Saturday, March 06, 2010

Saskatchewan Party Cancelled Due to Lack of Interest

The Star-Phoenix editorial board is duly scathing about the Sask Party's complete lack of vision. But it's worth putting into perspective just how remarkable it is that the Sask Party's convention this weekend is apparently featuring a mere five resolutions in total - with the one which would actually represent the most significant policy change having been pre-shot-down for the convention's convenience.

By way of comparison, the 2009 Saskatchewan NDP convention dealt with 7 resolutions...from its Rainbow Pride Committee alone. Which is in addition to 4 from its Saskatoon Rivers constituency. And 4 more from its Saskatoon Eastview constituency. And another 4 from its Saskatoon Southeast constituency. And yet another 4 from SEIUWest.

And it isn't only NDP-friendly constituencies and groups who offered plenty of substantive policy proposals for discussion. The NDP lost by nearly 60 points in Cypress Hills, by 47 points in Estevan and by roughly 30 points in Cut Knife-Turtleford in 2007. Yet those three NDP riding associations between them provided more ideas for their party's consideration than the entire Saskatchewan Party can apparently muster.

In fact, the 2009 Saskatchewan NDP convention had four separate categories of resolution, each featuring at least seven separate resolutions which were then prioritized by panels to be considered by the plenary session. And that's before the party engages in a policy renewal process whose first public meetings featured dozens of suggestions for topic areas, to say nothing of the number of specific policy proposals likely to result.

Of course, there isn't another party in the province even close to matching that level of member interest. But it isn't just the NDP which seems to be able to muster some significant policy interest at its conventions.

Take the Greens, who passed five resolutions at their 2005 convention...on the issue of health care alone. And a cursory look at their issue pages signals that they tend to address 20+ resolutions at any given policy convention. Likewise, while the Libs don't seem to have much by way of convention documentation online, they and their much-derided turnout in 2009 managed to deal with a full statement of principles as well as at least one headline-grabbing policy last year.

All of which is to say that the Sask Party's nonexistent list of resolutions hints at the party being nothing more than an empty shell from a policy standpoint - even compared to the parties which can't even put together enough interest to win a single seat. And while Wall and company may hope they can raise enough corporate money to make up for the fact that the sum total of their members' ideas can be counted on one hand, it's hard to see how that balance can be sustainable for long.

Their words, not mine

For those wondering whether the right-wing focus on slashing taxes and the public service is even intended to result in economic benefits rather than simply being a matter of anti-government ideology, I'm not sure one could ask for a more decisive statement than Gerry Nicholls' latest commentary on the National Citizens Coalition:
Here's what (Paul Tuns) wrote about the NCC's response to the federal budget:
I'm just saying that the messaging from the NCC would have been clearer five or ten years ago; the NCC isn't supposed to be worried about job creation except as a talking point about lower taxes and less government.
Paul's comment reflects the weakness with the current NCC leadership. They have no clear understanding of true conservatism.

On full transparency

CBC's report raising the possibility that Canadian officials deliberately rendered Afghan detainees to be tortured obviously raises the stakes in the ongoing standoff over records documenting Canada's actions. But while we'll have to see how both the information showdown and the substance of the issue play out, it's worth a reminder as to how easily the Cons could muddled any responsibility for war crimes by accepting some of the ill-advised "compromises" suggested last year as a way of avoiding confrontation.

Consider what would have happened if before Amir Attaran's revelations had become publicly known, the Cons had jumped on an offer to share their documentation on the treatment of detainees with a small number of MPs in return for their being sworn to secrecy. Only a limited number of representatives would then have had any ability to look through a vast number of documents. And even if they'd managed to find on their own any documentation showing that the issue actually involved deliberate orders to pursue torture as a matter of policy rather than failure to prevent torture as had been discussed publicly, they'd have had no ability to do anything about it.

Then suppose Attaran had gone public with his revelations. At that point, the Cons would have had a ready-made opportunity to point fingers at opposition MPs for having known about what was happening, claiming that any charges of war crimes would be just as applicable to MPs who learned what happened only after the fact as to any officials who made decisions to have detainees transferred to be tortured.

In retrospect, then, it's entirely fortunate that the Cons' apparent suspicions of what the opposition parties would do with the truth outweighed their desire to spread blame around. (And based on the Libs' constant efforts to be seen as compromising, I'm far from sure that shouldn't have been obvious from the beginning.)

Now that the ultimate nature of the issue is known publicly, though, there's no way for the Cons to try to raise any pretense that all parties should be seen as conspiring to hide information about war crimes from the public, rather than the Cons alone hiding their own misdeeds from the opposition and the public alike. And now that the issue has to be seen as one of intent rather than negligence, there figures to be far more demand for a full public airing of the responsible officials' actions.

Of course, some Con supporters are already pivoting toward a claim that Canada should be satisfied with being lied to so as to avoid the consequences of the crimes which may have been committed by Canadian officials. (Or in other words: "See, we told you the truth might injure our reputation! Now let's pretend none of this ever happened." Which puts a particularly interesting spin on the hints that Justice Iacobucci's mandate might be limited to considering any possible injury resulting from disclosure of the records currently being hidden.)

But the real lesson has to be that we shouldn't settle for selective disclosure of what's been done in our name when our country's values are at stake. And while the Cons may have a greater incentive to try to fight to suppress the truth now that we have a better idea what it might include, I'd have to think they're far less likely to succeed.

