Saturday, November 22, 2008

Deep thought

It's interesting how a government which made a show of listening to spending suggestions from only its own MPs is suddenly all ears when it comes to budget cuts.

On evidence-free assertions

Far too much of corporate Canada has been pushing for anti-government agreements by shrieking non-stop about "internal trade barriers". But when economists who don't share the same anti-government animus have made the reasonable request for some indication of what trade barriers the corporate crowd actually wants to see dealt with, the usual answer has been either to point to one of a tiny number of examples which could be (and in some cases have been) far more easily dealt with individually, or to make up numbers rather than even answering the question.

Now, one might assume that the corporate powers that be simply don't want to give ammunition to what they perceive as their opponents. But when one of the country's leading political journalists presents a request for a list of the barriers being dealt with - in the context of a post which includes absolutely no suspicion toward the free-trade position, and indeed buys into the rhetoric that labour mobility and free trade are exactly the same thing - one would think that anybody with a legitimate list would be happy to put it forward to have their position broadcast to the public.

So let's see what kind of actual response just such a request from David Akin has received so far...
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Friday, November 21, 2008

Directing traffic

Northern BC Dipper has covered the B.C. New Democrats' new website in general. But I'll take a moment to point out one very specific bit of content which deserves some special mention.

It's enough of a plus that Speak Out Online section links to plenty of the province's top blogs, serving as a natural link between interested readers and the places where their opinions can be heard most easily.

But even better, unlike some parties within Canada's political scene, the NDP's vision of making one's voice heard doesn't consist of merely attaching one's name to party-based talking points. Instead, the site couldn't be much more clear that it's looking to encourage authentic and thoughtful participation - seeking to shape discussion directed from the party site with only the following set of positive tips for commenters:
1. Know the context

Spend some time getting familiar with the blog so you lower the risk of blowing an issue out of proportion. You'll also know more about how to address the problem, and what to expect once you've made a comment.

2. Remember, it's a conversation

That means listening as well as speaking. Don't just broadcast your point.

3. Be respectful

Keep it respectful and to the point, even if others are slinging sarcasm and insult.

4. You can't win every argument

Given the heated rhetoric of the blogging world, don't expect to convince everyone. Just getting your point of view on record is the important thing -- it shows there is another side to the story, and that you are taking the time to address the concerns of this audience.
It'll be very interesting to see how many participants do get directed from the NDP site into the B.C. blogosphere (as well as the B.C. Libs' site which points to many of the same destinations without similar recommendations). And if the NDP succeeds in both encouraging participation and setting the kind of tone suggested by the party's site, then both it and the province figure to benefit as a result.

Shill games

Shorter Susan Riley:
That uppity NDP has some kind of nerve gaining an advantage by doing what I wish the Liberals had done first.

Necessary measures

CC picks up on the absurdity of Con MP James Moore criticizing the CBC for simple food and travel expenses incurred just around the time that the minister then responsible was billing the public purse thousands of dollars for limousine rides. But there's another part of the story which also deserves to be pointed out:
Moore wants the CBC's board to make sure that kind of spending doesn't happen again.

"I would therefore ask that, as president of the board of trustees of the CBC, you take the necessary measures to ensure the highest level of accountability to taxpayers," Moore wrote. "As minister responsible for the Canadian Heritage portfolio, I would ask to be informed as soon as possible of what these measures are."
In other words, Moore couldn't be bothered to suggest a single "necessary measure" that might actually improve matters. Far easier instead to force the CBC to spend its own time and resources - likely at a cost greater than the expenses in question - in order to guess at what it could do differently to pacify the Cons. And all this even while both sides know that the Cons have a strong incentive to slam the CBC no matter what it does in order to motivate their donor base.

