Saturday, February 07, 2009

Review time

Deficit Jim's budget implementation legislation is now available online - with a bill that the Cons are demanding to have passed in a hurry reporting in at a svelte 551 pages. I'll be taking a look for any obvious new moves or attacks on the opposition - but anybody else with the inclination is encouraged to do the same to make sure we're at least aware of any nasty surprises before the Libs vote them into law.

Update: Beijing York notes some problems with the link in comments. Here's another link which should in theory go to the bill's table of contents; if that doesn't work, then it may be easiest to seek out bill C-10 through LEGISinfo.

How quickly they forget

For those trying to play up the Cons' assertion that they don't plan to run attack ads against Michael Ignatieff, let's turn back the clock to that long-ago era of January 2009.

That would be when Harper's party - in the midst of the current economic crisis - claimed that a series of anti-coalition spots were "response ads" rather than attack ads. This despite the fact that the ads the Cons were supposedly responding to didn't even hint at voting down the Harper government, and indeed only asked the Cons themselves to listen to suggestions for the budget.

Just so we're clear, then...

The Cons may be trying to present themselves as focused on the economy to the exclusion of running ad campaigns. But they've already proven the contrary through their actions.

Moreover, the Cons have already demonstrated their propensity for splitting hairs rather than acknowledging what their ads actually are. And they don't figure to have any more shame about labelling negative ads as, say "factual" than they did about labelling attack ads as "response ads".

Which means that pretending the Cons' latest leaks bear any resemblance to how they'll actually function serves only two purposes: to make the Libs overconfident about how what they can get away with before facing another advertising barrage, and to give the Cons a free pass for past actions which show just how empty the new words are. And it's hard to see how anybody but Harper benefits from either of those outcomes.

Leadership 2009 - Week in Review

We'll see if there's enough news from the Saskatchewan NDP's leadership campaign to support a weekly roundup from here on in - but there's plenty worth pointing out about the shape of the race based on this week's developments.

The most obvious news is the addition of Ryan Meili to the contest. But what hasn't yet been noticed is just how quickly Meili has made a splash in the few areas where it's possible to measure public support.

As both the latest addition to the race and the one with the lowest profile within the NDP, Meili would have seemed to have the toughest task ahead of him in assembling a support network. But Meili's list of Facebook supporters is already longer than that of either Deb Higgins or Yens Pedersen. And in the LeaderPost's entirely unscientific poll on the race, Meili is amazingly within a whisker of Dwain Lingenfelter at 40% of the vote, with Higgins and Pedersen stuck in single digits behind "none of the above".

Of course, the Leader-Post's poll doesn't seem likely to carry much weight as an indicator of actual public opinion. But it does offer a hint as to which campaigns are best organized in showing support from the beginning. And if Meili is at the head of the pack in that department, that may signal similar strength in volunteer numbers for the other tasks which will more directly influence the outcome of the race.

Now, Higgins has some obvious alternative sources of support within the NDP caucus and the labour movement. And those factors are likely enough to maintain her ranking as the strongest challenger to Lingenfelter for now even if her online network may be the weakest of all the candidates.

Moreover, Higgins might be the greatest beneficiary of a Meili campaign strong enough to keep Lingenfelter from a first-ballot win. So Higgins may not have much reason to worry based on this week's developments.

But a candidate running on youth and renewal surely can't afford to be lapped in the online organization department. Which means that Yens Pedersen's campaign looks to face some significant problems if his head start and profile within the party have already been overtaken by Meili's support network.

In fairness, it could be as well that Meili's camp has focused on more visible showings of support to the exclusion of longer-term work - which would figure to play out publicly in time. But for now, Meili looks to have established himself firmly in the #3 position - and if he can keep up this week's pace, then Lingenfelter and Higgins may end up being surprised by the race's youngest challenger as they reach the finish line.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Musical interlude

Apparently some folks enjoy music for the weekend. Here's a song.

Fine print watch

The Harper government is loudly trumpeting its desire to quickly pass a large budget bill which hasn't yet been publicly introduced. Is there a more obvious signal that there are some nasty surprises in store?

On dubious honours

There's been plenty written about the Cons' transit tax credit debacle. But one of the more interesting implications doesn't yet seem to have been pointed out.

Here are Greg Weston's observations on what the program's revised projections mean in the cost to reduce emissions:
(T)he Harper government opted for the transit pass tax credit, which the finance department estimated at the time would cost taxpayers about $2,000 to $3,000 per tonne of greenhouse gas eliminated.

