Saturday, March 31, 2007

Another star recruit

While the Jack Layton's push in Quebec has received some attention, one part of the article which has gone unnoticed is the addition of one more name to the NDP's list of possible star Quebec candidates:
Layton expects his party will make a Quebec breakthrough of its own in the next federal election.

"We're going to have the kind of team that's really going to excite the people of Quebec with the possibility of a voice that will speak for the average middle-class family that's really feeling squeezed these days," the NDP leader said, naming former provincial environment minister Thomas Mulcair and Cree leader Romeo Saganash as possible star candidates.

"I think we're in the strongest position we've ever been to give Quebecers a really positive choice."
Based on a quick search of the site of the Grand Council of the Crees (the organization for which Saganash is Director of Qu├ębec and International Relations), there looks to be plenty to like about the prospect of his running. And the addition of Saganash to a group potentially including Mulcair and Julius Grey, combined with Pierre Ducasse's decision to run in a far more NDP-friendly riding, could result in the NDP having a realistic chance of coming away with multiple Quebec seats in the next federal election.

Of course, even one Quebec seat in a general election would be a major breakthrough for the NDP. But while many observers seem eager to ignore the lesson, the ADQ's sudden ascension to official opposition status indeed provides an example of the dangers of underestimating how quickly a party can rise into the mix. And if the NDP's opponents ignore that possibility, then so much the better for Layton's chances of making that a reality for the NDP.

A dangerous deal

There's been some positive commentary on Ontario's plan to join several U.S. states in an emissions trading plan relating to power plants (the RGGI). But I have to worry that this may only provide exactly the out the Cons are looking for on the environment.

After all, Harper is already loudly proclaiming his intention to tie the federal government's hands when it comes to matters where the provinces are acting. And it wouldn't be too much of a leap for the Cons to try to make the claim that since a province is making an effort to tie into international emissions trading, the federal government shouldn't get involved.

What's worse, even if the Cons continue to push forward with their own set of weak cuts, there's some real danger that the RGGI deal will offer an excuse for even less action than the Cons would have tried to get away with otherwise. Thanks to the RGGI, Harper will now have the excuse that Ontario's government has signed on to a plan where emissions from some of the country's largest polluters are permitted to stay at their current level until 2015, with only a 10% reduction from that point by 2020. Which could lead to Harper copying similarly unambitious targets on a national scale - or at least claiming the RGGI as some evidence that the opposition consensus on the need for more effective and faster reductions should be ignored.

Of course, the Ontario move may still be better than nothing in the long run, particular if the Cons really do plan to run out the clock on Bill C-30. But it's still a serious problem if the RGGI serves to reduce the impetus for the far stronger action that's needed to actually put a dent into greenhouse gas emissions.

Overruled

Yesterday's news that the House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry, Science, and Technology has rejected Maxime Bernier's phone deregulation plan passed largely without comment. But it's worth pointing out not only based on the substantive effect, but also for its political ramifications:
NDP Industry critic Brian Masse (Windsor West) called today’s vote to overturn the Conservatives’ local phone deregulation decision a victory for consumers.

“We now have the opportunity for all areas of the telecom sector to be examined and improved in terms of quality of service, consumer rights, job protection, foreign ownership, and innovation,” said Masse. “Ordinary Canadians’ voices will be part of the process, instead of Minister Maxime Bernier's favourite lobbyists.”...

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry, Science, and Technology passed a motion, which is to be reported back to the House today, demanding that “the Minister of Industry withdraw the order varying Telecom Decision CRTC 2006-15 and table in Parliament a comprehensive package of policy, statutory, and regulatory reforms to modernize the telecommunications services industry.”
For consumers, it's certainly a plus that Bernier's choice to overrule the CRTC isn't going unchallenged.

That said, the political context bears some discussion as well. After all, it's clear that the Cons are looking for an excuse to go to the polls. But with a number of their crime bills looking likely to pass as soon as the Cons bring them forward and C-30 appearing to be the last reason the Cons would want to provoke an election, they may instead need to try to compile a list of small perceived slights to justify going to the voters.

Of course, calling an election on such a weak excuse might well reduce the Cons' chances of reaching their hoped-for result. But it seems entirely likely that the Cons' fallback position to force an election is to present a laundry list of every time the opposition parties have teamed up against them.

Which may result in some danger to the opposition, as each vote in the Commons or on any committee may have far greater ramifications than just the issue at hand to the extent that it may serve as part of the Cons' excuse. But at the same time, that could also provide an opportunity to make sure that the motions themselves contain something that can be used to make the Cons look all the more unreasonable for challenging the will of the majority.

