Saturday, November 01, 2008

On consistent returns

I'm not about to complain about the fact that the NDP is rightly being recognized as having taken in more money from more people than the Libs so far in 2008. But is it really too much to ask that reporting on the story actually note that the two parties have basically been in a dead heat since the beginning of 2007, rather than sounding an undue note of surprise?

All too true

Digby nicely sums up how the right wing's complete lack of scruples or first principles which won't be tossed away where politically convenient has made it impossible to have a genuine conversation about what kinds of actions are and aren't acceptable:
(T)hey have retired the concept of hypocrisy. It goes far beyond double standards or duplicity or bad faith. There's an aggression to it, a boldness, that dares people to bring up the bald and obvious fact that the person making the charge is herself a far worse perpetrator of the thing she is decrying. There's an intellectual violence in it.

In a world in which the conservatives weren't such post modern shape shifters, we could come to a consensus on certain issues in this country --- like privacy, for instance. We could agree that it's wrong for government employees to use private information for partisan purposes --- or for the media, including bloggers, to stalk and publish private information of anyone who dares speak out for a political cause. But we don't live in a world like that.

We live in a world where the right wing ruthlessly and without mercy degrades and attacks by any means necessary what they perceive as the enemy, and then uses the great principles of democracy and fair play when the same is done to them. They leave the rest of us standing on the sidelines looking like fools for ever caring about anything but winning.

(I)t's not that I believe liberals are purely good and decent. We have many, many faults and are almost preternaturally talented at seizing defeat from the jaws of victory before we even get finished celebrating. But failing to truly grok just how pernicious this right wing rejection of hypocrisy really is and how much power it gives them is a foolish mistake.
And lest there be any doubt, no, the Cons at home aren't any different.

Internal considerations

There's been plenty of talk about the Cons' cabinet shuffle. But so far I haven't seen much more than hints at what strikes me as the most likely impact of the new structure: while the changes figure to do little to modify how the Cons govern, they may do plenty to consolidate Stephen Harper's hold on power within the party.

The most obvious example, picked up to some extent by the CP, is the decision to put Jim Prentice in Environment. But the story there isn't merely some slight perceived demotion for the most obvious heir apparent to Harper.

After all, the Cons have made clear all along that they don't plan on introducing anything but weak, loophole-ridden "intensity" targets as their means of dealing with greenhouse gas emissions. But it's Prentice who will not not only have to introduce the final regulations, but also take ministerial responsibility for the first couple of years when some targets actually take effect. And while the Cons' plans stood little chance of getting much done at the best of times, it's particularly improbable that Canadian industry will meet targets which are tied to output during the course of an economic downturn which will make it difficult to invest in new technology or increase production.

Which means that Harper has ensured that Prentice will spend the next couple of years under heavy opposition fire, and likely wind up personally wearing the failure of a policy which was never designed to succeed.

And that may not even be the most damaging effect on Prentice's future. While the Cons' plan is doomed to fail, it also needs to be presented to the public in a way which at least pays lip service to the reality of climate change. Which in turn will hurt Prentice's standing with the denialists who form so much of the Cons' western base.

So in one move, Harper has simultaneously ensured that both the opposition and a substantial chunk of the Cons' core support will end up turning against his most obvious possible successor.

Who else might otherwise have been able to launch a credible challenge to Harper? I'd think that next in line would have been Lawrence Cannon, who's likely the lone Quebec MP who might be seen as having the heft to potentially convince voters from the province to abandon the Bloc. But as has already been noted, Cannon has been moved against his will to a position which will keep him too focused on international affairs to focus on building a personal power base.

And as an added bonus, the MP with the next-best chance of making the same type of case, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, has also been shuffled out of a position which would seem to allow him to connect with voters to one which is seen as both a relative insult, and one which leaves little room to build any popularity.

So who ended up in the plum positions which would seem to offer a platform for advancement? Well, Jim Flaherty remains in Finance. But whatever his ambitions might be, any minister who's gone out of his way to insult his home province can probably be ruled out as a real leadership threat. And John Baird takes over the pork opportunities linked to Transport and Infrastructure - when he isn't busy accompanying the current leader's wife to social events.

Which means that it's a real challenge to try to figure out who might have the best chance of making a future case for leadership based on a current ministerial role. Rob Nicholson remaining at Justice? Tony Clement at Industry? Jason Kenney at Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism? Christian Paradis remaining at Public Works?

