Saturday, September 23, 2006

On contagious appearances

The latest Volpe scandal takes another couple of turns for the more comical. First, the Volpe camp is suggesting that the investigation could only have resulted from another breach of confidentiality surrounding the Libs' memberships:
CP reports that some Volpe insiders feel their team has been targeted by the campaign team of Michael Ignatieff, which includes several high-profile Quebec Liberals.

They say the Toronto Star -- which broke the story in a report on Saturday -- reported it obtained membership lists from the Quebec wing of the party, yet those membership lists are supposed to be confidential.

The insiders argue the Star only appeared to investigate party members of Italian heritage (Volpe is an immigrant from Italy) while ignoring the recruiting practices of other campaign teams.
It's probably entirely true that the violation could only have been discovered due to another camp's wilful leak of confidential information. But that only spreads the wrongdoing around the party all the more, rather than actually absolving Volpe of anything.

Second, after proudly talking up his reputation as someone whose principles won some approval from other party leaders, Stephane Dion now seems willing to shed that mantle in order to show blind faith in his party's leading embarrassment:
Montreal MP Stephane Dion, the only leadership contender from Quebec, said he knew there were concerns about party memberships but said he trusted Volpe.

"I'm aware of the concerns. I don't have the answers. It will be for the camp of Mr. Volpe to answer. I have confidence in Joe's honesty," he told the Star.
Presumably the move could only be calculated at winning Volpe's support (along with that of any of his non-deceased delegates). But the move smacks of a traditional Lib willingness to place entirely unwarranted trust in any excuse or denial from the party. And that can only make Dion all the more vulnerable to claims that he represents nothing more than a continuation of the Libs' ever-waning credibility.

In sum, Volpe's latest brush with ignominy is once again only helping to highlight all the Lib faults which caused them to lose power earlier this year. And whether or not he stays in the race now, the added tarnish on the party will make it all the tougher for any new leader to claim to have taken the party in a different direction.

Update: And of the four MPs still nominally supporting Volpe, two (Lui Temelkovski and Joe Comuzzi) are also on record continuing to trust him without any apparent reservation.

On selective secrecy

The CP reports that while the Libs helped to foster the contuining culture of secrecy in the federal civil service, several of the party's leadership contenders were entirely willing to hand out confidental membership data when the Globe and Mail came calling for help in carrying out a poll:
Three Liberal leadership hopefuls could face sanctions for giving the party's confidential membership lists to a newspaper which used the data to conduct a controversial opinion poll on the leadership race.

The Globe and Mail, which published the poll results last week, said it obtained the lists from the campaigns of Stephane Dion, Ken Dryden and Scott Brison, although the latter's camp has since denied any involvement.

Yet each candidate was required to personally sign a declaration of confidentiality before the party handed over the coveted lists of members across the country.

In the declaration, candidates agreed to take "appropriate measures to protect the confidentiality of the personal information on the lists." They further agreed that they "will not disclose the lists to anyone outside the Liberal Party of Canada." Liberal national director Steven MacKinnon said the party is still investigating the possible breach of confidentiality.
There's no apparent indication whether the disclosures were deliberately made contrary to the Libs' policy, or whether campaign staff simply wasn't aware of the agreed limitation on how the information would be used. But either way, it's fairly clear that candidates involved violated the trust of Libs who had a valid expectation of privacy in their membership information. And whether the issue was one of carelessness or wilful wrongdoing, it's not an attitude that Canadians of any political stripe should be eager to see in a future government.

The dead have risen, and they're supporting Volpe

It's been long assumed that Joe Volpe's insistence on staying in the Lib leadership race could only be justified by a desire to play kingmaker and secure a prominent role under the next leader. But after today's report about his campaign's apparent reliance on the deceased and other unsuspecting instant Libs to boost their recruitment numbers, it's hard to see how anybody could see his support as a benefit rather than a detriment - or how the Libs could be insane enough to let him anywhere near the public eye during future federal election campaigns.

On quick turnarounds

The Cons show once again that while they may be looking for ways to appease the base behind closed doors, they'll cave the moment an issue goes public. This time, the issue is funding to women's groups, as the two groups highlighted by the NDP this week have both had their funding restored for the next year:
A pair of women's groups that had prepared to close their doors for fear of cuts by the Conservative government learned Friday their federal funding has been secured for at least another year.

The National Association of Women and the Law and the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action had both taken steps to scale down their operations because of unusual delays in getting approvals for their funding.

Uncertainty has reigned around programs supported by Status of Women Canada since a campaign began this summer by pro-Conservative groups to axe the department. Status of Women Minister Bev Oda has so far failed to publicly defend her department, and has instead made allusions to mismanagement and wasted funds.
Needless to say, there's no reason for confidence that the Cons would have extended the funding if they had the cushion of a majority Parliament. But for now at least, there isn't much doubt that the Cons can be pushed to reverse back-room decisions (or wilful inaction) as long as a group can call enough public attention to an issue. Which should only provide all the more incentive for Canadians to keep a close eye on what the Cons are and aren't doing in the meantime.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Scratching the surface of deep integration

I'd planned on putting together a roundup of posts on last week's Banff deep integration conference - that is, until Alison got there first. So stop by Creekside for the full details on PMS' latest attempts to bend over for Bushco. (Not to mention the pathetic excuse for media coverage when there aren't any press releases for reporters to repeat.)