Friday, March 30, 2007

History repeating

Good news for Con strategists looking for material to fill out a new election platform: they'll now officially be able to promise to solve the long-running softwood lumber dispute all over again. And if the result is rather less positive for the provinces whose industry support programs will be the subject of the kind of litigation that the Cons' capitulation was supposed to end, not to mention Canadians generally...well, the deal was never about them anyway.

Update: Is it any surprise that the Financial Post is going out of its way to paint the CFLI as a victim in reporting on the latest round of complaints?

Negligent omissions

For all the talk today about Angus Reid's latest poll, not to mention Robert's rightful frustration with media double standards, I'm surprised nobody has yet commented on the most obvious omission from the poll.

After all, with the NDP polling within 5 points of the Libs, not to mention the Greens only another 6 points behind, it would surely make sense to at least allow respondents to give their opinions on Jack Layton and Elizabeth May as well. But instead, the poll only addressed Harper and Dion as individual leaders. Which in turn helps to both minimize the options Canadians have in opposing Harper, and perpetuate the usual "horse race" Lib/Con comparison - even as the party numbers within the poll show that nearly 40% of respondents plan on parking their votes elsewhere.

Of course, the results of this particular poll may make the omission particularly galling. (For those looking for other additional results worth analyzing, the precipitous drop in "right track/wrong track" and the NDP's relatively strong youth showing are probably worth some ink.)

But in general, there's no excuse for failing to consider more than just Harper and Dion in comparing Canada's leaders. And narrow coverage of the type applied in this poll is all too likely to keep either the NDP or the Greens from occupying as strong a position in Canada's political scene as they would if given a fair comparison.

A growing consensus

While the Cons (and the Greens) have yet to respond to the amended Clean Air Act, the voice of the environmental movement on the issue hasn't wasted any time in praising the revised bill and calling for it to be passed:
Environmental groups are calling on the government to pass the new version of what used to be called the Clean Air Act, after opposition parties radically altered the bill through amendments in a special Commons committee.

The Climate Action Network says the Clean Air and Climate Change Act is much stronger than the government's original proposal, which was widely attacked as weak and toothless.
And just in case we need a reminder who's included in the Climate Action Network:
CAN-RAC is a network of over 40 member organizations including Greenpeace, Sierra Club of Canada, Equiterre, Pembina Institute, KAIROS, The Assembly of First Nations, World Wildlife Fund and the David Suzuki Foundation as well as major faith and labour organizations. Members work together for federal, provincial and local government action in defense of the climate.
In sum, the Climate Action Network's take essentially amounts to an endorsement of the amended bill by the bulk of the major players in Canada's environmental movement. And that makes it virtually certain that no party - even the Cons with their previous disdain for the environment - can be eager to precipitate an election based on an environmental issue with such a wide range of actors on the other side. Moreover, the Cons' laughable claim within the article that the amendments are "weaker" than their initial plan will look all the more ridiculous with this group saying otherwise.

Of course, the Cons might choose instead to try to bring their own government down on another issue before C-30 gets dealt with. But they'll plainly face a heavy price if they decide to make this the trigger for an election - and would still be best advised to make this one of their strongest steps toward the centre rather than fighting a losing battle against the environment.

Simple Answers to Simple Questions

Ted asks (with a very slight paraphrase):
Is there any low to which (Stephen Harper) won’t dig?
No, there isn't.

For more on Harper's attempt to claim Vimy Ridge as a partisan achievement for his government, see here, here and here.

(Edit: added paraphrase.)

Awaiting responses

There's been some discussion as to how the Cons may respond to the committee amendments to Bill C-30. But while most of the talk has been about how the Cons could try to justify going to the polls over the bill, I'm still far from convinced that's the smart course of action for them.

After all, for a party which can essentially choose what issue to highlight in going to the polls, it seems far more likely that the Cons would want to focus on one of their perceived areas of strength rather than a file where they're still getting consistently slammed by public figures who even the Cons don't dare to criticize.

And the factors which always made it likely that the Cons could convince their anti-environment supporters to accept a relatively strong environmental package are only stronger now. With both the Libs and the NDP backing the C-30 amendments and the Greens not having backed off their commitment to Kyoto, the Cons can quite legitimately argue that no other party will offer a better deal, and promise to make it up to the oil industry in future corporate treatment.

Of course, if the Cons want an immediate election badly enough and the Libs decide to pass whichever crime bills the Cons label as musts, then C-30 may well be their only option. But it would put the Cons on the weakest possible footing headed into a campaign - and I have to figure Harper is smart enough not to let that be the result.

