Saturday, September 02, 2006

On wilful inaction

The CP notes that some progress is being made in the fight against spam e-mail. But it's worth noting who's actually been making positive contributions, and who hasn't considered the issue a priority:
Technology consultant Neil Schwartzman, a member of Industry Canada's spam task force, said he's worried about Bernier's silence on the issue since being appointed minister in February.

"Nothing has moved forward," Schwartzman said in an interview. "He has ignored the (task force) report."...

The task force was created in 2004 to address the growing problem of unwanted junk e-mail. In May 2005, the task force's recommendations were endorsed by then Industry minister David Emerson...

Industry Canada's director general of e-commerce said the department needs time to take the task force's technical recommendations and transform them into legislation.

There's no definite timetable for an anti-spam bill to be brought before the Commons, Richard Simpson said. "It depends on the government's legislative agenda."

But some of the task force's recommendations have resulted in significant progress, Simpson said.

Over the last year, for example, Canada's Internet service providers have implemented some recommendations and have put a lid on the amount of spam emerging from Canadian-based computers.

Canada was once one of the world's top 10 spam producers, but recent efforts by Internet providers have dropped Canada to 16th.
ISPs apparently deserve plenty of credit for living up to their end of the bargain. But there's also a role to be played by government based on the task force's recommendations. And despite the fact that one of their own Cabinet members has actively acknowledged that role in the past, the Cons' legislative agenda so far apparently hasn't even included looking at the recommendations, let alone acting on them.

Of course, it's understandable that the Cons may not want to put an end to one of the few types of communication even more unwanted than their own repetition of talking points. But that doesn't mean that Canadians generally want much to do with either one. So next time your inbox is loaded with spam, remember that the Cons have decided that it isn't worth their time to follow up on readily-available steps to help solve the problem.

A crumbling facade

There shouldn't be much doubt left just how comically inept Bushco has been in its occupation of Iraq. But in case anybody needed a reminder, word comes out today that the U.S. managed to flub a ceremonial handover of operational command:
A much-anticipated ceremony to transfer operational command from U.S-led forces to Iraq's new army was postponed on Saturday at the last minute amid confusion, a U.S. military spokesman said, citing poor planning.

The event had been hailed by the U.S. military as a big step toward Iraq taking responsibility for security, key to any eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces. U.S. commanders, with 140,000 troops on the ground, would still have a big say.

"There was an error in planning between us and the Iraqi defense minister over the ceremony. This all boils down to a bureaucratic thing," said Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson. He said the ceremony had been rescheduled for Sunday.

Johnson played down suggestions the glitch reflected logistic and communication problems between the two forces. Iraq's Defense Ministry had no immediate comment.

Reporters who had been invited to attend the ceremony in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone were left sitting in a bus for more than one hour as the U.S. military first informed them that the event had been delayed for later in the day and then postponed until Sunday.
Not that the ceremony was likely to represent anything more than a weak attempt to generate some good news in the midst of the burgeoning civil war by pretending the U.S. is on its way out. And nobody paying any attention to the current status of Iraq was about to believe that for a moment - after all, at last notice Bush still planned not to withdraw troops during his presidency, and there hasn't been any indication to my knowledge that the U.S. has backed off its plan to establish long-term bases in the country.

But if there's one thing Bushco has usually managed to get right, it's a meaningless photo op. And if even that's now beyond the combined capability of the U.S. and Iraqi governments, there's all the less reason for any optimism about what's going to be left behind when the U.S. finally does leave.

Mission creep

Gordon O'Connor still can't be bothered to inform Canadians about Canada's military goals, mandate and exit strategy in Afghanistan. But not satisfied with that state of uncertainty, he wants to spread the undefined combat mission into Pakistan as well:
Canadian soldiers should join local forces fighting Taliban insurgents inside Pakistan, Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor says, making a tentative first attempt at raising the explosive issue of foreign troops trespassing on Pakistani territory.

Mr. O'Connor held meetings with several military and intelligence officials in Islamabad yesterday in which he urged his counterparts to step up their actions against the insurgents who emerge from hideouts in Pakistan to attack Canadian troops in southern Afghanistan.

"Among other things, I suggested that some Pakistan officers be stationed with our troops in Kandahar and Canadian troops be stationed on the Pakistan side," Mr. O'Connor said afterward, in an interview with Associated Press of Pakistan.
Considering that the least implausible justification for Canada continue any combat involvement in Afghanistan is to try to bring some stability to a country which may not yet be capable of providing such stability itself, it has to be a significant change for the mission to spill over into a state which undoubtedly has the ability (though perhaps not the desire) to keep effective control over its own terrain. And the importance of the change isn't limited to Canada either: as noted by the article, there's understandably something less than total enthusiasm for any foreign military presence within Pakistan.