The reviews are in

Susan Delacourt on just how obvious it is that even to the extent Con MPs could be bothered to carry out consultations, those had no effect whatsoever on Emperor Harper's plans:
I believe it was CanWest reporter David Akin who told us that federal cabinet ministers howled in protest when they first learned of the plan on Wednesday morning.

Yes. Wednesday morning. This whole kerfuffle over the anthem, if nothing else, has given us a bit of insight into the "consulting" claims of the government over the past two-plus months of prorogation. Others have made this observation too; I don't claim it to be original, but why the heck did the government need all that time to "recalibrate" its plans -- if writing the Throne Speech amounted to jotting some hare-brained schemes on the back of an envelope and sending them to the committee of speechwriters?

It also tells us how much the cabinet is in the loop too. Keep that picture in your mind, of Canada's ministers of the Crown, only learning of their government's overall plan a few hours before the rest of the country heard it. Relatedly, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney seems not to have known that he deliberately excluded gay rights from the citizenship guide, leaving us with the suggestion that someone else -- an aide, perhaps -- did it for him. So this is what it's like to be a cabinet minister these days? You're told at the eleventh hour of the government's marching plans and aides make decisions for you?

Friday, March 05, 2010

Musical interlude

Kaskade - It's You It's Me


Kady has the most ridiculous detail yet about the Cons' attempt to hide from the Afghan torture issue:
SO YEAH, ABOUT THOSE TERMS OF REFERENCE UPDATE: Apparently, Nicholson's office will be putting out a press release on the Iacobucci review just as soon as they've managed to nail down the details, although when that will happen -- or, for that matter, what that down-nailing entails -- is not entirely clear.
Combining the highly visible public announcement of they-haven't-yet-figured-out-what with their immediate backtracking on a change to the national anthem which they so proudly unveiled just two days ago, it's looking more clear than ever that the Cons are just as incompetent as they are dishonest. But with the fundamental question of parliamentary supremacy still left unanswered, it'll be up to the opposition parties to refuse to be thrown off course no matter how desperate the latest distraction may be.

On fundamental decisions

In case there's any doubt, the headline "Iacobucci to decide" is absolutely meaningless until we know what the former Supreme Court justice is actually being asked to review. And there's plenty of reason to think that the Cons' appointment is aimed at everything but the core issue of parliamentary supremacy:
Members will understand that there are matters must keep confidential in order to keep the public interest,” Mr. Nicholson said Friday in the House of Commons. “At the same time recognizing the legitimate interest that we all have in the protection of the men and women who serve us in Afghanistan and who serve the public interest in this country.”

Nonetheless, said Mr. Nicholson, “the government acknowledges that it is appropriate that the decision made by officials on the disclosure of information in these circumstances be reviewed independently from government.”
So from Nicholson's statement alone, we can conclude the Cons:
(a) are seeking to have taken as a given that they're entitled to suppress information even in the face of an order from Parliament; and
(b) are pointing Iacobucci toward decisions of "officials" (presumably earlier in the process) rather than the personal obligations of Peter MacKay in the face of the order passed by the House of Commons.

Of course, the Cons shouldn't be delaying even if the scope of Iacobucci's review actually does cover what should be a clear case of parliamentary supremacy. But there's particular reason for suspicion based on how Nicholson has framed the appointment.

Edit: fixed label.

Burning question

Is Canada officially rejecting out of hand all immigration applications from, say, members of Uganda's governing party? Because if not, it seems awfully difficult to reconcile the Cons' latest claim that there's no need to consider whether some immigrants might have anti-gay views with their supposed recognition that even state-based gay-bashing remains a sad reality elsewhere in the world.

On filters

Needless to say, Murray Mandryk's latest column can't pass without some comment. But it's worth noting that while Mandryk is off base in his view of citizen involvement in politics whether through blogs or otherwise, at least part of the problem looks to be his willingness to take at face value some party presentation which requires some clarification and correction of its own.

Here's Mandryk's mandatory quarterly potshot at the blogosphere:
Lingenfelter's communications director recently spoke to the University of Regina's senior extension class and a nice old gent in attendance was kind enough to forward the NDP communication strategist's presentation. In it, Lingenfelter's chief communicator calls Internet bloggers "unfiltered, independent, instant and affordable" and specifically praises the province's three biggest NDP blog sites. The problem with dealing with the "traditional media" -- the newspaper, radio and TV reporters the communications director deals with every day -- is that they "filter" the NDP's message and "many times the reporting is biased." (Presumably, unlike non-biased NDP bloggers.)
Now, to the extent one assumes that there's a clear difference between bloggers spreading party messages unfiltered and media who are set apart by applying some editorial analysis, there would indeed be reason for cynicism about the role played by bloggers.

What Mandryk seems to miss, though, is that any claim that a party's message will be passed along "unfiltered" through blogs is itself somewhat misplaced.

Of what I'd consider to be the leading Saskatchewan NDP blogs (without knowing which ones were included in the presentation), there's a broad continuum including some based predominantly on reinforcing party positions, along with some which make a consistent effort to provide angles beyond the party's position and analyze/critique its actions. And even in blogs which fall mostly under the former category, none simply unthinkingly passes along all party positions which happen to surface in the news or on a party website; instead, it's the individual blogger who decides which issues are worth posting about, with the effect of shaping the type of message which gets presented to the blog's audience.

