Saturday, September 01, 2007

On cover-ups

Earlier this summer, word came out about a new committee apparently vetting access-to-information requests at the Department of National Defence to limit access to documents based on political calculations rather than valid exemptions. Today, the Citizen reports on the committee's role so far. And if we needed another reason to be suspicious about the use of "national security" as an excuse for suppressing information, today's news provides it:
A special team put in place by Gen. Rick Hillier to ensure information requested by the public doesn't put troops in Afghanistan at risk has turned its sights on a new security threat -- military records about garbage being chucked overboard from navy ships, and files on contracts awarded to lobbyists, some alleged to have special access to Gen. Hillier himself.

Such records are among those documents being sent for special review to the general's Strategic Joint Staff, or SJS, to ensure that the information, to be eventually released publicly, doesn't violate security...

(A)ccording to Gen. Hillier and defence deputy minister Ward Elcock, the information is being subjected to rigorous reviews to protect the men and women fighting in Afghanistan.

But a list of records sent to the SJS for such a review, and obtained by the Citizen, tells a somewhat different story. Among the files is a Defence Department analysis of how strict guidelines preventing garbage from being dumped overboard is affecting the navy's operations and policies. Another is for a report on how many medals were handed out during the military's mission to help Hurricane Katrina victims in the U.S.

Records requested on the contracts given to lobbyists, some alleged to have special access to Gen. Hillier, were also sent to the Strategic Joint Staff, which reports to the general. The general has in the past denied that the lobbyists, all former senior officers, have any special access to his office...

The data provided to the Citizen shows that over a four-and-a half-month period around 250 files were sent to the SJS, the bulk of those associated with Afghanistan.

But also sent to the team were records to be released to the public on the situation in Darfur, the deployment of a Canadian general to Iraq, the number of soldiers used to protect the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the mysterious death of Royal Military College cadet Joe Grozelle, the military's exclusion of personnel because of their race or gender, the recent death of a peacekeeper in Lebanon, and e-mails about left-wing defence commentator Steve Staples.
For sheer abuse of the access-to-information system, it's hard to top the italicized example: a committee appointed by Hillier is being asked to find national-security excuses to justify the suppression of documents whose main value is in their ability to shed light on Hillier's own suspected wrongdoing. And while most of the other examples aren't quite that stark, it seems glaringly obvious that the SJS is being asked to deal with matters which have absolutely nothing to do with the committee's stated purpose.

While the Information Commissioner's office is the midst of an investigation, it seems all too likely that any details which might be turned up will themselves be suppressed to the greatest extent possible. Which means that the only viable way to make a dent in the current level of secrecy is to make it clear to both Hillier and his new minister that they'll face no less political heat for trying to keep the Canadian public in the dark than for whatever it is that they're hiding.

First steps

It may be only one columist taking a stand so far. But Barbara Yaffe's refusal to interview/serve as a conduit for Deceivin' Stephen still figures to be an important story in highlighting the fact that many in the media aren't willing to be mere pawns in the Cons' communications strategy. And if Yaffe can start off a trend, then it may not be long before the main question facing the Harper Cons goes from how to given themselves some seeming chance to eke out a majority, to how to salvage anything from an impending electoral wipeout.

Friday, August 31, 2007

On recycled sources

The CP reports that the Cons are still doing their utmost to escape Canada's international obligation to avoid contributing to the torture of Afghan detainees. And they apparently don't care how much it costs - or who they have to do business with - in order to find even the smallest scrap of an argument for their position:
The Canadian government has hired a controversial international academic to argue that Canada's military has no obligation to accord Afghan detainees Canadian-style legal rights.

Christopher Greenwood, a professor of international law at the London School of Economics, submitted an opinion in mid-August to the Federal Court, which is hearing an application by Amnesty International to halt all prisoner transfers by Canadian soldiers to Afghan authorities.

Prof. Greenwood was the author of a 2002 legal opinion commissioned by the British government entitled The Legality of Using Force Against Iraq. He concluded that an invasion was justified on the grounds of a 1990 UN Security Council resolution, and also on the grounds of self defence if Britain could show the threat of an imminent Iraqi attack.