Today, that's probably closer to $10,000 a tonne.

To put that in perspective, paying someone 10 grand to park the family clunker for about three months would have the same environmental impact. Where do we sign?
Now, I'm not sure if Weston's math is precisely on target. After all, the Finance Department's original projections were already based on an estimated emissions impact of half that assumed by Environment. Which means that the further revision makes the outcome only three times worse than Finance had estimated, pushing it to the $6,000-$9,000/tonne range.

But that gap is still enough to restore a dubious honour to the program. For awhile, it looked like the Cons' car purchase tax credit had beaten out the transit pass credit as the world's least effective emissions reduction measure. But the new numbers would appear to push the transit tax credit back into the lead - at least until the car purchase credit undergoes a similar review.

Of course, the bigger question is why we're still stuck with a government which has gone to such lengths to lead the world in the waste department. And the fact that they've managed to fall short of even the lowest expectations on the environment (which was of course the top political issue at the time) can only offer more reason to doubt that Con-managed stimulus spending will accomplish anything useful.


I blogged about a Buy Canadian policy a couple of days back. But at the time, I hadn't realized that Erin had already made similar points with a particular focus on steel trade patterns - which miraculously found their way into the National Post. So have a read as to why the concept of domestic purchasing makes sense in general - and why the actual compromise on the Buy American clause may be an ideal result for Canada.

The party of responsibility

It hasn't taken long after the introduction of Deficit Jim's initial budget for both the Libs and Cons to start bidding up any federal stimulus plan. But with plenty of stories pointing out the Cons' consistent failure to accomplish anything useful while dispensing billions of public dollars, the result may be to create a huge opening for the NDP to brand itself as the party of fiscal responsibility.

To start off with, let's note that the seemingly safer route for both the Libs and the Cons is to push for more and more stimulus. In the Libs' case, any mention of added stimulus funding can serve to try to distinguish themselves from the Cons as more responsive to concerns raised by the recession. But the Cons would naturally prefer to avoid letting the Libs draw that contrast, which makes them likely to try to keep pace with any requests to toss more money on the pile.

Of course, both will also talk about trying to be fiscally responsible in the process. But that's where the opening for the NDP comes in.

After all, the wave of news this week simply confirms the reality that the Cons' management of public funds has been woeful from day one. Already, there's evidence to suggest that the impending sea of red ink could have been avoided if not for the Cons' irresponsibility.

With reports pointing out that past Con spending has produced few if any demonstrable results, a case can be made that while genuine stimulus would be a plus, Deficit Jim and company figure to do more harm than good if given more money to play with. And that can stick to the Libs as well while they support the Cons, particularly if they're the ones publicly suggesting that Flaherty should be doling out more than he is.

Now, the first reaction would almost certainly be a suggestion that the NDP would be playing against type with such a move, notwithstanding the NDP's superior governing record and support for balanced budgets. But even that might not be a negative, particularly to the extent it gives the media a hook to write about the NDP's position. While columns saying that "even the NDP is sounding more responsible than the other parties" may be condescending initially, they can easily lay the groundwork for a message which cuts out "even" and "sounding" to make for a genuinely positive association.

And the longer-term benefits to the NDP could be massive if it succeeds in building that link. With the Cons simultaneously abandoning the idea of balanced budgets and getting tarred with the patronage brush, the main factor keeping their deficit-hawk supporters from turning elsewhere may be the lack of a seeming alternative. But if the NDP can change that calculus, then the result may be to topple the Cons from power - and to place the NDP in a stronger position than ever before.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Deep thought

If I was sitting on evidence that a government was grossly mismanaging and politicizing infrastructure spending, my reaction wouldn't be to give it another $12 billion to play with.

Update: Nor would it seem like a good idea to call for more.

Within reach

Robert Silver is looking to lower expectations for the Libs for the next federal election campaign by throwing out daunting-sounding numbers about what it would take to remove the Cons from office. But let's take a closer look at whether he's right in saying that change is out of reach.

Let's note off the top that even in Silver's minimal scenario of an 8-point change, the total Lib+NDP seat count would exceed the Cons', meeting one of the artificial conditions which coalition bashers have sought to impose in the current Parliament. So if Ignatieff can overcome the distrust he's built up with the other opposition parties, even that minimal movement could result in a change in government.

But what about the higher numbers required to push the Libs alone ahead of the Cons? A 10- or 12-point swing sounds like a lot on its face. But in reality, it's well within the range of possible outcomes.

