Saturday, October 06, 2007

Incomplete accountability

CanWest's report that lobbyists would prefer not to have to deal with additional reporting requirements on lobbying hardly amounts to anything newsworthy. But the story does offer a useful reminder of just how much the Cons have dragged their heels on accountability now that they're the ones being held accountable:
The Federal Accountability Act, which includes a section strengthening the lobbying rules on reporting, was approved by Parliament late last year after the Conservatives, inspired by the Gomery inquiry and sponsorship scandal, made cleaning up the federal government their top promise during the 2006 election.

But the Treasury Board Secretariat has been engaged in consultations with the lobbying industry ever since to draft the regulations that will bring the legislation into force.

A spokesman at Treasury Board said the regulations, which will outline what has to be reported with the lobbyist registry, are still being drafted and will eventually be presented to Treasury Board ministers for approval.
Remember that the Accountability Act itself received royal assent before the end of 2006. Which means that the Cons have managed to spend nearly 10 months since the passage of the bill without even having a draft set of regulations ready yet.

And it's not as if there's any particular reason for delay. As noted by the article, the only real area of contention involves what kinds of contact between lobbyists and officials will be included within the regulations. But that should be a relatively issue to resolve: any choice to exclude specific types of communication would both break the Cons' initial promise to require disclosure of all lobbying, and completely undermine the purpose of ensuring that the public is able to know what lobbying activity has taken place.

Of course, it seems all too likely that the Cons aren't too concerned with either of those problems, and will instead accede to the wishes of the lobbyists themselves now that it's their own party's associates who figure to benefit most from such a move. And it'll be up to the opposition parties to make sure that neither the lobbyist issue in particular nor the rest of the Cons' broken promises on accountability are allowed to fade away entirely as the Cons attempt to change the subject.

Canada's Pointy-Haired Government

Shorter Con message on the current status of Afghanistan:
Item one: Canada's combat mission is entirely justified based on improvements in security and safety.
Item two: It's irresponsible and reckless for a Canadian to even contemplate visiting Kandahar without government approval due to the strong possibility of a kidnapping or worse.
Dammit, we forgot to add in the United Way update again.

Missing in inaction

Jane Taber points out that Stephane Dion hasn't yet dared to match even his own party's weak response to the Cons' throne speech posturing, choosing instead to hide for a week afterward:
Vowing two days after last month's by-elections rout in Quebec to "bare his soul" and let Canadians get to know him so that they may like him better, (Dion) has hardly been seen.

He has not responded to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's ultimatum this week that the opposition is either with him on the Throne Speech or against him: fish or cut bait is what Mr. Harper told his foes.

The other two party leaders, the Bloc's Gilles Duceppe and the NDP's Jack Layton, came out right after Mr. Harper's statement, saying there was little there that has changed their minds about voting against the Throne Speech.

He will not be out this weekend. Instead, he will be spending time with his family over turkey. Canadians may see him on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Now, it may be that the real Dion is in fact the Invisible Man, such that Canadians really are getting the chance to see his true essence.

But it seems more likely that Dion is unwilling to take on the responsibility of responding to the most direct challenge he's faced from Harper - which can only bode poorly for his ability to stand up to the Cons in an election campaign and beyond. And for voters who want to see the strongest possible push against Harper and his all-or-nothing neo-con stance, that means it's long past time to start looking elsewhere rather than wrongly assuming they have no better choice than the Libs.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Absolutely unacceptable

Greg and John have asked the entirely legitimate question of what the Cons could possibly stand to gain from leaking a rumour that their throne speech will contain "four or five items...that will be absolutely unacceptable to the other parties".

My suspicion is that the leak has nothing at all to do with telegraphing the Cons' actual message, and everything to do with simply keeping control of public attention. After all, the media can - and all too likely will - look at the Cons' leaks this week as a hint that it'll be possible to fill column space and air time merely by reporting and speculating on a steady stream of Con leaks until the throne speech is over with. And that both strengthens the perception that the Cons are in full control of Canada's public discourse, and significantly lessens the likelihood that Conadscam or other issues will see much reporting in the meantime.

There may also be a side benefit in sending the message, as it could lead to a reaction that the Cons are more moderate than expected if the speech turns out to be less inflammatory than the leak says. But it seems entirely likely that the Cons simply want to keep anybody else from defining the scope of public discussion in the face of an impending election. And if that is their strategy, it seems to be working so far.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Ineffective opposition

In a disappointing followup to my post from this morning, the Libs are apparently falling well short of the "halfway competent" standard needed to turn Deceivin' Stephen's brinksmanship into a serious negative for the Cons:
The prime minister may have thought he was putting a gun to Liberal Leader Stephane Dion's head. But top Grit strategists suggest the move gives Dion more leeway to decide when - and over what issue - to pull the trigger on the minority Conservative government...