Which would seem to make the issue one which should require substantial debate in Canada before getting pushed abroad. But by making his pitch to Pakistan first without discussion at home, O'Connor has perhaps irreparably altered the framework of interaction between the Con government and Pakistan. And if it's too late to avoid the predictable backlash in Pakistan arising out of the request alone (let alone any actual Canadian troop presence), then there may be all the more reason to instead get Canadian troops out of combat in the region altogether.

Update: And here comes O'Connor's attempt to parse his way out of the mess by saying he never specifically referred to "stand-alone" Canadian presence in Pakistan.

(Edit: typo.)

Friday, September 01, 2006

Not that we want to find out...

Once again, the U.S. is imposing costs on Canadian citizens and businesses which have little to no rational basis, this time by imposing arbitrary "user fees" on both ait travellers and commercial vehicles. And once again, the Cons' reaction is both to minimize the potential harms, and suggest we should wait to see just how much of a problem it causes in practice before saying a single critical word about anything emanating from Bushco.

Which begs a couple of questions. #1, just what would the U.S. have to do to cause the Cons to actually take a stand in favour of Canadian interests? And #2, if the Cons' pushover routine continues, how soon will the U.S. see enough potential to take advantage of Harper to actually reach the answer to #1?

On common gains

A new Decima poll should help put to rest the theory that the NDP and Greens are fighting for the same pool of voters in a zero-sum game, as both look to be improving their standing lately:
The survey found 33 per cent support for the Tories among decided voters across the country compared with the 36.3 per cent they won in January.

The Liberals had 28 per cent, down from the election showing of 30.2 per cent.

The NDP was at 19 per cent, above their election night 17.5 per cent. The Bloc was holding steady at 10 per cent...

The survey of 1,010 Canadians was conducted Aug. 24-28 as part of a Decima omnibus phone poll. It is considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

The findings also suggested that the Green Party has doubled its support to eight per cent from its 4.5 per cent election night showing.
Part of the change might be explained by the constant stream of controversy surrounding both the Cons' government and the Libs' leadership race, which can only make a breath of fresh air look like a positive step. And it could be as well that a virtually universal focus on the environment is turning support generally toward the parties with a strong record in that area, rather than the ones who are simply pretending to be interested now that the issue looks like a popular one.

But whatever the reason, it's plain that the NDP and Greens aren't merely competing for the same pool of voters, but can both succeed in winning support away from the traditional parties. And the more inroads both the Dippers and Greens can make into seats traditionally held by the Libs and Cons, the better Canada's political system will look following the next election.

On unneeded imports

The Tyee discusses an attempt by a foreign contractor to bypass Canada's construction market by seeking a special dispensation to import foreign workers - which would seemingly leave the Cons with a fairly clear choice as to whose interests should be defended:
When it comes to one of B.C.’s controversial new “public private partnerships,” the construction of the new Golden Ears Bridge across the Fraser between Maple Ridge and Langley, the German company recently granted the Translink construction contract says that finding skilled workers in Canada is murder. The firm, Bilfinger Berger, is asking for government permission to bring in workers from off shore to address what they portray as a shortage of skilled workers.

Local labour and business leaders, on the other hand, are calling on the government to deny Bilfinger Berger’s request, insisting that there are more than enough skilled Canadian tradespeople looking for work to meet the project’s needs, and that the company’s attempts to hire Canadian workers have been half-hearted at best...

Jim Bromley, regional manager of Harris Rebar, North America’s largest reinforcing company, testified to the frustrating experience his firm had endured trying to secure subcontracting work the Golden Ears Bridge while doing business as a union shop employing Canadian labour. Bromley said the German company had repeatedly provided inadequate drawings for use in preparing a bid, conducted several meetings and then announced the Harris bid was too high and that they would not get the work...

In all, at least four B.C. firms made such approaches to the German company, and all were turned down. (Besides Harris, the other unsuccessful candidates were G&M Steel Services Ltd., Acier AGF and Prince George Steel.) The letters referred to “incomplete”, “imprecise” and “imperfect” drawings made available to them by Bilfinger Berger, a common account that poses questions for some observers about just how serious the German firm was about sourcing their skilled labour in Canada.

“It’s very unusual to get such vague drawings when bidding on a subcontract,” Harris Rebar’s Bromley told the Tyee.

