Saturday, February 28, 2009

Feigning powerlessness

Robert and pogge have both pointed out the dishonesty behind the effort of some Lib supporters to downplay Michael Ignatieff's move toward a Harper-lite message on the tar sands.

But I'd think there's something even more worrisome about the argument that it doesn't matter what any party has to say about the issue. Do the Libs involved actually believe in the underlying premise that Canada's federal government is utterly powerless to influence how our own resources are developed? And to the extent they do, how could they possibly justify staying interested in trying to replace one set of meaningless figureheads with another?


It takes some effort for an answer in question period to stand out from the Cons' usual litany of substance-free partisan blather. But Mark Warawa managed it yesterday:
Mr. Alex Atamanenko (British Columbia Southern Interior, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, the Americans are spending millions of dollars on a feasibility study to build a hydroelectric dam at Shanker's Bend on the Similkameen River. An 80 metre dam, if built, would flood 7,200 hectares in Canada.

The Okanagan Alliance of First Nations and the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen have stated their opposition as has the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

Will the minister notify the U.S. government that Canada is opposed to this project and will he insist that the government of British Columbia do the same?

Mr. Mark Warawa (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of the Environment, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, as the member well knows, this government is committed to a cleaner environment. We have invested $1 billion in green infrastructure, $300 million for eco-energy retrofits, and $1 billion for clean energy projects and carbon capture and storage.

Wherever we look this government is taking action on the environment. I encourage the member to support the budget.
Now, Warawa's answer is useless enough on its face. But it looks all the more so when placed in context.

Remember after all that the Cons are now trying to claim that their environmental plan is supposed to follow from what the U.S. administration is doing. Which would seem to give them an awfully good reason to pay attention themselves to what's happening south of the border. But their second-in-command on the environment is apparently completely unaware of the issues raised by the U.S.' plans on the one subject where the two countries are supposedly in agreement.

What's more, having been presented with an issue which would obviously demand follow-up one way or another, Warawa didn't even pay lip service to the prospect of looking into the matter. Instead, his answer offers about the strongest indication possible that the Cons are completely unwilling to deal with legitimate questions by doing anything but filibustering with their own PR material - whether or not it has anything to do with the topic at hand. And that may say more about the Cons' fitness for government than any substantive response ever could.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

But if WE say "wabbit season"...

Apparently the Libs' master plan under Michael Ignatieff is to parrot the Cons' talking points from the last year - with the seeming goal of wrong-footing the Cons themselves into forgetting what they mean to say. But what does it say about a party when its grand strategy is based on Canadian voters playing the part of Elmer Fudd?

The reviews are in

James Travers:
What the Prime Minister is proposing would create irresistible political temptations, won't effectively stimulate the economy and is dangerous to democracy. Apart from stirring sponsorship scandal memories, the plan for cabinet to distribute $3 billion behind closed doors is an acid test for public accountability. If Harper has his way, Parliament's defining responsibility to control public spending will be further diminished even as executive powers again expand.

"Trust me" is not a credible proposition from a prime minister who broke his word and law to force the fall election. Suspending fiscal oversight is not a reassuring response to a leader who ignored available evidence to campaign on the assurance that Canada would escape recession and as recently as November forecast surpluses.

It's no more prudent for taxpayers to leave politicians alone with buckets of cash than it's wise for parents to leave children alone with the cookie jar. One leads as predictably to abuse as the other to sugar fits.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Musical interlude

Everybody can use some trance for the weekend. Here's Chicane's "Saltwater".

An unintended insight

Promise? Prediction? Prophecy? One way or another, Warren Kinsella may be more right than he wants to be in describing what's to come for Deceivin' Stephen:
(Harper's) little press conference outside Rideau Hall on that snowy day in December was an act, nothing more. His pledges to work with others to find a way out of this terrible upheaval was the purest of bullshit.