What does seem safe to say is that if those are Harper's biggest internal threats, then he can likely hold onto the Cons' leadership as long as he wants it. And considering how little impact individual ministers have been allowed to have in actually managing their portfolios, it wouldn't surprise me at all if that's the main reason why Harper set up the cabinet how he did.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Some perspective

Lawrence Cannon may not be happy about being put in Foreign Affairs. But imagine what the hundred-odd Con MPs who likely want the position think about being passed over for somebody who doesn't.


There wasn't much doubt that the Cons' efforts to clean up their own fiscal mess were going to result in at least some conflict. But Jim Flaherty may have just chosen the one target area most sure to call his government's competence into question:
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, facing Canada's first budget deficit in more than a decade, said he will limit the growth of equalization payments to the poorer provinces.

Speaking to reporters after the first meeting of Stephen Harper's new cabinet yesterday, Mr. Flaherty said the equalization program, which redistributed $13.6-billion in the current fiscal year, is growing at an unsustainable pace of about 15 per cent a year.

He said he would discuss the subject at a meeting with his provincial and territorial counterparts in Toronto on Monday. While he might be willing to negotiate how tightly to pull the reins, the federal minister made clear his mind is made up on the need to constrain future equalization payments.

"It's a federal program; we will put a limit on the growth of it," Mr. Flaherty said. "This is not something that is discretionary. We must do this, otherwise the integrity of the program will be under attack."
Now, it's worth keeping in mind a fairly obvious point: if equalization payments are growing at a particular pace under the formula which the Cons approved, then so too is inequality among the provinces by Flaherty's own terms.

Mind you, it's far from surprising that regional inequality would be growing: after all, the Cons' economic policies have been based on a steady combination of handouts to already-profitable industries and regions, and neglect for ones in need of support. But it's noteworthy that having gone out of their way to exacerbate regional differences, the Cons are now using the predictable result as an excuse to complain that it's beyond their capability to try to ensure relatively equal service levels.

So who might stand to lose out if the Cons end up attacking equalization? Well, here's the most recent federal information on the subject - with six provinces already receiving what look to be rather substantial numbers in an effort to equalize their service levels with those available elsewhere. And it may only get more interesting: now that even Ontario is reported to be close to receiving payments, the Cons may effectively be telling a strong majority of the country that it should be willing to settle for a lesser service level than that available in the western provinces.

Needless to say, that doesn't figure to go over well either with the provincial governments who would once again see the federal government trying to balance its books at their expense, or with citizens who rightly recognize the need for services to be available on a reasonably comparable basis across the country. And if the Cons really don't see any less damaging means of improving its fiscal position as ideiologically acceptable, then it wouldn't be surprising if the next few steps are enough to set in motion a wave of anger that eventually results in their removal from office.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Link burst

Assorted notes on Dwain Lingenfelter's campaign launch today based on the reports I've seen so far...

First off, it's surely a bad sign that "winning" is apparently the main message which Lingenfelter is seeking to sell, rather than anything he'd like to get done upon doing do.

On the brighter side, the volunteer initiative looks to be a significant positive. And the mention of a Web site (which as best I can tell has yet to be launched) suggests at least some awareness of Internet traditions.

Finally, as a point of interest, note that Lingenfelter only managed half the turnout that Jack Layton managed for his Regina breakfast appearance this fall. Which seems particularly striking considering how much of the caucus has already announced its support. Which may serve as an indication that the party's grassroots at least aren't yet anywhere near as supportive as the caucus.

Mind you, the best news for Lingenfelter so far may be the relative disorganization and indecisiveness of the most likely alternatives. With nobody else yet willing to formally announce and all the past or present MLAs in the mix playing a waiting game, it may be that Lingenfelter will be able to get a head start which puts him out of reach - though it's hard to see it ultimately being a plus for the party's hopes of winning the next election if nobody else ends up putting together a substantial support network.

More Liberal visionaries

So what kind of values are the Libs looking for in their leadership race? Surprise, surprise...
"There's one factor here and only one factor and that's getting an electable leader," said a senior Liberal, who asked to remain unidentified...

Stephen Clarkson, a University of Toronto political scientist, argues for a "thinkers conference" like those that have taken place when the party was in the wilderness in the past.

Unfortunately, the Liberals do not have the luxury of time in this minority government era, he said. "They can't do what they should do."