Meanwhile, it's interesting to note that the Cons aren't the only party which has yet to respond to the C-30 amendments. Surprisingly, the last apparent statement from the Greens regarding the committee was a press release which wrongly speculated that nothing good could come from any amendments - and a Google News search turned up nothing on point either. Which means that as far as I can tell, the Greens haven't yet said anything official about the most important development in ages on their signature issue.

It remains to be seen whether they'll eventually back the amendments...and indeed that seems likely given the party's support for the goals behind them. But the contrast couldn't be more stark between Elizabeth May's rush to congratulate Ed Stelmach for an intensity-based system, and her slow response to a set of hard targets agreed to by the federal opposition parties.

Update: It took awhile, but the Greens have announced their approval of the bill as well.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Right here waiting

In case there weren't enough reasons to doubt the effectiveness of the Cons' wait-times funding, the CP reports that Saskatchewan's share of it will demonstrably do nothing to reduce the wait times which the Cons are supposedly trying to target. Instead, the allocation will be based on goals which the province was going to meet anyway:
The Saskatchewan government has become the latest province to sign up for the federal government's health wait-time guarantees, taking in nearly $25 million in exchange for putting a cap on the length of time a patient waits for heart surgery.

By 2010, a Saskatchewan resident needing a coronary artery bypass graft will wait no longer than 26 weeks under the new guarantee announced Thursday. The province is already very close to meeting that target, meaning most of the money will go to the bottom line of the health-care system...

Saskatchewan Health Minister Len Taylor said the province chose the area of cardiac bypass because it is already doing quite well at meeting national wait-time benchmarks.

"We have chosen an area that we know we can be successful," Taylor said. "We've built capacity to this point."

There are three levels of urgency when it comes to coronary artery bypass.

Under the new guarantees, Level 1 patients will get the procedure within two weeks, Level 2 within six weeks and Level 3 within 26 weeks.

Right now, according to provincial health officials, almost every Level 1 and Level 2 patient and about 98 per cent of Level 3 patients get the care they need in that time frame.
Contrary to the whining of the Sask Party, it's entirely understandable why the province would want to make sure its funding is based on targets which the system was set to reach rather that otherwise distorting the system. And indeed it's probably the ideal result for the Cons' funding to go into the health care system generally rather than being singularly targeted toward a narrow range of procedures (or worse yet a single one).

But that only serves to highlight the pointless of the Cons' plan to begin with. And if the best one can say for the Cons is that their policy may accidentally have some positive effects by failing to meet its own goals, that surely speaks volumes about just how ill-advised the plan was to begin with.

Day of conflict

Stockwell Day has announced that an investigator will report to him following a probe of alleged wrongdoing within the upper echelons of the same RCMP which has been recently asked to investigate Day himself. And somewhere, a Con is outraged at the suggestion that it might be a good idea for somebody else to handle Day's portfolio until the latter issue is dealt with.

Of course, when it comes to figuring out just what interests are in conflict, it would help if we had any idea whether or not the RCMP was indeed following through on the question of how Day first took over his seat. But either way the answer would be problematic.

After all, any review of Day would simply ensure all the more overlap in time between the two investigations. Meanwhile, a decision not to investigate Day now would itself look highly suspicious, particularly given that the RCMP's initial reason for not following through on Jim Hart's resignation (that it lacked evidence) no longer appears to apply.

That said, there's at least as much need for public clarification as there was during the income trust debacle in 2005. And if the RCMP is scared into silence until Day passes judgment on the pension issue, that may be the most dubious end result of all.

What's their hurry?

Most of the recent federal election speculation has surrounded the Cons' brief post-budget rise in the polls. But let's keep in mind that an equally important reason why the Cons are so eager for a quick election may have nothing to do with the Cons' current place in the polls, and everything to do with the danger (to Harper at least) that their stay in office is on the verge of providing even more proof of the Cons' unfitness to govern. And there are a couple of indications that issues which the Cons would prefer to hide won't go away anytime soon.

First, as noted by Jeff, there's NDP MP Paul Dewar's call for an audit of all Conservative appointments since the Accountability Act passed in December in light of the Ottawa mayoralty scandal:
A New Democrat MP is calling for an audit of all government appointments made since the Federal Accountability Act was passed in December in light of a police investigation into claims of a potentially criminal patronage offer.

Ottawa MP Paul Dewar says the investigation by the Ontario Provincial Police reveals gaping holes remain in governance issues despite the Conservatives' vaunted ethics legislation - which has been passed by Parliament but parts of which are not yet in force...

Dewar argues that if the minority government had set up a public appointments commission as envisaged by the FAA, such allegations would become a thing of the past.

"I think what we need to do now is have an audit of all of the appointments that have been made since the Accountability Act was passed," Dewar said outside the Commons.

