Saturday, April 05, 2008

A steaming pile by any other name

A sneak preview of Barbara Yaffe's column for May 2, 2009:
So it turns out that renaming the SPP as the "North American Standards and Regulations Area" didn't manage to fool anybody. But I'm sure if we just rename the exact same type of integration as the Motherhood, Frolicking Puppies and Wealth Beyond Your Wildest Dreams Coalition, we won't have any trouble selling it.

Incidentally, with the SPP back in the news, it's worth drawing a contrast between the Cons' stance on deep integration and their obstruction against World Health Organization labeling requirements. Apparently they're all for setting international standards when it means avoiding democratically-made regulations to make sure that more goods get sent from country to country. But when it comes to actually allowing consumers to find out what it is they're buying, the Cons' appetite for cooperation disappears.

h/t to Alison and pogge.

On warning labels

Deceivin' Stephen's Conservative government: proudly fighting against the public's right to know relevant information around the world as well as at home.

Friday, April 04, 2008

A need for change

Following up on last night's post, I'll take a moment to respond to the commentators who seem eager to assume that Tom Lukiwski's views have changed in the past 17 years, such that his comments can't be held against him now.

Again, the problem is precisely the Harper strategy of gagging his MPs rather than allowing them to actually express their personal views in public. It might well be that Lukiwski's stance has changed in the meantime, and I'd be interested to see if there is a public record to that effect. But it's difficult to assume that Lukiwski actually has changed his mind without some evidence a bit less self-serving than anything he could say now. And it's the Cons' fear of having its MPs say something politically damaging that's made it impossible for their members to discuss gender and sexuality issues even where their views might have progressed with time.

Of course, the flip side is that a strategy of muzzling what candidates actually think also makes it plausible that bigotry can survive and indeed thrive, as long as its purveyors keep it out of the public eye. And based on the Cons' response to Lukiwski's comments (trying to claim the matter is "closed"), there's precious little reason to give the party the benefit of any doubt now.

Update: If we needed more reason to be skeptical about any supposed change, Lukiwski's comments on same-sex marriage provide just that.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Out in the open

I'll take a moment to toss in my two cents' worth on the Lukiwski/Wall scandal that's naturally dominating today's news coverage. But I'll take a different line than most of the commentary so far.

As problematic as the video is, the larger issue which it highlights is how little we're actually able to know about most politicians based on the high levels of coaching and scripting which underlie any public appearance. For all the media and citizen attention to political campaigns, the sad fact is that it's still relatively easy for political parties to hide their candidates behind talking points and "no comments", rather than allowing anybody to test what kind of judgment they possess. And indeed, both Lukiwski and Wall reached their current status as high-ranking politicians based precisely on "good campaigns" which involved their parties avoiding public embarrassment by going out of their way to say nothing.

Of course, there have always been suspicions about just what has been hidden from the public. But there's still been no concerted effort to actually push behind the facades put up to varying degrees by different parties. And as long as our political narratives continue to see a campaign that's free of "gaffes" as being the ideal even when that's achieved by hiding who candidates really are from public view, it can't come as much surprise when it turns out that our leaders do have something to hide.

On conditions

It's not as if there was much doubt that the Cons would find some excuse to extend Canada's combat mission regardless of whether or not the already-dubious Manley recommendations were met. But it's noteworthy that Deceivin's Stephen is now claiming that the extension is a done deal based on little more than wishful thinking when it comes to two of the conditions:
The key conditions laid down by Parliament for keeping Canadian troops in Afghanistan have been fulfilled, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared Thursday...

His statement came half way through a meeting with NATO allies in this former Cold War capital. The certainty of American reinforcements for Kandahar, NATO's approval of a comprehensive political-military plan for the war-ravaged country as well as progress toward acquiring battlefield equipment gave Harper the confidence to state that Canada will remain in Afghanistan.

"Today I can report that we have met these conditions," Harper said...

Canada has made significant progress in getting helicopters and unmanned aerial drones to support Canadian troops operating in southern Afghanistan, he said.
It shouldn't take much effort to notice a significant difference between actually securing helicopters and drones, and merely proclaiming that some "progress" has been made.

And it's worth noting that Harper's stance today can only make it more difficult to finish the acquisition on reasonable terms. After all, without a final declaration that the preconditions "have been met", Canada would have the leverage of pointing out its intention to withdraw its troops if the equipment wasn't secured.

