of reference also limit evidence-gathering based on an intention to ensure "complete understanding and collaboration" with the U.S. - a rather curious indulgence to grant a country whose soldiers could be at fault.

Of course, no report on a single incident would do much to assuage the justifed concerns Canadians have with the mission. But with the Cons ensuring a minimum of transparency and effectiveness even for an inquiry process designed to get at the truth, there's all the more reason for concern that much of the story surrounding Afghanistan and other issues is being hidden from the public eye.

On choosing one's battles

Wendy Holm nicely points out the benefits which farmers currently enjoy from the Canadian Wheat Board which the Cons are going out of their way to destroy, as well as the U.S.' role in trying to undermine the Wheat Board over the years. Unfortunately, though, she misses the extent to which the Board is already at risk in focussing on the impending Bill C-300 rather than the potential for change through other means. And in that regard, it's worth correcting Holm's assertion that the current Canadian Wheat Board Act requires a vote by those affected before any change is made to the CWB's authority.

The section of the Canadian Wheat Board Act discussed by Holm reads as follows:
47.1 The Minister shall not cause to be introduced in Parliament a bill that would exclude any kind, type, class or grade of wheat or barley, or wheat or barley produced in any area in Canada, from the provisions of Part IV, either in whole or in part, or generally, or for any period, or that would extend the application of Part III or Part IV or both Parts III and IV to any other grain, unless

(a) the Minister has consulted with the board about the exclusion or extension; and

(b) the producers of the grain have voted in favour of the exclusion or extension, the voting process having been determined by the Minister.
Now, it's simple enough to suggest that the spirit of section 47.1 should provide for a vote before any substantive change. But the section can easily be read to suggest that a vote is needed only before a "bill" is introduced before Parliament - which would leave the Cons free to make any changes which can be made through other means.

And there's little reason to think the Cons are willing to face the increased accountability that would come with a vote in Parliament. As I've pointed out before, the CWB's single-desk authority can be destroyed through regulations under s. 46 without a vote ever taking place. And given Chuck Strahl's stated intention to consult no more than is absolutely necessary, it doesn't seem likely that the Cons will choose a route which requires votes both among producers and in Parliament when it's technically possible to reach the same route without any chance of being stopped.

Which isn't to say that farmers and opposition parties shouldn't be doing their best to save the CWB. But the battle could easily be lost without Bill C-300 ever moving forward - and that means the fight needs to take place in the court of public opinion now, not in Parliament at some later date.

On vulnerabilities

The AP reports that the technology used in radio-frequency identification passports, which is exactly what the U.S. plans to use itself (and likely require of Canada in the name of compatibility), is already vulnerable to duplication:
A demonstration by German computer security expert Lukas Grunwald showed how personal information stored on the documents could be copied and transferred to another device.

It appeared to contradict assurances by officials in government and private industry that the electronic information stored in passports could not be duplicated.

“If there is an automatic inspection system, I can use this card to enter any country,” Mr. Grunwald said, holding up a computer chip containing electronic information he had copied from his German passport.
Not that it should be any surprise that the RFID system is much most others in having some significant vulnerability - particularly given the value to those who are able to find the problems. But the revelation should make it clear that the mere fact that the U.S. backs a security measure doesn't make that measure either invincible or indeed necessarily effective. And if that fact gets recognized on both sides of the border, then there will be all the less basis for the U.S. to continue pushing its passport-or-RFID-card plan on Canada.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

When in doubt, lie

Stephen Harper tries to explain why a ceasefire in Lebanon is suddenly desirable now that it's originated from his American ideological soulmates:
(Harper) said the draft resolution is unlike the unilateral Israeli ceasefire advocated by the Liberal, the NDP and — in his French comments — the Bloc Quebecois.
Which would be an entirely accurate statement, if "unilateral Israeli ceasefire" is code for "something which in no way resembles a unilateral Israeli ceasefire" based on the opposition parties' actual position:
Yesterday the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development passed a motion that called on the government to, “urge an immediate ceasefire by all parties across the Lebanese-Israeli border as expressed by the blue line.”
Or could the confusion be found in statements by the parties themselves? If so, it wouldn't be in the NDP's position, which has consistently included a full ceasefire and a recognition of responsibility by all parties to the conflict. (And from what I've read so far, there isn't much reason to think the results would differ with respect to the Libs or the Bloc.)

