Saturday, February 13, 2010


QMI somewhat misses the point as to the effect of Bob Runciman's appointment to the Senate. So let's fix the lead-in:

Bob Runciman is ready for a break. So he's rather lucky that Stephen Harper has granted him one lasting until 2017 at public expense.

On misinterpretations

Following up on my post about Brian Topp's upcoming book, let's note one utterly bizarre claim in the review by Norman Spector:
Moreover, though a draft of the book was read by members of Mr. Topp’s “tribe,” the final product is not completely scrubbed of material unhelpful to coalition proponents. We learn, for example, that Stephen Harper had not discussed formation of a coalition government with the opposition parties in 2004, as many claim; their letter to the Governor-General was about “sending the minority Liberal government [of Paul Martin] a message that it was going to have to govern in consultation with the Opposition parties.” Later on, when Mr. Duceppe explained that Mr. Harper would be prime minister of a coalition government, Mr. Layton “withdrew from the three-party group.”
Now, I'll be interested to see the full story from the book - at least to the extent Topp is able to speak to the discussions (and as I'll discuss, the major gap in knowledge seems to primarily involve the Cons and the Bloc). But from Spector's description of the 2004 arrangement, there's absolutely no indication that a coalition government was off the table at the time from the Cons' perspective.

The passage does suggest that at the time the three-party letter was signed, there hadn't been any explicit discussion of a coalition involving the NDP. But it's obvious enough that the Cons' willingness to sign onto the idea that the Governor-General should consider alternative governments had to be based on a willingness to rely on the Bloc and the NDP for support, allowing for no meaningful distinction between the Bloc's role then and the one which the Cons blasted in 2008.

Moreover, it would seem that the Bloc's expectation of a coalition arrangement would have to some from somewhere. And based on Layton's rejecting the concept of a coalition as soon as it was raised, there's absolutely no basis to suggest it was the NDP pushing the idea at the time.

That leaves two possible explanations for the course of events described by Spector. It could be that the Bloc developed the idea of a coalition out of thin air without consulting with either of the other parties who were supposed to be involved - which would effectively leave them on an island as the lone party which thought that any replacement government would take the form of a coalition, and leave wide open the question of the Cons' position at the time.

But there's another possibility which makes far more sense given the specific mention of Harper as the prospective PM: it could be that the Cons and Bloc had actually talked about a formal coalition before either approached the NDP about the idea. And if so, then all indications are that the Cons sent a positive enough message about their willingness to enter into one that Duceppe was able to approach Layton to pitch the possibility.

Of course, there's ample reason for argument as to whether there's any reason to exclude democratically-elected Bloc MPs from any talk of a coalition in any event.

But to the extent a party's willingness to attain power based on a deal with the Bloc matters, Topp's account (at least as portrayed by Spector) only figures to reinforce the fact that the Cons were no less willing than the progressive coalition to pursue a government which relied on the Bloc's support. And in fact, it raises the possibility that the Cons may have gone much further in discussing a coalition format including the Bloc which all parties agree wasn't on the table in 2008. So there's no apparent reason to buy Spector's attempt to spin the events of 2004 as "unhelpful to coalition proponents".

The reviews are in

The Star Phoenix editorial board slams the Cons' continud insistence on ignoring actual evidence about the effectiveness of policies - in this case Insite - in order to push their "tough on crime" message:
It takes a special brand of ideological blindness for federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson to waste taxpayers' money in trying to protect a demonstrably ineffectual national anti-drug strategy by fighting stubbornly to shut down a demonstrably effective provincial health program.
What has Mr. Nicholson twisting logic on its head and giving short shrift to provincial and civic politicians, health experts and community groups in British Columbia, is his government's law-and-order agenda.

Apparently, it's (sic) ideological base is so rigid that there's no room for good sense, flexibility or even sound medical evidence that support the continued operation of Insite...

Were he less intent on pushing through a failed agenda, Mr. Nicholson might learn something from B.C. Health Minister Kevin Falcon, who too was a skeptic about Insite and considered it no more than an enabler for junkies, but did a 180-degree attitude adjustment after carefully considering the medical evidence.