Another businessman who bid on the Golden Ears work experienced more than imprecise drawings. John Dinicola is the president of G&M Steel Services, and he told the Tyee that he met with Axel Metzger of Bilfinger Berger earlier this summer to discuss his company’s interest in bidding on rebar work on the Golden Ears Bridge. Metzger told him, Dinicola says, that Bilfinger “would not be blackmailed by contractors on the price, they were a very large, important company and if they needed to, they would just go offshore and obtain lower priced workers.”...

In order to gain federal permission to import foreign construction workers, an employer is first required to persuade the government that he has sought Canadian workers unsuccessfully. The job fair that Bilfinger held to invite applications for work on Golden Ears was scheduled, union sources say, on a Sunday morning of Father’s Day this year, a timing that may account for the low turn out of local applicants. Oddly enough, despite the four Canadian companies that are known to have bid on iron work subcontracts on the bridge project, Terrence Cage, project manager for Bilfinger on the project adamantly insisted in a recent meeting, the Ironworker’ Perley Holmes told the Tyee, that his company had received no bids from contractors to install rebar.
Needless to say, the purpose of a permit to bring in foreign workers shouldn't be to suppress wages in Canada when there's no lack of supply of local workers prepared to carry out the job. And the battle lines aren't even along the lines of labour vs. business: the question is simply whether Bilfinger will be able to sidestep Canadian business and labour in order to impose its own standards on Canadian soil.

Of course, there are precious few cases where the need to defend Canadian interests is so obvious that even the Cons could be expected not to sell them out. But with both businesses and labour fighting to have their interests balanced against the a contractor's alleged entitlement to special permission solely in order to bypass Canadian market rates for subcontractors, this may just such a situation. And if the Cons really are far enough out of touch to see no problem granting such a request, that'll make for all the more reason to laugh at their claim to have the interests of Canadian industry and workers in mind.

Off the mark

Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm generally highly sympathetic to concerns about information management and privacy. But it's worth pointing out as well when apparent efforts to protect those interests are focused in the wrong direction - as seems to be the case in B.C. Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis' apparent call for municipalities not to pass bylaws which could affect privacy in any way:
Laws making pawnshops and second-hand dealers turn over customers' personal information have been in force for decades, but Loukidelis is worried about an expansion of the number of businesses required to do the same.

"It should be left to the courts to issue warrants or orders to businesses to turn over customer information on a case-by-case basis where justified," Loukidelis wrote.

"It is doubtful that such bylaws are really effective and there are certainly tools that may more effectively achieve the community safety objectives that the bylaws purport to address."

Loukidelis said his office reviewed several such laws and found no measures to ensure that personal information is used properly and is protected...

Loukidelis said he passed on his concerns to the Union of B.C. Municipalities, but they were mostly unsympathetic to his argument.

The organization believes local governments should be able to enact bylaws to regulate businesses which may be associated with criminal activity.

But Loukidelis suggested the courts would likely disagree.

He said there are other tools that would achieve the same thing, be less invasive and likely more effective. He noted the province's Safety Standards Amendment Act, which came into force in June.

It requires B.C. Hydro and other electrical utilities to share domestic electrical consumption information with municipal safety authorities.

The intention is to allow safety officials to inspect residences whose electricity consumption is so high it might mean a marijuana grow-op is operating at the address.

"This new law effectively removes the point of such municipal bylaws and municipal councils, should, for this reason as well, not be passing them."
I agree with Loukidelis to the extent that any municipal laws affecting privacy should provide for protection of individual privacy except - and I'd certainly agree with an effort to talk to municipalities to try to improve existing and planned laws in that respect. But the gist of the article appears to be something else entirely, consisting of an argument by Loukidelis that municipalities should stay out of any regulation related to information management entirely on the basis that the province could do a better job. And that attempt to essentially limit the operation of municipalities can only make them all the less likely to want to cooperate with the OIPC, both on this issue and others.

Of course, it is important to ensure that information collected by any level of government is properly managed and safeguarded. But it's equally important to ensure that municipalities are able to address needs which are either specific to a community, or not yet addressed by the provincial government. And so long as that's done in a way which does take into account proviacy concerns, Loukidelis should be willing to support and approve of municipal action - not looking to eliminate it entirely.

(Edit: typo.)

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Mission possible

A couple of comments on Jack Layton's call for Canada to be out of a combat role in Afghanistan by February.

First, the message couldn't have gone public at a better time, coming out as it did the same day that Gordon O'Connor both admitted that Canadian troops haven't been able to improve matters, then requested added military resources in order to be able to keep treading water. The contrast between a government eager to push forward on a road to nowhere, and an opposition party demanding an endpoint in the absence of any discernible goals, is one that has to work in the NDP's favour.

