Saturday, September 27, 2008

On Conservative leadership

deBeauxOs' post highlighting the links between the Cons, the R.E.A.L. Women of Canada, and their now-deposed Halifax candidate Rosamund Luke is definitely worth a read. But let's ask what strikes me as perhaps the most important question: does Luke's parlaying over $130,000 in federal funding into support for only 7 immigrant women over 6 months make the Cons responsible for the least efficient social program on the planet as well as the least efficient environmental policy? And just how many other departments are there where the Cons can proudly claim to be the worst managers in the world?

Never mind the furniture

John Ivison discusses the possibility that the Libs might end up canceling late-campaign ad buys in order to save money. Which is a big enough story on its own - but downright stunning when one considers the context in which the money would (or wouldn't) be spent.

Here's what Ivison has to say:
Insiders suggest that discussions about reining in spending on the current campaign are are ongoing, as party executives weigh the prospect of saving seats against the need to conserve cash to fight another day.

Financial pressures are likely to build after this election because the party's biggest-single source of revenue -- the $1.75 it receives annually from the government for every vote cast -- is likely to fall in line with the slide in Liberal support.

According to the last Liberal accounts, the party received $8.5-million of its $12.7-million of revenue from its government allowance. If the Liberals vote falls in line with current polling, the party will see that figure cut by $2-million a year -- money they can scarcely afford to lose, since they recorded a deficit of $1.7-million last year. This, after all, is a party that spends 50¢ to raise $1 in donations, according to its own financial figures.

The real world impact on the current campaign could be on advertising budgets in the last week of the campaign. Since Mr. Dion does not have sole discretion over Liberal spending, it may well be that when he goes to his party executives asking for last minute air support, they turn him down.
So what makes the possibility of the Libs cutting back on spending during the campaign so remarkable? Remember that federal parties are entitled to a 50% rebate on their national election expenses - meaning that whatever the Libs spend nominally on the campaign, they'd effectively get half of it back almost immediately. Assume for the moment that the Libs were otherwise planning to spend $2 million on ads which would be canceled: a million of that would be returned to party coffers as a matter of course.

So what would they get for the million that would actually come out of pocket? For those who aren't familiar with Canada's party financing rules, the answer is in Ivison's text: every vote the Libs can win with the money they spend is worth $1.75 per year until the next election. Assuming voter turnout comparable to 2006, that means that the Libs would make their million back if the ads could persuade 4% of voters to join their camp in a Parliament that lasts a year, or 2% if Parliament lasts for two years. And all that would be in addition to the possibility of potentially winning more seats than they would otherwise.

So what would the Lib sources discussed have to have concluded in order to even consider that they might end up financially better off by refusing to authorize ad spending? From my standpoint, they'd not only have to have decided that the party is headed down in flames, but also that Dion and his camp have absolutely no clue how to spend the money to improve the Libs' share of the popular vote. And if even the top decision-makers within the Libs have that low an opinion of Dion and the people running the party's campaign, it's all the more hard to see why voters should have any confidence in them.

Reason to switch

For all the focus on the party numbers from this morning's Angus Reid poll showing the NDP tied with the Libs, the even more important news may be this:
More than half of Liberal voters (54 per cent), and almost half of NDP (47 per cent), and Green (44 per cent) voters would seriously consider "strategically" switching their votes against their preferred candidate if it looks like another party has a better shot at winning, and could block a Conservative.
Now, I'm surprised the Libs don't have more of a core voting bloc than they apparently do. But these numbers suggest that the Libs' decline doesn't merely reflect leaners moving elsewhere while the party's previous core remains intact.

Instead, respondents currently supporting the Libs are more likely than their NDP counterparts to be willing to move elsewhere if that's the best way to stop Harper. And for voters who don't have a strong values-based preference between the parties, there's little reason for them not to do so when the NDP is already on even terms with the Libs.

What's more, with more Lib voters willing to switch, there's also a higher upside to their actually following through. If the NDP can carry all of its current support plus the Libs and Greens who would be willing to switch, then its support would reach 35.42%. In contrast, the Libs' similar best-case scenario would be 33.95% of the vote.

With the Cons likely stuck with a relatively poorly distributed support level in the mid to upper 30s, that point and a half could make the difference in determining whether the Cons remain in power - or whether a minority NDP government is able to start reversing the damage done by Harper over the past two and a half years. Which means that for voters who are inclined to vote based on stopping Harper, there's another strong reason to make the NDP their choice.