Fortunately, the CBC need not be solely at Moore's mercy. And with the NDP ranking as the strongest contender for Moore's Port Moody—Westwood—Port Coquitlam seat, now might be a great time to ensure that accountability applies to the Cons as well as to the federal institutions they're looking to trash.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Offensive charm

Sure, Stephen Harper and his party have consistently gone out of their way to eliminate any talk or action toward gender equality. But let it not be said that they can't find some use for women in the corridors of power:
The PM, according to one senior government member, told MPs that women in the caucus are particularly good at verbally sparring with opposition members without coming off as too combative.

On common purposes

A couple of weeks back, I discussed the possibilities for NDP cooperation with members of Canada's other political parties, and concluded that the most interesting prospect would involve joining forces with all or part of the Bloc. With that in mind, it's worth noting a couple of recent stories which help to flesh out the opportunities and limitations of such an effort.

First off, let's note Kady's comment after Joe Comartin fell off the ballot for Speaker of the House of Commons:
So where does the NDP go now? To Milliken - or Scheer? And more importantly - what about the Bloc Quebecois? They were locked into Comartin - but now they’re free agents, as it were.
Now, it's worth noting that the Bloc presumably couldn't have been entirely locked into Comartin. After all, the combined vote of all of the NDP and Bloc MPs would have assured Comartin of a place among the top three contenders. And since it seems unlikely that many NDP MPs would have voted against their own partymate, the most likely conclusion is that there was at least some difference of opinion within the Bloc even while Comartin was still on the ballot.

Which is a shame in terms of the eventual result in the race for Speaker. But it may also serve some highly useful purposes in the long run: surely the more examples left-wing Bloc MPs and supporters see of their efforts being thwarted by the Bloc's other wings, the more likely they are to see some benefit in building stronger connections to the national party which shares their progressive values.

And indeed, Murray Dobbin's column yesterday suggests that there's already substantial cross-party work going on to set up an accord in Parliament:
Talk of a parliamentary accord between the Liberals, Bloc and NDP continues across the country, and inside and between the Bloc and NDP parties.

It would take the form of a Liberal minority government, following a non-confidence vote, with a proposal to the Governor General that the three parties would agree to govern for at least two years.

It would be based on a limited policy agenda -- for example, child care, climate change, the Kelowna accord, early troop withdrawal from Afghanistan -- defined by the considerable overlap in the three parties' election platforms.
Now, Dobbin spends most of his column criticizing the Libs for refusing to play along based on the fact that their corporate-friendly agenda would have to take a back seat under such an arrangement. But it's worth noting the possibilities that could arise even with only the NDP and the Bloc involved.

After all, the combined seat count of the NDP and the Bloc would exceed that of the Libs alone. So if the Cons were to lose a confidence vote or try to dissolve Parliament again, a strong argument could be made that an NDP/Bloc joint effort should receive the first opportunity to form an alternative government.

From there, one would have to expect a concerted focus on areas where the Libs' platform lines up with the NDP and Bloc, leaving the Libs with no reason at all to vote non-confidence. And to the extent of any disagreement (particularly on corporate tax cuts), any Lib threats to bring down a coalition would only serve to strengthen the ties between the other two parties.

Naturally, the greatest difficulty with that type of scenario would be the need for the Bloc to take an active role in government, rather than merely supporting an NDP/Lib coalition from the sidelines. But if Bloc members are already working with their NDP counterparts based on mutual agreement that the Cons need to be removed from power, the distinction need not be an insurmountable barrier. And indeed, the prospect of not only toppling the Cons but also ensuring a genuinely progressive federal governemnt could be just the catalyst needed to finally bring the Bloc around to the benefits of working within Canada as a whole.

It of course remains to be seen whether the current discussions will lead to that type of result. And it may be that the Libs will prefer propping up the Cons indefinitely to creating a situation where the left actually could unite. But it's almost certainly for the best that links are forming between progressives within the NDP and the Bloc - and a significant reward for such efforts may not be far away.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On comparators

The Cons' attempt at being environmentally friendly from their throne speech today:
90 percent of Canada’s electricity needs (will) be provided by non-emitting sources such as hydro, nuclear, clean coal or wind power... roughly the same as a dietician recommending the following...
90 per cent of Mr. Harper's caloric intake will be provided by healthy food sources such as broccoli, deep-fried Mars bars, unicorn steaks or asparagus.