Second, depending on how the Libs handle the parliamentary session this fall, the move may turn PMS' snap vote strategy from this spring on its head. After all, in May the Cons made clear that they see a motion in Parliament as an appropriate venue for determining Canada's participation in Afghanistan. So what happens if a newer opposition motion for a timetable manages to pass in Parliament?

Granted, I wouldn't expect Harper to actually follow the terms of such a motion, as the Cons have set the precedent with their complete ignorance of the Kyoto motion this spring. But a vote for a timetable would certainly undercut completely any claim the Cons could otherwise have to any legitimate Parliamentary support for indefinite combat commitments. And it may take no more than the Libs actually showing up this time to turn a vote against the Cons.

That said, I agree with Mike that even if the Libs can't summon enough of a spine to stand up to Harper, that may have some benefits for the NDP as well. But the larger upside here is the possibility that a united opposition could leave in tatters the Cons' claim to any legitimacy in pushing toward a further militarized foreign policy. And if today's announcement gets followed up this fall, it'll only remain to be seen which of those options the Libs decide to back.

Update: Apparently another option for the Libs is to agree with the NDP as to the more operational part of Layton's statement where a motion in Parliament wouldn't accomplish much, but refuse any cooperation on the part dealing with policy that can realistically be addressed by the House of Commons. But surely they wouldn't be that crazy, right?

And in this corner...

It's hard to say which is the more positive development on the softwood lumber file: the fact that David Emerson has been forced to at least pretend to address his critics (including notably Peter Julian), or the sheer emptiness of Emerson's response:
NDP trade critic Peter Julian this week claimed taxpayers would end up cutting a cheque for $200 million because industry support for the deal is below the threshold needed to meet Canada's obligation to reserve $1 billion in duty refunds for the Americans.

Emerson promised the softwood deal would not be implemented on the backs of taxpayers and called the suburban Vancouver MP "intellectually dishonest."

"He's ideologically motivated and he's not doing a service to workers who he would, I'm sure, claim to represent," he said.

Julian shot back, saying Emerson's comments represent the kind of bullying tactics the government is using on the deal's political and industry opponents.

"It's a sign of just how incredibly desperate this minister and this government is to try to ram through a deal that is so horribly bad for the country," he said.

"So what do they resort to? They resort to name-calling and insults and bullying, rather than talk about the substance of the agreement and what Canada loses in this."
It remains to be seen whether Emerson will actually be pushed to respond meaningfully to the massive problems in both process and substance surrounding the deal, rather than simply responding in buzzwords and hoping the matter goes away. And given the Cons' track record of obfuscation and strawman-bashing, there may not be much chance of getting Emerson to actually admit anything about the deal.

But then, the Cons' tactics in forcing the deal on the industry speak volumes about the deal in substance. And whether or not they'll actually let their own facade crumble, the Cons are now undoubtedly on notice that while an industry weakened by years of illegal tariffs may not have been able to hold out against their bullying, the NDP and other opposition parties won't be so easily coerced.

On wrongful intervention

The Star picks up on the Bushco softwood slush fund story. And in case anybody thought there might be some shame about redirecting money which rightfully belongs to Canadian lumber producers to partisan political purposes this fall, think again:
Although no one is suggesting the money will go directly to fund political campaigns, some critics are expressing the concern that worthwhile projects, like low-cost housing, could take on a partisan flavour if announced by a Republican senator or member of the House of Representatives in a tough race.

But Michael Hart, the Simon Reisman Professor of Trade Policy at Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Relations, suggested that Feldman was being naive in suggesting that politics should not play a role in how the funding will be handed out...

Hart said that under the deal, the U.S. could settle only with the consent of the U.S. lumber industry.

"If that means low-cost housing in Katrina-devastated areas, so be it," he said. "If it means that the low-cost housing is going to be in Republican Congressional districts, that's politics. It's still low-cost housing."
What's truly remarkable is that Bush is apparently still pulling all the strings even as Canada bankrolls his party's reelection efforts. And the sheer absurdity of the Cons' managing to have lost out on every aspect of the deal only highlights both the Cons' woeful excuse for negotiating ability, and Harper's willingness to put his relationship with Bush ahead of the best interests of Canadians.

Meanwhile, the article points out that the idea of such a sellout didn't originate with the Cons, as the Libs were also looking for excuses to grease palms to get a deal done:
The Martin government named trade expert Gordon Ritchie, and former Bombardier president Paul Tellier, to explore possible agreements on the softwood dispute.