Values added

Both Jack Layton and Stephen Harper made promises this week which on their face involve restricting the export of raw materials to encourage value-added jobs in Canada: Layton's dealing with the export of raw logs, and Harper's with raw bitumen. But on a closer look, there are important differences between the two which speak volumes about the respective visions the two leaders have for Canada.

First, there's the issue of sustainability. Layton's plan is one which seeks to develop opportunities related to a renewable resource - meaning that the jobs created by encouraging processing in Canada are ones with the potential to last indefinitely, and serve as the basis for communities which are able to sustain themselves in the longer term.

In contrast, Harper's plan is tied to an industry which plainly has a best-before date: not only are oil reserves themselves finite, but the current global push toward alternative energy has the potential to drive demand through the floor even before the reserves run out. Which means that any production which might be diverted to Canada would also be a temporary benefit at best.

But then, one has to ask what industries can actually handle a boost in near-term employment - which leads to the second key difference between the plans. Layton's move would encourage increased investment in value-added work in sectors which have a glut of workers in need of opportunities. In contrast, Harper's is directed at an industry whose problem is already a lack of workers to do the jobs possible based on current capital investment - a problem which would only be exacerbated by a push to require processing in Canada.

And that's particularly important in light of the third key difference. The manufacturing and processing jobs encouraged under Layton's plan would be spread across a wide swath of the country - including B.C. in particular, but also areas in northern Ontario, Quebec and anywhere else that there's a substantial forestry presence. As a result, Layton's plan would help to diversify Canada's economy based on geography as well as industry.

In contrast, it would seem virtually inevitable that any additional construction of bitumen-processing facilities would take place near the source. Which would work out extremely well for Harper's base, but not so well for the rest of the country which is already suffering from government policies which have boosted the oil patch at the expense of the rest of Canada's economy.

In sum, the contrast nicely encapsulates the respective economic values put forward by Layton and Harper. Voters will face a choice between New Democrats who favour an economy rooted in a broad base of sustainable jobs and responsible resource management, or Conservatives who want to keep increasing Canada's dependence on quick-fix oil-sands exploitation even if it means holding off on economic development which could possibly be maintained in the long term. And particularly in an election whose ballot question figures to be which leader is best equipped to manage Canada's economy through troubled times, it shouldn't be difficult for Canadians to decide they want the former.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Strategic complications

One more followup note on strategic voting. As problematic as it is at the best of times to try to figure out where a vote is best placed even if one wants to vote strategically, this year's election looks to be a particularly difficult one to try to break down neatly. And that can be readily seen from the suggestions at the Vote for Environment site which seems to have emerged as the main source for strategic recommendations.

Rather than making recommendations based primarily on current polling numbers, its figures are based primarily on 2006 election results with not much regard for what's apparently changed since then. So even with the Libs potentially losing up to half of their 2006 popular support and falling behind even the Greens in B.C., the site still recommends voting for Lib candidates in ridings like Fleetwood-Port Kells, Newton-North Delta or Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca - even though the NDP would rank ahead by a substantial margin if the difference from 2006 to today in provincial polling numbers is applied to the ridings.

Which isn't to say that applying the 2006 results is necessarily an unreasonable starting point for recommendations. But it does raise a significant risk that an effort to vote strategically may backfire: a strategic push toward the Libs in that kind of riding could only dilute the effects of increased general support for the NDP, allowing the Cons to win seats which they wouldn't hold otherwise.

And of course there are equal dangers in the other direction. Ultimately, any recommendation can easily be counterbalanced by some other factor far outside the influence of a strategic voting effort.

In fairness, Vote for Environment does plan to issue updated recommendations after the debates - so some of the bugs which one might point out now may be fixed by then. But that still leaves plenty of room either for things to change between then and election day, or for the group's assumptions to be wrong to begin with. And faced with that risk, the best plan in the vast majority of cases is still to vote for the party who best reflects one's values based on the knowledge that it'll benefit in a number of ways, rather than hoping to guess right in a strategic voting scenario.

Strategic calculations

With so much talk circulating about strategic voting, I'll take a moment to point out my ruminations from the 2006 campaign. (Which I'll stand by even if it turns out that the NDP ends up a position to benefit from strategic voting by the time all is said and done.)

A man of the people

Shorter Stephen Harper:
Of course I'm in touch with the common folk. Why, just last week my party hand-selected one or two to serve as a backdrop for a photo opportunity. Frightful, that was.

Stupid things

Following up somewhat on this post, Stephen Harper seems to have offered the opposition parties an ideal opportunity to point out how his government has mismanaged public money:
"All the fundamentals of the Canadian economy are good. It's not the time to do anything new, wild or stupid," he said.