After all, it was as recently as 2006 that the total swing involving the Libs and Cons was over 13 points based on 6.5-point moves for both parties.

In 2004, the combined NDP (+7)/Lib (-4) swing was over 11 points. (I'll ignore the Cons' numbers from that year since they reflect a party merger - but looking at only raw numbers the NDP/Con swing would be even bigger at 15 points.) And in 2001, the Alliance/PC swing was just under 13 points. So in fact, the 2008 results are unique among recent elections in their lack of a significant swing among the parties.

What if one limits the swings to the top two parties from the previous Parliament - both to mimic the Con/Lib dynamic, and to avoid picking only the greatest jumps and drops from each cycle? Even there, the types of changes which Silver paints as being unrealistic are well within the range of what's happened in the past in plenty of other elections beyond 2006. In 1993, the Lib/PC swing was 36 points; in 1988, just under 11; in 1984, roughly 34; in 1972, just under 11; in 1962, 20 points and in 1958, 22 points.

And those numbers reflect all kinds of political circumstances - including minorities (1958 and 2006) and majorities alike, as well as featuring sharp changes in direction (1984 and 1993) alongside elections which preserved the current party in power (1972 and 1988).

Of course, those numbers also hint at the second part of the equation which Silver would presumably like to avoid. If a swing of 20+ points is recognized to be a plausible outcome, then there's no way around the fact that the NDP has joined the Libs within striking distance of the Cons.

But I'd have to think that Silver and others are best off playing up rather than minimizing the potential for change. After all, the more the Libs' mouthpieces try to answer the suggestion that Canadians can replace the current Con government with a pessimistic "no we can't", the more likely voters will be to look for a party which offers a more hopeful answer.

Edit: fixed typos.

Team efforts

Adam Radwanski's post on politics as a team sport is definitely worth a look. But it should also be asked whether the way politics are treated in the media exacerbates the rooting-for-laundry mentality.

When it comes to reporting on the views of voters generally, we see constant polls about who supports who for the moment. But only a small fraction of that amount of attention seems to be dedicated to figuring out why respondents prefer the party that they do. And it's a rare poll indeed that raises even the issue of second-party preferences and likelihood of a respondent's vote switching, let alone the reasons why such a switch might or might not take place.

And coverage of the political scene may raise similar issues. Part of the problem likely lies in the false balance issue: where stories are designed to simply present the position of two opposed parties rather than to evaluate the strength of those positions (much less the possibility of different ones not represented by the parties named), it's easy for readers to find something which supports the team mentality and move on.

That in turn rewards parties who value message consistency over accuracy and substantive content by reinforcing their positions, while punishing those who have internal differences of opinion which reflect the process of actually deliberating to reach better results. Which means that parties are left encouraging their supporters to be parrots rather than thinkers, focusing on spreading the core message rather than raising questions about what the party ought to be doing.

Of course, the same problem may exist to an even greater extent outside media channels. And it's entirely possible that peer-to-peer persuasion (via party talking points) will only become more significant in at least the near future as citizens tune out the he-said, she-said media battle. Which raises the question of whether those covering politics will see value in offering up information which pushes observers to examine their underlying assumptions, or whether they'll continue to reinforce the team-based model.

Same old story

I made the point yesterday that Michael Ignatieff's actions in dealing with his Newfoundland and Labrador MPs on the budget vote would be telling as to whether Iggy would be a slave to tradition or would actually look for new and creative solutions to political problems. And I had to give him credit for a reasonable response when it came to this week's vote.

But instead of following through on the idea of allowing MPs to represent their constituents, Ignatieff is now declaring that he just hadn't gotten around to imposing top-down rule as usual:
During a closed-door caucus meeting Wednesday, sources said Ignatieff chided the Newfoundland MPs for speaking out publicly against the budget before consulting with him.

Four of the six had already announced their intention to vote against the budget by the time Ignatieff gave them dispensation to do so.

Moreover, sources said Ignatieff warned caucus he doesn't intend to relax discipline again in future (sic).

"He said it was a one-time thing, alone, period, full stop, and for us not to get our hopes up too high because it would not happen again," said one caucus member.
Needless to say, Ignatieff's scolding of MPs even for speaking up would seem to put the Libs well along the path toward a Harper-style system where all communications are vetted by a controlling leader. Which has to be particularly galling for MPs who are already frustrated with being forced to support another party's ideologically-charged budget - and should serve as a signal that their voices will be silenced as long as they stick with the Libs.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Competitive advantages

Giant Political Mouse has already posted about the latest entry in the Saskatchewan NDP's leadership race, as Dr. Ryan Meili has joined the fray. And having spent several months expressing my concern about the dangers of a coronation, I'll note on the entry of a fourth impressive candidate just how rare such a strong leadership field is in Saskatchewan - at least among parties other than the NDP.