His opinion was reported to be at odds with that of lawyers in Britain's Foreign Office and many other international law experts. It was revealed in 2005 that the Blair government paid Prof. Greenwood £46,000 (about $100,000 Canadian) for legal advice on Iraq.

Prof. Greenwood's 34-page opinion for Canada's Federal Court, dated Aug. 14, says it was prepared at the request of General Rick Hillier, chief of the defence staff.

The Defence Department said late Friday that Prof. Greenwood was paid $50,000...

New Democrat MP Dawn Black, the party's defence critic, said Friday that in spite of all the international legal expertise available within Canada's Foreign Affairs Department or the broader Canadian legal community, the government clearly went shopping for what she called “a discredited, right-wing expert.”
What's perhaps most interesting about the story is the link between Greenwood's current opinion and the past one used to justify the Iraq invasion. After all, the Cons have been at pains to draw distinctions between the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have received plenty of advice that they're only hurting themselves by parroting the U.S.' Iraq language. Yet Hillier and the Cons still apparently don't have any concern about looking to one of the most dubious Iraq war proponents as their main source for an opinion on Afghanistan.

Which means that even if Amnesty International's application fails in court (and indeed I'd have to consider that the more likely outcome), it seems to have succeeded in showing some of the parallels between the Cons' mindset on Afghanistan and the one that managed to mire the U.S., U.K. and others in Iraq. And that attention can only help to make the Cons look ever more untrustworthy when it comes to both human rights and international responsibilities.

On needless cuts

The Globe and Mail reports that the Cons are pushing forward with another set of arbitrary cuts to government operations:
Federal government departments and agencies are being told to reallocate the least useful 5 per cent of their expenditures to more important things. And if the cabinet can find a better way to spend the money, the department will lose it altogether...

Over a four-year period, all departments and agencies will be required to undergo the self-examination, beginning with 17 that must make their reallocations before the next budget.

This year's round includes Ottawa-area museums, the Canadian Heritage Department, Foreign Affairs, the Canadian International Development Agency, Transport Canada, the Canada Revenue Agency, Finance and some smaller agencies...

Pierre-Alain Bujold, another spokesman for the Treasury Board, said every department selected for review this year must identify the 5 per cent of its program spending that it considers to be the lowest-priority or lowest-performing. The departments will then determine how those funds could be reallocated internally to higher-priority programming.

The federal cabinet will decide whether the reallocation plans are appropriate, or if a program elsewhere within the government could put the funds to a better use.
It's worth noting that the agencies chosen for the first round of cuts include some which are already well-known to be lacking for resourcesin ways which affect the federal government's bottom line far more significantly than the Cons' proposed cuts. For example, the Canada Revenue Agency was already unable to collect $18 billion in back taxes due to a lack of resources - and that was before the Cons decided to add more obligations without any apparent increase in funding.

Once again, though, the Cons apparently can't be bothered to try to figure out which federal dollars are already producing a worthwhile return, or where more money may in fact be needed. Instead, they're planning to simply assume that a significant portion of current spending should be chopped for no apparent reason.

Moreover, the Cons' ultimate goal is highlighted by their declaration that Cabinet will have the final say on whether or not to reallocate funding within the same department. From that announcement, it's painfully clear that any department wanting to keep the funding in question will have to justify future spending on a purely political basis rather than one having anything to do with the effectiveness of the funding.

As Jeffrey Simpson notes in his column on the same topic, the Cons' action can't even be justified based on any real concern about current federal finances. Instead, it looks merely to be one of the stronger indications yet that the Cons see Canada's entire government apparatus as nothing more than a tool for their own political use. And it's long past time for the costs of that kind of attitude to be front and centre in public discussions about Deceivin' Stephen's tenure.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Peas in a pod

Count on the Cons to manage to demonstrate their incompetence even while trying to subvert democracy. CanWest reports that while the Cons may have wanted to pretend that Sharon Smith (and others) should be treated as a de facto MP, their interest didn't extend to actually making Smith even remotely useful even to constituents who managed to get sucked in by the Cons' tactic:
One former Conservative who voted for Mr. Cullen in the last federal election said she was appalled by Mr. Harris's actions, suggesting that he was undermining democracy in an arrogant and patronizing way by appointing a substitute for her MP.