For that, it will not be the Liberal Party that punishes him.
Of course, Kinsella adds, "It'll be Canadians". But I'd expect that anybody with his political background would recognize that the work of opposition parties tends to mean an awful lot in determining which issues filter down into the public consciousness such as to result in a government being punished.

In that vein, it was always doubtful that the Libs would be the ones to benefit from public dissatisfaction with a leader who they've worked so hard to keep in power. But there's all the less reason to think that Canadians who want to see Harper held accountable for his failings will reward a party which doesn't see itself as part of the solution.

Which means that when Canadians indeed decide to give Harper the thrashing he so rightly deserves, the Libs may end up taking a back seat to the party which has both recognized the emptiness of Harper's act all along, and done everything in its power to make sure he doesn't escape the consequences of his government's actions.

On rush requests

The Cons' demand for a $3 billion slush fund naturally figures to be a major story at least until such time as the Libs decide to cave in. So let's take a bit more of a look at just what they're asking for - and what it says that it's showing up out of the blue now:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is demanding MPs let his government bypass normal approval processes for $3-billion of stimulus spending, saying it's imperative to rush aid as the economy falters, and warning he's willing to head to another election should opposition parties block it.

The Tories are proposing the fund's cash be spent over 90 days between April 1 and June 30 and want to take shortcuts in allocating it – although they promise to report back afterward on its disbursement. Under normal procedures, money wouldn't have started flowing until June...

Details of government spending are normally reviewed by MPs before being approved by parliamentary votes.

In this case, however, a lump sum from the Budget 2009 stimulus package will be handed to Treasury Board, as Ottawa's cash manager, to allocate money as it sees fit. It will later report back to Parliament on how the cash was spent.

Treasury Board officials defended the accountability of the fund, saying departments are “better equipped” to oversee this spending “than in previous years.”

The $3-billion short-term stimulus fund unveiled by Treasury Board president Vic Toews is not earmarked for any specific program, but is set up so departments can draw on it to expedite stimulus projects, officials said.
Now, it's worth remembering the process that the Con/Lib budget has followed so far. Remember that last fall's fiscal update showdown was based in large part on the fact that Deficit Jim refused both to introduce any stimulus at that time, and to move up the timing of this year's budget. And in turn, the fact that the Cons introduced the budget in January was supposed to represent some acknowledgment on their part that Canadians couldn't afford to wait for stimulus to start flowing.

It would seem obvious that if the timing of the introduction and passage of the budget was being advanced for the sole purpose of getting money moving into the economy earlier, then the rest of the process to get money flowing would also have to be moved up from the beginning as well. But apparently the Cons didn't bother to do any such thing - so all we have now is a budget being passed earlier than usual, with no way to actually get money moving faster.

That would seem to leave two ways to explain the fact that the Cons managed to end up in the situation where they're now trying to change the spending process after the fact. And neither looks anything but damning for a government which is supposed to be trying to help resuscitate Canada's economy.

It could be that the Cons realized only recently that their hurried budget didn't actually include any mechanism to speed up the stimulus - making the new supply bill a panicked reaction intended to paper over the failure to plan ahead. Which could hardly inspire confidence that the Cons can be trusted to competently manage anything, let alone a $3 billion fund in the absence of oversight.

Or, it's equally possible that the Cons knew all along that they hadn't actually set up the process to move money faster than usual, but figured they'd like the convenience of not having to answer for the spending of billions of public dollars. Which would seem even more dangerous, since any premeditation in wanting to free large amounts of spending from any oversight can only serve as notice that Canadians aren't going to be happy with what the money gets diverted to.

If anything, the nature of the Cons' request would seem to suggest the latter. Rather than at least trying to set up some temporary but more flexible means of oversight, their goal seems to be to make sure that nobody but the Harper cabinet table has a clue how the money is being spent.

But either way, the latest demand should offer even more reason to doubt that the Harper government can be trusted to handle a blank cheque. And if Deceivin' Stephen expects any sympathy in declaring that he's prepared to force an election over a slush fund, any opposition party worthy of the title should be glad to call that bluff.