After all, both the Saskatchewan Party and the Liberals have replaced leaders in the past few years - but neither has been able to muster a contested race in so doing. Instead, Brad Wall was acclaimed, while Ryan Bater's appointment for the Libs looks to be a formality as soon as his party gets around to it. And I'm not aware of any contested leadership races for the Greens - though I'll certainly correct the record if I've missed any.

In contrast, the NDP is now looking at a second consecutive race which features a choice among former members of cabinet as well as strong outside competition. And whoever ends up winning in the end, the party figures to be far better off than its competitors for once again providing its members the opportunity to choose its future direction.

As predicted

For anybody holding out misplaced hope that the Libs might try to improve the Cons' budget implementation legislation on pay equity or any other issue, Michael Ignatieff is shutting down the possibility and requiring his party's MPs to support the bill sight unseen:
Having cast their protest vote Tuesday, a spokesperson confirmed that Ignatieff now expects the Newfoundland MPs to support the budget on all subsequent votes, including the budget implementation bill.

Moreover, he's told the MPs they can't attempt to amend the bill, which is to be introduced this week.
And all this just as word comes out that the budget which the Libs just supported is likely off base in its deficit assumptions. Which would seem to signal that the only change from Stephane Dion's reign to Ignatieff's is that while Dion usually at least hinted at voting against the Cons before caving, Ignatieff is stomping out even the possibility of holding the Harper government's actions up to scrutiny.

Behind the numbers

A few notes on some less-noticed numbers in Strategic Counsel's budget polling which may significantly change the complexion of the outcome...

First, on the question of the budget's impact on perceptions of the Cons, it's worth noting that remarkably high numbers among current Con voters seriously skewed the top-line numbers on a few of the issues. In every other party, at least 61% of respondents noted a loss of confidence in the Cons - a particularly striking number when that confidence wouldn't figure to have been all that high to begin with. And 69% or more of respondents from every party aside from the Cons wanted to see another government given a chance - yet that figure was only 51% in the total numbers since only 6% of Con respondents shared the view.

Second, some of the statement response numbers look to be virtually impossible to reconcile. Based on the percentages involved, at least 18% of respondents agreed both that the opposition parties should back the budget, and that the Cons should be replaced with another government - and at least 4 per cent that the Cons had a good plan, yet should still be replaced.

Third, the party breakdowns offer a few interesting tidbits. Contrary to popular belief (if perhaps not party practice), Con voters were actually the least likely to be concerned with how a deficit would be paid off. Meanwhile, the voters least willing to pay higher taxes to pay off a future deficit were NDP and Bloc supporters.

And finally, there's the likelihood of support numbers. There, supporters of four parties - including the Libs - were on average more likely to support the Libs if they defeated the budget rather than backing it. But again the top-line number showed more seeming support for the budget due to a Con response which sticks out like a sore thumb, with 63% of Con voters answering that they were "much less likely" to vote for the Libs if they defeated the budget.

Now, it's probably true that Michael Ignatieff's strategy includes trying to shift a significant amount of Con support into his party's column. But in light of the other numbers among Con voters, it seems entirely possible that the headline numbers trumpeted by the Libs are the result of Ignatieff choosing the preferred option of those who will never want Harper to be replaced.

Well said

Dr. Dawg:
(T)he Liberals have teamed up with the Conservatives to pass an all-things-to-everyone budget that hurts Newfoundland and Labrador, threatens to gut pay equity, keeps most unemployed people off EI, starves research and development, ensures our solid last-place standing among industrialized nations with respect to childcare, and substantially erodes the revenue base with ginormous tax cuts. The price of this monstrous cave is regular reports to Parliament, which, with the addition of five dollars or so, might allow Count Michael to purchase a latte...

The new Liberal leader is even being coached by Tom Flanagan. Good grief. With a little training, it seems, Iggy will prove to be every bit as good a Conservative backbencher as his predecessor.

On accomplices

Having apparently recognized a serious weakness in their party's position, some prominent Lib bloggers are trying to pretend that their party's vote in favour of the Cons' budget doesn't make them complicit in Deficit Jim's attack on pay equity. But there are a couple of serious problems with that position.

