Saturday, July 21, 2007

On choice results

Steve has already discussed the latest Angus Reid leadership poll where "Neither" is not only outpolling both Stephen Harper and Stephane Dion for PM, but appears to be in majority-government territory with a steady standing in the high 30s to low 40s.

It's worth pointing out though that it isn't the leaders alone who look bad as a result of the unduly narrow poll. After all, after three months of a plurality saying they don't want either Harper or Dion in charge, it's surely long past time for Angus Reid to stop pretending that Canadians have only two choices.

On inefficiency

I doubt many Canadians were gullible enough to believe the Cons when they claimed they had scrapped the EnerGuide program to try to make it more efficient, rather than because they didn't see the environment as worth any investment until public opinion forced their hand. But in case anybody was under the illusion that the Cons had actually put an improved system in place, the Star reports that the revised program - like the government which put it in place - is seriously lacking for both reliability and accountability:
The federal government's new program to evaluate the energy efficiency of Canadian homes and recommend upgrades has major flaws that will take months to fix, a Star investigation has learned.

After auditing the same Toronto house, four companies came up with four different energy ratings – ranging from 37 to 46 out of 100 – and called for renovations ranging from $3,000 to $25,000.

And while they all said replacing the old, wheezing furnace with a smaller high-efficiency model was a priority, as well as patching cracks that leak heat, other recommendations varied, from upgrading the fireplace to replacing three exterior doors. One auditor incorrectly stated the basement lacked insulation.

That means homeowners could spend big money on ill-advised retrofits and waste as much as $10,000 in grant money from the federal and provincial governments.

A year after scrapping the national EnerGuide for Homes program, the federal government relaunched it under a new name as part of the climate change plan. Under the $300 million ecoENERGY Retrofit program, run by Natural Resources Canada and due to end in 2011, homeowners can receive up to $5,000 in grants for doing things such as insulating walls or installing a solar water heater. Last month, the province announced it would match the federal grants.

To keep up, the number of companies offering home energy audits across the country has more than doubled to 70 since April. Most are scrambling to hire more auditors.

In the push to get certified auditors into the field, the government hired experienced people, but Suzanne Deschênes, manager of the ecoENERGY program, said perhaps they needed more training. And the government hasn't had time to check their work.
Of course, the lack of trained auditors couldn't have been helped by the Cons' own choice to make the field seem an unstable one through their earlier decision to scrap EnerGuide.

Hopefully the problem is one that will be reduced with time as both private auditors and their federal regulators develop a better idea of what they're doing. But the report makes clear that the Cons' supposed efficiencies are entirely likely to lead to serious inconsistency in the application of the program - meaning that some needed improvements likely won't get made, while other, less necessary work will receive significant amounts of public funding. And since it's far from clear that the Cons in particular are concerned with actually delivering results, there's little reason to be optimistic that the program will improve much as long as they remain in power.


Shorter Don Martin, coming on strong with a strategy to sell continued combat in Afghanistan:
If we could just quench our thirst for blood by announcing more casualties on the other side, then surely nobody would care how many Canadian lives get lost.

Friday, July 20, 2007

On willing parties

Embassy goes into more detail about the Con foreign policy agenda which the Libs have signed onto. And while the article itself leaves any criticism until the end, there's even more not to like than was reported before:
In October, CIDA established an Office for Democratic Governance with a budget of $42 million that, according to CIDA spokeswoman Ginette Thibodeau, will work to build partnerships between Canadian experts, non-governmental organizations and government departments, as well as other countries and international organizations that are working on democratic governance.

"The Office for Democratic Governance concentrates its work in four essential areas of democratic governance: freedom and democracy, the rule of law, human rights and accountable public institutions," Ms. Thibodeau said in an email.

The committee recommended, however, that the government start working with political parties as well...

The committee also recommended the government establish through an Act of Parliament an arms-length foundation for international democratic development following consultation with all political parties, and contribute enough resources to make it a world leader in the field.

One way it will do so is with a centre that will focus on helping democracy through support and training for political parties, a move experts say differs from the existing policy of working with bureaucrats in developing countries...