Deep thought

Michael Ignatieff's decision to prop up the Harper government in the name of avoiding instability and election brinksmanship is looking better and better.

Reason to worry more

Just when I thought things couldn't get much worse, Deceivin' Stephen lowers himself to the occasion - demanding approval of a $3 billion, zero-accountability slush fund and threatening an election if he doesn't get it yesterday. And all this while his government is outraged at being reminded that withholding money from deserving projects solely because they're located in opposition-held ridings might not be a good idea.

This may make for a great day in Canadian wingnut welfare. For the rest of us, though, it's looking more and more clear that continued Harper government is only going to leave us with more massive bills for zero positive results.

Edit: added link.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Learning About Partisanship

Shorter Learning About Parliament portion of the Parliament of Canada's website under the Harper Cons:

Did you know? Everybody who's ever done anything worth highlighting was or is a Conservative.

A trip down memory lane

Remember back when Stephen Harper was so deathly afraid of Michael Ignatieff that he wouldn't even consider a strategy of personal attacks? It seems so long ago...

Reason to worry

Could one ask for a more ominous set of signs about the ultimate results of than what's surfaced over the past couple of days? First, there's Deficit Jim setting the stage for waste and mismanagement:
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty acknowledged that Ottawa will foul up as it rushes to dole out $40-billion of stimulus spending, but said the potential for gaffes is acceptable because aid must be expedited to counter the economic downturn.

"There will be some mistakes made. But it's worth that risk to help the majority of Canadians during what is a serious recession," he said yesterday following a weekly meeting of Conservative MPs...

Mr. Flaherty didn't specify what kinds of boondoggles might occur as Ottawa signs cheques for an extraordinarily large amount of money over 24 months, including close to $20-billion in construction and infrastructure spending.

He said Ottawa is sidestepping traditional approval routes to speed up stimulus dollars and will provide Canadians a timetable for implementation on March 11. "This is urgent. This is an emergency situation of getting this stimulus into the Canadian economy to benefit Canadians, to benefit people who are going to lose their jobs."

For instance, he said, Treasury Board - the government's cash manager - is modifying how it handles spending, and the Tories are taking some plans directly to cabinet instead of the normal route for vetting ideas.
But making matters worse, there's the latest from Information Commissioner Robert Marleau - whose grim repord card on access to information includes Public Works as one of the departments which received an "F", joining the PCO which has always been one of the worse offenders.

This comes just two years after Public Works received a "B" the last time Marleau used the report card system. And it's also a report on a year where Public Works was doing next to nothing in terms of approving actual projects - rather than one where its staff will be in a rush to push projects out the door.

So to sum up...

We have no way of knowing who will be making decisions about billions of dollars worth of spending. And indeed those responsible aren't saying anything more than that they're making it up on the fly.

But we do know that the likeliest suspects are two departments which the Cons have ensured won't respond to access to information requests. So it may take years to even figure out who was responsible for any decisions, let alone what factors were taken into consideration.

This will not end well.

A study in contrasts

So which party figures to do the better job dealing with the environmental and social problems raised by unbridled tar sands development: one which goes out of its way to raise awareness of the issues? Or one whose leader thinks there's nothing to be learned about them?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A telling message

It's probably true that those hoping to revive the Republican Party don't have much to go on but wishful thinking. But Gerry Nicholls' spin is particularly amusing considering how the Republicans themselves handled last night's response speech.

While most of the commentary on Bobby Jindal's speech has revolved around the Kenneth comparison, take a look at what's missing from the transcript. Jindal mentioned the name "Obama" only once - and in the following sentence:
In all these areas, Republicans want to work with President Obama.
And from there Jindal went back to criticizing "Democratic leaders" generally before getting into the rest of his anti-government rant.

