Saturday, December 18, 2010

Saturday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Gerald Caplan follows up on one of the anecdotes from Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks' The Trouble With Billionaires, and finds that it's even worse than first suspected:
As it happens, two weeks after their book was completed, Ms. McQuaig received the actual Memorandum of Agreement between the Munk Foundation and the governing council of U of T, dated Nov. 23, 2009 and duly signed by both. (It’s now been made accessible by the university here.) The memorandum, which I hope will be reproduced in the paperback version of The Trouble With Billionaires, makes the book’s concerns quite plausible.
The funds from the Munk Foundation (with generous tax reductions) are to be donated over time. Only a portion will be donated up front. After that, “the university shall provide to the Donor in each year a detailed report indicating … a description of the program initiatives and activities of the School.” Then the school’s director “shall meet annually with the Donor’s Board of Directors” to discuss these matters “in greater detail.” Beyond all this, an additional tax-deductible gift of $15-million will be handed over if the Munk Foundation determines the university has achieved certain assigned objectives. “The determination of whether the University has achieved the Objective shall be solely that of the Donor and ... shall be conclusive and binding on the University.”

The university insists these words really mean nothing. But look at them again. These are carefully sculpted clauses. Why include them at all if they’re inconsequential? Why isn’t it a reasonable interpretation that further Munk Foundation donations will depend on whether it approves the programs the new school – sorry, Munk School, as the memorandum rigorously stipulates – is running? Is this institution likely to initiate a major project on the operations of Canadian mines in poor countries? What’re the chances it might consider adding to its faculty a certain Linda McQuaig, one of Canada’s indispensable public intellectuals who’s published far more than the great majority of tenured academics?
- Jim Meek points out that the government telling Canadians to cut down on their expenses is choosing not to take basic steps to allow them to do so:
Everyone from Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney to Prime Minister Stephen Harper is cautioning Canadians about their "debt problem," and asking us to fix it. We’re being told to stop spending, or risk going to the poor house.

I find this more than passing strange, inside a country whose citizens pay their fair share of taxes to debt-laden governments. Those governments, in turn, fail to take obvious steps to ease consumer debt. A good start would be tackling Canada’s high-priced credit card fees, mobile phone costs and management charges on mutual funds. (We’re world leaders in letting these sectors act like monopolies in ripping off consumers.)
Government should clean up its own act, instead of wagging its Big Brother finger at consumers.

And while our moral prefects on the Rideau are fixing the country, here’s what they should really do about debt: Bring sane regulations to bear on the nation’s predatory credit card, telecommunications and mutual fund industries. And instead of telling Canadians how to live, government should learn to manage its own out-of-control spending. After all, Ottawa’s debt is now soaring by $124-million a day.
- Sadly, Stephen Maher is probably right in his suggestion as to what the Cons likely want out of their appointed "watchdogs":
Ouimet received 228 complaints of wrongdoing by civil servants, but launched only five investigations and found no wrongdoing, accepting weak excuses from managers over the complaints of whistleblowers. Rather than defending vulnerable public servants from reprisals, she actually launched a reprisal campaign against one of her employees because she suspected he had gone to Fraser.

Because he didn’t keep his promise to set up an appointments commission, Harper is responsible for her appointment, although the blame likely belongs with the Privy Council Office mandarins, who chose Ouimet — a lifelong public servant — likely in the belief that she would be a cautious and respectful watchdog.

Instead, though, she brought the office into disrepute. They — and Harper — would no doubt have preferred it if she behaved like ethics commissioner Mary Dawson, who creates the illusion of oversight while inventing creative loopholes for the politicians whose doings she is supposed to oversee.
- Finally, let's note the results of some of Barack Obama's fund-raising experiments - showing among other lessons that a "learn more" button does better in attracting than a more overt reference to signing up for a list. Though I'm curious as to whether the same results would apply among all types of voters, or whether they may have had something to do with the type of voters who were predisposed toward interest in a candidate like Obama to begin with.

Blogger Battle Royale II

CBC's Day 6 has reconvened its battling bloggers - including Dan Arnold, Stephen Taylor and yours truly - for a post-session bout. Have a listen and enjoy.