However, while the idea of working with political parties has been adopted by other donor countries in the past–including the United States–the strategy has been criticized over fears it amounts to the West influencing those countries.

In dissenting reports, the Bloc Québécois and NDP said the committee, in writing its report, had taken the advice of only a handful of the dozens of witnesses members heard, especially proponents for the foundation and centre, and cautioned against the government supporting political parties abroad.
The idea of using Canada's resources to train foreign political parties is one that can only be seen as problematic at the best of times given the potential to be seen as unduly meddling in other countries' politics. But it's all the more bizarre for the Libs to be willing to support the idea when the current Canadian government is so plainly bent on making foreign-policy decisions based on ideological affinity rather than anything approaching merit or principle.

For an opposition which claims not to support the Cons' values, the Libs seem awfully eager to open the door for Deceivin' Stephen to use Canadian development funds to support their right-wing-heavy idea of development abroad. And for all the harm the Cons have already done at home, it'll be all the worse if they're able to make Harper-type government more common in the world at large.

Boom times

Political Bytes notes that it isn't just public meeting spaces that will be shut down for the SPP meeting this August, as the RCMP is floating a plan to cut off the Ottawa River through "temporary safety booms":
On Saturday, the Gazette also identified RCMP plans to install temporary safety booms on the Ottawa River between Montebello, Que., and Lefaivre, Ont., between August 18th and 21st, in time for the North American Leaders' Summit.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is hosting his counterparts, U.S. President George W. Bush and Felipe Calderon of Mexico. The leaders, we're told, will discuss the progress of the Security Prosperity Partnership as well as other hemispheric and global issues.

And the RCMP is determined that nothing interrupts the flow of those conversations.
Based on the notice in the Canada Gazette, public comments may be made on the plan until early August. And it may be worth a note to point out that the SPP doesn't justify the kind of actions which are being taken to sequester the meeting from the rest of the country.

But sadly, it seems entirely likely that there's no more interest in paying attention to the public's concerns now than to dissent around the time of the meeting.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

History repeating

The CP expands on this week's story about the Canadian Environmental Network, noting that a series of other programs aimed at promoting environmental awareness have also seen their funding disappear without warning or explanation:
Environment Canada is reviewing its funding for a bundle of programs that support grassroots environment groups across the country.

Some of those groups are in crisis mode since they expected funding in April, and are having trouble paying staff...

Critics say the current situation follows a pattern seen with literacy groups last year, when funding was first delayed and then terminated.

"Clearly they've bundled all the programs that in any way might support environmental work by citizens' groups and are apparently making some kind of decision on the future of it, that's what's going on," said David Coon of the New Brunswick Conservation Council.

"It's putting a lot of smaller organizations into jeopardy."

Among the programs in question:

-The EcoAction Community Funding Program which provides financial support to community groups for projects "that have measurable, positive impacts on the environment," in the words of the Environment Canada web site.

-Learning for a Sustainable Future, which "works with educators from across Canada to integrate the concepts and principles of sustainable development into the curricula at all grade levels," also according to the official web site.

-The Atlantic Coastal Action Program set up by Environment Canada 1991 "to mobilize local communities to address their own environmental and developmental challenges." The programs (sic) supports 16 local groups throughout the four Atlantic provinces.

-The Canadian Environmental Network, which provides basic networking services for some 800 environmental groups across the country. That group has warned its employees they may get layoff notices next week.
Once again, it's clear that any genuine funding review would have taken place before programs faced a risk of outright running out of money.

Instead, the Cons are apparently testing whether they can get away with finding ways to do even worse on the issue that's currently the top concern of Canadians - presumably with the goal of reducing the current interest in the environment before any future election, along with directing any funding toward more partisan-friendly organizations. But that complete disconnect between government action and citizen concern also signals why the Cons figure to be in for a fall when the next trip to the polls comes around.

On turnabout

CanWest reports that the Cons are recalling the House of Commons aboriginal affairs committee in an effort to deflect attention from their own refusal to sign onto the U.N.'s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But it's worth noting the opportunity presented by the Cons' decision: as long as the Cons have taken the first step in bringing a committee back to Ottawa (and for a far less valid reason), they can hardly complain if Gordon O'Connor and others in turn get summoned to answer for their "incarceration of information".