Now, given Obama's sky-high approval ratings it's understandable that the Republicans think they have a better chance of making short-term headway by trying to place the spotlight elsewhere. But as long as the party in general and 2012 contenders like Jindal in particular think they're best off not laying a glove on the most visible Democratic politician in the country, the odds of Obama facing a serious threat from either party in 2012 would look fairly remote.

Deep thought

It seems to me that an effective probation officer wouldn't publicly inform offenders that they aren't going to face any consequences for misbehaviour.

On rallying cries

Shorter Warren Kinsella, responding to Michael Sticking's evisceration of Michael Ignatieff:

A leader focused only on "his own glorification"? "Seems to lack any real passion for the country he intends to lead"? "An air of haughty detachment, an arrogant sense of entitlement to leadership, limited charisma, Bush-friendly positions on key foreign policy issues, hardly any record on (and relatively little knowledge of) social and economic issues"? All fine by me, as long as he's ever so slightly less horrific than Stephen Harper!

Shed a tear for your corporate media overlords

For clearly it's unfair that their control over content in multiple media might strengthen the CRTC's hand in regulating them.

Lib MP: Parliamentary democracy a "pointless exercise"

David Akin nicely chronicled the NDP's efforts to point out the need for some actual review of what Deficit Jim wants to push through in his budget. But perhaps the most telling line is the response given by one Lib MP as to why they weren't interested in bothering:
Liberal and Conservative MPs did not respond to the NDP attacks. Privately, they said their strategy was to speed the legislation through committee by avoiding what one Liberal MP privately characterized as "a pointless exercise" of engaging in debate with the NDP or the Bloc Quebecois.
Now, it's interesting enough that the Cons and Libs presented a united front - with the Libs not even expressing the slightest concern about being told when debate is and isn't appropriate. But even more striking is the Libs' apparent opinion that it's "pointless" to actually review legislation before passing it.

After all, the committee stage figured to be the one opportunity the other parties had to put some pressure on the Cons to accept amendments to a budget which even the Libs recognize to be flawed. But rather than doing anything constructive with that opportunity, the Libs not only joined with the Cons in running out the clock, but went out of their way to attack the idea that anything else could be done.

Needless to say, it shouldn't come as much surprise when the Libs once again end up feigning indignant surprise as the problems they've ignored in rolling over for the Cons come to affect Canadian voters. But for those of us who recognize the need for our elected representatives to actually do their jobs by scrutinizing the government's actions, yesterday's events should offer another strong signal that the Libs aren't up for the task.

On common interests

While yesterday's Burning Question was largely snark-based, there's a serious issue underlying it: namely, is there any chance of getting any of the Cons' gratuitous additions removed from the budget to be properly dealt with as separate legislation? And there might be an interesting possibility for cooperation between the NDP and corporate leaders who are thoroughly unimpressed with Deficit Jim's changes to competition and investment rules:
Embedded in a document that has principally drawn attention for its pledge to spend $30 billion to kick-start the sputtering domestic economy are sweeping changes to the fundamental business framework of the country. The abrupt overhaul of both the Competition Act and the Investment Canada Act without warning or consultation has the corporate community howling with outrage and opening their wallets for top legal counsel.

The approach used to introduce the changes reflects that for all the talk of collaboration in tough times, the gap between the government and the business community is as wide as it has ever been...

Their primary concerns are new measures that would exponentially increase the fines charged for anti-competitive behaviour and would freeze assets while a Competition Bureau investigation is under way. Accusations of conspiracy would lose the current "undue effect on competition" test, and leave it to the discretion of the bureau.

For large corporations which typically have hundreds of deals with other companies, it would require a massive and expensive audit and analysis of each one of those transactions...

Those who will be most affected by the changes argue that such important steps should be reviewed carefully and on a standalone basis, rather than being pushed through with the haste of emergency stimulus packages. But the political nuance behind the new rules makes any attempts at concerted objection particularly tricky.