While I'm not as opposed as some might be to additional cooperation agreements with the U.S., any positive agreement would have to be based on public input, balance between business and other interests, and mutual enforceability which all appear sorely lacking in the current talks. And the more people know about what's going on, the better the chances of avoiding being stuck with yet another capitulation on our hands.

Update: catnip has more.

A well-deserved win

The NDP has again managed to push the Cons to back off of a boneheaded course of action - this time to do with the Cons' plan to reduce the number of flight attendants on Canadian airplanes:
Today, NDP Transport Critic Peter Julian, MP (Burnaby-New Westminster) applauded the overdue decision of the Conservative government to back off on lessening air safety standards by decreasing the number of flight attendants on Canadian flights.

“It’s high time that this government recognized that there can never be any compromise on the safety standards that threaten people’s lives on Canadian aircrafts. Flight attendants have saved many lives through their prompt action and dedication. Today’s development is a prime example of what an effective public campaign can accomplish when people band together to put pressure on the minority Conservative government,” stated Julian.

For the past year, Transportation Critic Peter Julian along with his colleagues from the NDP and members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents flight attendants, have worked to prevent the government from cutting the number of flight attendants on Canadian planes.

“By reducing the number of required attendants you reduce passenger safety,” said Julian. “We will watch this Conservative government like a hawk to make sure they do not backtrack on this decision and once again put public airline safety in jeopardy."
It's only amazing that the Cons took so long (and offered so much resistance) before deciding that air safety is worth preserving. But for the moment, the adults have won another round...and with any luck, the Cons won't figure it's worth their while to try to push for reduced staff on Canadian flights again.

Obnoxious emissions

There's plenty of news related to the Cons' take on global warming today, but sadly none indicating that the Cons are any more interested in dealing with the problem than when they started indiscriminately axing programs this spring.

First, there's Gary Lunn's attempt to disavow any connection to a Con riding association meeting which has invited noted anti-environmental propagandist Tim Ball:
Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn is distancing himself and his government from a Conservative party gathering in Victoria today featuring a controversial scientist who dismisses warnings about the dangers of climate change.

Retired climatologist Tim Ball, sponsored by the Calgary-based "Friends of Science" group that is partly funded by the energy industry, travels the country arguing global warming presents no threat and could even be good for Canada...

Lunn, a key player along with Environment Minister Rona Ambrose in developing a "Made-in-Canada" alternative to the former Liberal government's plans to adhere to the Kyoto accord, said the Ball event doesn't reflect the party's attitudes.

"Absolutely it does not reflect the views of the party in any way, shape or form," Lunn told CanWest News Service, noting the three riding associations bring in speakers discussing a variety of issues.

"You know, the next speaker will probably be on the other side of the issue."
It's enough to Lunn's discredit that he seems to think that the very existence of global warming is still subject to a meaningful enough debate to justify bringing in speakers from both sides of the issue.

But then, there's no apparent reason to think any voice on the sane side of the issue will be heard at this type of meeting. A cursory look at the website of the group in question suggests that past speakers haven't included a single voice which could be described but to the Con party line or further-right. Though it may be noted that the speakers have included many MPs who would presumably "reflect the party's attitudes".

Which means that Ball can very readily be taken to fit in with the Cons' general attitudes - and that the likelihood of a future speaker in favour of responsible environmental management is slim to none, whether one looks at only the Victoria group's track record or the Cons' own track record of shutting out differing opinions.

Meanwhile, Rona Ambrose is claiming to be interested in dealing with climate change by changing the subject:
Environment Minister Rona Ambrose fired back at critics Thursday, insisting she's engaging other countries to move forward on climate change.

Although environmentalists have accused her of shirking her responsibilities as the chairperson of ongoing international negotiations, Ambrose said she's an active participant who's doing her homework on the file...

Ambrose explained her upcoming domestic plan for Canada would deliver results the population would see.

"Our plan goes beyond Kyoto because the priority for our government is the health of all Quebecers and Canadians and so our plan will attack air pollution and climate change," she said in French.
It's never quite explained how conflating other air pollution with climate change does anything on an international level other than to give other countries a precedent to similarly try to escape any meaningful action. But given that the Cons' entire environmental message has consistently been based on misdirection and wilful omission, it certainly doesn't come as a surprise to see Ambrose continuing the pattern.

Finally, and related to the Cons' lack of meaningful action, today also brought news that the Cons were going to "get tough" on emissions, with just one slight problem:
The Conservative government will force the automotive sector to comply with tough mandatory vehicle-emission requirements, using California's stringent standards as its model...

The Harper government will focus its environmental policy on fighting smog and improving air quality, with less emphasis on reducing greenhouse gases -- largely carbon emissions -- that are at the heart of the Kyoto accord.

Environment Minister Rona Ambrose hinted at the new measures on vehicle emissions in the House of Commons yesterday, saying she is looking at matching the mandatory emissions rules found in some U.S. states.
Now, the move toward reducing automotive emissions would be a plus if it were part of a larger plan which would actually meaningfully reduce emissions nationally. But there's no indication that the Cons plan to do anything more beyond that tiny step - and hints that the Cons are indeed directing the policy elsewhere rather than toward widespread emission reduction.