So what does generally come through unfiltered is the opinion of the actual blogger - with the varying extent to which the blogger's priority is to directly convey party messaging serving as only one factor in that final output. And while the final product on a supporter's blog will generally tend to amplify parts of a party's message to the extent those factors overlap, the blogging process is also an opportunity for two-way communication - as the party is able to see which issues are seen as resonating and which ones aren't piquing the interest of its online supporters and their commenters.

Moreover, one can hardly call most media outlets free of bias. And most of them pretend to be neutral even while presenting content which does favour some interests over others - while most political bloggers will acknowledge that their own views do play a role in their content.

All in all, then, while parties and media may want to label independent blogs as outlets for party communication for entirely different reasons (the party in order to label blogs as a useful tool for partisan purposes, the media in order to discredit them as news outlets), they're both equally wrong in seeking to apply the label.

Of course, it's also true that while blogs make for both a useful source of information and a valuable method of conveying it, any political party is bound to recognize that it needs to reach potential supporters through as many means as it can. Which makes the next part of Mandryk's column downright stunning in the standard it sets for the NDP and the NDP alone:
However, this distrust in the "traditional media" to report the NDP's message doesn't mean that Lingenfelter is any less eager to manipulate them. Recently, the Leader-Post has been receiving letters to the editor with suspiciously similar wording -- all critical of Brad Wall.

When some of the authors were contacted by the newspaper for confirmation before publication, they said they didn't write the letters, but signed their names to them after they were handed out at an NDP meeting. One elderly woman said in an interview she agreed with what was in the letter but, "I don't pay much attention to politics anymore."

This may be another reason why the public has trust issues with Lingenfelter.
Now, if Mandryk is just discovering for the first time that groups of all kinds of political persuasion sometimes ask supporters to sign their names to favourable letters for publication, then I'll gladly welcome him to...what, the 1970s? The 1920s? The dawn of the newspaper itself?

Which isn't to say that I'm a fan of the idea as compared to the alternative of having a supporter express that opinion in his or her own words. (Nor indeed the practice of putting words in others' mouths in general, as I mentioned several times during the NDP's leadership race.)

But it's entirely off base to pretend that a concept which ought to be familiar to anybody with even a passing knowledge of political activism - and which has surely only grown in scope in an age of instant communication where it's possible to make an online submission based on a pre-written letter in a matter of seconds - somehow matters as an individual trust issue related to Dwain Lingenfelter alone. And if Mandryk feels the need to invent such a non-issue to reinforce a "don't trust Lingenfelter" narrative in an effort at "balance" against the fact that he's used some column space to point out the Sask Party's gross mismanagement of the province, then that likely serves to highlight exactly the kind of skewed filter that the NDP rightly wants to bypass.

Edit: fixed wording/labels.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Just a few minor changes

Let's give Brad Wall's Sask Party government this much: while its claim to have even the slightest clue what they're doing about provincial finances may be obviously and painfully wrong, it's at least made it nice and convenient to correct the record. Good job Saskboy.

On wishful budgeting

The key takeaway from Deficit Jim Flaherty's latest work of fiscal mismanagement performance art:
Mr. Flaherty, unlike in his previous budget, hasn’t made allowances for the possibility the consensus (on growth forecasts) could turn out to be too optimistic.

The worst case scenario remains a distinct risk. No one knows how long U.S. consumers – the biggest buyers of Canada’s exports – will build up their savings rather than resume spending. Banks remain extremely cautious, making it difficult for small businesses to get loans. Rich countries are struggling with heavy debt loads that will limit what they can do to boost economic growth in the years ahead.
So less than a year and a half after his government was completely out to lunch first in asserting that a recession was impossible and then in claiming that Canada didn't need any economic stimulus, Deficit Jim is now going even further than ever before in "planning" as if nothing can possibly go wrong. Which can hardly be confidence-inspiring for anybody who's paid attention to the Cons' track record.

On defining roles

For all the talk about the national anthem diversion in the Cons' throne speech, much of the discussion seems to have missed what looks to me the most important point about the passage. Here's what the Cons had to say about the national anthem:
Our Government will also ask Parliament to examine the original gender-neutral English wording of the national anthem.
On my review, that passage is one of exactly three in the throne speech which involves a reference to Parliament doing anything at all in the upcoming session. And the other two are little if at all more substantive, referring to rubber-stamping free trade deals and freezing office spending.

In contrast, everything to do with meaningful policy issues in the throne speech is phrased solely in terms of "Our Government". And from the Cons' post-speech spin, they in fact plan to distance themselves from any discussion about the national anthem:
The Conservative government said in Wednesday’s throne speech it will ask Parliament to examine the original wording of the anthem. Officials said later a parliamentary committee will study whether the phrase “In all thy sons command” should be changed to “Thou dost in us command,” which the Prime Minister’s Office says is the wording from the original version.

Harper aide Andrew MacDougall said the government does not have a view on the change.
Of course, it was the government that chose to incorporate the possible change in its throne speech - making it absurd to claim that it doesn't have any interest one way or the other.

But from my standpoint, the most significant part of the phrase is its effect on the obvious standoff between Parliament and the executive. By dividing up the speech so starkly between banal matters which he wants to see in Parliament's hands and significant ones where he pretends Parliament doesn't matter, Harper is effectively telling the House of Commons to bugger off and do some songwriting or something so that he can rule the country without opposition.

Needless to say, the response from all elected representatives - but particularly the opposition - should be that Harper doesn't tell Parliament what to do, and that they won't be that easily distracted from their job of holding the government to account. And if the Cons want to put any substantial amount of their energy into a national anthem committee, then so much the better for the opposition's chances of making headway on the issues that really affect Canadians.