Many of the key elements of the changes this time around first surfaced in Bill C-19 in 2005, which died with Paul Martin's Liberal government. Ironically, several of the Conservatives who were instrumental in fighting Bill C-19 at that time are now involved in pushing it through.

In November 2005, James Rajotte was the Conservative industry critic and he argued passionately against the passage Bill C-19 at industry committee hearings. Specifically, he is on record urging more thorough consultation before the measures (which are largely intact this time around) proceed any further.

Mr. Rajotte is now head of the parliamentary finance committee, which is attempting to push through the budget legislation as quickly as possible.
Of course, it could be that the competition and investment measures themselves are ones which the NDP would ultimately support in substance. But it shouldn't be that difficult to send a public message that even ideas worth pursuing shouldn't be suddenly imposed without consultation. And that goes doubly when the measures would cause uncertainty and instability in the corporate community just as an ineffective government is counting far too much on the private sector to pull Canada out of a recession.

From there, if a combined effort from the NDP and business leaders can pressure the Cons into pulling a couple of the elements of the budget out for further consultation, then it's hard to see how they'd justify doing otherwise when it comes to the parts of the budget bill dealing with pay equity and other issues. Which means that a temporary joint effort with corporate Canada may be the best way for the NDP to ultimately influence what does and doesn't get passed in the budget.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Burning question

Is today the day the Lib apologists' message on the budget officially changes from "it's too early to criticize" to "why bother when it's too late to do anything"?

We got the idea the last time we told you to stop

It may be time to check whether the Libs are suffering a case of collective amnesia. Yesterday, it was Paul Szabo who was completely unaware that his party had heard and ignored the Privacy Commissioner of Canada's concerns about the Cons' Canada Elections Act changes. And today, Marlene Jennings looks to have gone Szabo one better by trying to claim a practice which the Libs shut down in 2006 as a bright idea of their own:
(O)nto students. Again. What about polling stations *inside* the university residences and buildings, staffed by students? Actually, that’s an interesting idea - and apparently, it comes from Jennings’ parliamentary intern, who is either not here, or cool enough not to blush violently at the shoutout.
Which sounds like an absolute slam dunk of a suggestion. After all, what kind of anti-democratic party could possibly be opposed to the idea of making voting more convenient for students?

On target audiences

BigCityLib asks whether the Cons can pass Garry Breitkreuz' bill to repeal the federal long gun registry. But the real question is whether or not they want to - and the answer to that still looks to be "no".

If the Cons' actual goal was to eliminate the registry, then their path to get that done would seem to be obvious. After all, NDP MP John Rafferty has already announced that he plans to introduce a bill to the same effect. Which means that if the goal was to actually pass a bill, the Cons would be publicly working with Rafferty to try to round up additional support in Parliament and in the public.

Instead, the Cons are conspicuously ignoring the fact that Rafferty is looking to reach the same supposed goal, refusing to mention any opposition MPs by name and suggesting that they'll generally be reluctant to vote to repeal the registry. Which should serve as a strong indication that their intention is something other than to actually get the legislation changed.

That's doubly so when one looks at Breitkreuz' bill. Rather than merely repealing the registry, it also sets up what looks to me to be a highly unusual requirement that the Auditor General evaluate all gun laws every five years - without the slightest indication as to why gun laws in particular should be subject to that kind of review.

At best, that can be seen as a cynical way to keep gun issues in the news even after the main irritant is removed. But the provision might be seen as a poison pill for opposition parties - or worse yet, as an excuse for somebody to stop the bill in its tracks as requiring the Auditor General to spend money reporting even if it otherwise enjoys enough support to pass.