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


We hardly needed another reminder of how far removed from reality the federal Cons tend to be. But the CP offers one anyway, reporting that Con MP Gerald Keddy couldn't even accept a personal compliment from Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald without taking the opportunity to pretend that Canada's No-Credibility Government had done something it hadn't:
Nova Scotia's premier is contradicting comments from federal Conservative MP Gerald Keddy that a deal on offshore oil and gas revenues is near.

The MP from the province's south shore made the comment on Tuesday to The Chronicle-Herald, after Premier Rodney MacDonald went out of his way to thank the federal politician for his hard work on the Atlantic accord.

Several hours after MacDonald's speech to the Bridgewater and Area Chamber of Commerce, Keddy said: "I think we're very close (to an agreement). I think the premier realizes we're very close."

"The worst thing that could happen right now is to raise the rhetoric rather than lower it."

However, on Wednesday the premier said he was surpised to read of Keddy's views because the province has not made progress on the controversial file.

"I was quite shocked, to be quite honest with you, because we haven't made progress in a couple of months," he said following a cabinet meeting.
Of course, given Keddy's apparent lack of credibility when it comes to the status of negotiations, it shouldn't be long before MacDonald has to start wondering as well whether Keddy has been working as hard as he may have claimed. But it's all the more clear that MacDonald is right not to trust Deceivin' Stephen and his crew - and that there's every reason for Nova Scotians generally to follow suit.

A dangerous foundation

Carol Goar writes that for reasons unknown, the Libs (or at least those on the Foreign Affairs Committee) are entirely eager to give the Cons a massive amount of political cover on foreign policy issues:
Depending on your perspective, Ottawa is poised to embark on a bold new foreign policy mission or plunge into a costly misadventure.

The blueprint is laid out in a 190-page report released last week by the foreign affairs committee of the House of Commons...

It calls for the creation of a Foundation for International Democratic Development. The new agency's mandate would be to make Canada a world leader in promoting freedom, democracy and the rule of law. It would operate independently, but report to Parliament annually through the minister of foreign affairs...

The Bloc Québécois and the New Democratic Party have both issued dissenting reports.

The Bloc's is the most comprehensive and cogent. It raises objection after objection – the cost of the proposed institution, the risks of meddling in the domestic affairs of other countries, the scarcity of foreign aid dollars and the difficulty of monitoring arm's-length foundations – and concludes: "This way of proceeding defies all logic."

The NDP argues that Canada can hardly hope to export democracy when it is doing so little to alleviate world poverty.

Neither party has any realistic hope of blocking the initiative. It has the support of both the Conservatives and Liberals...

What the report does not say is:

How much the government should spend on the new institution.

Whether the money should be diverted from other foreign policy priorities.

What would become of existing projects.

Why Canada needs another arm's-length agency when it already has the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, set up in 1989 to "promote, develop and strengthen democratic institutions and programs."

Alberta MP Kevin Sorensen, who chairs the foreign affairs committee, was unavailable to answer questions. Phone requests left at both his parliamentary office and his constituency office in Camrose produced no response.

Opposition MPs on the committee also ran into a blockage when they sought pertinent information. They were promised, but subsequently denied, a draft of the government's strategy on fragile and failing states.

This, coupled with a policy departure that bore little relation to the committee's deliberations, left the Bloc and NDP wondering what the government's real agenda was.
From the Cons' perspective, the appeal of the proposed plan is obvious. The proposed new foundation would let them divert attention from their own missteps by pointing to the agency as evidence of their commitment to "freedom, democracy and the rule of law". And by starting over with a new independent agency, they'd have the ability to institutionalize their idea of "democracy" (hint: Palestinians need not apply) as Canada's operative policy in the longer term.

It's far less obvious, though, why the Libs would be eager to sign onto a vague plan based on little information which seems to duplicate structures and goals which already exist. And that goes doubly when the plan's effect is to strengthen the Cons' hand in picking and choosing which type of democracy they see political value in supporting.