Harper's ploy gives Dion a chance to let the throne speech pass - by having Liberal MPs absent themselves or abstain - and wait for an issue that is more likely to play to Liberal strengths.

As one seasoned Liberal put it: "You've got to be careful not to take the bait. Pick your ground and your time."
Needless to say, the problem is that Harper's ultimatum offered exactly the kind of time which all opposition parties should have been eager to choose for an election. As I'd outlined this morning, the throne speech offered a unique opportunity to take the Cons down based their Cons' insistence on tying all of their policies together.

Based on that starting point, the opposition as a whole - and indeed each opposition party - would have the opportunity to cherry-pick its own issues within the whole which were seen as warranting an election, while being able to point to Harper's all-or-nothing ultimatum as an obvious reason why a non-confidence vote didn't result in a vote against issues where a party's interests might align with the Cons.

But that strategy would have been predicated on a quick response to frame Harper's demands appropriately - including a heavy emphasis on the "all-or-nothing" nature of the demand, along with a strong statement that neither the particular opposition party in particular nor the country as a whole agrees with all (or even most) of the Cons' agenda.

Instead, the Libs have framed Harper's demand solely to minimize their own immediate fallout by claiming they're not really under any pressure, rather than painting Harper in a way which will actually improve the odds that voters will see a need to remove the Cons from power. In doing so, they've ensured that any confidence vote will be based on a single policy matter rather than the sum of all Con weak spots - and of course they seem willing to wear the label of having kept the Cons in power by failing to show up for the throne speech. And the only apparent benefit for all that cost seems to be to buy a month or two before an election which the Libs seem to think will happen soon in any event.

Unfortunately, the Libs' seat count still makes them the opposition party most likely to be heard in the media. But from their willingness to look for excuses to prop up the Cons rather than to turn Harper's aggressiveness against him, it's all the more clear that they can't be counted on to provide effective opposition to the Cons - leaving only one national party in any position to stop the Harper agenda short of a majority.

All or nothing

Yesterday, I noted that Stephen Harper's throne speech ultimatum posed plenty more risk to the Cons than the media's first reports suggested. On further review, the point needs to be strengthened: if the opposition reacts even halfway competently to Harper's message, then the ultimatum will turn into a strategic train wreck for the Cons.

While Harper's message strictly only referred to individual confidence votes, its overall thrust was clear: he's not willing to govern if he doesn't have a majority of votes in Parliament to support the Con agenda in full.

So what's the problem with that message? Rather than allowing the Cons to draw any distinctions based on their perceived strengths, it allows each opposition party to place the focus on the most problematic Con declaration as its reason for voting down the throne speech - and to place the blame squarely on Harper. The end result would be a series of bipolar issue battles - with the Cons voluntarily taking the weaker position in each.

For example, the Cons will presumably include some mention of limits on federal spending powers in order to put pressure on the Bloc. But thanks to Harper's ultimatum, Gilles Duceppe will be able to counter by saying, "Stephen Harper says we can't limit federal spending powers without also giving him a combat extension in Afghanistan. We say Stephen Harper can't dictate that all-or-nothing choice from Ottawa."

Likewise, Jack Layton will be able to point out Harper's refusal to move on accountability or electoral reform without also pursuing privatization and deep integration. And Stephane Dion can take away the Cons' momentum on tax cuts by pointing out that it's possible to offer the same without accepting Harper's inaction on the environment.

And in all cases, it'll be Harper himself who's forced the choice. Which will leave the Cons trying to explain why Canadians should have to take the parts of the Cons' agenda which they don't want in order to get the few positive ones - and highlight the ideological chasm between the Cons and the country in the process.

What's more, it'll also be possible to attack Harper's ultimatum as a broader theme. Surely it would be one of the more memorable moments of a leaders' debate for Harper to try to justify the strategy, and Layton or Dion to respond, "Obviously Mr. Harper thinks that leadership means refusing to listen to anybody's ideas but your own. That's simply wrong - and it's long past time that we had a government which shared my position."