In sum, the real danger isn't that C-301 will eventually pass (since the Cons have essentially rendered the registry useless anyway). Instead, the greatest risk is that it will allow the Cons to keep gun owners on their side and motivated even as Harper deliberately avoids acting on his party's promises. And if the opposition parties are on the ball, they'll find a way to get a poison-pill-free version of the bill through Parliament to shut down the issue.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Asleep at the switch

Over the past year and a half, I've generally figured that the Libs at least have some idea what it is that they're allowing the Cons to get away with. But Paul Szabo raises the possibility that they really don't have the slightest clue what's going on around them:
Paul Szabo takes over after Block’s clock runs out, and wonders about the recent revelation of the privacy concerns inherent in the changes to the Elections Act that resulted in dates of birth of electors being released to parties. He wonders if Stoddart’s office brought that up during committee, and the commissioner explains that both she and her Ontario counterpart did, at length. That was some impressive witness-listening y’all did on those committees, guys.

Public dangers

It's difficult to diagree with Buckdog that the Saskatchewan Libs' lurch to the right looks like the party's last gasp. And the move is particularly surprising given that the effect is to put Ryan Bater and company in direct competition with the remnants of the PCs - who ran on a similar platform in 2007 with even less success than the Libs.

But unlike Buckdog, I'd also see the Libs' shift as a potentially harmful one for the province: not because it makes the Libs more competitive, but because it figures to give Brad Wall political cover to start doing his worst.

Of course, there's been plenty of reason to criticize the Sask Party government so far. But the combination of a strong NDP opposition and the lack of much pressure from the right has at least forced the Sask Party to be somewhat more moderate than might have been expected given its well-known reactionary impulses. (That is, when it comes to issues other than labour relations.)

But if the Libs choose to focus on privatization as their primary demand, then the situation might take a significant turn for the worse. After all, any time which Bater spends railing against fabricated evils associated with public ownership can only give Wall just the excuse that he's been looking for to start gutting Saskatchewan's public sector.

Of course, if Wall responds to a privatization message by triangulating back to the right, that might become the final nail in the Libs' coffin. Which means that Bater probably has ample reason to instead focus his attention on issues which Wall won't be so eager to co-opt.

If the Libs continue on the road they seem intent on travelling, though, the result might be serious damage to the province for the future - as future NDP governments would be left having to try to reassemble any auctioned-off public institutions. And it's hard to take any great satisfication in any Lib self-immolation if the result is to make matters worse for the province as a whole.

On meaningless reporting

Congratulations to John McCallum, who apparently needed only a month after the Libs decided that the Libs' request for reports would do anything to keep the Cons in line to figure out one of the glaring problems with that theory:
The Liberals amended the ways and means motion to force the government to report on its progress with "getting money out the door" and into communities for infrastructure projects and other initiatives related to the stimulus package.

The reports would provide information on how the government has implemented the budget and be tabled in the House of Commons at least five sitting days before the last opposition day in every supply period this year.

The first supply period ends March 26, but the House is on a break from March 16 to 20. If the last opposition day is scheduled for March 26, the first report would be due to be tabled in Parliament by March 12...

"The government's own record is that money does not go out the door. Money sits forever under a mattress in Ottawa doing nobody any good, so that is why we'll be holding the government to account, to make sure the money does flow for infrastructure, but also the money for business lending," Mr. McCallum said, noting that because the first report is due in a few weeks, it will be a different nature than the subsequent ones. "The money is not even legal to go out the door before April 1. The first report will be different from the others in the sense that we cannot expect budget money to have gone out the door when we're still in March and the new fiscal year has not begun."
Of course, it was the Libs who chose for themselves when to ask the Cons to provide their reports. But they apparently didn't think far enough ahead to consider when any meaningful information would be available.

As a result, the first report supposedly intended to ensure that budget money actually does flow to its intended destinations can't say anything other than that it's impossible for money to flow yet. And the fact that the Libs have just realized that fact now that would seem to suggest that the Cons aren't the only party in Ottawa which is sorely lacking in the bare competence department.

Liberal 13 of 92

The Libs have telegraphed what will apparently pass for their strategy in Western Canada. And all indications are that Michael Ignatieff and company are looking at making minimal inroads at best:
Federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who is trying to woo Western Canada and wants to be the next Prime Minister, should focus only on six to eight unheld seats in the Conservative territory, say top Grits.