"I was brought up in a Conservative family, and now I must hang my head in embarrassment and shame on behalf of your party," wrote Marianne Weston in an e-mail to Harris.

She added that was even more annoyed after she requested to speak with Ms. Smith and was told by Mr. Harris's office that they did not know how to reach her.

"Information (is) not available to me at this time, but (I) will advise (you) as soon as I'm able," wrote Jeanne Clough, Mr. Harris's executive assistant in an e-mail to Weston on Tuesday.
Of course, the good news is that the voters of Skeena-Bulkley Valley seem to be getting an extremely accurate impression of what to expect from any future Con MPs: scandal, corruption, and an absolutely useless excuse for representation. Which means that rather than succeeding in usurping Nathan Cullen's role, Smith may instead serve as an important cautionary tale for voters who might otherwise not have realized the dangers of voting Con.

Top-down proceedings

As if we needed more evidence that ConAdscam is more properly traced to the Cons' central command than to individual candidates, the Globe and Mail reports that the Cons have had to cut back the list of applicants in their lawsuit against Elections Canada from 34 agents to 2 - at least in part because some applicants were named without their knowledge or consent:
The Conservative Party of Canada has removed almost all of the applicants from its lawsuit against Elections Canada as former candidates and official agents publicly disavow the advertising scheme at the heart of the legal battle.

Earlier this year, 34 Conservative supporters sued Elections Canada in a bid to get a reimbursement for advertising expenses during the 2005-06 election campaign.

But the Conservative Party whittled down the number of applicants this week to two individuals, Gerry Callaghan and David Pallet, who were, respectively, the official agents for candidates Robert Campbell and Dan Mailer.

A Conservative source said the two remaining applicants constitute "representative cases" that will be applied to the other campaigns once the matter is resolved by the courts. Still, one of the dropped applicants said she had been unaware of the lawsuit and did not want to participate in it.

Lise Vallières, who acted as the official agent for former MP Jean Landry in the Quebec riding of Richmond-Arthabaska, said yesterday she had just discovered that she was part of the initial case against Elections Canada. "Nobody ever asked anything of me," she said.
It thus seems clear that the Cons consider themselves entitled to speak for individual candidates' agents - and indeed to subject those agents to legal proceedings - based on nothing more than the assumption that they won't question the party's wishes. Which leaves all the less reason to think the Con central command would have enough respect for the autonomy of an individual campaign to even ask for any input into a plan along the lines of ConAdscam, let alone to leave the operation of the plan purely to the candidate campaigns.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


As noted by David Akin, Elections Canada has released the official list of candidates for the September 17 Quebec by-elections. And a few points seem worthy of mention.

First off, the Outremont race (which was already the most crowded in Quebec in 2006) is only getting more so. The by-election will feature five independent candidates - one more than in the last general election - to go with the seven party candidates in the race.

Next up, it's fairly clear which smaller parties are looking to make their mark in by-elections. The neo-Rhinos have pushed their way into the race ahead of the Rhinos proper, running candidates in both Outremont and Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot. (I knew something seemed a bit presumptuous about the Canada Votes 2008 results...) Likewise, the Canadian Action Party will also run in Outremont and Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot. Meanwhile, none of the other small parties is taking a run at any of the seats.

Finally, in contrast to the influx of independents in Outremont, the Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean race will lack any independent candidates...which is significant since the former Con candidate, Ghislain Lavoie, had been reported to be considering an indy bid depending on the timing of the by-election. While Lavoie is sitting this race out, though, he may well have enough influence to tip the balance between the Cons and the Libs - and it'll be interesting to see if he takes any sides before the vote.

On scapegoats

Hey, look! Under that bus! Isn't that Con MP and B.C. Caucus Chair Dick Harris?
Government officials have distanced themselves from Harris's unofficial appointment of Smith as the riding representative in Ottawa.

"He just kind of did that himself," government spokesman Ryan Sparrow said of Harris's move.