Which is particularly comical since Ambrose herself spent much of this spring gleefully asserting that in order to reduce emissions enough to meet Canada's Kyoto targets by addressing the transportation sector of the economy alone, we'd have to take "every car, train and bus off the road". After all, there's no apparent reason why the Cons now seem to think that a small reduction in emissions from cars alone starting in 2010 is anything approaching "tough"...and why they haven't considered the obvious implications of their previous sector-specific snark by recognizing the need for broad-based action to actually put a meaningful dent in greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, part of the Cons' refusal to put together any real strategy to reduce emissions may be readily traced to their main supporters:
Even though the government is expected to announce its environmental plan soon, sources say the cabinet has yet to make a final decision on a central question: Namely, how it will address carbon dioxide emissions from the energy and oil and gas sectors.

The most likely scenario currently on the table is that a new Clean Air Act will signal an intent to regulate a host of pollutants, but the time needed to consult industry and the provinces, as well as to pass the act through the Commons and Senate, will likely mean most of the new pollution limits won't take effect for at least two years -- and 2010 for the regulations affecting the auto makers.
In sum, the Cons are once again showing that while they're prepared to cut environmental programs without warning, consultation or thought, they aren't prepared to do anything to replace those programs until years down the road. And even with a timeline built for indefinite delay tactics, they aren't willing to suggest any meaningful action at the end. Which only confirms that despite the Cons' protestations to the contrary, they're still taking the side of Tim Ball and his sponsors against environmental sustainability.

Update: And only the Cons, faced with the above set of stories in the same day, could feel the need to clarify that they haven't even committed to the minor actions reported.

On weak responses

Not surprisingly, the Cons have responded to the Arar inquiry by immediately pushing toward all the recommendations which would tie other groups' hands, while doing as little as possible themselves. While the RCMP is set to undergo significant reforms (potentially including the ouster of Giuliano Zaccardelli), the Cons' response in dealing with the U.S. can only be described as pathetic.

First, there's Peter MacKay looking for an excuse to spend more time with Condi without actually filing the formal complaint recommended by O'Connor J.:
One of the judge's recommendations was that Ottawa file a formal protest with the U.S. and Syrian governments over Arar's treatment.

MacKay didn't endorse that idea Thursday, but neither did he shut the door on it.

He said he's had discussions with Conoleezza (sic) Rice, the American secretary of state, and added that more talks may be forthcoming.
And then there's Stockwell Day, whose request to have Arar's name removed from the U.S.' terror watchlists couldn't have been more timid and unconvincing:
Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said Thursday that he has nudged the Americans to remove Maher Arar's name from their no-fly list after a public inquiry unequivocally cleared him as a terror suspect.

Day's appeal to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security - which he hinted was a gentle suggestion rather than a demand - comes after the Canadian government removed Arar and his family from a border watch list that is used to keep tabs on terrorism suspects.

"We have removed the Arar family name, and that of his wife, from any lookout list and passed that information on," Day said under questioning in the House of Commons.

"Also, we have sent an indication that the United States may wish to do the same."
And those are the governmental recommendations where the Cons have apparently done anything at all, as there hasn't been any apparent word on eliminating profiling in information-gathering or on clear lines of accountability within the government.

Again, it shouldn't be any great surprise that the Cons are utterly unwilling to follow any recommendation that involves showing some spine in discussions with the U.S. But the Cons' disinterest in making a meaningful statement shows all the more that entirely willing to continue unquestioningly the political culture that led to Arar's torture in the first place. Which may make it only a question of when, and not whether, more innocent Canadians will end up suffering the same fate as Arar.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

On both their houses

In the latest development in the Access to Information privacy breach scandal, the Cons have issued their usual implausible defence. Frankly they could have fairly realistically claimed that the policy was a remnant of Lib procedures - but the Cons had to go a step further in claiming that not a single one of the Cons' staffers involved read their e-mail such as to know that the violation occurred. Which sounds utterly ludicrous on its face - and opens up an equally significant issue about the Cons' non-responsiveness to the civil service if it's true.

Not that it seems the least bit unlikely that the policy existed under the Libs as well, particularly given their plain willingness to attack the Cons for doing precisely what they themselves did earlier. But that isn't a defence of the Cons so much as a sign of the rot in both parties - and a hint that it's time to look to somebody besides the Libs and Cons for a real change in government.

On incredible sources

CBC points out that the results of Canadian foreign aid spending are currently far too difficult to trace:
Canada's access to information laws make it hard to find out how billions of our foreign aid tax dollars are spent, says an Ottawa researcher.

Amir Attaran, a professor at the University of Ottawa, said part of the problem is Canada's foreign aid money is now funnelled through third party agencies in other countries — such as the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) — that are not required to release the information to the Canadian public...

Attaran filed an access to information request as part of his research and said he was told by a CIDA official that the foreign agencies running the projects must OK any information that's released.

"Because the money from Canada is pooled with that of other countries, those other countries may have a right of veto over whether Canadians can know how the money was spent," he said...

Alasdair Roberts, an expert on government secrecy at Syracuse University, said the World Bank and the UNDP have an abysmal record for releasing information, despite having very good transparency rules on paper...