Obviously Harper doesn't think much of the intelligence or attention span of Canadians if he's willing to outright lie about the opposition's position in order to pretend to be reasonable. But hopefully Canadians will have something to say about the insult next time they get to judge Harper's job performance. After all, lying to one's employer tends to be a fairly sure means of securing one's dismissal.

Promises made, promises broken

David Crane challenges the opposition parties to hold strong on softwood lumber, pointing out that the Cons are breaking at least two campaign promises with their current stand against Canadian industry:
The Harper government is obviously hoping it can compel Parliament to hold its nose and accept the agreement — even though by doing this the Harper government is breaking an election promise of its own.

In their 2006 election platform, under the heading "a better democracy," the Conservatives promised to "make all votes in Parliament, except the budget and main estimates `free votes' for ordinary Members of Parliament." This would allow MPs to reject the softwood deal but without precipitating an election...

Denying Parliament a free vote is not the only promise the Harper government is breaking. In its election platform it also promised it would "demand that the U.S. government play by the rules on softwood lumber. The U.S. must abide by the NAFTA ruling on softwood lumber, repeal the Byrd amendment, and return the more than $5 billion in illegal softwood lumber tariffs to Canadian producers."

But it has now caved on that promise.
Of course, there was never much doubt that the Cons' ability to shove an agreement down Canadian throats was at best a weak excuse for an election to begin with. But given how plainly the opposition parties can paint the Cons' actions as blatantly breaking the promises the Cons made to win power in the first place, there's all the more reason for them to force Harper to give in (or at least keep searching for other scapegoats) rather than blinking if the issue comes to a vote.

On hostile definitions

There's always some merit in shedding light on what the word "progressive" really should mean and does mean. But regardless of how one ultimately wants to define the term, there's no value to a hack job such as Hubert Bauch's attempt to pretend the word lacks any meaning at all. And Bauch's attempt to cast partisan bias as cultural commentary can be seen in how he treats the term which contrasts most directly in both dictionary definition and political philosophy.

I'll start with the first mention of conservatives within the article - whose existence and meaning Bauch doesn't question for a second, either in the capitalized or lower-case senses:
About the only people not trying get in on the progressive act are the Conservatives, who ditched the label three years ago with the merger of the former Canadian Alliance (previously Reform) and the old Progressive Conservative Party.

There is a remnant of PC types now calling themselves the Progressive Canadian Party, but its scant following and no-name leadership puts it on the political fringe with the Marxist-Leninist diehards and the yogic flyers.

But even if they don't claim the appellation, conservatives - large and small-c - can also be said to be progressive in the dictionary sense of the term, which, according to the Oxford, means moving forward, proceeding step by step, something Stephen Harper is demonstrably doing.
Let's leave aside the question of whether what Harper has done can be seen to be "moving forward" in any meaningful sense, and consider the same principle as applied to a dictionary definition of "conservative". If "progressive" is an empty term because no party ever plans to stand entirely still upon taking power, then can't it equally be said that "conservative" is meaningless because no relevant party plans to annihilate all existing societal institutions upon taking power, meaning that all parties are "conservative" if one takes a broad enough interpretation of the word? But somehow that mirror image doesn't reflect at all on Bauch's apparent willingness to use the term "conservative" without any doubt as to its meaning or relevance.

Having started with an argument which effectively claims that "progressive" is too broad a term to hold any meaning, Bauch then moves on to a technical definition of the term as the basis for an argument which is downright childlike in its trust in the use of language in the political sphere:
In a narrower, more technical sense, progressive is commonly used in reference to a tax system whereby the rich pay proportionally more than the less wealthy for the asserted purpose of uplifting the poor. A flat tax, as some propose, is by definition regressive.

In that sense, universal benefit schemes of the sort that Bernard Landry touts as progressive, are, in fact, the opposite - regressive, contends La Presse political analyst Alain Dubuc in his recent book, Eloge de la Richesse.
This time alone in his article Bauch (through Dubuc) seems to trust a supposedly-progressive figure unconditionally, claiming that we should first accept without question the technical sense of "progressive", then cast aspersions on the meaning of the word itself rather than on the accuracy of a politician who claims the title based on policies which may not fit one possible definition.