"I think we will be fine -- not great -- but we will be fine as long as we don't do stupid things," the Tory leader told reporters as he campaigned in Victoria
So what stupid things has Harper done in office which deserve to be highlighted in response as the kind of things Canada can't afford? Again, my first votes are for the $1.25 billion public infrastructure selloff fund and the $800 million for the least efficient environmental program in the world - but there's surely plenty more large and small worth noting.

An avenue of attack

When both Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty are trying desperately to inoculate themselves against a particular type of criticism, I have to suspect they have reason to be worried. And so it is for what looks to be a glaring broken promise that's slipped under the radar - and which could eat into two of the Cons' most important perception advantages (on keeping promises and on economic management) if it's handled properly.

With that in mind, here's my suggestion as to how an ad or other message should be attacking the Cons for their federal spending increases.

Start with a screen shot of this promise from the Cons' 2006 platform (warning: PDF - see p. 17):
A Conservative government will:
Limit the future growth of federal spending on federal grant and contribution programs and by federal departments and agencies (other than National Defence and Indian Affairs) to the rate of inflation plus population growth.
Cut to a graph comparing the actual population plus inflation number to the actual spending growth under the Cons, showing the overall gap increasing from year to year. (The CTF's numbers of 7.5%, 6.9% and 8.4% annualized growth over the past three years would do the job nicely.) Include a voiceover about how the Cons have broken their promise more and more every single year, and perhaps a Coyne quote for emphasis.

Ask, "So what has Harper done with our money?" Cut to screen shots featuring something along the following lines:
- $150 million for a rail line to Jim Flaherty's riding which was "nowhere on (the province's) priority list";
- $1.25 billion to push infrastructure projects out of public hands;
- $800 million for the "most expensive environment program anywhere in the world by a wide margin".

Cut away to a shot of Harper with voiceover and text emphasizing that Harper has already broken his promise to handle your money responsibly, and can't be trusted now.

If there's a problem with the above, it's that it might be a bit late in the game to start pushing a counternarrative which really should have been developed sooner. But I have to figure that this type of ad - combined with the ongoing effort of the opposition parties to tie Harper's economic philosophy to Bushco's - would have a better chance than anything else of shifting opinions against Harper when it comes to money management. And that looks to be the key to cutting into the Cons' current strength in the polls.

On target audiences

Not that I'd want to stop Michael Ignatieff from making himself look silly. But does he really think that any Canadian who wants to see Nixon-style politics and a communications policy of "shut up" isn't already firmly in Stephen Harper's corner?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Open Net goals

It didn't even rank as the New Democrats' top policy announcement of the day. But for those of us who are concerned about net neutrality it's worth noting that the NDP's commitment to the issue already set out in an earlier private member's bill is now a formal part of the party platform:
Although Mr. Layton said he will create a new minister of protection, it will not come with a ministry. Instead, the new minister will work with a small staff taken from the industry department and ministry. The NDP promised that the measure entails no new expenditures.

Mr. Layton also promised to cap interest rates on credit cards to a maximum of 5 percentage points over prime, expanding on a promise he has made previously.

The NDP leader also said he would implement a “net neutrality” policy -- essentially allowing Canadians to access the web without restrictions.
At last notice, we were still waiting on a final decision from the CRTC to determine whether or not it would bother doing anything about ensuring that the Internet is available for all kinds of traffic rather than leaving the door open for throttling.

But there's every reason for voters to be concerned about leaving the matter to chance - particularly in the hands of a body which didn't bother to take immediate action when first presented with the issue. And of course any positive decision from the CRTC could itself be overridden by any government which doesn't see net neutrality as a priority. Which means that it's a definite plus for voters to know that at least one of the major parties is committed to ensuring fair access.

Con MP Lee Richardson Keeps Digging

NDP Candidate Tyler Kinch and blogger Leftdog have already pointed out Con MP Lee Richardson's asinine comments blaming crime on immigrants. But it's worth noting that Richardson's attempt to deflect and backtrack looks no less offensive than his initial remarks.