First, as I've pointed out, the Libs justified their plan to vote down last fall's fiscal update based on exactly the same type of intent-based language. And indeed they're still saying publicly that the Cons' plans should be considered an attack on pay equity:
Ruby Dhalla, the MP for Brampton-Springdale, said, “The Conservative government refuses to end its attack on pay equity and the women of Canada continue to suffer as they make 70 cents for every dollar made by their male counterparts.”
From that starting point, here's the case against the Libs in a simple logical sequence:

The budget includes an attack on pay equity.
The Liberals have supported the budget.
Therefore, the Liberals have supported an attack on pay equity.

Of course, the Libs can try to make the case that the attack on pay equity is justified in the context of other economic issues - which appears to be what Dhalla for one is attempting to do. But that's an entirely different issue from whether or not they've actually supported the attack.

But what about the argument that passing the budget is merely symbolic, such that the Libs can oppose any substantive alterations pay equity in the form of legislation?

That might be well and good in theory. Except that the budget itself will be the subject of implementing legislation which the Libs don't seem to have any intention of opposing after approving the budget in principle. And the Cons haven't been shy about using those types of bills to make substantive changes - such as the immigration amendments which the Libs screamed about for months but allowed to pass last year.

So does anybody think that the Cons will hesitate to include substantive pay equity changes in their budget bill? Or that the Libs will hold up a budget implementation bill over pay equity when they've already approved the planned changes in principle?

In effect, the attempt to avoid responsibility for the Libs' giving the budget a pass on pay equity looks to be aimed at nothing but minimizing the scope of an acknowledged weakness and delaying the party's inevitable share of the blame. And that's not an outlook which either pay equity supporters or others who expect the Libs to stand up for them should find the least bit reassuring.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Buy Canadian. And be proud of it.

In response to the NDP's sensible call for a Buy Canadian policy to the extent permitted by international trade law, the Cons are mocking the idea of a concerted effort to keep stimulus spending at home.

Which is odd, considering that one of the centrepieces of their budget is based entirely on the concept that stimulus dollars won't serve their intended purpose unless they're spent in Canada:
The federal Finance Department looks favourably on stimulus spending that helps builders, in part because so many of their materials are made in Canada. This ensures more benefits of stimulus spending remain in this country than if the money goes to taxpayers in the form of rebates to spur consumption. There's a good chance that consumer spending would leak the benefits of stimulus to foreigners: 50 per cent of durable goods bought in Canada are imported.

“[By] contrast, only 20 per cent of investment in residential and non-residential buildings is imported through such inputs as building materials,” the Finance Department said in its recent paper on stimulus.
So the Cons are well aware that a stimulus package needs to be oriented toward purchasing Canadian-produced goods in order to actually help our economy. But they're only willing to pursue that end through indirect means - placing arbitrary distinctions above the consideratons which even they recognize to be crucial for the success of any stimulus package.

Needless to say, the same reasoning should be applied in both cases: where the purpose of a stimulus package is to sustain Canada's economy, there's no value in putting it toward subsidizing imports where that result can be avoided. And that's true regardless of what additional domestic purchasing provisions the U.S. puts in place for itself.

Testing the limits

Based on what Stephen Harper and his party have managed to get away with so far, it's been an open question for quite some time whether there's anything the Cons could do which would manage to earn genuine media condemnation, rather than being painted at least in part as a legitimate byproduct of Harper's partisan fervour.

This may provide the answer.

A rocky path

So far I've avoided commenting much on the Libs' Newfoundland and Labrador MP issue other than to point out how it undercut Michael Ignatieff's claim to message discipline. That's been based in part based on the fact that it's far too soon to turn the page on Ignatieff's more critical error in propping up the Cons in the first place, and in part on a sense that a remotely competent leader should have been able to defuse the story in a matter of hours.

But apparently Ignatieff doesn't fit that bill. And it may be possible to tell plenty about how he figures to handle his party and the broader political scene from his reaction to the first hint of dissent within his party.

First off, there's Ignatieff's utter naivete about how Stephen Harper would handle the situation. It's been fairly well documented that Harper's desire to work with other parties has ended where anybody has asked anything of him rather than vice versa - and "new spirit of cooperation" aside, I'm not sure anybody looking at the situation realistically would expect Harper to do Ignatieff any favours.