"I said, in so many words, `The U.S. industry isn't entitled to a penny of this money; we will hold our noses and pay a bribe to bring peace to the industry — but there are limits to our tolerance there, and half the money will not go to the U.S. industry, but will go to jointly agreed, constructive initiatives,'" Ritchie, whose involvement ended a year ago, told the Star.
Mind you, there's some difference between any standard of "jointly agreed" projects, and the total U.S. control reflected in the Cons' draft. But the Libs' willingness to enter into a similar structure will probably create a message that selling out is a sign of pragmatism rather than weakness - at least until it's too late to undo the harm that the Cons' capitulation may do to both the American political system and Canada's lumber industry.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Accountability indeed

In addition to the well-known Grewal and Anders challenges which were torpedoed by the Cons' national office, the CP reports on yet another would-be nomination battle which has been shut down by PMS Central Command with no substantial explanation:
Earlier this summer, the party announced that in the interest of democracy it would not protect incumbent MPs from those wanting to challenge them for the right to represent their ridings in the next election.

But so far, three would-be challengers with solid backgrounds in their communities and in the party have had their nominations rejected by Tory brass...

Added David Xiao of Edmonton, shut out in another riding: "I'm a business immigrant from mainland China - the reason we came here is for democracy, freedom and equal opportunities . . .

"Ironically, I find myself in the situation of fighting for these principles. It's really unfortunate."

The reality of Conservative party politics hit Xiao hard.

A businessman and executive on the Chinese Canadian National Council, Xiao had been planning for months to run against incumbent Laurie Hawn.

When he got the paperwork from the party suddenly on the August long weekend, Xiao quickly threw together his documents and bought a plane ticket to Ottawa to make sure he hand-delivered them in time to headquarters.

A few weeks later, the party told Xiao his application had been rejected.

A party source in the riding says only 17 of the 40 member signatures he had collected for his application were valid, but officials would not tell Xiao which ones.

"It's a shame for me, a big shame, even the kids feel very ashamed. I've never experienced this in my entire life," said Xiao, a party member going back to Reform Party days.

"This isn't just about the financial costs, this is about all kinds of costs."

Xiao emphasizes he will not discuss the reasons why he was rejected, and remains a loyal party member. But he says officials should have said from the start they really intended on protecting incumbent MPs.
Sadly, Xiao's willingness to support the Cons regardless of their roadblocks suggests that the Cons won't pay quite as high a price as they rightly should for such a massive gap between their supposed principles and their real treatment of would-be candidates. But for Canadians who aren't similarly dedicated to the party, there's all the more reason to distrust the Cons' claim to care about accountability. And if nomination battles aren't being allowed to test the Cons' incumbents, then the general election should provide an even better opportunity for Canadians to force the Cons to accept change no matter how determined they are to avoid it.

On silence

Duncan Cameron takes the Libs to task for both the harm their policies in government did to women, and the current lack of any real discussion about how to right those wrongs:
It took one hour and a half for the word “poverty” to be spoken when all ten Liberal leadership hopefuls debated women's issues in Vancouver last week, as a sideshow to the Liberal parliamentary caucus retreat.

Yet, if you are a lone female parent under 25, you and your family have a better than 90 per cent chance of falling below the low income cut-off line established by Statistics Canada, which itself is afraid to say poverty. If you are a woman on your own, over the age of 65, your expectation of being poor is high, despite claims that poverty for seniors has fallen as a result of the Guaranteed Income Supplement...

In office, the Liberals broke all their Red Book promises about creating child-care spaces, cut transfers for post-secondary education and health care, abolished the national commitment to ensure that no one went without, and then cut back on social housing and unemployment insurance. Today in Vancouver homelessness is a national disgrace and the local authorities are responding by making it a crime.

No Liberal candidate has responded to the issues of our times with anything other than re-worked material from familiar sources.
While the Libs claim to be trying to recapture left-wing voters, it's certainly worth noting their apparent disinterest in offering solutions to so much as undo the damage they did while in office. Which should only offer an opportunity to the one national party which has recognized the need for social investment all along.


Murray Mandryk comments on the bad joke that is the Harper government:
After a couple of days of dealing with communication officials in the Prime Minister's Office, I'm rediscovering the value of a good sense of humour in politics.

For instance, consider this knee-slapper Monday from one of Harper's communication officials to one of my colleagues on the purpose of Harper's visit: "What you see on (the Prime Minister's itinerary) advisory is what we want you to know. If we're not telling you, we don't want you to know."

Laugh? I thought I'd cry. Is it any wonder that Harper wants to escape those dour sourpusses in the Ottawa Press Gallery who obviously can't see the classic comedy of some communication peon in Harper's minority government pretending to be an ill-mannered and/or incompetent Albanian apparatchik? Fortunately we local, regional reporters get it.

But seriously, folks, the real reason why Harper is in Saskatchewan this week must be to reaffirm the federal Conservative 2005 election promise to remove non-renewable resources from the equalization formula.