Edit: fixed wording.

Regina Coronation Park - From Green to Orange

Earlier this week, we got our first answer to the question of what type of candidate we can expect to challenge for the Saskatchewan NDP in ridings currently held by the Sask Party. But while it's great to see strong crops of familiar NDP faces pursuing nominations, there can't be much doubt that the NDP will need to bring in some new support from outside the party. And that makes the latest addition to the Regina Coronation Park nomination race a particularly interesting one.

Tory McGregor was elected deputy leader of the Saskatchewan Green Party in 2008, and subsequently ran for them in the Cumberland by-election won by the NDP's Doyle Vermette. But now, it appears that he's putting together a run at the NDP nomination in Regina Coronation Park - which contrary to some concerns during the NDP's leadership race actually makes one more relatively high-profile Green figure joining the NDP than has moved in the opposite direction.

We'll find out soon whether Tory is able to bring enough new faces with him to contend for a nomination against the three strong contenders already in the race. But either way, the NDP should be glad to have his voice in the mix - and hopefully he'll be just the first of many Greens who see the chance to create positive change from within the NDP.

Edit: fixed typo.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

On popular will

Shorter Throne Speech:

Having torpedoed it for no apparent reason, our Government will respect the will of Canadians* by reintroducing all previous legislation in its original form.

(*Warning: may be limited to those who agree with us sufficiently to be listened to.)

Left out

Before the session of Parliament goes into full swing, let's note one final point about the long list of Cons who are reported by their own party as having done little or nothing during the course of their Harper Holiday.

I've actually been disappointed to see relatively little other commentary based off the list. But I can see why on its face, the Cons' list wouldn't seem like a promising target for criticism. Even doing small amounts of research around the edges, there's no doubt that some of the MPs not listed have in fact made public appearances - so it might seem counterproductive to engage in an MP-focused naming and shaming when at least a good number of them may be able to point to activities if challenged.

But there's an important reason why the list still matters.

After all, there's no doubt that the Cons are run as a singularly top-down operation. Even activities which normally focus on MPs - private members' bills, question period slots, committee actions, and the like - are micromanaged to a ridiculous degree. And when it comes to developing the budget which supposedly made for the Cons' top priority, it's fairly obvious that if Jim Flaherty and Stephen Harper aren't aware of the outcome of a particular event or consultation, then it may as well not have happened.

In other words, the fact that the Cons' central office didn't include a particular MP's event on its list doesn't mean the event didn't happen. But an omission certainly means that the event either wasn't noted at all, or wasn't seen as important enough to be worth even a one-line mention by the Cons' inner circle.

So while it's undoubtedly true that some events took place which aren't on the Cons' list, it's equally true that those events are best seen as resulting in the attendees spinning their wheels. Either their input didn't get passed along to the actual decision-makers, or their MP's attempt to pass it along wasn't seen as important enough to be worth including even in a broad list of what the Cons are bragging about having done during the prorogation. And either way, there's every reason for citizens to be disappointed in both their MP and the Harper government in general.

(Edit: fixed wording/typo.)

The competition heats up

Sure, Rod Gantefoer might seem to have an early lead in the Owelympic Games' Jaw-Dropping Incompetence event. But B.C. Finance Minister Colin Hansen isn't going down without a fight:
Last September, Hansen said that B.C. had opted to take the federal monies over a three-year period -- $750 million in 2009/10; $374 million in 2010/11; and $475 million in 2011/12 -- rather than in a lump sum. The timing of those federal payments, Hansen added, was solely at B.C.'s discretion.

But today's budget shows that the Campbell Liberals have decided to fudge the timing of those federal payments. Instead of receiving $750 million in the current fiscal year (which ends on March 31), Victoria will accept just $250 million from Ottawa -- thereby deferring $500 million in revenues to later years.

So, instead of obtaining Ottawa's HST inducements when they're needed most -- now, when B.C.'s fiscal deficit is at its nadir of $2.8 billion -- the Campbell government intends to shove those transfers to some point in the future.

Why ever would they do that? It's simple, really: the BC Liberals believe windfall federal government monies are most-needed -- not at the present time, just after they won a provincial-general election -- but just before the next general election, scheduled for 2013. That way, the Campbell government can be assured of recording a balanced (or surplus) budget when next they face the electorate.
(I)nstead of accepting federal windfall payments immediately, we'll now be borrowing monies to cover the annual fiscal shortfall. And we'll be paying interest on those borrowed monies.

How much will that be? According to this author's calculations (using the Interest Rate Forecasts on page 119 of the government's Budget and Fiscal Plan, 2010/11 - 2012/13, here), the unnecessary interest charges incurred by the Campbell government will cost British Columbians $49.9 million in 2010/11 and $24.4 million in 2011/12. That's a total of $74.3 million over a two-year period.
For all the criticism the federal Cons have taken for their incessant use of public money for partisan advertising, at least they managed to buy air time and produce PR material for their tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. (Which leads to the question: what does Deficit Jim Flaherty have in his bag of tricks to be revealed tomorrow?)

In contrast, Hansen seems entirely happy to spend upwards of $70 million on nothing but raw political calculation. And I'd have to wonder whether B.C. citizens left with the bill will be happy to see public money thrown down the tubes for the B.C. Libs' gain - or whether they'll be roused enough to recall Hansen and enough of his partymates to change B.C.'s government before the supposed payoff.