In fairness, they did cut out the solid gold statue of Vic Toews

In these tough times, everybody has to sacrifice something. And apparently Canada's security establishment is sacrificing any illusion that it's operating under the same rules as the rest of the country:
The Harper government is planning a Taj Mahal complex for the Defence Department's spies, complete with a hockey rink, basketball and volleyball courts and a bank in a secure facility on Ogilvie Road, says the head of the department's largest union.
The project, announced last year by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, will cost taxpayers around $880 million. That doesn't include facilities management, which will be added later. MacLennan said an Australian firm, Plenary Group, will be the facilities manager, with a 34-year contract expected to be worth $5.5 billion.
According to the unclassified documents obtained by the union, the complex will include the outdoor rink and physical fitness areas such as basketball and volleyball courts, hiking trails, as well as a hobby garden, a Royal Bank, a coffee bar, cafeteria, kitchenettes and showers.

There will be storage facilities for 250 bikes, 800 parking spots for employee vehicles, a courtyard, a large fireplace in the foyer of one of the buildings and a daycare centre for 55 children.
(Edit: fixed title.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Musical interlude

Kaskade - Angel On My Shoulder

Sounds about right

No, we shouldn't entirely buy John Ivison's spin about anything much changing with a new Chief of Staff. But he's all too likely right on target in describing the current reality:
Mr. Wright is said to be a passionate Conservative — no less partisan than his predecessor — but the expectation is that he will be less divisive and driven by tactics. He will have considerable leverage, since it would be a huge embarrassment for the government if he headed back to Bay Street before his two-year stint is up. He is expected to have license to speak truth to power behind closed doors, which could result in a very different tone emerging from the PMO in the new year.
So it's expected to be a radical change in course for even a single member of Harper's inner circle to be able to do anything other than meekly nod along with the PM's orders. Just something to keep in mind next time the Cons' top-down talking points include such concepts as "listening" and "balance", as there's little reason to think they've done anything but isolate themselves from any opinions or realities that don't serve their effort to build Stephen Harper up as infallibe in their own minds. And even if Wright proves a rare exception, there's still ample reason to doubt that anybody else is going to get heard.

Friday Afternoon Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Paul Wells posts the definitive epilogue to the Cons' hijacking of Rights and Democracy:
Today the audit was released — not through a formal process, but because somebody leaked it to the Globe‘s Daniel Leblanc. You can read it here. (Well, the main narrative of the audit, anyway. Thousands of pages of annexes, including lengthy email correspondences, time sheets and so on, remain unreleased.)

It shows what Beauregard’s defenders have long asserted: that the agency was run without scandal, and without unusually lax management, even before his arrival; that he was taking clear steps to improve its management; and that specific claims against him and his staff from Gauthier and others hold no water. In short, that Rémy Beauregard died while fighting back against an unfounded witch hunt perpetrated by scoundrels who today stand unmasked and humiliated. The government of Canada under Stephen Harper and his minister Lawrence Cannon today continues to support those scoundrels, to its shame and ours as citizens.
But it's worth asking as well whether there's anything to the story that figures to actually motivate citizens to take action. And on that front, surely Beauregard's treatment should end any illusion that merely doing one's job effectively and without doing anything which could possibly be seen as an affront to the Harper government (which after all appointed Beauregard in the first place) serves as any protection from the danger of a political witch hunt.

- Susan Riley is frustrated with the lack of popular outrage over the Cons' F-35 money pit and other issues - but points out why the public has reason to be cynical when it comes to both the Libs and the Cons:
Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have all postponed, or reduced, their initial orders without noticeable penalty.

Not Canada. That isn't the way the Harper government does business. It decides on a course -- in this case, an impetuous and counter-intuitive course -- and then accuses critics of disrespecting the troops. From a distance this may pass for decisive leadership; up close, it looks weak.

Not that the Ignatieff Liberals -- who are calling for an open competition to replace the existing CF-18s -- would necessarily do better. They signed the original memorandum launching the F-35 program and seem as eager to join the U.S. military-industrial complex as their rivals.

What ever happened to the Presbyterian penny-pinchers of old, the careful Scots, the austere Prairie preachers and dust-bowl farmers, the Reform populists who didn't only rail against government waste but tried to respect "the taxpayer dollar"?