Dion, Libs - Fine with More of the Same

There wasn't much doubt that the Libs would come up with some reason to keep propping up the Harper government. But the actual excuse looks like it dovetails nicely with the NDP's message that only the New Democrats offer any real prospect for change:
Liberal Leader Stephane Dion said his party is focused on making Parliament work and will not oppose the throne speech.

"As there is nothing new in this throne speech, it would be irresponsible to bring the government down on this," Dion told reporters.
Now, there's plenty of reason to dispute the claim that there wasn't anything new in what the Cons served up today. And I'll deal with some of the brand new problems with the throne speech itself in future posts.

But even assuming it to be true that there wasn't anything new, is there a worse message the Libs could send than to say that more of the same from Harper is just fine with them? And will that kind of public position make it even tougher for the Libs to summon up the spine to actually oppose the Cons in the future?

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Specific concerns

Well in advance of today's Throne Speech, both the NDP and the Bloc clearly set out their demands from a policy perspective, both offering some vision of where they want to see the government go and declaring inferentially that the Harper government's direction would be evaluated on the merits. Which would seem to me to be the proper role of an opposition party.

But then there are the Libs, who apparently more interested in critiquing the Cons' writing style:
Be specific in throne speech: Liberals...

Federal Liberals say a worried public deserves to hear specific plans and specific reassurances from the Conservative government in the throne speech that opens Parliament.

Ontario MP John McCallum says the country is facing its biggest economic crisis in decades and the Harper government has an obligation to provide clear answers to questions related to the auto sector and private-sector pensions.
While McCallum is quoted mentioning a couple of policy suggestions, those are apparently only an afterthought for the Libs. Instead, their primary message to the Cons is utterly devoid of substantive content, sounding better suited for the instructions accompanying a written test than a debate over public policy.

And that's a problem for more than just the Libs as a party. After all, both the NDP and the Bloc have laid the groundwork for the Cons to face rightful criticism if they don't do enough to help Canadians who are suffering as a result of the economic downturn. And one would think the best way to solidify public concerns about the Harper government would be to amplify that message.

Instead, the Libs have gone out of their way to frame the throne speech based on form rather than content. And that figures to make it far easier for Harper to deflect attention from the likely failings of his government's direction.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Following up on this post, it's worth asking just what the Cons think they're accomplishing with their pattern of trying to wipe out their previous messaging.

After all, I'd think that "natural governing party" title which the Cons seem to covet would require the development of some broadly recognized history and continuity. Which is no easy task - and indeed is bound to be an area of weakness for a party which didn't exist at the start of this decade.

But the Cons only seem to be making that process all the more difficult by reinventing themselves every year and a half in often contradictory ways, then trying to send everything they professed to stand for beforehand down the memory hole. And if the Cons don't think they can afford to let Canadians develop any kind of consistent impression of them, what does that say about their chances of somehow making the "default government" label stick?


Shorter Conservative Party of Canada:
The statements, promises, principles and positions which led to our election are no longer operative.

On stragglers

Kady points out the comical list of MPs in the running for Speaker of the House of Commons. But a look at the MPs who seem to be on the list due to a failure to inform the Clerk that they didn't want to stand for election - rather than any indication that they actually want the position - turns up a noteworthy pattern.

On my review, the only two opposition MPs on the list in the absence of a public push for the Speaker's chair are the Bloc's Christian Ouellet and the Libs' Alan Tonks.

Meanwhile, the Cons - despite a minority of the seats in the House - boast 7 members who didn't pull their names (Anders, Calandra, Del Mastro, Lunney, Smith, Tilson and Weston). And the list of Con MPs includes one who they've rewarded with the title of Manitoba caucus chair, as well as four other multiple-term MPs who should have at least some idea what's going on in the House of Commons.