Yet after delaying doing anything for days, that seems to have been Ignatieff's first attempt to deal with the issue, with predictable results:
Mr. Ignatieff said he called Prime Minister Stephen Harper yesterday to ask him to reconsider the clawback. "I said would he push the 'pause' button on those changes, and rethink his approach to get greater national unity in a time of crisis. And he said no."
Now if only there had been some opportunity to put in place a government which would move past Harper's model of divide-and-conquer politics. But on that point, what's done is done.

That said, there's no reason why Ignatieff should have had to learn the hard way what should be obvious to anybody who's paid the slightest bit of attention to Canadian politics during Harper's stay in office. And the fact that he turned first to Harper to solve his own internal problem should speak volumes about Ignatieff's lack of decisiveness when it counts.

Ignatieff's next reaction, though, may be even more telling:
Mr. Ignatieff said late yesterday that he would have his Newfoundland MPs over for dinner at Stornoway in an effort to find common ground before today's vote.

But he made clear that withdrawing the Liberals' support for the budget is not on the table.

"Our support for the budget is not in question..."
Earlier, Mr. Byrne and two senior Liberal MPs, Ujjal Dosanjh and John McCallum, were attempting to find some way to head off the mini-revolt. Mr. Ignatieff's spokeswoman said yesterday, "It's too soon to talk about disciplinary measures," if any or all of the MPs make good on their threat.
Now, it should go without saying that a "revolt" only exists insofar as any vote against the budget is seen as prohibited by the leader. Which raises a serious question about why Ignatieff would see no need to even explain the apparent plan to stick to a strict whip.

At most, I've seen a few MPs mouth platitudes about the value of party solidarity. But there's no apparent reason why that has to be defined in terms of all voting the same way on a matter rather than all agreeing to the level of discretion given to individual MPs. And while opening up the door to a bit more MP independence on the budget vote might result in a few more MPs wanting to express their displeasure with Harper's direction, it wouldn't figure to have any effect on the substantive result.

If Ignatieff had made that his response from the beginning and worked within his party to reach agreeable terms for dealing with the budget, then there would be no danger of the Libs booting a substantial portion of their caucus for daring to do the opposition's job. But by dithering for several days then going to Harper first, he's ensured that both his party's divisions and his own ineffectiveness stay on the front page - and it may now be too late to secure internal agreement on what would seem to have been the best possible solution.

And more importantly, Ignatieff has confirmed that he's so bound by how politics are usually done that it he either doesn't even look for new ways to solve problems, or maintains a strong bias against creativity and progress in the face of tradition. And that common thread between his decision on the coalition and his ineffectiveness on the budget vote looks to make for one of the largest problems with him as a leader going forward.

Update: In fairness, Ignatieff eventually managed to stumble into something close to the right answer.

Deep thought

If Stephen Harper's Cons were to release an ad which co-opted one rival's well-known slogan to pressure a second rival for supporting a third, we'd never hear the end of the "chess master" raves.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Governed by vandals

Shorter Steve Janke:

Of course I'd never suggest outright that donating money to opposition parties could result in your brake lines being cut. But let's just say that it may have happened before.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Phase II

It hasn't taken long for the NDP to follow up its English-language ads unveiled last week with a new set in French: "Equité Salariale" and "Changement". While the latter looks to be fairly similar to the Change ad in English, the former which focuses on pay equity looks to be a strong addition to the NDP's message - and indeed may be worth translating for broader distribution nationally.

Here's a rough translation of "Equité Salariale":
Let me ask you a question. Do you believe that a woman should receive equal pay for work of equal value?

I think so. But Stephen Harper's budget attacks the right to pay equity. And Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff chose to stand with Stephen Harper against pay equity.

I expected better from a new Liberal leader. But happily, the NDP is there to defend people like you and me. Visit to find out more.
For those wondering: yes, "happily" is a translation of "heureusement", in a seeming reference to Bloc campaigns of yore.

One other interesting element to note is that unlike the English ads, neither of the French ads focus on Jack Layton personally. That strikes me as surprising given that Layton has actually fared better in Quebec than elsewhere in best-PM polling - but it may make sense if the NDP has concluded that it's the party brand rather than Layton's that has the most room for growth among its French broadcast audience.

Update: The ads are now available from the NDP's French site.

On punchlines

Sure, Tom Flanagan deserves every bit of the widespread mockery he's received for his helpful suggestions as to how each party in Parliament can best benefit the Harper government. But isn't the larger joke on the party which has ensured that Flanagan and his ilk will continue to be more influential than almost anybody else in determining the federal government's direction?