They live on, but only in myth. Not that anyone appears to notice.
- Fortunately, the heirs to the austere Prairie preachers do live on. But can they do more to claim a governing place on the federal scene than their predecessors? Let's check with Brian Topp:
What are Mr. Layton’s strengths? Clearly, as set out in many public-domain opinions polls, Canadians genuinely like Mr. Layton and appreciate his open, collaborative and sunny commitment to getting some positive things done. Mr. Layton’s bout with illness has caused Canadians to take a second look at him, to his benefit. And Mr. Layton’s extended experience with the balance of power in Parliament has matured him as a politician and a statesman in the eyes of the public. He is no longer prone to over-the-top statements rooted in the absolute necessity, early in his term, to be visible on the federal stage. Instead, Mr. Layton is an increasingly thoughtful and substantive contributor to the national debate – and has proved to be right on many issues. Canadians are responding by finding it increasingly easy to imagine him as (Prime Minister), a journey they have also made with Mr. Harper. Interestingly, in particular, Mr. Layton has developed substantial appeal among soft Liberals, of whom there are a generous supply these days.

What are Mr. Layton’s weaknesses? Canadians remain to be convinced that his agenda hangs together or that his party can win. Mr. Layton can cure the first problem by articulating a clear, coherent and responsible plan – including, in compelling terms, when people are paying attention to the details at election time. Mr. Layton can cure his second problem – perhaps – by speaking directly and credibly to how modern multi-party Parliaments can be made to work for Canadians. And by having a healthy dose of that essential ingredient in all winning campaigns, continuing luck in his opponents.
If anything, Topp may undersell the degree of public support for the NDP's policy agenda as they understand it. But there's little room for doubt that the "Libs as default alternative" factor is the main obstacle standing in the NDP's way.

- Finally, it shouldn't be much surprise that Bill Siksay's retirement has some opponents trumpeting the possibility of winning Burnaby-Douglas away from the NDP for the first time in over two decades. But let's note that the incumbent advantage is normally traced to opponents putting up something less than the toughest possible challenge - so given that the NDP has been outspent by one or both of its competitors in all but one of the elections where it's held Burnaby-Douglas, there's little reason to think the dynamics that have seen the NDP hold the seat will change.

Corporatist mantra for the day

Insufficient materialism is an unfair competitive advantage.

Deep thought

If the closest Michael Ignatieff can find to a "fundamental disagreement" with the Harper government is an issue where the Cons are mirroring the Libs' message from the last election campaign, doesn't that about say all we need to know about whether there's an inch of difference between the two?

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Memo to Carolyn Bennett: the line you're fumbling around looking for is "save the money by saving the census". You're welcome.

Burning question

Never mind the utter inaccuracy of the Cons' latest set of ads and PR opportunities: can anybody remember such an overwrought fear campaign quite so based on something so minor and banal as a proposed copying levy?

A Parliament about nothing

I'd planned to post on the meager legislative accomplishments of the Cons over the last year, but apparently Le Devoir (helpfully translated by Macleans) got there first:
Of the 61 pieces of legislation the Conservatives introduced in the House over the last 12 months, 33 were recycled from the previous session of Parliament; and as of right now, 18 of those 33 bills are either at the same stage or further away from being made law than they were before prorogation … Counting the three bills that are set to be granted royal assent Wednesday afternoon, the Conservatives will have passed a meagre 11 bills through Parliament over the past 12 months.
Now, it's worth noting that the translation isn't exact, as Le Devoir's numbers include bills introduced in the Senate as well as the House, and exclude budget and appropriations bills. Though of course the latter give rise to issues of their own, as the Cons rammed through major changes under the cover of confidence legislation at the same time as they were choosing not to bother advancing bills which might face a full debate.

But the trend of bills going nowhere does look to be a major story for the year - and one that has only become all the more clear late in 2010. The Cons introduced nine House bills fitting Le Devoir's criteria after October 5, and most of those were rolled out with major PR campaigns. But a grand total of one of them was advanced at all in the final two months of the fall session, and that only to the second-reading vote to send it to committee.

So the pattern of the Cons seeing Parliament primarily as a source of PR material rather than an institution intended to actually pass bills or otherwise debate public policy was more stark than ever at the end of 2010. So it shouldn't come as any surprise if they do choose to pull the plug on yet another session in order to be able to introduce the same bills all over again.