"(Smith) is the Conservative candidate in the next election. That's her only official capacity."
Needless to say, the attempt to blame the whole matter on Harris looks to be a poor diversion at best (as the Cons are themselves tacitly admitting by not apparently taking any action against him). At the very least, the "go-to people" themselves have to be seen as willing participants in the scheme - and while Harris' B.C. role might conceivably be extended as far as the Northwest Territories, it's a good ways beyond plausibility to suggest that he's also personally in charge of extra-democratic appointments for Toronto Centre.

Moreover, there's little reason to think that this is one of the rare cases where the Cons are exercising something less than complete central command. Which means that while the Cons can obviously recognize a serious enough scandal to justify offering up someone's head on a platter, there's no justification for taking their word as to who's responsible - and every reason to keep investigating to see just how far up the chain the Pod Person strategy goes.

Update: As CC rightly notes, Toronto Centre is out as an example of the Pod People strategy. But the wider picture doesn't change: the scandal still figures to go far beyond Harris alone.

Opening up the pod

Dr. Dawg has the definitive roundup of stories about the Cons' attempt to appoint a new set of representatives for NDP-held ridings. But let's take a closer look at a couple of the new links that have surfaced today.

First, a quote worth highlighting from Shaun Thomas of the Northern View:
Apparently, according to Harris, Smith will provide residents with direct contact to the federal government, which we have not had since 2004, and will “represent constituents of her riding.”

That is quite possibly the most arrogant, ignorant and blatantly misleading thing that I have ever heard from any government or government official. Ever...

(P)erhaps even more importantly, in what strange and twisted reality does the Conservative Party of Canada or any other political party have the power to appoint someone as our representative on a federal level? They don’t have that power now, they never had that power and they never will have that power! Only the people of the riding have that power, and for the Conservatives to even think they can tell us who we are to talk to is both insulting and a massive slap in the face to the entire democratic process.
Second, via Barbara Yaffe, let's note that Democracy Watch is once again on top of the Cons' anti-democratic actions:
Conacher told CBC radio the Smith appointment is "improper" and an investigation should be launched by Canada's new ethics commissioner, Mary Dawson.

Conacher says the naming of Smith as a government liaison person violates the Conflict of Interest Code for MPs.

Harris "is essentially saying that the federal government system is corrupt and is run by the ruling party only, and that voters who vote for other parties will not get served."
What's particularly interesting is to remember that the predecessor ridings of both Skeena-Bulkley Valley and Vancouver Island North were part of the 1993 Reform sweep of the West, and haven't voted in a governing-party MP since. Based on that track record, the voters in both ridings seem to have widely rejected both the Mulroney Cons' own reputation for corruption, and the principles of patronage politics in the meantime.

Which means that in addition to being anti-democratic, the Pod People Plan also looks to be counterproductive even for the Cons' own purposes by offering the strongest statement yet that the Reform concept of up-front, grassroots politics is dead and buried as far as the Cons are concerned. And hopefully if the story gets adequately reported, the resulting backlash - propelled along by Conacher and others who may once have taken the Cons' promises at face value - will help to ensure that the Cons' ability to deliver their promised patronage gets cut off before long.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Disclaimer unfortunately needed

!!!EXCLUSIVE!!! Breaking Saskatchewan political news in keeping with what seems to qualify as today's big story!!!

Unconfirmed reports suggest that some NDP members and/or supporters have been known to abbreviate the Saskatchewan Party's name as "Sask Party", thereby linking the party to the term "ass". Mock outrage from Brad Wall at 11.

On dubious spending

The latest news on the Cons' own Adscam is that both the Commissioner of Elections Canada and the House of Commons Procedure and House Affairs Committee will be putting the Cons' action under the microscope - with the former having the potential to lead to prosecutions, while the latter will ensure that the story receives ongoing public attention.

But while the investigations will have to definitively answer some questions, there are others which can be addressed already. For example, it's fairly clear why the entire scheme was put in place in the first place - and the answer may say just as much about the Cons' lack of fitness to govern as their subsequent electoral violations and cover-ups.