And if Mr. Nicholson truly wants to focus on helping the addicts, he would be promoting Insite as a model for other jurisdictions and committing to them the public money he's now wasting on desperate legal appeals.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Musical interlude

Serge Devant f. Hadley - Wanderer

On serious issues

Just as Brian Topp's series of blog posts about the progressive coalition last year became one of the main focal points of Canadian political discussion, his soon-to-be-released book appears likely to do the same. But while I fully expect there to be plenty about the book that I'll agree with, I'll sound a note of criticism about how it's being presented.

I've mentioned before my concern with the degree to which politics are treated as a sport, with "teams" divided up by colour rather than rather than any principled basis competing only to win the next contest rather than to improve societal outcomes. And Topp seems to have an unfortunate habit of falling into that type of shorthand. But the marketing of his book looks to go a few steps further in portraying serious issues in surprisingly light terms.

Of all the ways one can describe the coalition showdown in 2008, "whimsical" would seem to be near the far bottom of the list. (Indeed, even a thoroughly academic work about the time period has used the language of a "crisis" - albeit with a cartoon of its own on the cover for contrast.)

But whimsy seems to be the predominant concept of Topp's cover, featuring a slapstick cartoon drawing, a less-than-serious-looking font, and a review describing the "great bit of fun" contained within. And even the title, while speaking to the politics of the coalition, seems to make for more a bit of light joshing rather than an attempt to accurately portray what was at stake. (Was it really anybody's goal to simply "(give) the Tories the boot" rather than to replace them with a government better able to meet the needs of Canadians?)

Now in fairness to Topp, I can certainly see some arguments in favour of the tone and message actually chosen.

For starters, with the Cons spending a substantial part of their time demonizing the very idea of a coalition, it could be that a lighter tone might help to bring discussion about the concept out of the realm of Harperian hyperbole. Though with the Cons' track record, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see them follow up by attacking Topp precisely for failing to accept their melodrama.

In addition, it's easy enough to see some themes which Topp and the NDP may both want to reinforce. The "boot" narrative is one which the NDP has used as recently as the 2006 election, and the NDP may well want to bring back in the near future as associated with the Cons. And the combination of that message with a "we" extended to the other parties in Parliament may help to encourage discussion both about the importance of finishing the job, and the need for a strengthened NDP to help complete the task.

But it would seem possible to evoke similar themes without treating the subject quite as lightly as Topp's cover does. And while I'll certainly be hoping for the contents to help shape public discussion of future coalitions as Topp's blog posts have done already, I'd think we'd be better served treating them as the historical treasure trove that they figure to be, rather than as a rollicking farce of a story.

On implausible complaints

Even knowing far too well how determined the Harper Cons and their supporters are to pretend that they're being unfairly oppressed by anybody who dares to suggest they're anything less than infallible, I'd never have guessed their paranoia level to reach the point of whining that Canada's corporate banks are a bunch of pinko hippie commies with a bias against the Conservative government.

Which is to say that I stand corrected.

From personal experience

Shorter Brad Trost:

The real point of increasing consumption taxes on individuals is to find an excuse to hand free money over to the corporate sector. As we Cons know well from experience.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Light blogging ahead

It'll be a couple of light days of blogging starting...oh, about a day ago. Back to normal this weekend.

On cases in point

Shorter Robert Silver:

Speaking as somebody who's regularly used a major media platform to try to undermine Adam Giambrone's mayoral campaign, it's preposterous to suggest anybody has used a major media platform to actually undermine Adam Giambrone's mayoral campaign.

Burning question

Can all agree that by a "people taking to the streets" standard, the Cons are in some trouble?

Update: See also...

Wait, that's allowed?

Apparently it turns out that Con attempts to present different policies to different audiences can be used against them just as easily as any mention of fiscal responsibility can be turned into a Harper "higher taxes!!!" hissy-fit. Why didn't anybody figure this out sooner?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pattern generation

The Saskatchewan NDP has already issued a strong response to the Sask Party's latest private-sector giveaway of 20 years' worth of taxpayer money.