"There's nothing blocking the Canadian government from saying that we want audits for programs that are being funded with Canadian money and that we intend to release those audits under Canadian access law," he said.
Based on that beginning, it would seem appropriate to highlight the issue with a quote from a remotely credible opposition party on the issue. Sadly, the article instead turns to Keith Martin:
Liberal foreign affairs critic Keith Martin said the secrecy about how the money is spent is only one disadvantage of funding development projects via third party agencies.

"When monies are going to large organizations like the World Bank, not only do we lose control — we also lose credit on the ground," he said, adding that people in countries benefiting from our aid seldom work directly with Canadians anymore.
Now, I'd hope it can be agreed that the main question in foreign aid should be how much assistance it can provide - not how much credit Canada can seek for it. But that aside, the even bigger problem with Martin's statement is that the aid structure he's criticizing is essentially the same as what the Libs themselves funded for over a decade before.

Need I even point out that current Afghanistan funding through the World Bank merely expands on funding long provided by Martin's own party? Or that in a document which appears to go up to 2003, the World Bank described Canada both as "deeply involved" in shaping the World Bank, and as a consistent top contributor?

It could well be that the benefits in providing funding through third-party agencies such as the World Bank may outweigh the costs - and indeed it's worth considering whether Canada may be able to get the best of all worlds by using its "deep involvement" to ensure more accountable structures. But one way or the other, it's plain that the Libs don't have the slightest bit of credibility in criticizing the aid structures which they put in place. And any plausible suggestions for improvement will have to come from a party which can't be held responsible for precisely the problems that may now exist.

On larger lessons

Thomas Walkom discusses the fallout from the Arar Inquiry report, pointing out that while the RCMP bore the brunt of O'Connor's criticism, it was a wider political demand for visible action against terrorism that led to the torture of an innocent Canadian:
(A) more careful reading of the three-volume report of O'Connor's judicial inquiry provides a picture that, at one level, is friendlier to the RCMP than the past two days of headlines suggest and yet, at another, is more chilling. For what the critics forget is that in the months following the terror attacks on New York and Washington, RCMP officers were operating in a context that they had not created. It was not the Mounties who passed, in record time, a sweeping anti-terrorism bill that turned upside down some of Canada's traditional liberties. It was the Parliament of Canada.

By criminalizing as terrorism an entire range of often vaguely defined activities, this bill did two things. First, it brought the Mounties, as Canada's national police force, back foursquare into the national security game.

Equally important, the new anti-terror laws gave the RCMP a mandate to ferret out activities which, in more normal times, would not have been the subject of criminal investigations — such as associating with the wrong people or carrying out otherwise lawful activities that could be construed as aiding the wrong people. Having once done this the Mounties were somehow supposed to collect evidence capable of passing muster in a criminal trial.

Lurking in the background was an overwhelming climate of fear. As O'Connor recounts, the operating assumption within government throughout the immediate post 9/11 period was that another terror attack was not only possible but imminent.

Few were calling on police to be careful. Quite the reverse. The public wanted quick action and so did the politicians. Normally sensible media commentators were recommending that security services engage in so-called "black operations" even if that meant cutting a few civil-liberty corners.
While the institutional reforms at the RCMP suggested by the report should be welcomed, the more important question is whether we've moved past a political environment where the desire for decisive action is seen to outweigh the need for such niceties as evidence and truth. And with the Cons trying to place all the blame on the Lib government rather than recognizing the wider context (which they helped to create), it doesn't seem unlikely that the current contrition toward Arar will be soon forgotten and replaced by a new thirst for blood.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

More sorry excuses

The CP reports on the Cons' not-so-surprising unwillingness to argue in favour of PMS' refusal to apologize to Maher Arar. But needless to say, the Cons' failure to be so brazen as to continue trying to justify Arar's torture (as they did in opposition) hasn't led to any progress in Harper's actual position:
Maher Arar finally has a unanimous apology from the House of Commons for his detention and torture in Syria.

But a senior Conservative minister insisted Wednesday that he and other cabinet members were expressing their personal feelings by joining in the move — not necessarily speaking for the government...

The confusion arose after the Bloc Quebecois presented a motion stating that “in the opinion of this House an apology should be presented to Maher Arar regarding the treatment he has been subjected to.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper had repeatedly refused to offer such an apology on behalf of the government since the release of a public inquiry report that cleared Arar’s name Monday.

But the Tories, apparently fearing political embarrassment, gave their consent Wednesday after the Liberals and NDP signed on to the Bloc motion...

NDP Leader Jack Layton welcomed Tory support for the motion but called it “unfortunate” that Harper couldn’t be present in the House when it passed.

“I hope that he will now, in writing, convey his sense of apology on behalf of all the citizens of Canada as the prime minister,” said Layton.
Ultimately, PMS' continued refusal to apologize in his capacity as Prime Minister may only keep Arar's plight - and the recommendations arising out of it - in the public eye longer than the Cons would like. But either way, it's a shame that it took an opposition motion to bring about any form of parliamentary apology...and it's to the Cons' discredit that they're still splitting hairs to avoid offering the same formally on behalf of the government.

Rallying time

NDP MP Irene Mathyssen points out that while the Cons may not have taken up the reactionary call for a direct frontal attack on Status of Women Canada, they're pushing SWC programs out of business by conveniently ignoring funding applications:
“By not responding to funding applications, the Conservatives are allowing programs to shut down, one by one.,” said NDP MP critic for the Status of Women Irene Mathyssen. "What's next? The entire department? It looks like Bev Oda is spoiling to dismantle the Status of Women department."