What else could be the reason for his trip?
Sadly, PMS didn't see fit to switch to a message which would actually put a genuine smile on the faces of Saskatchewan's voters. Instead, he was back to his familiar content-free routine:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says provinces should stayed tuned for proposals on a wide range of federal-provincial matters, including equalization payments.

Speaking in Regina on Wednesday, the prime minister said there'll be ongoing discussions with the provinces over the next year.

"Our plan has been to put forward detailed proposals as we approach the next budget on equalization and a range of federal-provincial fiscal relations," Harper said. "All I can say is stay tuned and we will make proposals on a range of matters, not just equalization."

Critics have suggested the government hasn't moved quickly enough on equalization, but Harper suggested there will be action.

"We're certainly aware of the commitments we made in the 2006 election campaign and our government does pride itself on fulfilling its commitments."

Harper said equalization is a complex issue, but so are health, social policy and infrastructure, and he doesn't want to prejudice the final outcome by speaking too soon.
Now, there is a certain humour in the sheer vagueness and emptiness of Harper's comments as a whole - not to mention the laughably evasive statement about being "aware" of the commitments which Harper now refuses to commit to.

But Saskatchewanians can be forgiven for not wanting to be the butt of Harper's jokes any longer than they have to be. And it may not be long before some of Saskatchewan's Con MPs get rightly pulled from the stage as a result.

Update: Giant Political Mouse has more on why the province's MPs aren't laughing along with PMS.

Reflecting values

Michael Ignatieff is apparently showing off the Lib values that have made him the frontrunner ever since the Lib leadership race started. Not only is he taking the idea of selling out his supporters to a whole new level, but he's also taken a strong lead in the entitlement department, hinting that he might not find it worth his time to run in the next federal election if he doesn't win the leadership race.

We'll have to wait and see how he does in the "promising everything to everyone with no intention of delivering" department. But it's hard to see how any of the other candidates can make up enough ground in that area to top Ignatieff as the definitive Lib.

Update: Apparently we can also add a strong propensity for "finger in the wind" politics to the list.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

On giveaways

Peter Julian points out that the costs of the softwood capitulation may well involve Canada cutting a cheque to the U.S. depending on how many Canadian producers don't want to be stuck with the deal:
Julian is demanding the Trade Minister immediately release the cost of the softwood sell-out to Canadian taxpayers. The call comes one week after the announcement by the Harper government that it fell short on the number of softwood industry approvals needed for a buy-in – but refused to release the vote totals. Julian estimates that the Canadian government will have to send a cheque to Washington for at least $152 million (m) if the Minister misses his mark by 15 % and that number will rise dramatically with each company unwilling to drop their softwood-lawsuits.

“Accountability is what this government ran on and they have failed to deliver it on softwood. Working families deserve to know the hidden costs of this deal. We gave into the Bush administration. Leaving billions on the table is not my idea of standing up for Canada. And, hiding the real costs certainly isn’t accountability.”
The effect (according to today's CP article about Julian's statement) is to reduce the expected amount of money available for payment to the CFLI and Bushco slush funds created by the deal. And since the protection money to the U.S. apparently takes priority over any payment to Canadian producers, that leaves Canada to make up the difference as the price for the Cons' failure to negotiate a deal worth buying into.

Presumably the upcoming parliamentary hearings will enable us to know just how far short of the mark the Cons are in terms of industry support - though Julian is right in pointing out that there's no reason why speculation should be necessary given the Cons' ability to go public with the numbers now. But whatever the outcome this fall, Harper's willingness to make up the difference to the U.S. in order to force the deal through makes for a striking contrast against his government's refusal to offer any further support to Canada's lumber industry. And yet another piece of evidence of Harper's allegiance to U.S. interests over Canadian ones can only make more clear the need to replace the Cons with a government which will put Canada first.

On smoke-filled rooms

The preliminary reviews are in on the Cons' environmental "consultations" - and environmental groups are understandably frustrated at the Cons' unwillingness to actually consult about anything:
"There were no outcomes, no goals and no vision. I was really quite disappointed," said Mike Russill, president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada...

"They didn't give us enough detail to evaluate what they were talking about," said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, a Toronto activist group that has been measuring chemical levels in prominent Canadians...

In a note to colleagues at the World Wildlife Fund, Russill judged the meetings to be nothing more than a public relations exercise: "They did this so they can claim to have talked to various groups before introducing the measures. But they talked about objectives without once ever telling us what the objectives were," he said.
Not that it should come as a surprise that the Cons are more interested in a fig leaf for later use than in actually talking to the groups most concerned with Canada's environment. Fortunately, the groups in question aren't willing to stay quiet about being used that way. But it remains to be seen whether they'll be able to push any of the policy-making process into the open, or whether the sole public component will once again consist of the Cons trying to arm-twist Canadians into believing that it's their way or nothing.