"Really, that's what has to happen so we can shine some light on what's been happening in the backrooms, in the back doors of government."
And as if that weren't enough for the Cons to worry about, Democracy Watch (which was a key ally in their 2006 election win) has had enough of Harper on accountability and other issues, and is now demanding an audit of the Cons' highly dubious democratic reform process:
The public advocacy group Democracy Watch says it was enlisted to help fill rosters on citizens' panels studying federal democratic reform - even though the panels were supposed to exclude special-interest organizations.

Now the group wants the auditor general to audit the Conservative government's $900,000 exercise in consulting Canadians...

Democracy Watch head Duff Conacher said Wednesday that the breach in the consultation protocol makes a mockery of Conservative assertions that the process will hear from a representative sample of Canadians while keeping out special interests.

"The federal Conservatives have contracted to conduct a consultation that seems like a con job," said Conacher.
To my knowledge, there hasn't yet been any indication of follow-through on either audit suggestion. But it can only be glaringly clear to the Cons that no matter how much of a free ride they've received in the press, there are plenty of concerned Canadians keeping a very close watch on what they're doing in power.

Which means that even if the Cons aren't in majority territory when they precipitate a trip to the polls, it may still be in their interest to force an election before there's time for the current scandals to be thoroughly investigated - or for others to go public. And that possibility should form a significant part of the opposition's message: if the Cons want an election now, it's largely because of what they fear having exposed later.

(Edit: fixed links.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Effect without cause

PMS provides another example of the Cons' "when in doubt, make something up" philosophy in trying to distract attention from his broken equalization promises, making an utterly nonsensical claim against Danny Williams as an attempt to change the subject. And indeed, this may set a new standard for sheer randomness of a retort:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says the Newfoundland premier’s latest attack on Ottawa over equalization is damaging the business and investment climate in the province.
Now, if you're looking for some explanation as to how a premier's challenge to the federal equalization formula could possible affect his province's business climate, there's apparently none forthcoming from Harper.

But therein lies the perverse genius of the tactic. Once one eliminates the need for a link between cause and effect, it becomes far easier to seem to be responding originally while reciting from a relatively limited list of talking points by using them in unexpected places. Just consider the possibilities:

"Jack Layton shouldn't propose a rebate for taxpayers who use e-filing. That kind of message is causing our streets to be overrun with criminals and thugs."

"The Liberals' efforts to point out our scandals are violating Canadians' freedom of conscience and religion."

"Anyone who says we should meet Canada's Kyoto emission reduction targets is fuelling Quebec separatism."

And if anybody calls Harper on the tactic, he can always accuse them of having emboldened the terrorists.

It remains to be seen whether that kind of disconnect between Con rhetoric and the real world will become widely recognized before it's too late. But so far, Harper hasn't paid any deserved price for the pattern - which is only leading the Cons to see how much further they can take it. Which may be morbidly amusing for those of us paying attention - but can only damage the content of Canada's political scene in the long run.

A resounding outcome

The results are in from the Cons' farce of a barley plebiscite. But for all of the changing dates, marked and multiple ballots, and other attempts on the Cons' part to stack the deck, Chuck Strahl's still can't implement his intended plan without blatantly ignoring the will of 86% of the plebiscite's voters:
Ottawa hopes to end the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly (sic) on western barley sales by Aug. 1, Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl said Wednesday after farmers voted 48.4 per cent in favour of the plan...

More than 29,000 western farmers mailed in ballots in the non-binding plebiscite, Mr. Strahl said, with 37.8 per cent voting to keep the CWB's monopoly on barley sales to maltsters and export markets, while 13.8 per cent voted to remove the agency from barley sales altogether.
Now, it's clear enough that no single option enjoyed majority support - which along with the ridiculous process makes the vote an entirely unsound basis for major policy changes. But it's also clear that any plan which results in the Wheat Board playing no role in marketing barley is entirely different from what was implied by the second option.

After all, take a look at the actual second option:
I would like the option to market my barley to the Canadian Wheat Board or any other domestic or foreign buyer.
And the formal explanation offered for that option is even more clear in emphasizing that it was supposed to include a continued Wheat Board presence in marketing barley(emphasis added):
A vote for choice is not a vote against the CWB. It is a vote that acknowledges there is more than one way to successfully market barley and that no single way works best for everyone all the time. No two farmers are exactly alike and neither are their business requirements or marketing strategies. Choice will allow individual farmers to match their own personal skill-sets, strengths and tolerance for risk with the marketing system that they see working best for them.
As a quick aside, let's take a moment to point out the title of the "independent specialist" who wrote that assessment:
Rolf Penner is a Manitoba farmer and the Agricultural Policy Research Fellow for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy(.)
Something sounds mighty familiar here.