"We have to be realistic. As a first step, we should choose six to eight ridings on top of what we already have and put in as much money and other sources as we can. Later on, we can focus on other ridings," one top Liberal based in Western Canada told The Hill Times...

There are 92 House seats in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. In the last federal election, the Conservatives won 77, the Liberals won seven and the NDP won 14. Conservatives won nine of 14 seats in Manitoba, 13 of 14 in Saskatchewan, 27 of 28 in Alberta and 22 of 36 in B.C. The Liberals won five in B.C., one in Saskatchewan and one in Manitoba. The NDP won four in Manitoba, one in Alberta and nine in B.C...

Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale (Wascana, Sask.) said Mr. Ignatieff wants to reach out to Western Canada in order to make the party a truly national party and agreed the Grits should narrow their focus on winnable ridings. He declined to get into specifics...

"There are ducks in Western Canada, they're elusive ducks, but there're ducks in Western Canada and you don't write off Western Canada and that's what Mr. Ignatieff is saying," Ms. McLellan told The Hill Times. "In fact, what he wants to do is spend more time here and make sure that we, as a party, are speaking to Western Canadians' aspirations and we have some seats."
Now, it would seem surprising for a party whose strategy consists of little more than portraying itself as the alternative government in waiting to aspire to match the NDP in a major region of the country. But that looks to be where the Libs have positioned themselves, as the suggested range of 13 to 15 targeted seats fits perfectly with the NDP's recent performance in the region (14 in 2008, 13 in 2006).

Not to mention that the Libs themselves won 14 Western seats even while losing power in 2006. And the connection between that number and the Libs' latest plans may signal that for all Ignatieff's bluster about addressing the West, he actually plans to do less about it than his predecessors. After all, any Lib effort to win government will necessarily involve trying to expand their seat total beyond that from 2006 somewhere - and apparently the West isn't seen as part of that effort.

At best, one might look at the proposed numbers as part of a Chretien-style strategy of underpromising in hopes of overdelivering. But if Western Libs are actually listening to their party's plans, the effect would seem to be only to demoralize the supporters needed to improve on the Libs' current standing.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The road once travelled

Recently, I came across a copy of "Leaders & Lesser Mortals: Backroom Politics in Canada" by John Laschinger and Geoffrey Stevens - effectively an equivalent to Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics based on the tactics of the '80s and early '90s. And while much of the book fit with what had been my understanding of how Canadian politics had progressed during the time period, I'll take a moment to point out a few surprising tidbits - along with how they may affect some of my assumptions about the current state of Canadian politics.

First off, the major parties' campaign spending from the 1984 and 1988 elections (p. 138, via the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada):

  Con Lib NDP
1984 expenses $6,388,941 $6,292,983 $4,730,723
1988 expenses $7,921,738 $6,839,875 $7,060,563

Second, the parties' yearly fund-raising from 1979-1990 (p. 164-165, again from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada):

  Con Lib NDP
1979 $8,375,716 $5,220,520 $4,741,281
1980 $7,564,120 $6,217,795 $4,920,447
1981 $6,949,797 $5,095,158 $3,855,812
1982 $8,193,660 $6,104,367 $6,984,881
1983 $14,108,012 $7,285,115 $8,590,942
1984 $21,145,920 $10,553,316 $10,371,018
1985 $14,565,652 $5,570,822 $6,284,316
1986 $15,117,750 $10,619,007 $7,795,658
1987 $12,761,155 $8,832,377 $6,697,083
1988 $24,542,036 $13,211,364 $18,754,770
1989 $13,801,368 $6,324,012 $13,864,694
1990 $11,046,654 $12,036,486 $15,438,908

And finally, some party identification numbers from 1991-1992 (p. 223, from Goldfarb Consulting):

  1991 1992
Con 19% 14%
Lib 30% 26%
NDP 22% 16%
Bloc 9% 9%
Reform 6% 7%
Other 6% 2%
None of the above 7% 24%

So what makes these numbers worth noting? From my standpoint, they suggest a rather different story from what seems to be the conventional wisdom about when and how the NDP enjoyed its previous best chance to emerge as the Official Opposition, and about what the default expectations should be among the three main federal parties.