On undisclosed risks

Murray Mandryk weighs in on the Sask Party's $200 million potash payout. And the background raises even more serious questions about what we're being told by the Wall government:
The "profit tax portion of potash royalties is paid on a calendar-year basis", meaning that producers are required to estimate their full-year profit and full-year payments in the first quarter of their calendar year. That also happens to be the last quarter of the provincial budget year. Based on these estimates, potash producers must "remit an installment payment equal to 25 per cent of total forecast payments for the year."

In short, the industry already paid taxes or royalties in last year's budget on potash that it didn't wind up selling.
The net result of this is that we wound up collecting too much from the industry in the banner 2008-09 budget and now have to pay it back in 2010-11 when we have less capacity to afford it. As (NDP MLA Trent) Wotherspoon pointed out, it not only makes the 2009-10 budget a sham, but it also calls into question the validity of the record 2008-09 budget.

Whatever it is, it's incompetence well beyond anything voters should ever have to tolerate.
So what does Mandryk's explanation tell us that we may not have known before? Let's take a closer look at the timeline involved.

Apparently the money being paid out to potash corporations is money that was collected in 2008-09. Which means that it's been a part of the books reported by Gantefoer for at least a year, and should have been part of the province's evaluation of potash revenue throughout 2009 as the province's estimates dwindled from $1.9 billion to under $100 million.

But at no point did Gantefoer did give any indication that there would be another cost to factor into the mix. And in fact his spin last fall as to why we should stop worrying about the growing shortfall portrayed "near zero" as the lower bound of what could become of potash revenues.

Which means one of two things. It could be that Gantefoer, in the midst of presenting yet another explanation for a massive miscalculation, chose to hold back from the province the reality that money sitting in the province's accounts since early 2009 had the potential to make matters worse. Or it could be that Gantefoer himself still isn't close to developing a clue how the province's revenue system works, with the result that he's as surprised as anybody about the payout - even in the wake of a year where potash revenues have constantly been in the spotlight.

Now, one can't rule out the possibility that the issue actually is one of utter incompetence rather than deliberate dishonesty. After all, Gantefoer has a history of not knowing his own job description - so it shouldn't come as much surprise if he just hasn't bothered to figure out the mechanics of how the provincial finances work either, even after two years as the minister responsible for them.

But for Saskatchewan voters, it's hard to see how either explanation would be the least bit reassuring about the Sask Party's ability to manage the province.

Wednesday Morning Links

A few pieces of reading material for those waiting on tenterhooks for today's throne speech. Or, for that matter, the NHL trade deadline.

- Murray Mandryk's column on the Sask Party's underfunding of watchdogs is definitely worth a read as a whole. But one vignette in particular should serve as an antidote to the claim that all governments treat accountability with equal derision:
But even more unnerving is the mistrust the Saskatchewan Party caucus seems to have for the independent officers of the legislature. That seemed to be the case a year ago when Sask. Party backbencher Mike Chisholm suggested that Provincial Auditor Fred Wendel shouldn't expect his funding increase to be automatically granted just because his budget was increased in the past by NDP governments.
- Toby Sanger highlights what happens when researchers look at P3s without a vested interest in hyping them.

- Hugh MacKenzie discusses the most important bubble on Canada's economic and political scene.

- In case I don't get back to the topic later today, the Gazette covers the latest from Rights and Democracy - featuring a government ramming through an appointment disapproved of by all opposition parties, as well as the firing of three employees for the "insubordination" of allowing a few facts to go public rather than simply accepting the Cons' spin at all times.

- The latest Lib infighting may actually be more significant than QMI's coverage makes it appear. It's one thing for criticism to be levelled at Michael Ignatieff by random Coderrites who don't figure greatly in the Libs' chances of improving their standing in Parliament, but Nancy Charest's 2008 run in Haute-Gaspésie – La Mitis – Matane – Matapédia made her the second-closest Lib to winning an extra seat in Quebec.

- Finally, Jeffrey Simpson nicely sets the tone for the new session of Parliament.

On constituency work

As hinted at earlier, let's take a look at the Cons' "constituency work" excuse for prorogation - and why whatever one thinks the Cons did during the course of their Harper Holiday, the explanation speaks poorly to Con MPs' representation of their constituents. (We'll leave aside for now the question of whether it's MPs or constituency staff who actually perform most actual riding-level work, though that factor will emerge later on in the discussion.)

To start with, let's note that the prorogation had the effect of extending what was already an extended stay away from Ottawa. The last sitting day for the House of Commons had been December 10, 2009 - meaning that to the extent MPs had constituency work to catch up on, they already stood to have a month and a half in which to do it before the scheduled resumption of Parliament on January 25.

Presumably, MPs' normal planning would involve getting done what needed to be done before heading back at that time. And if so, then anything more done as a result of prorogation simply serves as a signal that a particular MP wasn't able to keep up with the needs of his or her riding under normal circumstances.

Mind you, one might say that MPs could need plenty of time to catch up after a fall sitting of Parliament which saw MPs spend all but two weeks of a three-month span in Ottawa. But if it's the case that the Cons actually need to match a full month of time away from Ottawa with each one spent in Parliament to get their work done, then Stephen Harper's more recent talk about eliminating breaks in the new spring session only figures to ensure that his party's MPs once again fall months behind in their constituency work. And it would be entirely reasonable for voters to start wondering whether they should be backing a party which can actually keep pace with work that needs to be done both at home and in Ottawa.