But let's note that the new deal also seems to involve the same problems as the Wall government's previous generating agreement with Northland Power, including both the decision to have a plant operated by a private-sector entity with far less experience or expertise than SaskPower itself, and a price which looks to be completely out of line with the cost of generating gas-fired power anywhere else. And a string of sweetheart deals for the same private developer can only raise ever more serious questions as to who it is that the Sask Party is actually looking out for.

One voice indeed

Shorter Lawrence Herman:

Everybody (defined as "big business") wins when big business is allowed to make decisions for everybody.


...the most remarkable part of the Cons' information suppression scandal is probably the Cons' defence of even the political staffer who's inextricably tied to the order to break the law:
The Harper government told reporters on Tuesday that it was taking the case seriously, sending out a letter from the Prime Minister's Office to chiefs of staff of all ministers that urged all political staff to respect the access to information law if they wanted to continue in their jobs. But Paradis, who was Public Works minister at the time of the request, said Togneri has exceptional skills in managing parliamentary affairs and remains on his staff in the Natural Resources Department.
Now, it may be that it'll take a couple more days of the scandal percolating for the Cons to throw Togneri under the bus. But the fact that they're even trying to get away with keeping Togneri on in the wake of what's already been made public sends an obvious message to every political handler in the country that while independent thought is grounds for summary dismissal, anybody breaking the law in the service of Stephen Harper will have the full weight of the Con government behind them. And if the alternative is that Togneri is being defended because he was only following the party's orders in unlawfully "unreleasing" documents, that hardly speaks any better to the Cons' interest in obeying the law of the land.

The reviews are in

The National Post on the Cons' suppression of information:
One hopes the fact that the content of the documents has been a mere footnote to this story would convince people in Mr. Togneri's position that not disclosing mildly embarrassing information is more fraught with peril than disclosing it. But the inescapable, disturbing question remains: To what lengths would the government go to suppress truly damning information?

It's hardly a partisan concern. Were it not for the Access to Information Act, John Gomery might be best known as president of the Copyright Board of Canada.

The government has made vaguely reassuring noises. "Due diligence [on Access to Information requests] is and should be done by public servants and not political staff," Dimitri Soudas, Mr. Harper's spokesman, told The Canadian Press. "The process ... should be followed and respected by all ... It applies to everybody across government (including) political offices." Sadly, there's little reason to believe he means it. Asked whether ministers had been explicitly told not to meddle, or if the staff involved would face sanctions, he replied: "I don't comment on internal matters."

These aren't "internal matters." Not even close. The Information Commissioner should launch an investigation into just how pervasive this practice has become. And the government must realize that it has no claim of ownership to information about its activities. (Even routine, innocuous government reports are often only available by contacting a media relations officer, who will then duly email documents that could just as easily have been posted on a departmental website.) That information belongs to Canadians.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Burning question

Why stop at 22?

(But just in case there's any doubt, it's great to see a grassroots effort developing to target even that many Cons on top of normal party structures - and if the movement takes hold, then it may be far more than just the targeted seats that end up flipping from Con hands.)

A little light reading

Scott Sinclair's CCPA report on the painfully unbalanced Buy American deal is definitely worth a look in general. But let's make the analysis a bit more interesting.

Sinclair notes that Canada's commitments under the deal don't yet seem to include having municipalities sign onto WTO procurement standards - and that the countries have agreed to carry out more discussions next year. So knowing that the Harper Cons were happy to trade access to 2 years of its own stimulus spending plus provincial procurement rights in perpetuity for 11 days' access to only part of the U.S.' stimulus program, who's up for a betting pool as to how little Canada will get when it trades away those ongoing municipal procurement rights?

Under investigation

Following up on my earlier suggestion, it's worth noting that the Access to Information Act does include at least some offence provisions for individuals who deliberately withhold information contrary to the law - and that Christian Paradis' office is now under investigation. Which would figure to have some significant potential to jar some Con ministers out of their partisan-first attitude toward information management - and maybe give the PMO a bit of heartburn over its central command over department disclosures.