Which would seem to offer yet another indication of the calibre of MP one can expect in voting for the Cons - and one more reason to question how long Canada can afford to be governed by a party with so many MPs who can't be bothered to pay attention to what's going on around them.

Monday, November 17, 2008

On critical thinking

The NDP has announced its shadow cabinet for the upcoming session of Parliament. But perhaps more interesting than any particular individual assignment is NDP's continued effort to frame the areas of discussion in Parliament rather than letting the Harper government dictate what topics deserve to be dealt with.

By way of comparison, the Libs' list of critics is based almost entirely on the Cons' framing of their own cabinet - on a quick first look, the only difference that I noticed was the inclusion of a single critic for "Water". And the end result is that every effort by the Harper government to change their cabinet composition toward a more conservative bent (such as the change from "social development" to "skills development") is only mirrored by the Libs - while the issues that Harper has chosen to marginalize receive no dedicated focus.

Within the NDP, on the other hand, the list of critic responsibilities is drawn up to emphasize issues which go far beyond Harper's chosen turf.

Needless to say, the Cons aren't likely to dedicate cabinet posts to "Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual and Transgender Issues", "Housing, Homelessness and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation", "Persons with Disabilities" or "Substance Abuse and Prostitution Issues" anytime soon. But NDP supporters concerned with those issues can rest assured that whether or not Harper would prefer to sweep their causes under the rug, they'll find a voice within the NDP caucus.

Compare and contrast

The delegate count from this year's Saskatchewan NDP convention, which was far too broadly spun as one reflecting declining party membership and enthusiasm:
Party finances, organization, leadership and reconnecting with rural Saskatchewan are on the agenda for the approximately 700 delegates who are expected as the convention continues during the weekend in Regina.
The delegate count from this weekend's Sask Party convention, spun as representing the glorious ascendancy of King Brad I:
At the largest convention in the Sask. Party's 11-year history with more than 500 delegates...
Now, it's probably true that the NDP needs to rely on more in-province support since (unlike the Sask Party) it can't count on being bankrolled from Alberta.

That said, it's striking that even at its apparent peak, the Sask Party still can't muster enough support within the province to match the NDP's delegate count. And if even the most favourable set of circumstances imaginable on taking power hasn't been enough to enable Wall to build much of a party within the province, then a resurgence in 2011 would seem to be well within reach for the NDP.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Numbers based

In the wake of the U.S. election, all of the Canadian parties are understandably looking to mimic Barack Obama's successful campaign - and indeed I've suggested several ways in which the NDP can do just that. But let's note Ezra Klein's take on the underlying philosophy that seems to have worked so well, as the specific tactical choices which have received most of the attention were built on a foundation of data-driven decision-making - or as Klein puts it in language that I've tried to tie into Canadian politics before, a "Sabermetrics campaign".

Of course, as in baseball, there's still plenty of room for argument as to what indicators are most important in evaluating the success of a political operation. But the Obama campaign may reflect the first step in a shift from general reliance on the hunches of grizzled political veterans to far more widespread efforts to ground political decisions in empirical data - much as the same has happened in baseball's front offices over the past decade. And this may be one more lesson from Obama which could easily translate into an advantage for the Canadian party which works hardest to follow suit.

On building blocks

It's seldom a bad idea for a political party to be seen building up its presence within a particular pool of voters: for example, Jason Kenney's efforts to tap into different cultural communities on the Cons' behalf were likely made a lot more effective by the media attention they received. Which is why today's news about the NDP's designation of Bob Gallagher to oversee party-building efforts in Toronto is probably a plus on the balance.

But it's worth a reminder that the goal of building up a party capable of winning a substantial chunk of the GTA will involve an awful lot more work than a single staffer can carry out (or even supervise directly). And it'll be a serious concern if the NDP is counting on shuffling personnel around within the current organizational model to produce future gains, rather than building the kind of party behind the scenes which can move the headlines when they count the most.