As of Sept. 12, The National Association of Women and the Law, has closed their doors due to insufficient federal funding. The Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) will shut down on Sept. 26. Organizations have put in applications for funding, but have heard nothing from the Minister responsible for Status of Women, Bev Oda.

“It is clear that this government is not interested in consulting with the experts in the field and has no intention of investigating what is really needed to promote women’s equality in Canada” said NDP President Anne McGrath.

Women’s groups have complained that the Minister has not consulted them on the program review and will meet with them only after the Status of Women Canada mandate has expired on Sept. 26 this year.
While things may look dire now, keep in mind that there is a recent precedent for the Cons being shamed out of abandoning funding for social issues. And the Cons' attempt to eliminate SWC through neglect rather than a public execution suggests that they may not be comfortable defending the move once it's forced into the limelight.

So, stop in at the Progressive Bloggers' discussion of how best to handle the situation, and let the Cons know for yourself that they won't get away with trying to sweep this one under the rug.

On totalitarian tendencies

CTV and the Montreal Gazette confirm the Cons' paranoia and disregard for the law, reporting that the Cons are encouraging the disclosure of the names of Access to Information requesters in violation of the Privacy Act:
Federal government officials appear to be breaking Canadian law by revealing the identities of those who seek documents under the Access to Information Act, a newspaper reported Wednesday...

(T)he Montreal Gazette claims the identities of some requesters have been shared among government departments -- including the Prime Minister's Office.

Documents obtained by the Gazette under the Access to Information Act show that in one case, the name of a reporter about to receive documents under the act was revealed during a telephone conference call among federal government officials.

The reporter's name was disclosed by an official working on behalf of the Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Department, the Gazette reports.

The newspaper says documents show that officials from at least eight departments were involved in the telephone call and minutes of the meeting were sent to 19 other people -- including Stephen Harper's communications director Sandra Buckler.

Deputy information commissioner Alan Leadbeater told the Gazette there had been other cases of confidentiality violations --particularly when there was a concern that the information could result in embarrassing questions to a cabinet minister.

"We see situations where representatives from the minister's office will meet on a regular basis, sometimes weekly, with the access to information people to find out what access requests have been received and what material is being released, and in the course of those meetings there is a tendency to share with the minister's staff the identities of the requesters," Leadbeater was quoted as saying by the Gazette.
It isn't hard off hand to see some of the potential abuses resulting from disclosure of the identity of requesters - ranging from the Cons knowing which reporters may have damaging information and avoiding their questions, to having an advantage in Question Period by knowing which parties have been researching which issues, to knowing which current or potential government employees may be using requests to follow up on their own suspicions about what may be occurring within government departments.

It's tough to say which of those potential uses (or what other possiblilities) may be the greatest motivator behind the Cons' actions. But there should be little doubt that Con ministers wouldn't be systematically encouraging the illegal gathering of information, and the PMO wouldn't be micromanaging departmental Access to Information requests, if the Cons weren't planning on putting their illegally-gathered information to some use. And if the Cons are setting up an institutional culture which encourages the illegal disclosure of the identity of requesters, there's no reason at all to have any confidence that the information won't also be used illegally once it's acquired.

Just a few months ago, the Cons told the civil service to honour the spirit of the Access to Information Act. Now, it's clear that the Cons are themselves violating both the spirit of that legislation and the letter of the Privacy Act by wrongfully appropriating private information for their own purposes. Which means that if Canadians indeed want a culture of accountability, they'll have to start by taking away the Cons' ability to punish anybody who's interested in holding the government accountable.

Up in the air

The latest Strategic Counsel poll suggests a tightening battle for voters both in Quebec and nationally:
The Tories also dropped to third place in Quebec when respondents were asked about their voting intentions. Sixteen per cent said they'd vote Conservative if an election were held today, down from 23 per cent. The Bloc Québécois had the support of 48 per cent of those surveyed, up from 43 per cent; the Liberals were at 18 per cent, down from 21.

The NDP are up to 11 per cent in the province, from 6 per cent, likely due to the party's policy convention in Quebec this month...

Nationally, the Conservatives had the support of 35 per cent of those surveyed, followed by the Liberals at 26 per cent, the NDP at 19, the Bloc Québécois at 12 and the Green Party at 8 per cent.
Of course, it's tough to read too much into a single poll - and indeed even the seemingly-large changes in Quebec are within the poll's margin of error. But with both the Cons and Libs dropping and the Bloc not apparently doing much to earn its increase, it looks like there's plenty of potential for significant movement in La Belle Province based on relatively small changes from today's numbers. Which leaves only the question of which parties will seize the opportunity in the fall session of Parliament and beyond.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Consistent positions

PMS is refusing to apologize to Maher Arar, supposedly on the basis that he wasn't in power at the time of Arar's ordeal. Canadians may be surprised to find out that by this logic, Harper was apparently Prime Minister during the entire time span from 1885 to 1923.

On choosing one's focus

The Chief Electoral Officer effectively confirmed today that the Cons violated the Canada Elections Act in their 2005 convention scandal, putting a potentially-substantial amount of illegal money in their coffers for the 2006 campaign. Which of course means that it's time for Lib bloggers and commenters to blame their election loss on a single legal donation to the NDP.