First, there's a sad attempt to cast the blame on his constituents rather than accepting personal responsibility for his words:
When Fast Forward phoned Richardson the day after the initial interview to ask him to clarify his earlier comments, he expressed regret for what he’d said. “I just don’t want to go there at all,” said Richardson. “That is not my intention. If I misspoke, I apologize to you for that.” Richardson said he was referring to only a “small minority” of people and was reflecting what he’s heard from his constituents. “What their comments are based on is probably anecdotal — what they read in the newspapers,” he said.
But more damningly, there's also Richardson's attempt to justify the statement itself:
“I just don’t want [my comments] to be torqued out of context,” Richardson added. “We see anecdotally — and through our experiences here — the differences from the Alberta that I grew up in. And that’s the same in a lot of big cities across the country. That’s really all I was trying to say…. I regret having said that yesterday.”
So what differences are there now from "the Alberta that (Richardson) grew up in"? Well, Wikipedia lists Richardson's date of birth as being in 1947. So let's take a look at the province Richardson grew up in - let's say from 1955 to 1965, when he was aged 8 to 18 - and ask what kind of Alberta he's apparently concerned about having left behind.

Sure, there are such forms of progress as abortion rights, same-sex marriage and the like. But it's hard to be sure that any given Con actually agrees with the increased rights granted in those areas. So let's look at some factors from Richardson's halcyon days of yore which even the Cons would seemingly have to agree are far better left in the past.

After all, it wasn't too long ago that Stephen Harper apologized Canada's shameful residential school system. Which was in full swing during the time Richardson "grew up" - and presumably had an influence on the types of people Richardson would (and wouldn't) have interacted with. And for that matter, during the first half of the period in question, the right to vote was withheld from status Indians.

And in Alberta in particular, the period also spans the time when the provincial government's heinous Eugenics Board was able to forcibly sterilize "mentally deficient" individuals. Which was itself the subject of a formal apology by Alberta's Conservative government not long ago.

Now, there are doubtless many more examples of how Albertan society has changed for the better in the meantime. But what makes the above policies particularly important in considering Richardson's statement is that they came about precisely because decision-makers were convinced that extraordinary measures were required to remove the threat of a set of "others" who could cause social unrest - defined as a different society from the one they grew up in.

While Richardson presumably wouldn't advocate the same policies, his comment and clarification are plainly based in the same mindset: vilifying those who are perceived as different for the sake of clinging to a narrow, self-centric view of the world. And that kind of attitude demands a strong response before it's too late to stop another self-centred and inward-looking government from engaging in policies we'll end up regretting later.

Abandoning the fight

As usual, the Libs' attempt to appeal to progressive voters is based on little more than their ever-less-plausible claim they - and only they - can offer an alternative to Con government. Which makes it particularly noteworthy that internally, the Libs have given up on the prospect of actually taking power:
Usually at this point in a successful campaign, however, there is thought given to forming a transition team.

Senator David Smith, one of the co-chairs of the Liberal campaign, said yesterday that he wasn't "going to get into it" when asked about transition.

"We're primarily campaign-focused," he said. "On that subject, given the front-bench strength that we have compared to even the current government ... we've got a lot of people with ministerial experience ... it's not as if we don't have people who haven't been there, done that."

Another senior campaign strategist burst out into laughter when asked about whether there had been any thinking as to a transition team.

"It wasn't even in my vocabulary or my brain," said the strategist, suggesting the Liberals are trying to hold what they have.
Now, the news raises a few questions about the Libs both for the campaign and for the longer term. For example, how is it that the same experienced politicians touted by Smith as "front-bench strength" haven't yet brought up what the Libs would have to do in order to form government? And does this signal Bob Rae's ascendancy within the party as Libs take on the view that "so what do we do now?" will work better on a national scale than it did in Ontario?

But the most important story is that the Libs' public message is far out of touch with their own internal expectations for the campaign. And the more Canadians recognize that the Libs themselves have given up on trying to stop Stephen Harper, the more likely they'll be to shift their support to another party which won't back down.

Location, location, location

I can certainly understand some of the appeal behind the New Democrats' strategy of labelling the Cons as the party of Bay Street. But I have to wonder whether it's the best way of defining Harper and his party for the balance of the campaign.

Off the top, there are two obvious upsides to using the Bay Street reference. First, and perhaps most importantly, it fits extremely well into the general New Democratic message. After all, to the extent the focus is on kitchen table vs. boardroom table, it certainly makes some sense to associate one's opponents with the best-known set of boardrooms in the country.

And to the extent the Libs are still in the race, the shorthand applies equally well to them as to the Cons - helping to reinforce the NDP's main themes against both of its key competitors. (Of course, there's a flip side to that which I'll get to later.)

But then, it seems clear that the primary NDP strategy is focused on the Cons. And trying to tie them to Bay Street may pose a couple of problems going forward.

First, it's less likely to resonate with the public than identifying the Harper Cons with their Alberta base. Describing the Cons as Oil Sands Steve and the Calgary Conservatives both fits perfectly with the image the NDP would ideally want to paint, and probably comes closer to how most swing voters are likely to already see Harper and his party. And the NDP surely can't want to make its sales pitches any more difficult than they have to be.