Monday, August 28, 2006

In the nick of time

Ted Morton's bigotry bill didn't quite make it through to third reading today due to procedural tactics from the opposition parties - and Alberta's Cons are indignant that the opposition wouldn't be complicit in their attempt to give the bill fast-track treatment in order to get it passed this session.

Kudos to Alberta's opposition for standing up for equality today. And while this is far from a first for the Alberta Cons, hopefully the opposition parties will win enough praise in the province to make the Con government think twice before again trying to legislate prejudice.


CanWest provides an all-too-vivid example of media collaboration, caving completely to PMS' demand for government control over the list of reporters deemed worthy of access to Harper:
Any faint hope that the summer break might have cooled tensions between the press gallery and the Harper PMO was dashed after a hastily scheduled press conference on the softwood lumber agreement on Tuesday last week.

After showing up at the appointed time and place–the House of Commons foyer, not the National Press Theatre, which the PM has eschewed since the opening of the last session of Parliament–journalists found themselves waiting around for nearly 45 minutes. Eventually, Prime Minister Stephen Harper showed up to deliver a terse statement on the fate of the softwood agreement itself. Short version? It's going to the House for a vote, and yes, it's a confidence motion, so start planning your election coverage.

He then departed without taking a single question, despite the two microphones that had been set up by ever-optimistic gallery officials, and much to the non-surprise of the assembled media, who have come to expect little more when the PM meets with the press on the Hill.

The next day, however, CanWest newspaper coverage of the deal featured not one but two interviews with the Prime Minister, courtesy of the Vancouver Sun's Peter O'Neil and the Ottawa Citizen's Mark Kennedy.
And comically enough, CanWest is attempting to defend its actions by claiming that they reflect an attempt to hold PMS accountable, rather than a complete lack of a spine when confronted with unreasonable demands:
So does all this mean that CanWest is willing to go back on the list? Yes, albeit with some reluctance, Mr. Nott said.

"We're not particularly pleased at it being done this way, but we need to be able to hold the Prime Minister accountable for the actions of the government, and by staying off the list and not being able or willing to ask questions, we're not doing a service to our readers."...

"We're not doing this to be rogue," Mr. Nott told HOH. "But there didn't, and doesn't seem to be a resolution close at hand or in the works. We were willing to give it until the G8 [meetings in St. Petersburg, Russia], and then until the Washington visit, and now we're [21] days away from the House sitting, and no closer to a solution. Our readers deserve to have some accountability from the government, and as much as it is distasteful for us, I don't know how else we will get our questions answered."

He doesn't think much of the PM's decision to contact reporters by phone, rather than take questions in public, however.

"I don't think that would be ideal for CanWest, or that it would be the preferred system for anyone. Anybody who watches 24-hour news channels deserves to hear the Prime Minister be responsible in public, and picking up the phone and calling a reporter is not the same. But at least we got a question and an answer."
Of course, the simple answer would have been for CanWest to avoid giving into Harper's demands rather than valuing easy access to a scripted message over anything that could meaningfully be described as reporting. And Nott's whining after the fact does nothing to undo the damage from CanWest deciding without any justification that it needs Harper more than Harper needs the media.

The last thing Canadians needed was yet another reason to worry about its media becoming all the more tame. The question now is whether CanWest will be duly rewarded with the contempt of the press gallery and the Canadian public alike - or whether media complicity will be allowed to take another turn for the worse.

Baring the fangs

Rafe Mair once again tears into the mainstream media for buying into the "on the one hand, on the other hand" theory of writing rather than functioning as true watchdogs over governments and other political actors. While it's difficult to buy entirely into Mair's apparent longing for the days of more bloodthirsty politics within the Legislature, it's certainly much easier to see how the media all too often presents pure spin rather than substance - and how that unfortunate shift is a natural result of both concentrated media ownership which lessens the risk of competition, and a symbiotic relationship between the media and governments.

On communications

In reporting on the Cons' game of shuffling top civil servants around with little apparent purpose, the Star also reports on a moderately surprising internal development:
Since the last parliamentary session ended, the Conservative government has tried to strengthen communications staffing in ministers' offices in advance of the crucial fall session.