Naturally, the Libs' own woeful campaign should be the even more obvious source of responsibility for the fall of PMPM. But even leaving that aside as requiring an impossible amount of self-reflection, more than a few Libs seem eager to overlook Con law-breaking in favour of another round of jeers at the NDP. Which should cast serious doubt on the Libs' interest in opposing PMS - not to mention their interest in winning any part of the NDP swing vote when past Dipper donations are seen as a basis for purging a candidate from their leadership race.

A minute to reflect

The Star reports on Canada's death toll in Afghanistan, including both the CCPA's conclusion that Canadian soldiers are facing three to six times the death toll of U.S. and UK troops, and the multi-casualty weekend which didn't make it into the CCPA report:
"A Canadian soldier in Afghanistan is three times more likely to be killed than a British soldier and four and a half times more likely than an American," said Steven Staples, co-author of "Canada's Fallen," a report he co-wrote for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

"And a Canadian in Kandahar is six times more likely to die than an American soldier deployed to Iraq," he said...

In England, statistician Sheila Bird did an earlier risk assessment study similar to that done in Ottawa. Yesterday, she said in a telephone interview that when the new fatalities are factored in, Canadian soldiers are now facing twice and possibly four times the risk of death that British soldiers faced in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The British had 46,000 troops engaged in the 43-day invasion but lost only 33 soldiers.

Since May 1 this year — a period of 141 days — the Canadian force in Afghanistan, numbering about 2,200, has already lost 21 soldiers.

Relating the number of fatalities to the number of military personnel deployed is crucial, Bird said, because "this helps to accurately measure the real rate of risk on the ground for coalition forces."

She emphasized that the risk Canadians face in Kandahar is "absolutely" riskier than what Americans face in Iraq.
And for those wondering if the casualties are at least helping to produce better conditions for Afghanistan or other measurable positive results, the all-too-obvious answer is not for a second:
One American analyst, John Pike of, wondered how long Canada's military could sustain such losses.

"Canada may reconsider how much more of this it wants," Pike said. He said he, too, was familiar with military pronouncements of victory with impressive numbers of enemy dead and low casualties for western forces.

"We spent years doing that in Vietnam," he said of the U.S. war there.

In Afghanistan, Pike envisions a near-endless scenario.

"It's not going to end," he said of the Afghan war. "And it may get worse before it gets better ... it's going to last for decades."
In the midst of this combination of bad news on the ground and justified skepticism about the Cons' self-promotion, the Cons still think that neither the soaring casualty rate nor any other aspect of the Afghanistan quagmire is worth more than a minute of their time. But Canadians may not be so quick to dismiss either the loss of Canadian troops, or the complete lack of actual or projected progress...which could lead Canadians to find an exit strategy from PMS' jingoism far sooner than the Cons would like to admit.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Hard to be hopeful

I'd mentioned earlier my plan to write about the recommendations in the Arar Inquiry report. While there's plenty of blame to go around, the recommendations appear to support existing policies and procedures to a surprising degree, with most of the changes only involving better adherence to the current rules. And what's worse, the real changes which are suggested don't appear the least bit likely to be undertaken anytime soon.

With respect to the RCMP, the primary subject of his report, O'Connor J. identifies primarily a need for improved training to increase consciousness of human rights issues (p. 323-327), and more precise wording both in classifying subjects of investigations (p. 335-337) and in the caveats attached to information provided to foreign agencies (p. 340-342). While the ideas are certainly worth implementing, there's no indication that they could be meaningfully enforced either in the present case or in general, meaning that these recommendations can likely be swept under the rug.

From a governmental standpoint, the most significant recommendations are a suggestion to object to the misuse of Canadian information (p. 344 in general, p. 361-362 in Arar's case in particular) and to avoid disclosing information to (p. 345-347), or placing undue weight on information from (p. 348-349), human rights abusers. But with the current regime obsessed with maintaining nothing but a positive face toward the U.S. and its ever-malleable "war on terror", matters aren't likely to improve anytime soon. And short of classifying the U.S. as a "foreign government with (a) questionable human rights record" which shouldn't receive Canadian intelligence information, there's little reason to think similar cases could be prevented in light of Bushco's consistent assertions of infinite power where national security is concerned.

Similarly, I doubt many readers can honestly expect the Cons to enforce a standard of information-gathering free of racial or cultural profiling (p. 355-358), or to be willing to draw a clear line of accountability to the Foreign Affairs Minister (p. 353-354) in future cases rather than leaving responsibility just as thoroughly undefined as it was in the Arar case.

Finally, the recommendations to provide better support to Canadians detained abroad (generally at p. 349-355) seem somewhat more likely to be implemented, but only seem to be dealing with serious problems after the fact.

While it's somewhat reassuring to see Maher Arar vindicated, there should be little comfort either in the lack of any clear accountability for his torture, or in the fact that the substantive recommendations to prevent similar incidents look highly unlikely to be implemented. Indeed, it's hard to say which is more scary: that relatively minor variations of wording based on insufficient RCMP training may been enough to lead to his torture, or that we're now stuck with a government which is even more willing to ignore the consequences of actions as long as they're nominally aimed at anti-terrorism purposes. Sadly, it'll be to nobody's surprise if more Canadians are now, or will be soon, subject to exactly the kind of terror suffered by Arar - and it may well be that the only lesson learned by the Cons will be to make added efforts to bury any similar stories.