A reasonable argument would first note the possibility that different senses of the term might apply in different contexts, then move on to consider whether Dubuc is accurate in his assessment that the benefit schemes in question actually violate the definition in question or whether in context they would result in a more progressive division of resources than that which currently exists, and perhaps close by pointing out that in any event political parties are all too often quick to try to use any positive term they can for themselves regardless of the validity of such use. ("Stand Up For Canada", anybody?)

Instead, Bauch takes Dubuc's word without question as to whether a universal benefit should be considered "progressive" in the technical sense, and refuses to compare Landry's claim of progressivism to any standard other than the one by which Landry's claim would fail if Dubuc were right. Having made these leaps, Bauch then assumes that any problem must lie in the definition of "progressive" rather than in the accuracy of Landry's claim.

Note once again the complete lack of any recognition that the same argument fairly applied would cut both ways - for example in the pattern of "fiscally conservative" governments who utterly fail to live up to any of the principles which are supposed to underlie that philosophy, or "social conservatives" whose political aim is to effect a radical transformation of social norms. And indeed, readily-available definitions of "conservative" are contradictory in ways that go beyond anything Bauch manages to point out about the term "progressive":
1. Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change.
3. Moderate; cautious: a conservative estimate.
4. (a) Of or relating to the political philosophy of conservatism.
(b) Belonging to a conservative party, group, or movement.
7. Tending to conserve; preservative: the conservative use of natural resources.
While Bauch's argument about progressivism depends in part on political dishonesty, these definitions may plainly conflict on their face even without political manipulation: where, for example, a conservative and Conservative politician derides cautious use of natural resources, or where "traditional" values conflict with views which would be far more moderate or cautious in their present application.

But then, if Bauch were to acknowledge that the same standards that he applies to "progressive" would utterly annihilate any meaning of "conservative", then he couldn't overgeneralize about conservatism in an effort to prove his point on the dangers of excessive generalization:
A signal problem in making Quebec progress is that most Quebecers like these things, and want to keep them that way, making Quebec what he calls "a fundamentally conservative society" reflexively resistant to progressive change.
So according to Bauch through his citation of Dubuc, we can't define what progressive change is. But whatever it is, Quebeckers don't want it, because they can be uniformly classified as "fundamentally conservative" without any dispute as to either the validity of the conclusion, or the meaning of conservatism itself.

For his grand finale, Bauch then takes on the undoubtedly-questionable Canada 2020 process, but only for the sake of once again trying to validate the Cons:
Another example of how the word has a way of turning to mush in the mouths of its users is an op-ed piece published in conjunction with the Canada 2020 conference in which two of its participants, Matt Browne, a former British Labour backroomer, and Eugene Lang, a former Liberal staffer among the 2020 founders, entitled "In search of a progressive centre."

"The challenge for Canadian progressives is to shape a new, optimistic, ambitious narrative that has a clear, unambiguous role for a renewed state at its centre - and articulate it in a way that resonates with Canadians," they proposed.

Whatever that means, it's something the un-progressive Conservatives have been doing a better job of than the Liberals or anyone else, if current polls are any indication.
Naturally, Bauch's treatment of this passage ignores everything but the "resonates with Canadians" part. And it's indeed highly doubtful that the Cons are doing much of that either. But having assumed that "progressive" is nothing more than a synonym of "desirable", Bauch then ignores the majority of Canadians who have consistently voted for parties who at least claim to aspire to the progressive mantle, and claims that the Cons are the most "progressive" under his definition based on their managing to eke out a single minority government.

It's certainly worthwhile to take a closer look at what really constitutes progressivism. And that effort may be all the more important to ensure that the likes of Bauch can't define progressive Canadians out of existence in an effort to pretend that voters have no coherent alternative to the reactionary Cons. But the need for discussion among progressives to define their terms of reference doesn't excuse Bauch for a column which can itself be easily classified under a term whose meaning isn't in much doubt.


CTV has posted two articles based on today's Question Period. And not a single word in either article challenges or even dilutes the Cons' spin. But surely it's entirely coincidental that the Cons get nothing but free passes just as their poll numbers have taken a dive.