Getting back to the plebiscite, here are the words of the Wheat Board itself:
The board's directors have said that without a monopoly, the wheat board will have to get out of the barley market, because it won't be able to compete without government funding for access to ports and grain elevators.
In sum, without Strahl moving to provide the needed resources to enable the Wheat Board to compete, the second option could never have been said to exist. Which means that in planning simply to remove the Wheat Board's single-desk status without providing any of the needed support, Strahl is in fact delivering something entirely different than what was promised under the second option.

It should be emphasized again that ultimately no conclusions at all should have been drawn from a process as flawed as this one. But despite the Cons' multiple attempts to stack the process, the end result nonetheless reflects a 6-to-1 preference for an effective Wheat Board presence in barley marketing, as opposed to having the CWB out of the picture. Which means that there will likely be even more unhappy producers - and yet another strong piece of evidence as to the fundamental dishonesty of the Cons government - if Strahl indeed takes action which he knows will leave the Wheat Board on the sidelines.

Update: For anybody wanting a refresher on just how ridiculous the process leading up to the vote was, go read.

Connected

As noted here, Jack Layton called yesterday for the federal government to facilitate e-filing of taxes by offering a small rebate this year, and making necessary software available for free starting in 2008. On its face, this appears to be a simple practical suggestion to make an inconvenience for most Canadians seem slightly less problematic. But there's potential for this to be a signal of a far deeper effort.

Consider the similarities between this latest request and the NDP's action on ATM fees. In both cases, technology is readily available to make a regular action (withdrawing money from the bank or filing taxes) more efficient. Yet in both cases, even as the new process results in benefits to the other side involved (the federal government in the case of e-filing, and the bank in the case of an ATM), an added cost is imposed on Canadians who seek to use that technology. Which works out just fine for the banks or the software vendors who make money out of the bargain, but hardly seems the most effective way to encourage adoption of the technology involved.

Meanwhile, there's also the question of what technology is in fact made available to Canadians. While it's easy for observers in urban centres to assume that there's no gap in access in various regions of the country, that's far from being the case. As pointed out by the Ottawa Citizen, even within a short drive from our national capital it's possible to find a community of 700 lacking high-speed Internet access.

And it's not as if that has to be true - as the NDP can point out thanks to one of its provincial counterparts. Consider by way of comparison SaskTel's internet services: in a province of roughly a million people, 288 separate communities have high-speed Internet access available at a reasonable cost. (Click on "High Speed", then "High Speed Basic - Communities" to see the list of communities already covered within Saskatchewan in addition to the 10 largest centres in the province.) Suffice it to say that there aren't likely many communities in Saskatchewan anywhere near a population of 700 which lack high-speed access.

Of course, it's highly unlikely that every single one of the centres now receiving high-speed access is profitable for SaskTel, or was when service began. Which means that a choice was almost certainly made that at some level, ensuring relatively equal access to high-speed access was more important than extracting every possible cent of profit in the short term. And that in turn offers a stark contrast to the Cons' attitude toward telecommunications under which the market rules all, even if the more likely market outcome is for rural residents to leave due to the gap in their standard of living (not to mention the lowered potential for future development).

Given the choice between concrete measures to reduce technological inequalities or simply paying lip service to the value of rural Canada, it's likely that the former would resonate both in rural areas and among urban voters who recognize the need for more level opportunity.

In sum, there's room for a serious campaign to make sure both that standard technology is available for the use of all Canadians, and that it isn't subject to arbitrary profit-taking. That can serve as a standalone issue ("Building Canadian Connections" maybe?), or as another manifestation of the NDP's current "prosperity gap" theme. But one way or another, it's long past time for a strong focus on the need to better share the benefits of technological advances - and the NDP seems to be laying the groundwork for just that.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A winning environment

CanWest reports on what appear to be great news from the committee reviewing Bill C-30 today, as the opposition parties have teamed up to add some serious teeth to the Cons' once-laughable environmental legislation:
The Conservative government found itself isolated Tuesday as the three opposition parties teamed up to force through major changes to its environmental plan.

At a special committee reviewing the Conservatives' proposed clean air legislation, Liberal, Bloc Quebecois and New Democrat MPs voted to add in mid- and long-term targets as well as Canada's Kyoto protocol commitments to reduce the pollution that causes global warming.

The changes could also force the government to accept several elements of the Liberal party's new climate change policy, including new penalties for major industrial polluters who don’t cap their emissions, and the creation of a new "green investment bank."
Of course, it remains to be seen whether the bill will go any further in Parliament, or whether the Cons will decide to try to pretend their flagship environmental legislation doesn't exist now that the opposition parties have had a chance to strengthen it. But if they do choose the obstructionist path, then the once-shared responsibility for a lack of action will fall squarely on the shoulders of a government which surely doesn't want to be painted as the lone holdout.