More importantly, though, the one area where the NDP most needs to ramp up its public support is Ontario. And had it responded to the Cons' attack on Ottawa by painting itself as the defender of Ontario (not to mention Quebec) against the Cons' attempt to impose Alberta values and favour the oil sands at the expense of central Canadian manufacturing, the NDP would have been in an ideal position to become the clear alternative to the Cons in the one province where the Libs are still holding their own.

Instead, the New Democrats have not only made it somewhat more difficult for parts of Ontario to see them as an ally, but they may have left at least a slight opportunity for the Libs to paint themselves as Ontario's regional defender.

Mind you, it seems as likely as not that the current geographically-based titles will be quickly forgotten (if they even enter into the public consciousness). But from this angle, the NDP is likely best off doing its best to ensure that happens or switch to running against Calgary and the oil patch, rather than presenting an opening that even the Dion Libs might not miss.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Operation Government Shutdown

The Citizen reports that the Cons aren't done throwing monkey wrenches into the works of government yet, as the federal civil service is facing an almost total prohibition on normal purchasing processes and other operations for the duration of the election campaign:
In an unprecedented clampdown, Public Works and Government Services Canada is vetting all federal purchasing to ensure only contracts for "essential or urgent" goods and services are issued during the rest of the election campaign...

The screening of contracts is part of a sweeping clampdown imposed by the Privy Council Office on communications and business that is slowing down the work of some departments to a crawl.

The restrictions have resulted in travel bans in some departments, public servants bowing out of long-scheduled conferences, speaking engagements and meetings with everyone from consumer advocacy groups to industry representatives. Bureaucrats, lobbyists, suppliers and anyone who deals with government say they have never seen such a chill on the workings of the bureaucracy. Many say the Conservative government's tight control of information over the past two years has bureaucrats overreacting.

Public Works normally refrains from signing or awarding any big contracts during an election, but public servants say they have never seen all contracts screened and reviewed before being posted. The written directive provided by PCO says that during an election, "the government acts with restraint, confining itself to necessary public business -- continuing to communicate on matters that are routine, non-controversial, and urgent and in the public interest."

What is different this time is that the government doesn't seem to trust the judgment and restraint bureaucrats used to be expected to exercise during an election in deciding what contracts to issue. Caution has snowballed into "paranoia to the extreme," said one procurement expert...

It also comes at one of the busiest times for the bureaucracy as departments are racing to get contracts ready or in place to get their work done before the March 31 year-end. Deferred contracts will come back to haunt the government with delays and backlogs.
Not that it should come as much surprise that the Cons' iron fist has been gripping the public service even harder than usual during the election campaign.

But it should once again say plenty about Harper's priorities that he's effectively ordered Public Works to avoid doing its job for the balance of the campaign - ensuring that it'll have to rush to finish the same work later - in the name of improving their position during the campaign. And the Cons' continued insistence on putting their interests over any desire for good government should have both the civil service in particular and Canadians in general eager to remove Harper from power.

Liberal credibility at work

The Libs' efforts to paint themselves as the only possible alternative to Harper even as their poll numbers drop to fourth place have been rightly laughed off in most corners. But let's be fair: surely if anybody can claim expertise in successfully holding off a right-wing opponent, it's Ujjal Dosanjh, right?

Clinging to power

Following up on this post, it's worth asking just how far Stephen Harper plans to try to push the envelope in order to stay in the PMO, as the outcome of the impending federal election would seem to have potential to give rise to a serious constitutional crisis.

Here's what Harper said in demanding the chance to form government again even if a majority coalition is lined up against him:
That didn't answer the more complex question of what would happen if Harper formed a minority government, but the three left-wing opposition parties band together to defeat him on a quick vote of confidence - such as the throne speech opening a new Parliament.

Under constitutional convention, the Governor General would almost certainly let the opposition try its hand at forming a government.

Harper, however, dismissed that scenario as anti-democratic.

"Whoever wins the election will have a mandate to govern," he told a news conference.

"I think it will be incumbent upon the opposition parties - at least for a period of time - to respect that mandate. I think they would not do so at their peril."
Now, Harper's dividing line for the moment appears to be the question of which party wins the most seats in the House of Commons. Which is of course likely the one which gives the Cons the best chance of retaining power (if one with no foundation in Canadian precedent). But the question of which party wins the most seats doesn't seem to make all that much difference either in constitution or in principle.