Of course, there is another possibility, which is that MPs generally didn't actually do more within their constituencies as a result of the prorogation. That could be because the work is really done by constituency staff anyway, or because the MPs themselves had planned out their workload well enough to complete it under a normal Parliamentary schedule.

But if that's the case, then prorogation served to replace an MP's normal constituency work plus five weeks of Parliament MP's normal constituency work plus nothing. Which would result in Harper having given his MPs an unnecessary vacation while falsely claiming the time was needed for the purposes of work which was going to get done anyway.

In sum, then, there are two possible theories of the Harper Holiday's impact on constituency work. It could be that Con MPs did more in their constituencies as a result of prorogation than they would have otherwise - which would mean that Con MPs aren't keeping up with what needs to be done at home under normal circumstances. Or it could be that Con MPs didn't need extra time off from Ottawa to get their work done at home, making the prorogation nothing but a free vacation for them.

Either way, the Cons' attempt to use constituency work as an excuse for prorogation looks to be based on some combination of flat-out dishonesty and implicitly admitted incompetence. And whichever of those is actually at play for a particular MP, there's little reason to trust the government as a whole when its actions can only be explained by such factors.

The reviews are in

You know the NDP is on to something when even the National Post can't help but to agree with its ideas. And that looks to be the case with Jack Layton's proposal to limit the power of prorogation:
In general, we believe that the controversy surrounding Stephen Harper's decision to prorogue Parliament was overblown. But clearly, many Canadians disagree, and would like to see limits placed on the federal government's right to shut down Parliament. Of the various ideas we have seen in this regard, Jack Layton's recent proposal...strikes us as best.
Prorogation, (Layton) argues, should happen "when it is needed, not simply when the prime minister feels like it." More specifically, he says, Parliament should be closed only when a majority of MPs vote to close it.

This idea would be a logical bookend to the opposition's other major weapon: the direct motion of non-confidence. Just as the opposition already has the power to vote for a government to be dissolved because it no longer enjoys the confidence of a majority of Members of Parliament, a majority should also be able to vote to keep Parliament's doors open if it so chooses, even against the will of the government.
In most cases, prorogation would not be controversial: Unless a majority government's own caucus is deeply divided, it would be able to evoke prorogation whenever it chose and avoid non-confidence at will. But in the case of a minority government, eager to avoid scrutiny over a touchy subject -- say the current Tory government and the Afghan-detainee issue-- Mr. Layton's proposal would keep the government's feet to the fire.

Far from making our democratic institutions more dysfunctional, Mr. Layton's bill would keep their doors open more consistently and reduce the number of closures-of-convenience. We hope the government will learn from the controversy surrounding its current prorogation by giving Mr. Layton's proposal serious consideration.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Beyond the limits

I doubt that most readers would accuse me of being overly generous toward Brad Wall's Sask Party government. But I'll have to admit to just that, as it seems that I've underestimated its ability to make a mess of the provincial books.

Surely, I thought, the laws of mathematics would at least prevent the Sask Party from turning a revenue stream into a negative number. But apparently even that isn't beyond Rod Gantefoer's anti-Midas touch.

So congratulations to Gantefoer for proving that there are truly no limits to his government's incompetence - and I won't be caught again thinking that things can't get worse. But for those of us whose idea of dreaming big for Saskatchewan doesn't involve regular feats of unprecedented and seemingly impossible flows of red ink, there's even more reason to work to put a more responsible party back in charge.

Edit: fixed typo.

Burning question

Why exactly are the Libs going out of their way to say they'll try not to alter the Cons' timelines for the throne speech and budget, rather than taking the position that contempt for the House of Commons rightly has consequences for Stephen Harper's stage management of Parliament?

Oh, the scandal

Rob Silver strikes with what he's sure is a damaging revelation about Jack Layton: apparently Layton has cared about social responsibility for upwards of two decades.

Needless to say, I strongly encourage the Libs to make this their primary line of criticism against Layton.

Update: And I suppose it's also worth pointing out that in retrospect, Layton's concern about federal and provincial commitments was entirely prescient. After all, by the time 1996 rolled around, both Libs in Ottawa and Cons in Toronto had taken a chainsaw to what those levels of government had been spending even without an additional Olympic tab to pay.

Regina South: Heather McIntyre to Seek NDP Nomination

With a competitive nomination race developing in Regina Coronation Park, it's fairly clear that the Saskatchewan NDP is on strong ground in replacing its retiring MLAs. But with the party obviously needing to win additional seats in order to form government in 2011, the next question is whether it might face any more difficulty recruiting strong challengers in seats now held by the Sask Party.

Fortunately, there's some great news on that front. After running a strong City Council campaign last year in Ward 2, Heather McIntyre is now aiming for the NDP's nomination in Regina South, making a direct personal appeal about the harm done by the Wall government:
My grandmother lives in a Regina South nursing home with staff the government refuses to treat with respect. My daughter’s school may lose its teaching assistants and the value they bring to countless families. And soon my neighbours will be paying higher power bills. Everyone in Saskatchewan is being forced to pay for the Wall government’s mismanagement.
With the 2009 City Council race giving her both plenty of recent campaign experience and a head start in parts of the constituency, McIntyre should be a formidable candidate for the nomination. But there's also talk that she may not be alone in pursuing a seat which saw one of the NDP's two narrow losses in Regina in 2007.