We'll see if the Libs recalculate their position once the report comes back to Parliament. But so far, it looks the Libs are happily enabling and encouraging a significant portion of the Cons' foreign policy - and both the Libs and Canada as a whole look to be worse off if they maintain that position.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

On limited options

It's been surprising to see so little blog response to Deceivin' Stephen's decision to bring Ralph Klein-style "Third Way" talk to foreign policy in the form of a supposedly distinct "option". But am I the only one who figures he'd have a lot more credibility playing up his listed differences between Canada and the U.S. if his government wasn't actively undermining and/or provoking lawsuits over each of them?

Guilt by association

The CP reports that having long ago slashed direct funding for environmental initiatives, the Cons are now apparently refusing to fund a non-partisan environmental communications mechanism based on the fact that its work may indirectly help groups who have rightly expressed their concerns about the Cons' policy of neglect:
The Canadian Environmental Network, a backbone of communications within Canada's environmental movement, has warned its staff they may be laid off next week because of federal funding cuts.

The CEN is not well known because it is non-political and does not take a stand on issues, but it plays a vital role for hundreds of environmental groups, especially smaller ones that don't have the budget for networking and communications.

The organization also sets up consultations for the federal government, and has been used repeatedly to assemble so-called "multi-stakeholder groups," including environmentalists, industry people and others, to debate various issues.

CEN member groups do take political positions, which could be a source of unhappiness on the government side.

Steve Rison, chair of the group's board of directors, warned staff their jobs were at risk in an e-mail obtained by The Canadian Press.

In the memo, he says operational funding is normally obtained annually based on an April-to-March fiscal year, but no funding has been received since April 1, nor is there any assurance it will be provided...

This funding situation is creating an untenable position for the CEN and its directors. The CEN has continued to incur obligations for staff salaries and overhead expenses while receiving no payments from Environment Canada," says the document...

Mike Van Soelen, spokesman for Environment Minister John Baird, said the government is reviewing the CEN's work and considering other methods of staying in touch with the environmental movement...

Asked whether the CEN has been performing well in the government's view, he said "our department is looking at the work they've done and our government is going to be making a decision shortly."
Naturally, the Cons are going out of their way to avoid making a strong statement that they'll never reinstate funding - presumably to allow themselves the option of reversing course if there's enough public outcry. But it should be obvious that if the Cons were genuinely interested in conducting a fair and reasonable analysis of the CEN, they would have finished that job long before the beginning of the fiscal year - rather than bleeding the CEN dry by simply cutting off funding without any apparent notice or justification.

Instead, there's every reason to think that the CEN is being punished merely for providing nonpartisan assistance to environmental groups. And that apparent motivation can only lead to reason for suspicion that any different group set up by Baird to carry out the CEN's current role will be designed to ensure that only Con-friendly information makes its way into the public eye.


Once again, the federal Greens are in the news - this time over the resignation of David Chernushenko as the party's senior deputy. And once again, it's hard to see how Elizabeth May's reaction could reflect much worse on her as a leader:
Ms. May, reached in Nova Scotia where she is challenging Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay in his Central Nova riding for the next election, reacted calmly to Mr. Chernushenko's comments. She acknowledged she does play a large role in the party, but insisted it is not affecting her health. She acknowledged she has dominated news coverage, but added the Green party has "a strong team," and sharing media attention is "always the struggle when you have a high-profile leader."
I'll grant that it's understandable that May felt a need to start the damage control fairly quickly, particularly when Chernushenko wasn't the only high-ranking official expressing concerns about May's management style.

But it's nonetheless remarkable that May apparently went directly into a defensive mode rather than even mentioning Chernushenko's departure - either based on his history as a relatively high-profile candidate, her main competitor for the leadership, and a much-trumpeted federal appointment to an advisory panel just last year, or even based on the possibility that he might return as a candidate in the future. And May's complete unwillingness to discuss anything but herself has to leave other Greens wondering whether any of their own contributions or efforts will be recognized as long as she's in charge.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Time to be heard

Woman At Mile 0 covers a couple of key articles on media concentration to close off the CRTC's comment period on media diversity. But it's worth adding a few more links before Wednesday's deadline.

First, the NDP's Charlie Angus reminds Canadians that there's at least one political party who shares their concerns about media concentration.

Second, the Canadian Media Guild comments on the issue from within the media industry.