Constitutionally, based on the concept of continuity of government, the Cons are still technically in office now - and will continue to be so until such time as somebody is sworn in to replace them. Which means that if Harper is determined to hold onto power as long as possible even if the election goes sour, then his best bet is probably to muddy the waters as much as possible to keep anybody else from replacing him.

In that respect, Harper's shot across the bow appears to be aimed to preventing two possibilities: either the opposition parties voting him down in the House of Commons, or the Governor General selecting somebody other than Harper to lead the government based on a publicly-known coalition in the absence of a vote.

But with Harper effectively declaring that he considers himself entitled to hold onto power even if a majority coalition is prepared to vote down his party and assume government, is it much of a leap to think he might try to put off the organization of a new Parliament in order to impose as much of the Cons' agenda as he can by executive fiat before any confidence votes take place? And if Harper is willing to claim that he should be able to maintain power based on a single-party seat total which obviously bears no relation to actual confidence within the House, is it much of a stretch to think he might change his tune and claim the ability to do so based on continuity of government if the party standings turn against him?

All of which is to say that Harper's statement yesterday may amount to a declaration that the only way he's leaving 24 Sussex is if Canadians drag him out by his sweater. And the fact that Harper is so desperate to cling to power should make Canadians question whether or not he's fit to exercise it.

La democratie, c'est moi

Shorter Stephen Harper:
The prospect that other parties might loosen my iron grip on power based on something as inconsequential as the ability to hold the confidence of the House of Commons is deeply anti-democratic.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

In hiding

Following up on this post about the I Believe in Open campaign, I'm not sure it could ask for a better boost than a reminder of the type of government we're stuck with for the moment:
(W)hen reporters asked to speak to (Dona Cadman) after Mr. Harper gave a speech to a Surrey rally, she was instead whisked out of the back door, and out the building.

A spokesman for Mr. Harper, Kory Teneycke, said it was not the local candidates' priority to speak to national media, but rather to get elected. When it was pointed out that local reporters were present, he said that he hasn't said it was their priority to speak to local media, either.

Wide open possibilities

With the Cons having decided that their commitment to accountability ended when they took office and the Libs having never warmed up to the concept even in opposition, the campaign to date has seen far too little talk about how to make Canada's federal government more transparent. But David Akin points out at least one developing movement pushing for open government. And it shouldn't be much surprise which party is getting behind it in a hurry, as 14 NDP candidates have already signed on when even public involvement is limited to a few dozen names.

It remains to be seen what impact the I Believe in Open group will have on the campaign. But particularly in the wake of Harper's ultra-secretive government, now should be exactly the time for Canadians to demand something more than closed-door decision-making. And a national response to this type of initiative looks to be just the way to send that message as the campaign progresses.

Uncosted

It's far from the first time the Cons have ignored the costs of needlessly draconian criminal laws. But their lack of any attention to the expense associated with increased prison sentences is particularly striking in a campaign where they're trying to run on economic management.

First, it was their announcement that they want to make it easier to subject juveniles to sentences of up to life in prison - with no apparent recognition of the resulting need for increased federal penitentiary space if the change were to pass and avoid being struck down as unconstitutional.

Now, the Cons are offering an uncosted promise to pay the provinces to house additional inmates as a result of their eliminating conditional sentences as an option for 30 offences. But the Cons don't even have any idea how many cases might be affected, let alone how much the change would cost:
The Conservatives said it was difficult to obtain statistics on how many people are given conditional sentences for the 30 offences on their list. They said 11,000 people served conditional sentences in 2006, but the 30 offences make up a small fraction of those in the criminal code.

Mr. Harper also said there will be costs for putting more people in jails, and his government will negotiate compensation with the provinces because many of the extra inmates will be sent to provincial jails. (Sentences of less than two years are served in provincial jails.)
In other words, the party which is lecturing its competitors about fiscal responsibility despite having driven the country to the brink of deficit is making absolutely no effort to even figure out - let alone inform voters about - how much its criminal law platform will cost. Which once again gives Canadian voters plenty of reason to doubt Harper's commitment to anything other than pulling wool over the eyes of the public.

Dion: Corporate Tax Cuts More Important than Stopping Harper

As others have noted, Jack Layton's talk about a possible coalition with the Libs consisted largely of a willingness to keep options open which one would expect out of any party or leader. Which makes Stephane Dion's response rather stunning, as the Libs' leader has categorically rejected any attempt to find common ground based on his insistence on cutting corporate taxes:
Liberal Leader St├ęphane Dion flatly rejected forming a coalition government with the New Democrats today on the heels of hints from NDP Leader Jack Layton that he'd be open to the idea.