Once again, full credit goes to all of the opposition parties for finally working together to achieve a positive result. And hopefully the Cons will recognize that both they and the country stand to benefit if the bill is allowed to keep proceeding through Parliament.

On reasonable incentives

The NDP released a couple of interesting policy proposals today. I'll deal with the better-publicized one (Jack Layton's call to reward e-filing of taxes) later on, but let's first take a quick look at Chris Charlton's proposal to discourage skyrocketing executive pay through the corporate tax system:
NDP MP Chris Charlton (Hamilton Mountain) is introducing a new bill to help close the gap between the wages of working and middle class families and the skyrocketing salaries of Canada’s highest earning corporate C.E.O.s.

“Over the last ten years Canada’s top earners have seen their slice of the pie more than double - while ordinary Canadians are increasingly missing out on their fair share,” said Charlton. “What does it say to our workface when, by 10:00 a.m. on January 1st, the top paid C.E.O.’s have earned more than most people make in a year?”...

Charlton’s bill aims to curb tax incentives that reward companies for paying stratospheric salaries to their top-paid C.E.O.’s by allowing them to deduct remuneration as a business expense. The legislation would cap the allowable deduction for company officer remuneration at $1 million per year.

“This bill doesn’t argue that C.E.O.s shouldn’t be compensated for their experience, talent, or dedication to their jobs,” said Charlton. “But it does try and reverse the trend we’re seeing where their salaries are completely out of proportion with what the rest of the country takes home.”
It should be noted that the bill's impact would only be be incremental: the marginal cost of executive salaries beyond the $1 million level would presumably only increase by the then-current level of corporate tax, and then only to the extent that companies can't get around it by labelling officer pay as something else. In addition, the bill wouldn't seemingly do anything to rein in the process of executives deciding each others' compensation which has helped to fuel the rise in their pay.

While the bill isn't particularly far-reaching, though, it does figure to be a difficult one for other parties to argue against substantially. After all, it can't be a pleasant position to try to justify why executive salaries should be deductible above the seven-figure mark, particularly given the salaries paid to civil servants with comparable responsibility. And hopefully that will encourage the Libs and Bloc to support a small first step in reducing the current incentives toward income disparity.

The mask is slipping

For all their attempts to seem non-threatening, the federal Cons haven't been able to avoid revealing their true colours to at least some extent. And today provides a particularly important example, as Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice has not only declared that he doesn't think that residential school survivors deserve an apology, but also tried to justify the entire residential school system:
Speaking on behalf of survivors, native chiefs held a press conference yesterday in Moncton, demanding to know why Prime Minister Stephen Harper has apologized for the Chinese head tax and to Maher Arar, but not to residential school survivors.

But Mr. Prentice told reporters on Parliament Hill that the deal, which is nearly complete, will not include an apology...

Mr. Prentice played down the significance of a political accord signed nearly two years ago between the AFN and the then-Liberal government that was the precursor to a November, 2005, agreement in principle, and then an April, 2006, final agreement with the Conservatives worth at least $1.9-billion.

In that original letter, Anne McLellan, then deputy prime minister, wrote "there is a need for an apology that will provide a broader recognition of the Indian Residential Schools legacy and its effect upon First Nation communities" once a final settlement is reached.

Mr. Prentice insisted legal concerns are not behind his comments and said the issue is completely different from the cases of Mr. Arar or the Chinese head tax.

"I've said quite clearly that the residential school chapter of our history is one that was a difficult chapter. Many things happened that we need to close the door on as part of Canadian history, but fundamentally, the underlying objective had been to try and provide an education to aboriginal children and I think the circumstances are completely different from Maher Arar or also from the Chinese head tax."
Now, it would have been bad enough for Prentice to merely rely on any ambiguity in the agreement as reason not to apologize.

But rather than even stopping at that much damage, Prentice decided to take an extra step further to try to claim that the ends behind residential schools justified the means. And to top it all off, rather than recognizing that residential schools should be prominently remembered as a painfully stark example what happens when the state attempts to forcibly impose a majority culture on a minority group, Prentice figures that the settlement payment should "close the door" on any further discussion.

Needless to say, that type of attitude can't be seen as anything short of frightening - either for residential school survivors themselves, or for members of any other Canadian minority whose principles could come in conflict with the Cons' supposed good intentions. And now that the Cons have gone public in supporting the "underlying objectives" of the residential school system, it's hard to see how any apology from Harper or his party could be taken seriously.

Update: More from Kenn.

Monday, March 26, 2007

An end to bipolarism?