But Liberals are bullish that the difficult economy will erode confidence in the Tories during this time, perhaps lessening the need for such a rethink.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Burning questions

What will Dwain Lingenfelter do with the portion of his leadership dowry that can't be spent on the campaign? And does the answer change depending on whether or not he wins?

A perfect fit

Like many, I was skeptical at first when Pinball Clemons' name was tossed around in connection with the Libs' leadership race. But one has to give him credit for wasting no time in embracing the party's deepest traditions of finger-pointing and avoiding responsibility just in time for the contest to start:
A report in the Globe and Mail on Tuesday hints at friction between Michael (Pinball) Clemons and team management over who is at fault for some of the decisions made this season...

The report in the Globe and Mail raises questions about who had final say on the Joseph deal.

Clemons admitted to the newspaper that he played a small part in the trade but said he was not part of the final decision.

"If they say no, it's done," explained Clemons to the Globe and Mail. "I got no say in that, got no decision in that. If they say, 'No, we don't want Kerry Joseph,' it's a done deal. There's no more conversation. Conversation is over. So they said yes, and the process continued. That's what happened, football ops said yes."

According to the Globe and Mail, sources within the Argonauts told them that the team's football operations were not overly excited about making the move.

Clemons explained the team's management structure to Globe and Mail and told them the final decision on every move was Rita's.

The Harperpedia awaits

Sure, it's interesting to note that the federal government now has an internal equivalent of Wikipedia to assist in the collaborative sharing of information. But the real question is how long it takes for the Cons to develop the equivalent of the deservedly-ridiculed Conservapedia to provide a similar forum for those who want an ideologically-obstructed view.

Time to decide

I'm not sure that Angus Reid's polling to the effect that 54% of voters had already made their minds up before the start of the election campaign should come as too much of a shock, as the number at least roughly approximates the parties' base support levels. (Though the number does offer a strong indication as to why the parties can't afford to wait until the start of a campaign to make a serious push to win support.)

What strikes me as more interesting, though, are the numbers within the campaign itself. There, roughly equal numbers of voters made their decisions before the debates (15%), following the debates (12%), and on election day (15%).

I'd tend to figure that for a voter who hadn't yet decided anything by the start of the election period, there would be little reason to finalize any voting decisions before all the information from the campaign is in. But it appears that a remarkable number of voters tuned in from the start of the campaign, then made a fairly quick decision as to who to support.

Now, it could be that the dynamic in 2008 was based mostly on the diverging campaign fortunes of the two parties mentioned most often in the media's horse-race narrative, such that the same pattern might not hold in other campaigns. But if the distribution does reflect how undecided voters will generally reach their decision, then it would seem that parties may be best served focusing more of their resources on the beginning of the campaign (when there are at least as many voters to be won, as well as an opportunity to shape a public narrative for later) than on a closing push. And that could lead to a significantly different campaign shape than what we saw this year.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On tarnished brands

It's interesting to see Robert Silver's surprise that Dominic Leblanc is doing everything possible to run away from the title of renewal/grassroots candidate. But it makes perfect sense from my standpoint that the Lib contenders might be seeking virtually any other available available label first.

After all, Stephane Dion held just those designations at the last leadership convention - however dubiously in light of the apparent lack of grassroots support following his leadership win. And with the Libs's latest race now in progress as a direct result of Dion's failings, it makes sense that Leblanc and other candidates would see some serious danger in branding themselves in a way that would build associations to Dion.

Of course, that raises issues as to whether the Libs' leadership contenders will end up either being detached from any party renewal process, or completely drowning it out. And it may be that Dion's greatest damage to the Libs is yet to come if his path to victory winds up discrediting the symbols associated with him among the Libs' new leadership contenders.

Deep thought

It seems to me that the "unite the right" movement consisted entirely of people who identified themselves and their parties as right-wing.

It only counts if you're a Liberal

Most readers will be familiar with the concept of IOKIYAC, meaning "it's okay if you're a Conservative", as a shorthand for the double standards typically applied by the right. But it may be time to unveil a new abbreviation along similar lines: IOCIYAL, for "it only counts if you're a Liberal".

For today's example, let's go to Sheila Copps' column on women in politics:
A record number of Canadian women actually rode into Parliament on a wave created by the election's biggest loser. Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion announced early that he would try to nominate an unprecedented one-third women for the Grit team. In the end, the party topped its target, nominating an unprecedented 113 women or 37 per cent of its candidates.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Dion's bold move encouraged most other political parties to expressly target more women nominations.