After all, one would expect a federal party to have some ability to budget out its own expenditures over the course of an election campaign. But it appears clear that the Cons realized only late in the game that they had spent too much money early on, and thus faced a risk of not being able to carry out as many national operations as they'd have liked while complying with the rules.

Hence the apparent fact that the Cons' advertising scheme came about only in the last couple of weeks of the 2006 campaign. At that point, there likely wasn't time for the Cons to thoroughly consider the ramifications of their actions. But it's still telling that in the face of that situation, the Cons' reaction was to push forward with what they surely had to recognize to be a questionable scheme, rather than simply accepting a minor drop in advertising toward the end of the campaign in order to stay on the right side of the law.

In sum, Canada's federal finances are in the hands of a party so lacking in budgeting skills that it couldn't even project its own election campaign expenditures to stay under an $18 million limit - and whose philosophy when faced with that mismanagement was to find some way to spend more money in the short term, then deal with the consequences later. And this new indication of the Cons' lack of competence in judgment should offer yet another reason to make sure the Cons are out of office before they get the chance to make the same mistake with Canada's public funds.

Monday, August 27, 2007


CTV reports on the latest Strategic Counsel polling. But while the article goes out of its way to paint a positive picture for the Cons, one number jumps out as a sure sign of serious trouble for Deceivin' Stephen:
When asked if Prime Minister Stephen Harper was a leader who keeps his election promises, 35 per cent of Quebecers agreed, compared to 16 per cent across Canada.
Now, even the 35 per cent figure in Quebec is hardly anything to write home about. But the abysmal 16% number across Canada suggests that a massive majority of respondents across the country have recognized that Harper can't be trusted. Which means that when the Cons try to put together their next election platform, Canadians will know better than to believe a word they say...and figure to be far more likely to throw their support elsewhere as a result.

Update: Based on the detailed poll results, the numbers cited were actually net ones (i.e. the difference between degrees of agreeing and disagreeing) - which means that Harper is apparently trusted more than he'd deserve to be. But based on the numbers as a whole (11% "strongly agree", 42% "somewhat agree", 19% "somewhat disagree", 19% "strongly disagree") it does seem clear that Canadians who already distrust Deceivin' Stephen don't figure to change their minds, while there's room for those who give Harper the benefit of the doubt to be swayed.

Softening support

Another day, another prominent former Con (of one stripe or another) turning on a party for whom he apparently had high hopes. Today it's former Progressive Conservative candidate and access-to-information guru Michel Drapeau lamenting how the Cons have managed to make information even less available than it was under the Libs:
Michel Drapeau, an access-to-information specialist, said there is a move toward more secrecy at the Defence Department and in government in general when it comes to responding to requests made under the access law.

"The culture at DND is changing towards more secrecy where you have to fight for every bit of information," said Mr. Drapeau, a lawyer and author of a 2,800-page legal textbook on the Access to Information law.

The access legislation allows Canadians to request government records by paying a $5 fee per request.

Mr. Drapeau, a retired colonel, said the bureaucracy is making it more difficult for people to make requests for information by charging hefty search fees for material that just two years ago was readily produced, or withholding records for long periods of time.

"I never thought I'd say this, but the situation has gotten worse under the Conservatives," said Mr. Drapeau, who ran unsuccessfully in the 1997 federal election as a Progressive Conservative candidate.

What is ironic, he noted, is that Mr. Harper ran his last election campaign on openness and accountability in government.
So far the Cons have managed to avoid much public attention to their steady stream of defections and disgruntled members. And it may be time for the opposition parties to start correcting that state of affairs - particularly the Libs, given that the Cons can't hear a Lib member sneeze without attributing it to Stephane Dion's lack of leadership.

But even if the Cons are winning the PR war to a limited extent, the more important story has yet to play out...and it figures to do plenty of damage to the Cons. Any real loss of support - both among those who actively backed the Cons last time out, and among prominent figures like Duff Conacher and Drapeau who have apparently had enough of the Cons' broken promises - looks to entirely outweigh any additional backers the Cons may have won while in power. And that should help ensure that the Cons have nowhere to go but down.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Behind the illegitimacy

Blogging Horse's story about the Cons' attempt to bestow quasi-MP status on Sharon Smith, their (however dubious) candidate in Skeena-Bulkley Valley, certainly deserves plenty more media attention than it's received. But however asinine the Cons' actions, there's at least some good news to be found if one looks at what figures to be driving Deceivin' Stephen's latest affront to democracy.