There was certainly some bad news associated with Quebec's election today: as noted by Erin, the choice of parties almost seemed designed to present the least appealing possible set of choices for a progressive federalist voter. But there may be more important good news if the break in Quebec's longstanding two-party system makes a similar change seem a more desirable possibility federally.

After all, leaving aside each party's position on the traditional political spectrum, the rise of the ADQ can only be seen as a rebuke to Quebec's default dichotomy between federalism and separatism. And while the ideological lines might seem more neatly drawn at the federal level, there's not much reason to think there's any lack of room to question the mutual attempts of the Cons and the Libs to run against each other rather than for anything in particular.

What's more, the rise of a third party didn't take place at the expense of smaller parties either. Both Quebec Solidaire and the Greens managed to boost their proportion of the popular vote, and Quebec Solidaire in particular was within striking distance of winning a couple of seats. Which suggests that the turn away from politics as usual and toward a search for better choices runs deeper than Mario Dumont's personal appeal alone.

Incidentally, in case anyone was wondering, the ADQ won 18% of the popular vote and just over 3% of the available seats in the previous Quebec election. Which should offer a strong hint that a federal party which won just a slightly lower percentage of the vote and a substantially higher percentage of seats than that in its most recent election can be well within striking distance of the supposed frontrunners...as long as voters nationally join their Quebec counterparts in recognizing the value of an alternative to the usual horse race.

Update: Saskboy has similar suspicions.

(Edit: fixed label.)

On needs for change

So far, the news that the Cons left a raft of sensitive information in the Leader of the Opposition's office has mostly (and understandably) been used to point out just how unfit the Cons are to run the country. And the partisan implications are certainly important.

But it's worth considering the possibility this might also lead to far better public knowledge of what appear to be major gaps in Canada's privacy laws. And if the end result is to bring about sorely-needed rules as to how Canada's political parties and institutions handle the personal information of both their employees and their constituents (in contrast to the previous disregard) by the Cons, Libs and Bloc), then any harm done to Harper may be the least of the long-term benefits from the newly-revealed documents.

Hurry up and wait

The CP reports that the Cons' wait-times plan is only getting more and more laughable as time goes on. This time, the comical element is Tony Clement's first announcement of a provincial agreement...which provides cash to Nova Scotia now in exchange for results no earlier than 2010.

Again, it's probably for the best that the Cons aren't getting further now given how damaging a wait-times guarantee may be in the wider scheme of things. But if anybody was still clinging to the illusion that the Cons' wait-times spending (or most other parts of their budget) bore any relation to benefits in the real world, the delay in any measured results only confirms beyond doubt that they're more interested in prominently announcing the funding than seeing whether it does any good.

Presenting the downside

Susan Riley has a solid overview of some of the seeming problems facing the Cons which haven't received their share of media attention amidst the refrain that a Harper majority is in the works:
All this draws attention from glaring confusion in Tory ranks on the environment. First, the prime minister and John Baird insist that Canada won't participate in an international carbon market -- an initiative they trivialize and misrepresent as "buying hot air from Russia." Then the environment minister attends a European summit, learns how the carbon market works, picks up enthusiasm among his foreign colleagues -- and, no doubt, hears from Canadian businesses eager to participate -- and hints that Canada may join after all. A short time later, that door is firmly shut again by the prime minister.

This is a hint of how ill-briefed the government is on a complicated file. But it is also a reminder that the environment minister in a Harper cabinet, be it Baird or Rona Ambrose, ranks one step above the baggage-handler.

There have been other significant Harper policy reversals, some noticed (income trusts), others not so much. The original Tory child care plan offered tax credits to companies prepared to build their own spaces. Experience in Ontario suggested the private sector wasn't likely to take up the offer, but that was ignored. Then, in the budget, a tacit admission of the weakness of an ideologically-blinkered approach to policy: the $125-million annual tax incentive was redirected to the provinces -- what the cancelled Liberal plan would have done, only more generously.

Instead of learning from this mistake, the Tories commit another in the new budget. It offers tax breaks of $1,000 or $2,000 on certain fuel-efficient cars, despite credible claims that this is money wasted -- that it only rewards people who were going to buy green anyway. Even on top of similar provincial incentives (which haven't changed buying behaviour), the federal bonus doesn't close the price gap between ordinary cars and more fuel-efficient hybrids.
Of course, it's far from news that Harper has received unreasonably positive media treatment which has helped him politically. And there are still plenty of columnists out there - both Con hacks and otherwise - still looking for far too many excuses to give Harper the benefit of the doubt at every turn.

But with Riley's column ranking as just one of many finding serious problems with the Cons' budget and general governing style, the tide may finally be turning. And if the media is willing to start portraying the Cons as they really are, then public opinion can't be far behind.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Lab reports

Thomas Walkom discusses the contrast between the past week's federal and Ontario budgets:
Two governments released two very different budgets this week, both aimed at essentially the same voters.