The Bloc Québécois ran 20 women and managed to elect 15 of them, defying the prevailing myth that women are somehow less electable than men. The New Democrats nominated 104 women, electing 11.
Copps' claim is a fairly simple one: that Dion's target influenced the NDP and the Bloc to nominate and elect more female candidates. But there's a fairly glaring problem with the assertion if one actually checks the evidence.

After all, a quick look at the Pundits' Guide election numbers shows that in the 2006 election, the NDP led the pack by far with 108 female candidates, with the Bloc running 23 (to 79 for the Libs).

As a result, it would seem to be beyond reasonable dispute that both the NDP and the Bloc were doing plenty to bring female candidates into the fold long before Stephane Dion won the Lib leadership. And moreover, the Libs' target had absolutely nothing to do with the number of female candidates nominated by the other opposition parties.

Now, it's worth noting that attempting to give credit to the Libs for being on the cutting edge is itself a fairly laughable proposition. In every previous federal election in the Pundits' Guide database, the NDP had a healthy lead on the Libs in the number of female candidates nominated - and in both 1997 and 2006 the NDP had already exceeded the 33% target which Copps claims to have been so revolutionary.

Which means that if one wants to give credit to anybody for setting a precedent for relative gender parity that other parties have felt a need to follow, the place to direct praise would be toward Alexa McDonough and Jack Layton. But thanks to IOCIYAL, Copps and her party are apparently well along the path toward editing the history books to delete any reference to female candidates prior to Dion.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Duty calling

Andrew Potter has put up a few posts dealing with voter turnout over the past week. But one of the columns mentioned by Potter looks like one worth considering in greater detail both as a matter of general interest, and an area which political parties may want to focus in on.

Here's Don Butler on why citizens generally do vote even where it might not be an obviously rational choice:
A survey done for Elections Canada after the 2006 election found 94 per cent of Canadians agree it's a civic duty to vote. Mind you, nearly nine in 10 also said they voted in the election, so perhaps we should take the findings with a shaker or two of salt.

"Once somebody gets this sense of duty to vote," says the University of British Columbia's Fred Cutler, a voting expert, "it's hard to move. They tend to feel badly, and think others will think badly of them, if they don't vote."
I'll leave aside for now the later discussion of a study as to how social influences may promote voting, though that may certainly be worth some future commentary. Instead, I'm curious as to whether or not the current trend toward retail politics may both depress turnout and serve as a suboptimal means of motivating voter choices.

After all, if the main reason why people vote is because of a perceived public duty, then it would seem at least possible that the question of how people vote could be strongly influenced by an appeal to much the same principle - or at least that parties might see the most benefit by making their messages appeal to the desired answer for both questions.

And likewise, it might make sense that to the extent politics are seen as more a matter of choosing from cynically-targeted policies based on one's personal advantage, citizens can be expected a more skeptical look at whether or not to vote in the first place.

So what does that mean for Canada's political parties? At the moment, the Cons are likely the only party which can be said to have a policy message that's largely tied in with its desired level of voter motivation: it seems generally well-accepted that low turnout plays to their strengths in having a motivated base accompanied by a fairly strict ceiling of support, and the Cons' retail politics surely help on both counts.

In contrast, it seems to me to be worth asking whether the opposition parties would be best served tying their messages to the idea of a duty to be a part of something greater. If successful, that could counteract not only the Cons' ideology, but also their efforts to soften public interest in voting. And that can only help to ensure that some Canadians who have been turned off by the current level of cynicism see themselves as having reason to cast a vote which can help end the Cons' me-first model of government.

The race is on

There's some very good news at the start of the Saskatchewan NDP leadership race, as the rules announced this weekend look to create a wide open field for possible contenders:
The rules for this contest will be much the same as the last, Pedersen said. Candidates will have a $200,000 spending limit, a slight increase over last time.

Nominations close six weeks before the Regina convention, and anyone who's purchased a membership up to five weeks before the convention can vote. Each member can vote in person at the convention, or by phone or online.

The party currently has 8,000 to 9,000 members, but Pedersen expects that to jump in the coming months with all of the excitement around the leadership race.
Probably the most important element of the rules is a spending limit set at a relatively low level - indeed, significantly below the amount that Dwain Lingenfelter is already rumoured to have in his back pocket as one of his preconditions to running.

The result looks to be a huge positive for the party's effort to build up both its leadership ranks and its broader membership. Because the limit has been kept at a relatively modest level, the cost of entering the race wouldn't figure to be prohibitive for any candidate with a substantial fund-raising plan.