I'd hope nobody took seriously the claim that the Cons' efforts to hijack Rights and Democracy had anything at all to do with a lack of accountability, particularly after the steps taken on that front by the previous regime. But anybody who did should be thoroughly disabused of that notion now that word comes out that the new, hard-right regime has been pushing for lower levels of transparency in how the institute's president spends public money:
After criticizing the past president of Rights and Democracy for spending and accountability issues, the agency's directors want to give the new president even greater powers to award contracts without public tenders, the Star has learned.

A proposed change to the agency's bylaws would allow the president to appoint or engage "employees, agents, consultants and advisers" without first having to seek competitive bids for the work.
Under current rules, the agency must call for tenders for contracts worth more than $10,000; seek at least three tenders; and justify the choice taking into account price and quality of services.

The move to give the president greater freedom comes despite criticism from some directors that Beauregard had too much control over discretionary funding.

In an interview last month, Braun cited problems of oversight. Beauregard's decision to give $30,000 to three Mideast rights groups has been a flashpoint for clashes between directors and staff.
Edit: fixed label.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The New Dog

For those who haven't yet seen it, the new Prairie Dog website went up last week, featuring full newspaper content as well as the steady stream of incisive updates you've come to expect from the Dog Blog. I've updated the blogroll on the right to include the new blog feed - but there's plenty more worth checking out.

Your money, his entertainment

Shorter Kelly McParland:

Alright, so some people might be rightly outraged at the amount of money and resources put into creating Stephen Harper's Olympic photo-ops. But would they feel better about the cost if it was in fact largely for Harper's personal amusement?

A useful reminder

Contrary to what you might suspect from most media coverage of the budget, there isn't technically a constitutional requirement that the federal government ignore such trifling concerns as "jobs for people" in order to start a game of hack-and-slash. And not surpriaingly, the CCPA has some great ideas on what should be done on that front.

On non-consultation

In case there's any doubt, we're not yet done with the list of Con MPs who - by their own party's account - couldn't be bothered to do anything during their Harper Holiday. For today, let's take a look at what the list tells us about the level of public input in the Cons' impending budget, as well as how seriously we can take the Cons' excuses for prorogation.

Remember that one of the major attempts to spin the prorogation consisted of Stephen Harper's argument that Con MPs needed to spend the time consulting with constituents on the upcoming budget. And after Jim Flaherty seemingly contradicted that claim by saying that budget consultations wouldn't actually be affected, here's how Flaherty reconciled the two statements:
Mike Storeshaw, Mr. Flaherty's director of communications, takes exception to the Ottawa Notebook’s suggestion that the Finance Minister and Prime Minister are saying two different things about prorogation:

“They’re not, and stating otherwise is just semantics,” Mr. Storeshaw writes. “Minister Flaherty does wide-ranging consultations all over the country in advance of presenting the budget. That’s what he’s doing in Winnipeg today, and would have been doing whether the House was prorogued or not. As you know, the House wasn’t even scheduled to be sitting this week, so the Minister is making use of the time to consult with Canadians, in much the same way he has done in years past. Just like the government as a whole, he is hard at work.

"… What the Prime Minister said was that the government, as a whole, would be taking advantage of this time in this way. I don’t know what’s inconsistent between the Prime Minister saying what all members of the government would be doing, and the Finance Minister actually doing it."
In case that wasn't clear enough, the Cons had thus set a clear public expectation by January 11 that all members of the government would be carrying out public budget consultations as the main reason for shutting down Parliament in the meantime.

And presumably any such consultation would have been included in the Cons' list. After all, here's what the list features according to Gordon O'Connor:
We have been governing and continue to govern during the constituency break as demonstrated by the attached list, which is by no means exhaustive and does not include the majority of MPs' constituency events.

The list focuses on:

- Our meetings with Canadians to listen to their views on the economy;

- Important Economic Plan investments to protect and create jobs; and
- Our Government's actions representing Canada's global interests.
That wording looks to nicely reflect the distinction drawn by Flaherty between normal MP work and the additional consultations expected during the course of prorogation. One might not anticipate extra work on the general constituency front (though we'll deal with that more in a later post), nor for the list to focus on MPs' work other than budget consultations. But one would absolutely have reason to expect that the Cons' economic consultations would be included, given that they were both the supposed highest priority during the Harper Holiday, and the primary focus of the list itself.

So is it fair then to say that 60 Con MPs didn't bother to actually follow through on their government's instructions? And that their constituents' interests thus won't be reflected in the upcoming budget to the extent the consultations actually had any effect?

Actually, the first question can be answered with a hearty "no" - but only because the list is significantly longer than 60. On a quick look from the Libs' analysis of days worked, 23 Con MPs worked only one day during the period included (though I'm not sure the list is entirely accurate on my own review). And of those, only 5 are listed as engaging in anything resembling budget consultations, with the other 18 merely announcing funding or attending public events.

That puts us at 78 Members of Parliament - a strong majority of the Cons' caucus - who responded to the instruction that all MPs were to carry out budget consultations by yawning, blinking and resuming their mid-winter naps. And that's without going into detail about the Con MPs who nominally worked two or more days who may have similarly omitted to include any consultation events from their meager activities.

And what's more damning, this is likely the portion of the Cons' activities which couldn't have been made up later. It wouldn't make too much difference whether a funding announcement or community event took place early or late in the prorogation period. But for budget consultations, one would think that any input would have to have been provided by the time the Cons compiled their letter to have had any chance of being taken into account.