Mr. Dion, speaking after an address to a Vancouver-area business crowd today, said he could not work with Mr. Layton in this way because the NDP leader wants to hike taxes on business.

“We cannot have a coalition with a party that has a platform that would be damaging for the economy. Period,” the Liberal leader said.
So all that Liberal outrage about food safety deaths under the Cons? As far as Dion is concerned, he's rather let them continue than rein in corporate tax cuts.

Culture? Immigration? Aboriginal issues? Health care? Child care? All to be tossed out the window if taking action means working with the New Democrats.

And even meaningful action on the environment is apparently secondary to Dion's desire to see more money stay in corporate hands.

Needless to say, this should send about the strongest possible signal as to whose interests the Libs will once again favour when it comes time to decide which priorities are most important to them. And with the Dion seeing Harper's corporate tax cuts as so important as to be worth throwing the rest of his party's values and platform under the bus, there can't be much doubt left as to who's really standing up to the Cons.

Update: From LKO in the comments:
(T)o categorically reject the idea of a coalition based upon not wanting to implement every single piece of the NDP platform? Frankly, it suggests that Dion either A) Doesn't understand the meaning of the word "coalition", B) Doesn't think he could lead such a coalition to make the compromises necessary for it to govern, C) Isn't really running a campaign focused on gaining ground on the left the way we all thought he was, or D) Thinks he's winning the election.

No matter which it is,

That's just idiotic.

Home-field disadvantages

A couple of bloggers have already pointed out that the Libs appear to be in danger of falling behind the Greens in British Columbia. But as dangerous as it is for the Libs to be running for fourth place anywhere, the drop may signal even more weakness than it would appear to at first glance.

Remember that much of Dion's organizational structure came from British Columbia, with strong links to both the Martin camp and the Campbell government. Mark Marissen was Dion's campaign manager for the leadership race and at last notice was serving as a national campaign co-chair, while several others with similar ties also played prominent roles. Which would seem to make B.C. one of the provinces where the Libs are likely to be relatively well-organized.

Moreover, while there would normally be some ideological difference between the B.C. Libs and their federal counterparts, those lines have been largely blurred now that both are taking fire over their respective carbon tax plans. Simply put, the Campbell government would seem to have reason to want to make sure that Dion doesn't go down in flames, if only to avoid creating a narrative which will increase their likelihood of doing the same in 2009.

Yet even in a province which plays home to Dion's organizational base - and where the provincial government and its supporters have every reason to want to back the Libs' main policy plank - the Libs are apparently bleeding support from all sides, possibly to the point of facing an uphill battle for third.

Of course, there's at least some symmetry there with the fact that Dion is likewise fighting to stay out of fourth place in his own province. But when neither Dion personally nor his top organizers can apparently win over even their home provinces, what can the Libs possibly have left?

For now, then answer is force of habit, particularly in Ontario. But if the New Democrats can take advantage of an obvious opportunity to gain ground there, then we may soon reach the tipping point where the NDP becomes the default alternative to Harper. And if that comes to pass, then the Libs' drop so far may look positively insignificant by the time the campaign is over.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Without historical precedent

Shorter Lysiane Gagnon:
I can only assume that a Harper majority would go out of its way to govern from the centre rather than imposing an ideological agenda contrary to the views of mainstream voters. And since you asked, no, I haven't heard of Mike Harris. Or Gordon Campbell. Or indeed Stephen Harper for that matter.

Absent Liberals

As Jan points out in the comments here, a new set of viral videos shines a painful spotlight on how Stephane Dion's Libs were missing in action when it came to dozens of important votes in Parliament.

But while these videos are a great start, I have to figure that they're only the beginning of how the Libs' choice to prop up the Cons can rightly be used against them. Now that the source videos are so readily available, it should be an extremely simple process to develop new material which splices footage of the Libs' empty seats with a quick narrative/screen shot of the issues which were being voted on at any given time. Which will show just how weak the Libs were in pretending to oppose Harper in the last Parliament - and why Canada can't afford to entrust them with the responsibility of standing up to Harper in the future either.

On trust markets

In principle, Jack Layton's comment about a coalition government makes for an effective way to keep the Libs from gaining much momentum out of their platform launch. But it's looking like Layton need not have bothered, as the Worst Campaign Ever continues to fall short of even the lowest expectations.

Today, the Libs have managed to undercut a platform launch which was supposed to serve as their jumping-off point for the rest of the campaign. Rather than actually making their wider platform the story, they've instead scooped themselves by reannouncing an income trust tax adjustment which they'd already made public last year - which will only ensure that any actual new proposals will get lost in the shuffle.