Me first

I've spent plenty of time pointing out how the Libs' decision to prop up the Harper government looks to be a strategic train wreck. But it's worth noting that the Libs' decision to keep the Cons in power is based on a misguided attempt at self-interest in the first place:
"By him [Mr. Ignatieff] throwing out the three different timelines, what he's ensuring is that by holding those press conferences, he looks prime ministerial, he's the government-in-waiting and it's a Liberal government-in-waiting as opposed to a coalition government," said one Liberal who added that if the Liberals had defeated the government and gone ahead with coalition, the NDP would have stolen their "thunder" and used it as their own record in the next election.

"Within the [Liberal] caucus, some of the people would say, 'You can't go into a coalition government with the NDP because they would take some of our thunder and use it as their own record. They would say, 'We need another minority, lend us your vote again and again and again. Coalitions work better than majority governments.' The fear would be that somehow all of that Liberal support would vanish in some parts of the country with this."
Or in shorter form:

What's the point in doing any good for Canadians if another party might share in the credit?

Led astray

You know Deceivin' Stephen is facing some internal problems when he can no longer keep his anonymous party sources on message. So it's worth pointing out that criticism of the Cons' budget is leaking from their own internal sources:
"It's clearly politically targeted. There's no doubt about that.... This stuff is so blatantly political, it leaves a bad taste in people's mouth even on the Conservative side. Throwing money back at the arts now, now, we're friends of the arts. It's so transparent, it's sad."

One of these things is not like the others

Pierre Trudeau: In his first leadership campaign shortly after joining the Libs, mobilized an unprecedented army of young and new activists to build a popular image with a message of generational change.

Barack Obama: In his first national campaign relatively shortly after joining the Senate, mobilized an unprecedented army of young and new activists to build a popular image with a message of hope and change.

Michael Ignatieff: In his first leadership campaign shortly after joining the Libs, managed to motivate so little activist support as to hand the title to Stephane Dion despite being the favourite of most party insiders. After ascending to the leadership by elite consensus, now seeking to reach the broader public with a message of inevitability.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

An open question

Andrew Potter:
Bob Rae, when the coalition was announced, called it "the very best possible government." Things haven't changed that much in the past two months, which obliges me to ask why Canadians have to settle for second best.

On rationalizations

Glen Pearson offers an inside look at the excuses which Michael Ignatieff offered up to try to explain his decision to leave Stephen Harper in power. But however much Pearson and others try to play up Ignatieff's argument, the rationalization doesn't stand up to even slight scrutiny.

Let's start with what Ignatieff recognized to be the upsides of expressing non-confidence in the Harper Cons:
He argued that if he brought down the government by voting down the budget, certain short-term goals would be achieved. We would be government. He would be Prime Minister. We would be able to more correctly invest those kind of monies. All of this is true.
Consider this the starting point: Ignatieff rightly recognized that in addition to meeting the Libs' political goals, a change in government would also have led to better management and a more effective stimulus package. Which means that in voting with the Cons, the Libs would be punishing vulnerable Canadians for their party's unwillingness to bring about positive change.

So what could possibly justify pushing ahead with that strategy?
Then he challenged us to think of a larger dynamic, one that eventually won the day. A coalition, he offered, would be the final nail in the coffin for any hopes of national unity. The West would want out. Quebec would be an unknown factor. And Canadians as a whole, excepting those constituency groups that would have been served by the coalition, would be ushered into an era of great national uncertainty again. The markets, so requiring of stability right now, would respond with alarm and alacrity. His arguments continued for a time yet.
Now, part of the problem with Ignatieff's position is implicit in his concern about a division between "those constituency groups that would have been served by the coalition" and - well, everybody else. Surely as the Prime Minister in charge of the coalition, Ignatieff would have been in a position to resolve not to resort to Con-style divide-and-conquer politics as the national response to an economic crisis. And the fact that Ignatieff doesn't think he could have governed in the national interest under a coalition should provide reason for suspicion about how he'd plan to exercise power in the future.

Aside from that warped view of the coalition, though, the underlying theme of Ignatieff's position positively begs to be refuted.

First, there's the national unity canard which the Cons have played up from day one of the coalition. But there are a couple of serious problems with the argument.

For all the Con-led bleating about anger in the West, the reality is that when the coalition issue first emerged in the public eye, even Con strongholds featured more active support for the coalition than for continued Harper government. And there's been no indication of any real growth in the ever-marginal Western separatist movement as a result of the coalition.