That said, I'd still think there's reason to establish some more broad responsibility on institutional heads to take reasonable steps to prevent abuses. But it's good to see that the law as it exists is being applied.

On weak defences

Shorter Norman Spector:

Some may have slammed Jim Prentice for attacking Quebec's vehicle emissions policy. But now the truth comes out: not only did Prentice single out Quebec for bashing without any particular reason, but he was also factually wrong in doing so. Take that, critics!

Monday, February 08, 2010

Ray Boughen: I'm Not Doing Much

Ray Boughen last month, explaining why we shouldn't worry that prorogation will mean that he's taking a vacation:
Although there won’t be any legislation passed until after all politicians head back to Ottawa in March, Boughen said the House is just one aspect of what an MP does on a regular basis.

“I plan to be here (in Palliser) every day from now until we go back to the House,” he told the Times-Herald on Wednesday, adding an MP facilitates between his or her riding and the various ministries, doing such things as campaigning for federal funding.
Ray Boughen today, explaining why he's doing nothing to stop the federal government from pulling its funding for First Nations University of Canada:
Conservative MP Ray Boughen, who represents Palliser, said he didn't have much to say on the decision taken by the federal government.

"Backbenchers aren't involved in a lot of these decisions," he said.
Now might be a good time to stop by Noah's site to help make sure Palliser gets a representative who actually has something to say about issues that matter in the riding.

To infinity and beyond

We are now the Mobius City. I can only assume Regina's last big stimulus project will be to renovate the Ring Road accordingly.

On misleading impressions

Memo to the Globe and Mail: in discussing a Dimitri Soudas e-mail about avoiding political interference, it's rather important to include the ";-)" and the "ROTFLMAO" for context.

On rationalizations

Shorter Adrian McNair:

There, there, Deficit Jim. If those mean and nasty G7 finance ministers and central bankers don't want to be conned into joining your self-serving photo ops, then they didn't deserve you anyway.

Harper-Proofing Canadian Democracy: Accountability for Information

There's been no lack of talk lately about Canada's federal access to information procedures, and the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics offer at least one set of proposals worthy of action. But there's a more fundamental issue at play which doesn't seem to have been addressed - and I'll suggest that it makes for the most important possible safeguard against the likes of the Cons.

Currently, the access to information system contains two main outlets to try to ensure that governments actually provide the public with access to information as required by law. The first is the review process which provides for recourse to the Information Commissioner and ultimately the Federal Court against any decision by a government institution to deny access. But that process leads to no final result other than the disclosure of whatever documents should have been released in the first place (and perhaps an award of costs to merely account for the expenses of actually pursuing the case). Which effectively invites an unscrupulous government which wants to keep its actions secret to simply refuse to release information until forced to through the courts.

In principle, that impulse is supposed to be checked by ministerial accountability for access to information within a department - with theoretical political consequences for a minister who consistently suppresses information. But that kind of moral suasion is obviously rendered ineffective when it's applied to a government with no shame.

What's more, the notion of political costs as the consequence of failing to provide required information only encourages a government to see access to information in political terms, and to centralize its operations for partisan benefit as the Cons have done. If each minister exercises practical control over his or her department, then it might be easier to actually hold accountable the ones who are more secretive. But if all of them simply pass along documents for redaction by the PMO while being able to point fingers elsewhere without practical consequences, then political self-preservation may well weigh in on the side of playing along with information suppression even if a particular minister wouldn't be inclined in that direction.

That's where we are now: a system with no sense of individual responsibility where the statutory processes which theoretically provide access to information can be flouted by a government which simply declines to follow the law. So let's make it unmistakably clear that ministers and departmental officials are in fact individually responsible for their actions in dealing with information.

It would seem to be a simple enough matter to set up a system of regulatory penalties for noncompliance with the Access to Information Act, with ministers or other institutional heads bearing explicit supervisory responsibility for what happens within their departments.

Of course, the idea wouldn't be to create automatic punishment for any delayed response or disagreement as to what ought to be redacted - factors which could be taken into account by providing defences for good-faith action and reasonable reliance on the advice of officials. And it would make sense to create a filter for frivolous accusations by ensuring that the Information Commissioner gets to determine which cases actually justify prosecution (similar to the process under the Canada Elections Act where the Chief Electoral Officer has to refer matters to the Elections Commissioner for investigation).