Up to five directors of communications, including those in Indian Affairs and Heritage, have moved or are expected to soon move, with other staffing changes possible in the weeks ahead.
Now, it's probably true that at least that many Con cabinet members and have said things they'd like to take back during the course of the spring session. But the vast majority of those incidents appeared to be based on off-the-cuff answers to questions, where communications staff would have had no real opportunity to stop the Cons' own personalities from intruding on PMS' desire to control the message. And considering that the actual planned messages from the Cons seem likely to once again be limited to the mindless repetition of a new set of "priorities", it's remarkable that so many of the Cons' communications directors managed to do poorly enough in their own roles to be replaced.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Paying for politics

Michael Shapcott documents the energy put into announcing and re-announcing funding for federal/Ontario housing initiatives by Lib and Con governments alike. The real shame is that the program has been set up with temporary enough funding that there's actually a need to re-announce the funding so frequently, rather than including stable funding such that those relying on the program know where they stand before the next photo-op. But that's to be expected from governments more interested in appearing to do things than in actually getting things done.

Continued coverage

It's happened far too often this year that the NDP points out a Con failing first and gets second billing in an initial article, only to see the media offer headlines to the Libs' subsequent reaction while ignoring the NDP. And it's a pleasant surprise to see a different result to the revelation that the Cons knew all along that Canada can spare additional troops for Lebanon, as Jack Layton makes the headlines today in a follow-up to yesterday's story:
Canada has the capacity to contribute as many as 1,200 soldiers to the UN mission enforcing the ceasefire in Lebanon, says NDP Leader Jack Layton.

In an interview Sunday with The Canadian Press, Layton rejected Prime Minister Stephen Harper's claim that Canada's presence in Afghanistan has stretched the country's military too thin to contribute to the Lebanon mission.

"We have the capacity, but the prime minister hasn't said so," he said. "We have asked the Harper government to, first of all, tell the truth."

Layton said his claims are based on an internal government document obtained through access to information laws that he said shows that Canada has military capacity to spare.

He added that committing troops to the UN mission would reflect the wishes of Canadians.

"It's an important objective for Canadians," he said. "They want Canada to be concerned with peacekeeping."
Good job by Layton in following up yesterday's announcement with another way of bringing the story forward, and by the CP in offering due attention to a story which says all Canadians really need to know about how much the Cons can be trusted. And if both follow up in making sure Canadians know who's doing the most to keep tabs on the Cons, then the NDP should be in a great position to expand its presence in Parliament whether or not the Cons are able to keep hiding the truth from enough voters to eke out another government.

On post-mortems

A little too late for those who bought into the U.S. housing bubble, CNN now explains why the upward trend couldn't last. But then, as the article notes, these same facts have been ignored before, which makes it less than surprising that the same cycle has repeated itself now - leaving the main question as how far the market can decline as interest rates increase.

Swing time

Greg Weston follows up on the latest SES poll results. And while Weston sees an opportunity for the Cons in the result, it seems like there are lots of Lib votes that could potentially be won by almost any other party depending on the content of the next campaign:
Nationally, 51% of those surveyed said they would be "comfortable" or "somewhat comfortable" with a Harper majority in the next election -- even though, remember, only 36% of the same voters said they would vote Conservative today.

About 45% said they would be queasy with the concept...

Perhaps the most intriguing of all the polling data was this: Some 19% of Liberal voters would be comfortable with Harper and his Conservatives forming a majority government. Another 20% said they would be okay with it.

Memo to Harper: There's your potential swing vote, if ever there was one.

Memo to Liberals: Your party is in bigger disarray than you can imagine.
Weston sees the potential swing being to the Cons, and it's perhaps a fair inference that PMS would have a reasonable chance of winning the votes of the nearly 40% of Lib voters who are at least "somewhat comfortable" seeing him with a majority. But it's worth noting another aspect to the discussion: the same number of Libs can equally easily be described as unwilling to be swayed by arguments based solely on the need to stop Harper at all costs (as has been the focus of the last two Lib campaigns). Which could make them a prime target for other opposition parties who offer a more substantive message than the Libs when the next campaign rolls around.

Of course, a few may be categorized as "Machiavellian Libs" who simply want to see Harper handed a majority now in hopes that the Libs will bounce back more strongly later as a result. But it doesn't seem likely that such a position extends to more than a few insiders - making the rest of the soft-Lib vote wide open for the other parties to pursue, particularly if the Libs continue in their remarkably stubborn belief that they're entitled to the vote of every Canadian who doesn't support Harper.

In fairness, the voters in question have also shown a willingness to make the Libs their first choice for now. But it's clear that a good chunk of current Lib support isn't motivated to any great degree by fear of PMS. And depending on the results of the Lib leadership race and the party's ability (or lack thereof) to present a more meaningful campaign message than "Stop Harper III: Third Time's the Charm", enough of them could well swing elsewhere either to hand Harper his majority, or to prevent it while continuing the Libs' slide.