In sum, Harper is banking on winning an election on Lib/Bloc disarray and "decisiveness", while conceding effectively every swing issue and reinforcing his own most negative traits in order to get to the polls in the first place. And while he may not be able to afford to backtrack now (see "decisiveness" on the Cons' short list of positives), Harper may have just offered the opposition parties the boost they need to boot him from office entirely.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Desperate measures

All too predictably, some of the Cons' usual media cheerleaders have gone out of their way to paint Deceivin's Stephen's throne speech ultimatum as having nothing but upside for the Cons (while parroting other Con spin along the way). But the reality is that Harper's move suggests some significant desperation on his part to try to press for an early election. And it's entirely possible that the Cons may wind up overplaying their hand significantly as a result.

After all, while the Cons may perceive the near future as their best opportunity to try to push for a majority, there's little indication that Canadian voters share any real desire to hand over absolute power to one party. And indeed Harper himself seemed to acknowledge that fact with his recent statements that a minority government is still the likely result of any election.

But Harper's attempt to raise the stakes appears to run directly contrary to that acknowledgement. And that could be seriously damaging to the Cons based on more than just Harper's own equivocation.

In effect, the Cons are demanding that the opposition acquiesce in their governing now as if they now had a majority. To a point, that may play well to Harper's effort to paint himself as a decisive leader. But it also figures to make Harper appear unreasonable and heavy-handed to swing voters who want to see either a counterweight to strict central rule, or some cooperation between parties.

Moreover, that impression will only be strengthened if, as seems likely, the Cons indeed load up their throne speech with poison pills to try to force the opposition to vote it down. The Cons could well succeed in precipitating an election, but only at the cost of having to defend those poison pills within the ensuing campaign. And if an election actually does turn largely on the question of whether the Cons' most extreme policy planks are in line with Canadian values, there's more chance than the Cons would want to admit that they'll end up bleeding away support during the campaign rather than pulling off their seeming plan to pull away in the polls.

Simply put, "my way or the highway" isn't a message that's likely to resonate much with Canadian voters - particularly when even Harper's confidants have to admit that Canada is not a Conservative country. And there's little reason to think that the Cons will improve their chances of a majority in a pending election by ignoring the current democratically-expressed wishes of Canadian voters in pretending they have one now.

Wishful politics

The Gazette reports on what may be the most stunning example of the Libs' disorganization yet:
Adding to the chaos, the Quebec wing's electoral commitee, worried about losing key ridings, decided this week to recommend former heritage minister Liza Frulla be named the Liberal candidate for LaSalle-Emard, Marc Bruneau for Westmount-Ville-Marie and Brigitte Garceau for the southwest riding of Jeanne-Le Ber.

The problem is, Frulla says nobody asked her first and she has no intention of being a candidate at this time.

"I almost died," Frulla said, after hearing the news on radio yesterday morning. She said she hasn't spoken to Dion in a year - and Dion is the person who will choose the candidate to succeed former prime minister Paul Martin in LaSalle-Emard. "No, (I'm not running). I've got a life," Frulla said.
Now, it's understandable to a point that the election committee might be reaching for candidates beyond its grasp - particularly as a committee accustomed to having its pick of federalist Quebeckers faces the reality of a party that's significantly less appealing to potential candidates. But it's another matter entirely to go to the media first before even discussing plans with a potential candidate.

What's worse for the Libs is that the release of the recommendations itself would figure to have been an effort to repair the party's image and build a bit of momentum by pointing out some future prospects. Instead, all the party's premature statement has done is to make clear that the Libs are both in utter disarray, and under the mistaken impression that they can simply appropriate the names of their wish-list candidates without even consulting them. And that can only make potential candidates less and less likely to want to tie their fortunes to those of an imploding party.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Leading nowhere

By all rights, Gilles Duceppe's argument in reponse to his reported departure that he's "never had a career plan" should have made him the clear favourite in the race for the least inspiring message to a party's supporters today. But credit Stephane Dion for managing to take the lead in something, as his latest exercise in shuffling deck chairs - following just days after his vote of confidence in the now-deposed Jamie Carroll - strongly suggests that the Libs are going several steps further by operating without much of a plan about anything.

Noxious emissions

Shorter Terence Corcoran:
If Canada's highest-profile corporate figures are more willing to recognize the need for action on climate change than the Con government, that only demonstrates that big business isn't sufficiently business-friendly.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Wells on Flanagan

I've avoided commenting directly on the recent wave of Tom Flanagan-related stories, based primarily on the view that the less attention Flanagan receives, the better off Canada's public debate will be. But Paul Wells' column is one that can't pass without a link and a comment, even if I disagree with the overarching theme.