My assumption, which seems to be in line with conventional wisdom, was that the greatest opportunity in the NDP's history came in 1988 - when Ed Broadbent was seen as the top choice among the federal leaders, and when the NDP had managed to take the lead in some polls during the 1986-1987 period. And the 1988 party spending numbers indicate that the NDP didn't lack for financial resources, as it managed to outspend the Libs and stay within striking distance of the Mulroney Cons.

Of course, it's worth noting that there were also millions of third-party dollars poured into the 1988 election on both sides of the free trade issue. Which means that the NDP's money likely didn't go as far as it would have in almost any other election cycle - and probably had plenty to with the fact that the NDP's lack of focus on the issue left it largely sidelined.

But contrary to what I'd figured, neither that electoral disappointment nor Broadbent's departure as leader in 1989 did anything to limit the NDP's national momentum. Instead, the NDP managed to build itself into Canada's top federal fund-raising machine in 1989-1990 after Audrey McLaughlin took the helm. And for a substantial period of time after the Ontario and BC elections which supposedly sapped the party's popular support, the NDP ranked above the Cons in second place, with a party identification level more than double its eventual 1993 popular vote. Which would suggest to me that 1993 may in fact have represented the NDP's best-ever opportunity to elevate itself to one of the top two positions - and raise significant questions as to what happened to turn that election into a disaster instead.

Turning to a more general analysis, the decade-long fund-raising numbers also bear mention. But first, take a look at the last four years worth of party fund-raising data by way of comparison.

From my perspective, the earlier numbers would pose a serious challenge to a couple of the default narratives around party fund-raising. For one, the Cons' current levels of fund-raising - rather than representing any new heights in party fund-raising - are really only around the Mulroney Cons' typical inflows even without adjusting for inflation. (Of course, that may require far more work in light of the current donation limits which weren't in effect during Mulroney's time. But the Cons don't seem to be that far beyond the number of donors either - as their 174,000 last year) barely exceeds population growth from their peak of 117,000 in 1983.

Meanwhile, the narrative that the relative parity in fund-raising levels for the NDP and the Libs should be seen as a new and surprising development - which I've bought into at times - doesn't seem to have much basis in the historical numbers. Indeed, it isn't even unprecedented for the NDP to out-raise the Libs while the latter hold office - and at its best, the NDP fund-raising machine has been able to go toe to toe with any in Canadian politics.

Of course, that reality also hints at how far the NDP also has to go in building from its current levels. But the fact that the NDP has managed to lead the pack before should make it clear that the task isn't beyond its reach now. And hopefully the result will be to build the party up to its 1998-1992 levels - and then to better take advantage of the resulting opportunities.

Update: In comments, Pundits' Guide notes a couple of glitches in the numbers above. First, the Cons' number of donors for 2008 is likely based on double-counting individuals who gave money in multiple quarters of the year - which would suggest that the Cons' number of raw donors may in fact be lower than it was in the '80s. Second, the NDP's fund-raising totals from the '80s may reflect provincial as well as federal donations. While that would certainly complicate the picture in assessing the relative fund-raising ability of the federal parties, it would still remain true that the NDP was able to spend to the maximum in 1988 and then increase its donations in some form after that.

A misplaced focus

A quick thought on the "Minister of Curry in a Hurry" designation which the Cons have apparently bestowed on Jason Kenney. Isn't the problem less the precise nickname chosen for Kenney, and more the fact that even the Cons recognize that Kenney's work involves wining and dining target groups rather than carrying out his ministerial responsibilities?