So the end result is that the Cons have themselves provided evidence that the vast majority of their MPs can't be bothered to do anything about the party's supposed top priority. And plenty of voices who may have had a strong interest in the Cons' budgetary decisions will end up going unheard as a result.

Honesty, transparency, accountability

The Harper Cons will abide none of them. And the number of staffers saying so is growing:
(A)ccording to Tory staffers, recent orders from the PMO to stop interfering in access to information requests are disingenuous, and the PMO's pressure to block the release of information continues.

Early last week, a Tory staffer who asked not to be identified, encouraged The Hill Times to "keep going on this story about ATIPs."

The staffer said despite PMO statements that all staffers have been directed to abide and uphold the Access to Information Act, the PMO interference continues.

"This still continues and staff are told publicly to 'respect the process' but are expected to find ways to thwart the process," the staffer wrote. "Trust me—despite the public musings—political staff were told 'not to interfere,' nudge nudge, wink wink."

Staffers, another Tory staffer said, are very aware they are being "reminded of rules which they know they haven't been asked to apply."
During 7 a.m. teleconferences, the (first) staffer said, the PMO's issues management wing would routinely give "verbal directions on slowing down, delaying, stopping ATIPs altogether or 'transferring' ATIPs to the centre."

Staffers who questioned or resisted orders to interfere with the ATI system, the staffer said, faced verbal abuse and thinly veiled threats against themselves and their ministers, the source recounted.

And it begins

Even I wouldn't have expected the Libs to start bargaining away the principle of parliamentary supremacy before the next session of Parliament even starts. But apparently they're perfectly happy abandoning the existing order for production of documents in order to let somebody else deal with torture in Afghanistan on Stephen Harper's terms - effectively conceding any question of legislative vs. executive power to Harper before it's ever resolved.

Memo to Libs: Korn Kob Kory Teneycke is a Con strategist. Take his advice at your own peril.

Update: kirbycairo says it better:
When are the Liberals going to understand, winning conditions for an elections are not going to simply appear out of thin air??? YOU MUST CREATE THE CONDITIONS!!! And you do this by pushing key issues and refusing to back off. IT IS REALLY SIMPLE!

Take this issue of the order of the House to produce documents. If you find the Government in contempt and banish a couple of ministers from the House (or even imprison them which the House has the right to do) as a penalty, this unprecedented step would make world headlines and cripple Harper. Parties that have been found in contempt and have Minister(s) in Jail don't win elections except in Honduras.

For some reason, conservative(s) (not just in Canada but most Western nations) are the only ones willing to play hardball anymore. And each time you push and then back off like the Liberals constantly do, you lose a little more credibility and you bolster Harper's image of untouchability.

Fight back you idiots, or face extinction.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

On unifying moments

For those keeping score at home, it took less than an hour after Canada's impressive gold medal win in men's hockey for the game and its aftermath to be turned into attacks on both Jack Layton and the CBC. Can you feel the patriotism?

On previews

If you're looking for a strong summary of what's set to happen in Ottawa next week, look no further than Dr. Dawg.

Disappointingly, you won't find the same in David Akin's preview. At best, one could assume that the fault for a painful "Focus on Harper Agenda" headline (which could just have easily originated in the PMO as any news organization) lies with an editor rather than Akin. But it's beyond bizarre for Akin to frame the impending showdown over the relative roles of the executive and legislative branches as a battle between the opposition parties and "traditional powers and privileges of the prime minister", rather than between a Parliament looking only to assert its historical supremacy and an executive which is in the midst of an unprecedented power grab. And one has to figure that the Cons will be glad to seize on a similar line of rhetoric as part of their effort to neuter the House of Commons.

On unlikely agreement

It's exceedingly rare for me to agree with much of anything Lorne Gunter has to say. But as one might have guessed from my post yesterday, I'd have to say that he's on the mark when it comes to the real problem with Helena Guergis' airport eruption:
This Friday, Guergis apologized for speaking "emotionally" and admitted her behaviour was "not appropriate." But even if only half of the foregoing is true, this goes way beyond simple emotionality and inappropriateness. This exemplifies the worst of the arrogance that gets into the heads of some politicians.

Who in this day and age arrives at an airport 15 minutes before a flight and expects to be waved through check-in and security? Only someone who is so convinced of her own importance that she has come to believe the rules that apply to mere mortals do not also apply to her.

Witness her remark about how she had been on the island working hard for "you people." There is in that a regal complex in which the speaker believes her magnanimity towards the little people entitles her to their gratitude and favour.
Of course, I strongly disagree with Gunter's apparent view that we should assume that the problem is solely with Guergis personally rather than with the Cons' government as a whole. Which is why I part company with the suggestion that firing Guergis should be enough to put the incident in the past.

But hopefully we can agree that if Stephen Harper continues to defend Guergis, then that will tell Canada that the regal attitude is at least accepted if not fully shared by the Cons in general.


Gordon O'Connor's inclusion on the list of deadbeat Cons is particularly telling for reasons going beyond the fact that he's one of the better-known MPs included. Keep in mind that the list was sent out to the opposition party whips by none other than...Gordon O'Connor, chiding them for pointing out the Cons' vacation in his capacity as the government's whip.

In fairness, I'm sure O'Connor had little to do with the wording of the letter. Or the content of the list. Or indeed his schedule during the course of his Harper Holiday. But if anybody took O'Connor's feigned indignance seriously for a second, he surely deserves some mockery now that it's clear that he himself didn't take any of his party's "governing" seriously enough to take part.