Instead, having already declared that the extension is a done deal, Harper doesn't figure to be willing to face the public embarrassment of rescinding that statement - making it more likely that Canada will end up either taking equipment on less favourable terms, or trying to fudge having met the preconditions at all. Which means that once again, Deceivin' Stephen has subordinated Canada's interests to his personal whims.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Strategic positions

It's been no secret that the Libs' sense of worth as a party has been (rightly) declining as a result of their strategy of non-opposition. But even I wouldn't have expected them to argue that being associated with the party could cause irreparable harm to the Libs' own candidates.

Promising nothing

There's certainly reason for concern about what the Cons would want to change about Canada's constitution given the chance. But it's worth noting that their current musings don't seem to involve any change at all to the status quo other than more Con seats in Quebec:
Emphasizing the Conservative receptiveness to “Quebec's historical demands,” Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn raised the possibility of winning 30 to 40 seats in the province, up from the current 11.

“The recognition of the Quebec nation within Canada allows us to think that we can put some meat around it, and that a majority government is more able to do a number of things, while being respectful of all of the provinces,” Mr. Blackburn said in an interview.
And as noted in the Globe and Mail's report, there's plenty of reason to doubt the Cons are doing much other than trying to posture for soft-nationalist votes while rocking the boat as little as possible elsewhere:
The Conservatives are treading carefully to manage expectations and avoid a backlash in the rest of Canada...

Mr. Blackburn spoke positively, albeit guardedly, of launching further constitutional talks with the provinces if the Conservatives form a majority.

A number of constitutional changes require the assent of all of the provinces, but leadership on the matter usually comes from Ottawa.

Mr. Blackburn said the Conservatives are “much more receptive to Quebec's historical demands” than the Liberals, using language from the days of the failed Meech Lake accord that described Quebec as a distinct society.
All of which suggests that the Cons are offering little more than fuzzy language to hide their future agenda from one or more of their targeted voting blocs. Which from a strategic perspective looks to be a sign of resignation that the Cons aren't about to pick up the seats they need to build a genuine seat majority anywhere other than Quebec, and thus have to try to sell different messages in Western Canada and Quebec in order to improve on their current Lib-supported pseudo-majority.

Of course, the problem with that plan is that there's an easy response from the opposition: force the Cons to explain what they mean by "receptive" and "historical demands", then highlight the gap between the expectations the Cons are trying to build and what they're actually willing to commit to. And if the opposition parties can succeed in generating outrage over the Cons' duplicity among groups of voters who have seldom stood for the same in the past, then Blackburn's gambit may do little more than seal the Cons' fate as a one-term government.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Gone private

Let's take note of one point from yesterday's Handard which doesn't seem to have attracted much attention: Lib MP Navdeep Bains' observation that the Cons decided to farm out their NAFTA scandal investigation to the private sector:
Last Thursday we learned that the Privy Council Office outsourced the investigation of sensitive diplomatic leaks to BMCI Investigations & Security Ltd. of Ottawa, a private company. Yet, the government never said a word about this decision.

If the government is incapable of conducting its own investigation, why did the Prime Minister not say so when he announced it in the House? Why was a private company chosen and, more important, what is its mandate?
Bains points out one question which deserves plenty of followup, which is what exactly BMCI was asked to do. But I'm equally curious as to what the farmout does to the results of the investigation: will the involve of a private third party be used as an excuse to keep the final report and (particularly) any explanation about the investigative methods out of the public eye?

In motion

With the NDP announcing its House of Commons motion for later this week, let's highlight two factors which seem to have largely been missed in coverage so far.

First, and most importantly, the motion looks to be the strongest statement from any opposition party that the Cons' tax slashing (and the concurrent damage to federal finances) doesn't have to be a permanent development. For all the justified complaints about the Cons prioritizing tax cuts over all else, this looks to be the first time the parties will be directly debating the need to reverse any of the cuts in the future.

Second, despite the narrative attached to the story by the Canadian Press, the motion doesn't put any particular pressure on the Libs to vote against their policy principles (as they had to do to avoid an election on the NDP's previous environmental confidence motion). Instead, the wording not only takes aim at the Cons' policies directly, but also allows the Libs to speak (and vote) for their own position on corporate tax cuts without triggering an election by doing so.

Of course, that doesn't figure to stop some Libs from criticizing the NDP for not putting forward a motion designed specifically to assist Dion. But the motion is nonetheless an important step both in leading the way as to what needs to be done to reverse Harper's regressive policies, and in differentiating the NDP's position from those of the other federal parties.