After all, it would stand to reason that the Cons' dirtiest strategies are being directed at ridings which they figure they need to win in order to eke out a majority in the next election. So what does the current standing of Skeena-Bulkley Valley tell us about the Cons' chances of actually forming a majority government?

In 2006, the Cons lost the riding by 15 percentage points despite spending more than $70,000 on their candidate's campaign. The NDP incumbent is Nathan Cullen, one of the Dippers' rising stars whose profile has grown by leaps and bounds in this session of Parliament thanks to his work on the environment. And the Cons' "star" candidate, who seems to be their great hope to knock off Cullen, has some issues which figure to irritate both the religious right and voters of all stripes who don't consider public office to be an utter joke.

Now, I can't speak to Smith's personal popularity, and maybe she has enough of an organization to overcome the obvious negatives facing both her and her party. But from this angle, it seems more likely that Cullen will boost his margin of victory by another 10 points than that the Cons will manage to take the seat. Which means that if this is the kind of riding the Cons indeed have to win in order to reach the effective absolute power that they're aiming for, then the danger of a Harper majority looks minimal at best.

On breaches

Late last year, word came out that the private airport security firm Garda had let thousands of airline passengers board Canadian flights with little or no security screening - and that the Cons renewed a federal contract with Garda shortly thereafter. This week, in a story that received far too little attention, the Globe and Mail reported that not only has Garda's track record failed to improve, but the company's employees who took the violation public have been removed from their jobs:
The private company in charge of checking passengers at Toronto's Pearson International Airport has quietly fired three screening officers who blew the whistle on alleged security breaches, The Globe and Mail has learned.

In February, the officers lodged a complaint with Canada's Industrial Relations Board against Garda World Security Corp., alleging their managers took over security checkpoints at Pearson to rush passengers through screening.

As a result, luggage and passengers boarded planes without being checked, the screening officers said. Garda has repeatedly denied the allegations.

The three officers were suspended last month. They received their dismissal notices last week.

A fourth screening officer, who made the same allegations against Garda, was fired in April.

A Garda spokesman refused to comment, but did not deny that three of the company's officers had been laid off...

The Globe obtained internal Garda documents that showed one air traveller completely circumvented security at Pearson in April by walking through an unstaffed screening gate.

Similar documents showed a screening officer checking passengers for U.S.-bound flights at Pearson worked without proper certification for more than a year.

And, in interviews with The Globe, several screening officers said Garda managers used termination threats to speed up the screening process.

The Montreal-based company manages screening at 28 airports across the country, including Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Calgary International. It was awarded those contracts by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, a federal agency that reports to Parliament.
What the Globe doesn't make clear is that the Cons decided to renew Garda's contract after the worst of the violations had already occurred. And all indications since then are that Garda has predictably taken the Cons' lack of concern then to mean that it can get away with almost anything - particularly since it was CATSA, the federal agency involved, that faced some consequences for Garda's initial failures.

While part of the problem is obviously the Cons' negligent administration, it's worth noting that much of the issue with Garda is related to the delegation of responsibility to a private firm. It's bad enough that there's a serious gap in the respective interests of Canadians who want their airports to be secure, and the company who presumably wants to use as few resources as possible to deliver as little service as it can get away with.

But the choice to contract out also removes the workers responsible for airport security from the scope of protections for government whistle-blowers. And that in turn makes it far more likely that employees who point out problems will be punished for their efforts than if a public-sector entity was responsible.

Fortunately, Garda's apparent mishaps have only led to inconvenience so far rather than any major safety issues. But given the obvious dangers when corners are cut when it comes to airport security, there's no reason for either the Cons as a government or Canadians in general to accept the kind of problems that have come up - or Garda's attempts to suppress them. And in the wider scheme of things, the Garda experience only shows all the more why such vital services are better kept in public hands.