But in the case of officials and institutional heads who might deliberately suppress information without a legal basis to do so, the difference between facing no repercussions other than losing an argument in court and facing personal legal liability would create a strong incentive to make decisions on the departmental level in accordance with the law. And since the cost of withholding information in bad faith would be personal rather than political, there would be far less inclination to farm out decisions to the PMO or any other department on the assumption that the government can get away with whatever it wants as long as it sticks together.

In sum, before Parliament spends much more time tweaking the types of exemptions or orders available under the current system, it would be well served to first take the single step which is most likely to force even a government as controlling as Harper's to take notice of the consequences of depriving Canadians of their right to information about how their country is run. And if the result is a system where all departments are motivated to set up better-functioning access to information systems which last under future governments, then so much the better.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Deep thought

I'm shocked, shocked, to find out that the Con political hacks are suppressing requested information without any legal justification rather than leaving the decision with "arm's-length officials".

On giveaways

Speaking of Canada's international pariah status under the Cons, it's far too predictable that anybody who's worked to be excluded from the international community will end up making serious mistakes in trying to fit in. Which brings us to the Cons' announcement that they're prepared to trade away provincial and municipal freedom of action permanently in exchange for partial access to eleven days' worth of the U.S.' dying stimulus program.

There's been no lack of commentary on the topic already, and most of it has pointed out the similarity of this deal to the one that paid the U.S. a billion dollars to punish Canadian softwood lumber producers. But let's look in a bit more detail at some of the mistakes that were repeated between the two negotiations.

First and most glaringly, there's the Cons' continued pattern of working against allies rather than in their interests. In the case of the softwood lumber dispute, the Cons excluded friendly parties on both sides of the border from negotiations while allowing the U.S. lumber lobby to have constant influence, then spent most of their time after striking the deal trying to force Canadian industry to go along with it. Likewise this time, the Cons seem to have done far more work getting the provinces to sign away their ability to procure locally than figuring out whether there's any benefit in trading that sovereignty away.

Similarly, in both cases the Cons appear to have decided first that some kind of deal absolutely had to be struck, then gone into negotiations seeking only to make whatever concessions were necessary in order to be able to walk out holding a signature from the other side. The result is a photo op based on waving a piece of paper around - and dealing with the consequences of what that piece of paper says later if at all.

Which leads nicely into the final obvious similarity, being that neither agreement actually seems to have resolved anything with any finality. In the case of the softwood lumber agreement, it took less than a year after formal approval of the agreement for the Cons to start looking for ways to concede even more, or even begging for U.S. approval to carry out exactly the measures the U.S. demanded in the first deal.

But this factor may be even worse for the latest set of negotiations. As many of the commentators on Buy American have noted already, the deal would never have been necessary if the U.S. had adhered to the terms of previous agreements, meaning that we're once again simply throwing more and more on the table in hopes that the U.S. will live up to promises that it's actively breaking. And this set of negotiations goes even further in that the Cons are explicitly relying on the outcome only as a "precedent" for future U.S. procurement, rather than even trying to secure wording that might bind more than 11 days worth of purchases.

For those looking for whatever silver lining can be found, it's worth noting that the Cons have miraculously only done this twice on high-profile issues during their time in office, rather than setting up monthly sessions to grant greater and greater concessions to the country Stephen Harper wishes Canada would become. But based on what we know to happen when Harper sits down at the negotiating table, there should be every incentive to remove the Cons from any position to pick up the pace.

On rejection

For those wondering how the Cons' efforts to turn Canada into a global pariah are working out, look no further than their success in clearing the room at Iqaluit - where not a single G7 visitor stayed for the closing feast, presumably due to urgent hair-washing appointments.

But if Canada has reason to be embarrassed for the moment, there's surely a lesson to be learned here. Just take it from the G7: wherever Deficit Jim Flaherty wants to railroad you is the last place you want to be.