And finally (and most importantly), Union Voice's action page offers a handy form to allow concerned Canadians to make their submission to the consultation.

Raising more than funds

Jim's post on the final 2006 party fund-raising numbers both reminded me of one point I'd been meaning to discuss, and pointed to some additional material worth mentioning. So let's take a look at what last year's fund-raising numbers mean - and how all parties may be missing some of the possible upsides of political fund-raising efforts.

For the strongest indication of a party which is missing out, let's start with the Libs as discussed in the Globe and Mail's article on the numbers:
Newly disclosed financial reports reveal the Conservative Party has built a multimillion-dollar fundraising machine, spending $6.7-million in order to raise far more cash than the competition.

Proving the old adage that it takes money to make money, the new figures released by Elections Canada reveal the party's $18.6-million in donations came at a price...

Liberal Party spokeswoman Elizabeth Whiting said the $6.7-million expense shows the Conservatives do not have as much money as the $18.6-million total would suggest.

"They're spending a lot to raise a lot," she said...

Over all, the Liberal Party put a positive spin on the numbers. Party president Marie Poulin issued a statement describing the $4.5-million surplus as a record high.
Now, in almost any other area, the idea of limiting the expenses required to achieve a given net return would be a positive one. But I have to wonder whether that's the case in the political sphere.

After all, while most businesses are out solely to make money, a political party has a far different ultimate purpose. Indeed, the main value in the money brought in lies in its ability to help a party to achieve electoral success. And the fund-raising process may do just as much as the funds actually raised to assist in reaching that end.

Consider what a fund-raising campaign can do by aiming to reach as many people as possible (rather than generating the highest net return possible):
- Fund-raising can help in disseminating a party's message. This is particularly significant since a substantial chunk of any funds raised will get used for advertising anyway: to the extent that the fund-raising process helps a party to remind its supporters of its message and get them talking about it, a campaign likely has a definite positive impact even if it only breaks even from a money standpoint.
- Fund-raising can be used as a means of gathering information from potential and actual supporters. Every new person who responds to a fund-raising appeal offers another potential volunteer and supporter in other ways as well - and even among a party's established supporters, it's possible that fund-raising can serve to help focus-test which messages are most appealing to a party's base.
- Fund-raising can give an individual supporter a stake in the party's success. Presumably some individuals who donate to a party will feel a stronger personal connection to the party's success - and thus be more likely both to follow through with an intended vote for the party, and assist the party in other ways. (Of course, this may be a mixed blessing, as some people may also figure that a financial donation absolves them of any responsibility to volunteer or otherwise help the party.)
- Finally, fund-raising helps to shape the media's perception of parties. While this also offers some excuse for the Libs playing dumb in trying to downplay their own poor results, there can be little doubt that a party's gross numbers will be discussed to at least some extent as a proxy for its internal support and political momentum. And since political perception can so quickly turn into reality, a party which settles solely for the highest net returns at lower levels of support does so at its own peril.

It remains to be seen whether the Libs will recognize, or indeed have recognized, the wider effects that fund-raising can have. But if they continue to consider fund-raising to be a business rather than a party-building exercise, then that will leave the other major parties with a significant advantage.

That is, to the extent that they seek to raise funds at the grassroot level. And the fund-raising numbers over the past couple of years suggest that both the Cons and the NDP have done substantially better than the Libs in that department. But CBC's coverage points out the most significant recent development in NDP and Con fund-raising, which may itself reduce the beneficial spillover effects of the income flowing into these parties:
Figures also show that the Conservative party is successfully convincing many of its members to sign up for automatic monthly donations in small amounts of $20 and $25.

That technique is also being used by the NDP, which raised nearly $4,000 (sic) from 25,000 donors in the same time period.
Now, a monthly payment plan may make for an extremely low-effort means of raising money. But it too seems to result in some disconnection between the party and the donor - limiting in particular the message-sending and information-gathering points in the list above.

In fairness, it may well be that the political parties are efficient enough in spending money that it's worth their while to simply maximize the dollars in their pocket. But it seems likely to me that the hidden costs of easy money may make it worth the parties' while to put in more effort to keep their supporters interested. And it'll be interesting to see whether any of the parties buck the seeming trend - and how their results differ as a consequence.