A cool reception

Shorter Terence Corcoran (2 for 1 special edition!):
I simply can't conceive of a value system which would prioritize the survival of half the species on Earth, along with a substantial proportion of humanity, over a cheaper supply of consumer goods.


Having successfully lobbied the Con government to thumb its nose at Canada's Kyoto obligations, allow me to lecture you on the sacrosanct inviolability of international trade agreements.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Playing defence

The Hill Times notes that at least some Lib MPs are finally raising a cry that it's time to go to the polls. But if there was any hope that the Libs were prepared to actually challenge the Cons even if they do force an election, the article offers yet another indication to the contrary:
Dion is intensifying his training for political debates (in fact he had always refused to participate to the training) and other activities to prepare for a federal election.

For example, last week the Liberals sent organizers from Ottawa to Toronto to coordinate electoral activities within ethnic communities, particularly Asian communities. The initiative was welcomed with some sarcasm by a Toronto Member of Parliament: "With all ethnic MPs in Toronto, the last thing we need is paid organizers from Ottawa."
While the Toronto MP's frustration is understandable from the standpoint of what's likely to be successful even in the targeted ridings, there's another more important point at play. After all, if the Libs are in such a state of disarray that they're just now getting around to organizing even their most solid bases of support, then there's virtually no prospect that they'll be in a position to go on the offensive against Harper.

Of course, the fact that the Libs seem to be planning only to cut their losses may explain their reluctance to face the voters. But if even the Libs themselves don't think they can stop the Cons, then it's long past time for Canadians to take a closer look at a party which aspires to do more than just save its own skin while allowing the Cons to keep imposing their reactionary agenda.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

On available options

The Star presents an interesting point/counterpoint on the use of P3s as a means of deferring government expenses (at a high future cost). But while it's tough to disagree with the outcome of Thomas Walkom's piece against the use of P3s as a means of buying now and paying more later, it's Christopher Hume's column which actually raises the more interesting issues - both as to why P3s may be seen as needed by some, and what the public sector can do to minimize costs while potentially generating public returns.

Here's Hume on the background to why he sees P3s as inevitable for now:
In a perfect world, there would be no need for public-private partnerships. Government would have all the money it needs to pay for all we need, and everyone would be living happily ever after.

In the real world, however, government is chronically short of funds and we, the voters, aided and abetted by the media, would rather not pay the taxes we should. And so we elect leaders who tell us what we want to hear even when we know it's a lie.

And in these conservative times, not only are tax rates under fire; so is the very idea of government. Is it any wonder that the decline of the public infrastructure has reached the point where in Ontario alone it would cost $143 billion to bring it up to an acceptable standard?

Faced with such overwhelming need and a reactionary culture, government has little choice but to look to the private sector.
There's of course plenty of room for argument as to whether either commentators like Hume or governments themselves should be giving in to the assumption that voters prefer being lied to about the costs of providing needed services. And I'd strongly take the side that the most needed change is to counter the initial deception - not merely to look for some way of paying off the private sector to win its endorsement of government spending.

But whatever the proper response, the underlying premise is that any supposed need for P3s is itself based on incorrect assumptions. And that's surely a recipe for bad public policy.

Meanwhile, Hume does point out one means of bringing some benefit back to the public sector:
(I)n certain European countries, some government agencies and departments have themselves started to act as private companies, selling their expertise and services to the highest bidder, including government.

City planning services in Britain are an example, as are incineration plants in Sweden. They bid on public-sector contracts like any business, and when they make a profit, plough it into general revenues.

In Canada, public entrepreneurialism would be viewed as contrary to the ideals of public service.
Once again, it's not clear why we should take as a given that Canadians would disapprove of an effort to build public-sector capacity. And that's doubly so in the case of a development which would not only present the possibility of improving public services, but could also help bring in a return on investment which would help to bridge any gap between what voters want in services and what they're prepared to pay in taxes.

Ultimately, Hume is right to point out some of the options which have been wrongly excluded from Canada's public debate. But the fact that those possibilities are largely ignored offers a reason to bring them back to light and start making the case for more effective public investment, not a basis for accepting that governments have to pay more to get less for lack of any easy alternatives. And once the underlying assumptions are challenged, any case to funnel money into the private sector through P3s falls away in a hurry.