Arar roundup

I'll deal with the recommendations which came out of the Arar inquiry in more detail later. In the meantime, Pogge, catnip, The Galloping Beaver, My Blahg and Le Revue Gauche all have discussion of what by all rights should be today's biggest story.


In case there's any doubt which party is devoted to dumbing down Canadian politics, the Cons are now under the impression that all the issues surrounding the deepening quagmire in Afghanistan can be thoroughly dealt with in Question Period alone:
Parliamentary Secretary to the foreign affairs minister Deepak Obhrai (Calgary East, Alta.) said last week that there's no need to introduce a votable motion in the House by the NDP as the mission has already been extended until 2009...

Mr. Obhrai said the opposition parties could ask their questions during the daily Question Period.

"We will be answering all the questions [in the daily QP] that they have, so we don't feel there's a need for any debate," said Deepak Obhrai, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister in an interview with The Hill Times recently. "This is an open government and we have nothing to hide so we will be answering any questions they have, they can ask the same questions during the Question Period."

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay (Central Nova, N.S.) also told CBC's The National recently that the government does not want another debate on Afghanistan...
In a sense, it shouldn't be much surprise that the Cons favour a format where Harper's inner circle of trained seals can recite talking points ad nauseum, rather than one where their backbenchers might either demonstrate that the party truly is intelligence-optional, or worse yet present better-informed opinions than those approved by Central Command.

That said, it takes an awfully low opinion of both the value of an interplay of ideas and the attention span of Canadians to think that serious policy issues can be addressed through Question Period alone. And if the Cons really have that little interest in meaningful discussion, then it may be time to restore them to their more familiar place on the opposite side of Question Period.

Pressing the issues

The Hill Times reports on the continued battle between PMO and the non-CanWest press gallery, where efforts from the press to work out an agreed solution have apparently been ignored by PMS:
The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and The Canadian Press still haven't heard a word from the PMO on setting ground rules for access...

"Not to be belligerent, but to be consistent," she told The Hill Times in an email, explaining that in June, the managers of the Star, the Globe and Canadian Press approached the PMO to try to come up with a compromise. "[We want] to have an intelligent, responsible discussion about what new conditions the Harper government was trying to enforce. We were promised a discussion. It still hasn't happened. Collectively, I believe the three news organizations still have hopes for that intelligent, respectful discussion. It is out of respect for that process that we aren't changing course at present. We await a proper, professional reply."

Ms. Delacourt said this is important because "it's incumbent on journalists to question arbitrary measures. It's in the Globe's motto, printed on the editorial page every day: 'The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures.'"...

A call to the Prime Minister's Press Office was not returned and as of last week, the Press Gallery Executive still hadn't heard from the PMO on the issue of lists and access.
It's worth noting that the gallery's willingness to concede some ground comes despite anecdotal evidence that PMS has already taken steps toward cherry-picking questions - which can surely only become worse as more contentious issues arise. But even with the gallery willing to make unnecessary concessions, it doesn't look like Harper is the least bit interested in considering their interests enough to look for a compromise.

But then, as the article points out, the Cons' policy doesn't prevent the press from holding PMS accountable in any way - and indeed should encourage the kind of reporting which is bound to get far more results than merely waiting around for scripted lines from PMS himself:
"On the face of it, you might argue that the PMO is seeking to have an unfair control," Prof. Winn said. "But I can understand the democracy advocates who say the Prime Minister's Office shouldn't have the right to decide who asks him questions. But an accidental byproduct of the PMO's policy, if it were actually implemented, would motivate reporters to go study policy as opposed to just report on the theatrics of press conferences."

Prof. Winn said that there are many issues that reporters don't look at because they are simply focused on what people say...

Journalists should focus more on what governments do, Prof. Winn said. "Journalists who are most upset that the Prime Minister's Office would control who asked the questions seem to be very cynical about the truthfulness and integrity of politicians including the Prime Minister. But the logical consequence of true skepticism about the value of what a politician has to say would lead one to say I don't care what they say, I'm going to find out what's happening."
Of course, that end result would be a far greater victory for accountability than any return to the previous scrum system - particularly when most of the reporting on the Cons seems to be based on self-serving leaks rather than anything resembling investigative journalism.

Which isn't to say that open and fair access to the Con cabinet wouldn't also be an improvement. But there's still plenty going on worth covering - whether that means a greater focus on the opposition parties who don't see the media as an enemy, or on investigating matters which the Cons almost certainly won't want to talk about. And the more time the gallery spends covering those issues rather than repeating the Cons' talking points, the better informed the Canadian public will be.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

On hot air masses

The Cons have consistently demonstrated their complete disinterest in dealing with global warming as an international problem. But the CP reports that when it comes to investing in votes rather than environmental results, it may be a different story:
Environment Minister Rona Ambrose's emissions plan, set to be released in the coming months, is said to be strongly inspired by Quebec's own emission plan, adopted last June...

Officials in Quebec's environment ministry took advantage of the thaw in relations, sending Ottawa a long list of programs it wanted financed.

A draft of the federal plan, obtained by The Canadian Press, suggests Ottawa will place a priority on transportation projects aimed at cutting greenhouse emissions, thought to be responsible for certain elements of climate change.