Stephen Harper's federal Conservatives are hoping to make a breakthrough in the suburban 905 region with tax cuts aimed squarely at middle-class families. The Ontario Liberals of Premier Dalton McGuinty are hoping to woo the same swath of middle-class voters with a budget that focuses on helping the poor.

In politics, this is about as close to a laboratory experiment as it gets. The McGuinty Liberals are heading into an Oct. 10 provincial election on their budget platform. The Harper Conservatives could face a federal election as early as this spring on theirs...

This week's duelling budgets say it all.

On Monday, Flaherty announced tax breaks for children that will help everyone but the poor.

On Thursday, Sorbara announced tax breaks for children that will help only the poor.

We shall see which version goes over better among the middle-class voters of Greater Toronto.
While the analysis in the middle part of the column is certainly food for thought, I'm not sure that I entirely share Walkom's view about the ultimate results - which seems to implicitly praise McGuinty's sudden rediscovery of progressive values as much as it criticizes and fears Harper for the Cons' longer-term intentions.

Of course, it's presumably true that the federal Cons are looking for opportunities to shape the Canadian political scene from top to bottom and see a current gloss of moderation as their way to get there. But that task is far bigger than can be accomplished solely through one budget...and even a couple of years in minority government don't figure to be anywhere near enough time to fundamentally rewrite the language and underlying principles of Canadian politics.

Until the Cons manage to accomplish that goal, their anti-effective-government bent - which is at best thinly disguised in this year's budget - figures to leave them on the wrong side of an awful lot of the voters they need to win over to have any chance of their desired transformation. And while it's certainly worth pointing out where the Cons are seemingly looking to shred Canada's social fabric, it's equally important to point out how that fabric can be strengthened as a long-term balance to the Cons' efforts to reshape political dialogue.

So much for the federal side. Let's turn now to the Ontario budget, which Walkom goes out of his way to paint as reflecting a benevolent impulse toward helping Ontario's poor. Sadly, though, even to the extent it's accurate to say that the Libs' budget is a shift leftward, it's not at all clear that the Sorbara's budget is any less aimed at influencing the future shape of his jurisdiction's political system than the federal Cons'.

The difference is that where the federal Cons are trying to rise to the top of a perceived one-governing-party system, the Ontario Libs seem less interested for now in the question of who's considered Ontario's default government than in trying to make sure that the NDP can't work its way into the picture. The apparent operating assumption appears to be that they can beat the Cons in a two-way race, or at least would rather take their chances in that type of battle than face the compromises that come with minority government. But the result seems equally to be based on a short-term leftward move in hopes of being able to win greater power for the governing party's right flank.

In sum, there's little reason to think that the Ontario Libs' long-overdue recognition of the needs of Ontario's poor is any more authentic than the federal Cons' pretense of generally favouring the middle class, rather than simply seeing middle-class votes as a means to the end of transferring more wealth upward. Which means that while the "experiment" comparing the two budgets certainly makes for interesting observation, no outcome involving either of the governments managing to improve its electoral standing appears likely to do much good in the long run.

One too many kinds of green

It didn't receive much attention when it was made public earlier this week. But it's worth pointing out Tim Naumetz' report on just how unprepared the federal Greens are to actually deal with an election:
The hill Elizabeth May is climbing in her challenge of Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay is so steep that her Green party does not even have an electoral district association registered with Elections Canada in his Nova Scotia riding.

In fact, Elections Canada records show, the Green party has only 153 riding associations registered across the country, despite its record gains in the 2006 federal election.

The party's fragile position is reflected further in the fact that 19 of its previously existing associations, required to provide financial and campaign support to candidates, have been de-registered for lack of activity.
It's of course possible that the party is managing to turn some of its recent polling numbers into added volunteers and party structure. But Naumetz' numbers already come after several months of record poll results - suggesting either that the party hasn't figured out how to convert momentary support into feet on the ground, or that it had so far to go that even after running a full slate of candidates twice, it's still working on putting any structure in place in half of Canada's ridings. And based on the number of riding associations de-registered, the Greens look to have work to do just to reassemble the machine which managed to win them nothing more than a few double-digit ridings in 2006.

As a result, there's little reason to think that the Greens have anything approaching the internal strength to turn their current poll numbers into real votes and seats - whether in Central Nova or in any other riding. Which means that any party willing to step aside and let the Greens serve as the only alternative to the Cons is likely doing nothing more than handing a freebie to Harper...while voters looking for a strong environmental alternative would be far better served taking their votes elsewhere.