Instead, the only evidence to suggest such a threat has been a self-serving assertion from the Cons and their supporters. And it's hard to see how the prospect of a coalition government would offer any substantial change in the factors which would seemingly give rise to such a movement compared to events which have already happened - i.e. Con sweeps or near-sweeps in Western provinces which are still insufficient to result in the party forming government.

In contrast, there's exactly one province which has seriously threatened separation in the past. And it's Harper's attacks on Quebec which both boosted the political fortunes of the PQ provincially, and led the Bloc to start re-emphasizing separatism in light of the Libs' willingness to leave Harper in power.

Which means that to the extent national unity based on separatist movements could be a concern, Ignatieff's decision to keep Harper in power only exacerbated the dangers. And the fact that Ignatieff could present the reaction of the province which has most broadly supported the coalition as an "unknown factor" to justify killing it off should highlight just how disingenuous his argument was.

So much for how Ignatieff helped to reignite the risk of Quebec separation. But what about unity and stability in a broader social sense, based on possible disruption in Canada as it stands rather than the threat of regional separation?

Ignatieff's argument seems to be predicated on the idea that if the Cons and their supporters weren't likely to favour a coalition, then the result could be some enduring dispute which ought to be avoided. But again, there's absolutely no reason to think that the Cons' reaction to the current coalition will be any different from their response to any other legitimate process which might remove them from power.

In effect, Ignatieff's argument is that as long as the Cons hold Canada hostage by threatening to throw wrenches into the national machinery if they're removed from office, the country is best served by letting them have their way. And it's not hard to see how making that view part of the Libs' guiding philosophy could have disastrous results for them and for the country at large.

Finally, there's the question of political and economic stability. There, one has to compare the results of a coalition with the path actually pursued by Ignatieff.

After all, a coalition government would on its face have been able to offer political stability for at least a year and a half. And whatever risk there might be of the coalition crumbling before that point would have been counterbalanced by the formal agreement among the current opposition parties.

In contrast, Ignatieff's amendment to the budget serves only to create even more confidence showdowns under the current Parliament: in addition to the Cons likely reverting to form in trying to pass their own hard-right agenda once the budget has passed, they'll also be able to test the Libs' willingness to vote them down several more times over the next year. And for the confidence votes to come, there won't be any credible threat of a coalition to keep the Cons in line.

Needless to say, the political uncertainty which the Libs have continued doesn't figure to be a plus for the markets, for investors or for anybody else. Which means that Ignatieff's decision results in the Libs trading a temporary illusion of stability for continued brinksmanship and uncertainty during the time when the economy actually needs to recover.

Now, it seems doubtful that Pearson or anybody else within the Libs who supported the coalition would have avoided considering those same issues over the course of the last couple of months. But the fact that the Libs were willing to take a warmed-over serving of stale Con talking points as their justification to avoid offering Canadians better government when they need it most can only signal that they're not about to offer any meaningful change from where Harper is currently taking the country.

The Big Truth

Silver Donald Cameron nicely outlines the reason why progressive governments can be expected to manage public money far more effectively than those who think government is inherently wasteful to begin with:
Consider this whopper: conservatives handle money prudently, while "tax-and-spend liberals" are financially irresponsible. That’s the exact opposite of the truth — but this Big Lie has been so often repeated by the right that it’s rarely even questioned...

(W)hat about Manitoba’s NDP Premier Gary Doer, running 10 budget surpluses in a row while cutting taxes and improving social services? Anybody remember the balanced budgets of Allan Blakeney and Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan? And the looting of the Saskatchewan treasury by the Tories under Grant Devine, which sent the deficit to $1.2 billion and landed a dozen Tories in jail for fraud?

Canada’s greatest socialist, Tommy Douglas, held off implementing medicare for 15 years, until he was sure that Saskatchewan could afford it. Why? You can’t build social democracy, Douglas argued, if the bankers can stop you by calling your loans. That’s not a problem for right-wing governments — but it gives left-wing governments a lively allergy to deficits.

And anyone who tells you otherwise is spreading a Big Lie.
Unfortunately, it looks like we're doomed to at least one more federal budget which represents the worst of all possible worlds. Now even more than during the first couple of years of the Cons' reign, we're stuck with a government which believes that it can't do anything in the public interest - but which feels entirely comfortable throwing billions of dollars around haphazardly with no concern about what that will do to the public purse down the road.

But there may be at least some chance for some good to come out of the current mess. And the more Canadians take up the call keep a close eye on what happens with the Cons' spending, the more likely the Harper example will be to discredit the big lie as to which end of the political spectrum is best equipped to handle Canada's finances responsibly.