And the limit would also seem to reduce the ability of any candidate to try to win the race based on media saturation or other paid media. Instead, the deciding factor should be the question of which contestant can best build up a support network around the province based on a combination of personal interaction, earned media and other lower-cost ways of building connections with potential NDP members. And based on the one member, one vote system there shouldn't be much doubt that the winner will need to bring in plenty of new members into the fold, as the current party membership of roughly 8,000 wouldn't even have formed a majority in the 2001 leadership race.

All of which is to say that there's now plenty of reason for optimism that the NDP's leadership race will fulfill much of its promise for party renewal. And regardless of who ends up winning, that has to be a positive result for the NDP and its supporters.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Promises broken

It isn't much of a secret that the Cons' actions on criminal justice legislation have been radically different from their words, as the Harper government has gone out of its way to avoid passing legislation while blaming the opposition, the Senate, and anybody else who happens to wander by. But they've managed to reach a new low in responding to questions about parts of their 2006 platform which were never introduced in Parliament.

Let's start by noting that the Cons were provided with a ready-made excuse for what they haven't done:
The federal Conservatives have scaled back their tough-on-crime agenda by abandoning at least one dozen of the key promises that helped vault them to power in 2006, including abolishing prisoner voting and eliminating "artistic merit" as a defence for child pornography...

Ed Ratushny, a constitutional law expert at University of Ottawa, suggested the Conservatives may have given some sober second thought to some of their earlier promises.

"Sometimes when governments get in power, they get advice (from bureaucrats)that says some of their simplistic approaches are unconstitutional or that the battle has already been fought," he said.

Mr. Ratushny cited a law that permits accused child pornographers to claim that their work has artistic merit -- a defence that the Conservatives proposed to eliminate in their 2004 and 2006 election platforms.

The Supreme Court of Canada, however, has given generous leeway for artistic merit as a defence...

A longtime pledge to end prisoner voting has also vanished. The right for inmates to cast ballots was granted by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2002 under a charter section that guarantees all Canadians age 18 and over the right to vote.

The section is immune from the notwithstanding clause that gives Parliament power to override an established right. Therefore, it could only be changed by amending the constitution, which history has shown is doomed to fail.
But far be it from the Cons to allow for the possibility that they might have applied some sober second thought, moved past their simplistic mindset, or given some consideration to the idea that changing the constitution solely to strip prisoners of the vote might not be worthwhile. Instead, it's time for another round of reality-free finger-pointing:
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson's press secretary, Darren Eke, said that the Conservatives government has a busy justice agenda heading into the next Parliament, in which Mr. Nicholson intends to resurrect several initiatives promised in 2006 that failed to pass in the House of Commons.

Mr. Eke blamed the opposition parties for the government's backed-up justice agenda, saying in an e-mail that it would be "irresponsible to introduce legislation that simply would have sat and stagnated."
Again, it's worth noting that even with the bills that the Con introduced, the hold-up was primarily a combination of the Cons declining to deal with their own bills, and proroguing in order to try to tie highly suspect legislation to a number of measures which had already passed the House of Commons.

But for the Cons, there's apparently no challenge in trying to cast blame elsewhere for their going out of their way to avoid getting bills passed. Now, they've ratcheted up the degree of difficulty by actually blaming the opposition for a failure to pass promises which they never even bothered to introduce.

It may not be surprising that the Cons are testing just how much further they can escape from the boundaries of plausibility after managing to get away with a couple of years of Potemkin government. But it seems probable that there's still some limit to what they can get away with - and the more the Cons keep pushing the envelope as they did today, the more likely they'll be to reach the point where their every pronouncement receives the contempt it deserves.

Frame building

Last week, I expressed some concern about whether the provincial NDP was planning its public messages to build toward the 2011 election and beyond. But I'll note that while the party's initial response to the latest throne speech may have been a bit disjointed, there's some great work (warning: PDF) going on to help frame discussion about Wall and company.

Of course, there's probably some room to make the content of the latest Coffee Row a bit more accessible - maybe by breaking it down in to multiple web pages in addition to the single PDF document, and creating links from the existing issues page to ensure that anybody looking to the NDP for information about specific topics will also get pointed to the Sask Party's failings.

But it's still worth noting that there's already been plenty of work done to develop narratives which should properly define the Sask Party. And with those readily available, it shouldn't be difficult for the NDP to make sure that its quick responses fit into the frames they're building for Wall.