Which is to say that for all Flanagan's talk about triangulation and incrementalism, there's little to support Wells' apparent thesis that Flanagan (and by proxy Harper) are any less ideological now than they were in their Reform days. The only difference lies in how much they're willing to hide their real beliefs in order to try to gain the trust of Canadians who wouldn't accept the Cons' long-term plans - which seems to me to be nothing more than a Machiavellian means to the same antisocial end that Harper, Flanagan and their ilk have sought all along.

That said, Wells is still worth a read in pointing out the absurdity of a government which genuinely perceives a lack of honest content as its best strategy to try to improve its popularity. And Flanagan may indeed deserve attention to the limited extent of highlighting that warped worldview in the months to come - as "even Stephen Harper's closest advisor admits that 'Canada is not...a Conservative country'" figures to hold a prominent place in the opposition's message going forward.

Breaking through

It took far too long for the national media to pay attention to the real story behind the NDP's Outremont victory. But it looks like the Layton/Mulcair team is now shaping the story about the party's wider chances in the press outside Quebec, just as it did early in the by-election campaign to establish Mulcair as the frontrunner.

The last few days have seen two glowing columns focusing on Mulcair himself, while others have discussed the NDP's potential to capitalize on its Outremont win elsewhere in Quebec and nationally. And given the degree to which political perception tends to shape reality, the positive press can only reinforce the gains the NDP has already managed to make.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

On approaches

I'll sound a slight note of caution on today's news that Julius Grey is considering a run for the federal NDP. While landing Grey as a candidate would be another massive coup after the recruitment and by-election success of Thomas Mulcair, the possibility of a Grey candidacy has already been discussed before without yet coming to fruition.

That said, it's significant that Grey himself is talking publicly about a potential run, and giving serious consideration to taking the plunge into politics after declining the same opportunity before. And whether or not Grey decides to follow through, it can only be a good sign for the NDP if he and other potential candidates are indeed giving substantially more thought to the possibility.

On poor investments

CanWest reports on the Cons' planned announcements on infrastructure. And while Lawrence Cannon is typically distorting the nature of the Cons' plan to pretend that it represents a significant investment, it's glaringly clear that the main new effect of the Cons' plan is to funnel public goods into the private sector.

Let's look first at the outlines of the Cons' P3 plan - which now seems to be designed to force funding from other levels of government to fit within the Cons' desire for privatization:
Cannon added that the government will also proceed with plans to create a $1.25-billion public-private partnerships, or P3, fund. The fund, which would be managed by a new P3 agency, would count on contributions from cities and provinces.

"With our partners' investments, we expect the new plan will generate another $50 billion in infrastructure funding," Cannon said. "Imagine the construction sites it will generate. Imagine the workers needed to complete this important work."
Of course, the same (or more) construction and work would be generated if the same funding was used for infrastructure projects in the public sector: the only newly-imagined part of the Cons' plan is the one which provides for an additional layer of private profit and ownership. And the Cons are so committed to including that inefficiency in any future investment that they're apparently unwilling to waste only federal funding on that needless expense, instead relying on municipal and provincial money being harnessed to the same end as well.

But is the federal investment enough to make up for part of the damage caused by the P3 obsession? Not surprisingly, Cannon's high number for the plan is a poor attempt to conceal an embarrassingly low amount of new funding:
The Harper government will unveil within weeks the details of its $33-billion plan to upgrade aging infrastructure, the federal minister responsible for transport, infrastructure and communities said yesterday...

Nearly half of the money would come from a $2-billion-a-year transfer of gas tax revenues, a measure introduced by the previous Liberal government and extended by the Conservatives until at least 2014.
So half of the federal contribution is based on nothing more than extending a policy which already existed before the Cons took office, and which itself is significantly less of a contribution than municipalities have (rightly) been demanding. And in order to claim credit for an artifically high amount of money, the Cons' plan is based on spending over the next seven years at least - even though two federal elections would intervene before the end of that time frame.

Moreover, the Cons' amount of funding - even spread out as far as it is - would put little dent in Canada's infrastructure deficit. The current need for investment may already be as high as $100 billion - which doesn't include the cost of continuing to maintain and upgrade infrastructure over the span of the Cons' plan. Which means that contrary to Cannon's attempt to pretend the plan would substantially resolve Canada's infrastructure problems, the Cons' scheme would address only a small fraction of the need for infrastructure investment.

In sum, the most substantial policy effect of Cannon's plan would be to invest a substantial amount of money now to make government spending on vital infrastructure less efficient in the future. And Canadians who don't want to see contractors' profits as the primary goal of federal infrastructure spending should be all the more motivated to make sure the Cons aren't in office long enough to put their plan into effect.