(Edit: fixed typo, added label.)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

On the other foot

In one of the surest signs yet that the movement against continued combat in Afghanistan is gaining traction, Gordon O'Connor has been forced to respond to the ever-declining support for continuing the status quo by highlighting a distinction which neocons have tried to claim doesn't exist:
While only 38% of Quebecers support Canada's mission to Afghanistan, 90% support the troops, Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor said Sunday after speaking to the first contingent of Quebec-based soldiers leaving for a new rotation.
Sadly, O'Connor's momentary appreciation for the difference between supporting the mission and supporting the troops figures to be a short-lived reaction to some particularly damaging poll numbers involving the mission. And indeed it's not hard to anticipate the Cons trying to make O'Connor's "supporting the troops" number the story to divert attention from their past and continuing desire to extend Canada's combat role.

But even if it doesn't signal a longer-term move toward reality on the part of the Cons, O'Connor's message today should ensure that any future attempts to conflate the two concepts will be taken even less seriously than they have been so far. And an easy retort to Con jingoism is something which Canadians should have no trouble supporting.

Time to move on

Shorter Paul Jackson:
For some reason, Deceivin' Stephen didn't ask me for ideas about what the Cons should do next. But if he wants my opinion, it's never too late to campaign against Trudeau.

Blocking access

CBC's Political Bytes blog doesn't seem to have received much fanfare from what I've seen. But it looks to include plenty of material, including this post on what appears to be a bizarre attempt on the part of Public Works to gum up the Access to Information process:
Recently, in response to three separate requests, the Department of Public Works replied, “the document does not exist."

Interestingly, with each of these there was an attachment that stated:

10.(1) Where the head of a government institution refuses to give access to a record requested under this Act or a part thereof, the head of the institution shall state in the notice given under paragraph 7(a) that the record does not exist”

It looked like a red flag, one that our reporters who specialize in access had never seen before. That prompted follow-up phone calls to the people who administer the Access to Information Act. It took a week to get the response that the records really do not exist, and that Public Works was just citing the actual wording in the act to convey that informaton.

Public Works appears to be the only department issuing these confusing notices, which are something of a Catch-22. If a document does not exist, the bureaucrats tell you that. But then they tell you exactly the same thing if they feel it is a piece of information they have they right to withold access to.
Not surprisingly, my initial reaction was that there's no way the Access to Information Act would actually say what Public Works is claiming on its access-request responses. And sure enough, the default Public Works response both incorrectly quotes the section, and cuts it off to make it appear to say something that it doesn't. The italicized parts of the section are the ones omitted by Public Works:
10. (1) Where the head of a government institution refuses to give access to a record requested under this Act or a part thereof, the head of the institution shall state in the notice given under paragraph 7(a)

(a) that the record does not exist, or

(b) the specific provision of this Act on which the refusal was based or, where the head of the institution does not indicate whether a record exists, the provision on which a refusal could reasonably be expected to be based if the record existed,

and shall state in the notice that the person who made the request has a right to make a complaint to the Information Commissioner about the refusal.
Note first that the section contains two "(a)"s in a row, but for obviously distinct purposes: the first serves to refer to the notice required by section 7(a), the second to actually divide up the responses available under section 10(1). By cutting out the second one, the Public Works notice makes it sound as if an institution is required to deny the existence of documents, rather than having that response available as one option.

Of course, that omission wouldn't cause a problem if Public Works hadn't also apparently cut out the rest of section 10(1) - including both 10(1)(b) which makes it absolutely clear that an institution may state that a document exists, and the requester's right to challenge any refusal to the Information Commissioner.

It's worth noting that the problem which would arise from Public Works' wrong interpretation can still be a factor under some circumstances since an institution may choose under s. 10(2) to refuse to confirm or deny whether a document exists. But that's a far cry from Public Works' implicit claim that it has no choice but to pretend that no relevant information exists. And it may not be a coincidence that it's the Cons' least accountable cabinet minister who holds ultimate responsibility for a misreading of the Access to Information Act which conveniently makes life more difficult for those seeking information.