What's more, Layton could hardly have scripted a better message to put the Libs on the wrong side of his "kitchen table/boardroom table" contrast than a focus on corporate structures and reopening tax loopholes. All of which suggests that while the Libs may succeed in pointing out one of Harper's more glaring broken promises, they're also opening the door even wider for Layton and the New Democrats to emerge as the governing alternative.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

On flexible federalism

Jack Layton's promise to allow provinces and municipalities to ban handguns is certainly noteworthy from the standpoint of dealing with gun violence. But perhaps more interesting is the direction it may signal when it comes to future issues of federalism.

While the Cons have tried to minimize most functions of the federal government, the one area where they've shown no interest in acknowledging the different interests in different parts of the country is crime - even though it should be obvious that the criminal law priorities may differ radically from place to place. And all indications are that their plan for the next session of Parliament is to impose their agenda with even less allowance for such trifles as public opinion or the relative effectiveness of different policies than they've been willing to put up with so far.

Which makes it noteworthy that the New Democrats' first policy plan related to crime is based on permitting provinces and municipalities to take action if they see handguns as an important issue, rather than imposing anything from a national perspective. And the approach would seem to be one which can work on other criminal justice and related issues as well. (For an obvious example, consider how much less vitriol there would be over programs such as Insite if municipalities were granted the ability to allow or prohibit them locally, rather than having to rely on federal dispensations.)

Of course, a contrast would still exist between the parties' relative treatment of criminal law and other related issues, and that of social programs such as child care and health care where the NDP tends to favour establishing some national standards while the Cons simply hand over money with no questions asked. But that too could make for a valuable debate: where do Canadians (and their provincial and municipal representatives) most value more room for provincial and local decision-making, and where are they more concerned with seeing the same principles applied from coast to coast to coast?

Now, my guess is that the NDP's policies are closer to the right side of public opinion on those questions. But whatever the end result, it's still worth noting that any attempt by the Cons to claim to offer greater flexibility to lower levels of government now faces at least one glaring counterexample - and the more the New Democrats can unveil through the campaign, the more likely they'll be to set themselves apart as the preferred partner for their provincial and municipal counterparts.

Update: Cameron has more.

On target audiences

Andrew Potter asks if the Libs' latest attempt to sell Stephane Dion's leadership is the worst political ad ever made. But the answer looks to me to depend what the Libs do with the ad.

If they actually plan to put the ad on the airwaves based on the hope that it'll improve Dion's standing with the general public, then the answer is an unqualified "yes". Indeed, the use of a clip which appears particularly clumsy even for Dion makes it seem as if the Cons weren't the only party to have had an ironic call to vote against them distributed in their name.

But what if the Libs simply leave the ad online where it likely won't be seen by anybody who isn't already keenly interested in the election? In that case, its main effect might be to lower expectations for the debates to the point where a single coherent sentence is seen as a triumph for Dion. And a narrative of "Dion performs better than expected" might be the most the Libs can hope for at this point.

Of course, the problem with that strategy is that Canadians may understandably expect more than that from the leader of a party whose other main strategy is to scream that Canadians don't have any other choice but themselves. And with even one of the Libs' brightest partisans suggesting the party may need a decade on the sidelines to get its act together, there's all the more reason for Canadians to turn elsewhere to stop and reverse the Harper agenda in the meantime.

Harper: Hooray for Roads to Nowhere!

The most obvious reason why Stephen Harper wouldn't want to offer an opinion on Sarah Palin is the massive ideological chasm between her and the voters Harper needs to pacify before election day. But Bill Curry unintentionally highlights another factor: that Harper apparently manages to take great personal amusement in Palin's style of zero-benefit spending:
(Harper said) his favourite northern spot is Alert.

“It's the most northerly human habitation in the world,” he said. “The scenery there is really spectacular. It's mountains. It's fjords. And a great little thing there: There's a 14-kilometre road to nowhere.

Mr. Harper said the road was built in the 1970s in the hope of making it to the next outpost.

“They just eventually concluded it would never get done,” he said.
Now, for those of us who tend to think that the federal government should be using public money for actual useful purposes, "great" is hardly the first word that would come to mind in describing an utter waste of resources. And that outcome certainly wouldn't be a positive factor in how we'd see the region where the waste took place.

But then, the Cons have shown all too clearly while in power that they're downright eager to throw large amounts of money into pits ranging from utterly useless programs to blatant vote-buying efforts. Which explains why Harper is able to see past waste as a matter for personal enjoyment - and also why it's long past time to get our public funds out of Harper's hands.