On needless gifts

I'll deal with the substance of the issue later. But for now, let's note that the Canadian Association of Bankers (which stands to make plenty of profit from a new private pension plan) apparently speaks for "the self-employed, small business employees and other Canadians who don’t currently have a pension plan at work" in endorsing it. Who could possibly doubt that they have nothing but the workers' interests in mind?

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- The latest to chime in on the recent theme of growing inequality is Alex Himelfarb, who nicely ties the issue back into the question of how to define a progressive Canadian vision:
Over the past week or two I came across several pieces on the absence of a left or centre-left narrative that works, that convinces and inspires Canadians. Cowed by the persistent dominance of neo-liberal, free market thinking, even after the meltdown, aware that environmental stewardship remains a difficult sell, and constrained by the stimulus-created deficits and uncertain economy, the left has in many jurisdictions portrayed itself as a nicer version of the right and not surprisingly, the right prevails. But Wilkinson provides a useful reminder that above all else what it always means to be “on the left”, what it has always meant, is a commitment to equality as well as freedom, or indeed equality as prerequisite to freedom.
(T)here are many routes to greater equality depending on circumstances and political culture and we ought to be finding the contemporary Canadian way. A commitment to equality is not a simple policy prescription – it is, to use the dreaded term, a vision, a progressive vision of a just Canada that works. It is a commitment to recover our sense of common purpose and to demand from every sector and every level of government that they play their part for the good of us all. And we have the data that show it can be done.

And for those who worry about economic freedom, even here the data have a surprise. Says Wilkinson, if you want to live the American dream, move to Denmark. The just society puts equality, democracy, sustainability at the centre of its policy agenda – and it works.
- Of course, part of the democracy is the ability to hold governments to account. And James Travers is skeptical that any party holding power will act on a commitment to making government more transparent.

But it's worth meeting that concern with an answer to why a progressive vision includes more effective oversight of the public sector worth putting into practice even once political winds have changed.

After all, if one believes that government can and should actually play a positive role in the lives of citizens, then one figures to have a strong incentive to make sure that it meets that potential. Which means that unlike the nihilistic Cons who can justify "anything goes" on the basis that public spending can't do any good anyway, a progressive government has a strong incentive to let the public verify the results of its policies.

- Meanwhile, at least one watchdog (if not one pointed at the Con government) looks to be making some significant noise. But it's particularly interesting to note that the Competition Bureau's move on credit card fees mirrors that of the NDP just days ago - perhaps serving as a positive example of how to build an issue when an independent observer and a political party decide to act on the same problem at the same time.

- Finally, Politics Watcher's post on the state of the Canadian voter (via Susan Delacourt) is a must-read in reminding us who should be the ultimate political decision-makers.

The logical inference

Not that I disagree with his analysis about the Libs' generally counterproductive response to Con spin about a coalition. But if Paul Wells is correct in suggesting that the Libs should use recent history as their guide to the structural forces needed to break Canada's current political impasse, then wouldn't the 1993 example suggest their best hope is to foster the development of the Christian Heritage Party to split the Cons' vote on the right?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Deep thought

Some unfortunate Con staffer is going to be in big trouble for letting this go out the door.

Wednesday Afternoon Links

Miscellaneous midweek material...

- Thomas Walkom rightly notes that at least some of the progressive disappointment with Barack Obama's administration can be traced to the gap between his words even while campaigning and his supporters' expectations.

But the broader lesson (which Walkom hints at) looks to be a need to put greater emphasis on the fact that winning power is a means rather than an end: rather than tying our hopes and goals to a single individual, we should evaluate political leaders based on what they can actually accomplish for the greater good. And no progressive on either side of the border should be satisfied with "winning" an election if it doesn't result in meaningful positive change.

- Which includes you, Duncan Cameron. That isn't to say we shouldn't be looking at ways to bring about a coalition government - but a panicked electoral scheme which gives the Libs more credit than they deserve as an alternative (and thus disempoers the parties fighting for real change) could easily be expected to lead to our own set of disappointments in short order.