Provincial Environment Minister Claude Bechard said in an interview Friday that Quebec decided to ask for "more rather than less" in the hopes of hitting the jackpot.

Bechard, who met with his federal counterpart last Monday, said he expects Quebec to receive "at least $328 million and maybe more."

But sources close to the negotiations say the $328 million figure is "a paltry sum," and believe the Tories will give Quebec significantly more in the hopes of improving its electoral fortunes in the province come election time.

Funding became a hot-button issue during Quebec's negotiations with Martin's government.

The Liberals handed over $538 million to Ontario in 2005, and Quebec calculated that it deserved $328 million.
Needless to say, any solution actually targetted toward dealing with global warming should involve targetting funding based on what's most likely to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And it's no surprise that the Cons are utterly unwilling to move in that direction. (In that regard, it's worth noting that the Cons only claim to be "inspired" by the Quebec plan, which presumably means ignoring Canada's committed Kyoto targets which Quebec plans to meet.)

But far be it from the Cons to miss an opportunity to use a facade of interest in emission reductions as an excuse to hand money to Quebec's provincial government. And even more striking is the Cons' apparent willingness to delegate its policy-making to a single province, with no regard for the varying issues that face different regions of the country in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Which should emphasize that while the Cons are doing their best to claim to be environmentally conscious, they're much more interested in the theatre of announcing funding than actually achieving any results. And that leaves only the question of whether enough Canadians will see through the mask to ensure that the Cons aren't rewarded for their cynicism.

Denying responsibility

Chuck Strahl appears to want to sound philosophical or wise in the CP's preview of the fall session in the House of Commons. But in trying, he nicely hints at the Cons' unwillingness to accept their own power in government:
"The things you can't control, you can't control. It's a fact of life," Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl said following a Conservative caucus meeting Friday.

"Can you control drought on the Prairies? Can you control what happens in Afghanistan, or when Israel and Lebanon tie into one another? You don't control any of those things, and I don't know who could suggest that you should or you can."
Of course, in each case it's clear that nobody holds total control - but it's equally clear that Strahl simply wrong in trying to downplay expectations of his government doing anything on issues where there's plainly some significant ability for the government to influence events.

After all, the Cons not only have the ability to assist farmers affected by a drought, but are going out of their way to avoid the fight against global warming - a decision which is likely to increase the incidence of drought in the future. The Cons have similarly gone out of their way to present continued aimless war in Afghanistan (and the resulting casualties on all sides) as an inevitability rather than a choice. And the Cons helped to egg on the Israel/Lebanon conflict by taking sides immediately and rejecting any attempt to end the violence, rather than stepping up by seeking peace from all sides.

In each case, there are undoubtedly limitations on what the Cons or any other government can do. But that doesn't excuse what looks like an attempt to disclaim all responsibility or ability to act on these issues either. And if the Cons really think their place in government gives them no ability to influence events whatsoever, then it's long past time to give power to somebody who's actually willing to use it to good ends, rather than to deny that it exists.

On dangerous lessons

The Sun reports on the lessons which David Emerson believes he's learned from the softwood lumber debacle. And judging from what Emerson seems to believe, it looks like the softwood sellout may be just the beginning of what the Cons are willing to give away in order to avoid disputes caused by Canada seeking to hold the U.S. to its previous bargains:
Swallowing staggering legal bills and heavy spinoff costs was Canada's tough lesson that trade disputes like softwood lumber must be resolved before they explode into a cottage industry, says Trade Minister David Emerson...

"The No. 1 lesson out of softwood lumber is that there will be disputes, but you've got to solve them in a relatively timely and more immediate way," Emerson says.

"Because once a dispute is allowed to simmer and percolate for a long enough period of time, it almost becomes a self-perpetuating dispute where people become dependent upon it to earn their income and positions become entrenched and animosities develop."...

"It's been a real problem, a festering wound, and to have that dealt with is a fundamental step forward that will allow us to continue to broaden the number of issues and the number of co-operational opportunities with the U.S. in particular we can take advantage of," he says.

"It became very broad and affected many areas, and I don't think you can overstate how important it has been for the reshaping and the re-engagement of Canada's economic relationship with the U.S."
Needless to say, the "cottage industry" suggestion is about as ridiculous a straw man as one could try to create under the circumstances. The only "cottage industry" which Canada should be concerned about on the softwood lumber file is CFLI - which of course was rewarded for its efforts with half a billion dollars. Now, equivalents in other industries will have nothing but added incentives to perpetuate themselves with a continual stream of baseless trade complaints against Canadian exporters - knowing that PMS will readily pay their bills in the end if it'll make the U.S. happy.

But as long as a cottage industry is working against Canada's best interests, the Cons don't seem to have the least bit of problem funding it. The Cons only seem to want to step in with their "co-operational" philosophy to ensure that Canada's businesses won't endanger complete goodwill between Canada and the U.S. by inconveniently pointing out the illegal wounds inflicted by American protectionism.

Which means that there's little reason to think that other industries will start with anywhere as strong a bargaining position as the Cons happily frittered away on softwood lumber. Instead, Emerson and company are looking to make sure that future capitulations are immediate. And from the softwood lumber experience, there can be no doubt that the Cons are willing to throw any Canadian industry under the bus if it'll add to PMS' reputation for "co-operating" with Bushco.