- The Globe and Mail's editorial on skyrocketing consumer spending that the real problem is that not enough money is being borrowed in the corporate sector:
One of the weirdnesses of the recent recession was that Canadian consumer credit kept expanding from the low point, rising by 7 per cent. In this period, home equity has had a strange inverse relationship to personal net worth in Canada, the former being quite high during the slump while investment portfolios crashed. This pattern continues: Statistics Canada figures on Monday showed household net worth up 2.7 per cent in the third quarter, while home resales lessened, and residential mortgages decelerated.

The dependence of the major banks on consumers is shown in a chart in the central bank’s report. For half a dozen years, household credit’s share of their loan portfolios have ranged from 55 to 60 per cent – a departure from most of their history.

The world has moved far away from words that Shakespeare attributed to the sententious Polonius: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” But Canadian householders should work on borrowing less, and banks should seriously consider shifting more of their lending from households back to business.
But it's worth asking the question: is that necessarily because the banks have preferred to target consumers, or might it have something to do with businesses just not having a reason to borrow?

- Finally, it's well and good to Bev Oda's latest spin on KAIROS as an affront to ministerial responsibility. But I'd prefer to see it as a golden opportunity: doesn't it mean we can reverse all of the Cons' flawed decisions simply by planting somebody to add "not" to the relevant documentation after it's been rubber-stamped?


No, we still can't expect Chantal Hebert to do anything other than criticize the NDP. But at least now she can't help but to lump the Liberals into the same attack. And can that be anything but the first step toward the two parties generally being seen on a level playing field?

Well said

Frances Russell is the latest to weigh in on Canada's increasing inequality, featuring a concise history of how we ended up moving in that direction:
Two factors turned back the clock: globalization and tax cuts. Globalization allowed corporations to move purchasing and production to the lowest-cost jurisdictions around the world, putting enormous downward pressure on unionization, wages and salaries for the vast majority of Canadian workers. It also created a whole new class of super-rich who, unlike the super-rich of the past, base their wealth not on inheritances and property, but on stratospheric salaries, bonuses and rewards as corporate CEOs, investment bankers, inventors, entrepreneurs, athletes and artists. By 2007, the richest 10 per cent of Canadians held 42.5 per cent of all market income, up from 34 per cent in 1982.

Meanwhile, Canada's governments, both federal and provincial, have been on a tax-cutting spree, urged on by the proliferation of right-wing think- tanks. Since 2000, federal personal and corporate taxes have been slashed by $320 billion, an amount Canadians should remember every time they're told we can't afford medicare or improved public services. The provinces have followed suit.

Simultaneously, tax brackets have been telescoped from 19 in the 1950s to three. In 1948, the top federal marginal income tax rate was 80 per cent. Today, it's been almost halved, to 42.92 per cent, the lowest ever.

"Ability to pay" taxation is now a perverse joke. Between 1990 and 2005, the richest one per cent of Canadians experienced twice the reduction in taxes as the average Canadian -- four per cent versus two per cent.

Unbelievably, today, the richest one per cent of taxpayers is paying a slightly lower rate of taxes than the poorest 10 per cent of taxpayers.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Inclined cats.

Good faith at work

Of course there isn't much reason to expect an actual answer as to why the Cons are leaving glaring flaws in their parole legislation to make sure that they can portray the opposition parties as "soft on crime" in voting it down. But it's always worth pointing out just how determined they are to avoid accidentally getting something done when they can instead set up a talking point:
None of the government amendments deal with the most controversial aspect — a new rule that would make anyone convicted of more than three offences ineligible for life from applying for a record suspension.

Conservative committee member Brent Rathgeber said that even Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has acknowledged there may be a problem with the general three-strike rule, but it was not part of the government amendments tabled this week.

Tuesday Morning Links

Content goes here.

- Lawrence Martin's column on the Cons' choice of integrity commissioners is today's must-read. But it's worth highlighting how Christiane Ouimet's actions fit into the Cons' overall style of government:
The Conservative government has a reputation for muzzling civil servants and lording over independent agencies and tribunals so as to crush any potential dissent. If this was their intent in appointing Ms. Ouimet, they clearly got what they wished for.
Ms. Ouimet was part of a small fraternity of deputy ministers. According to those familiar with her work, it appears she was bound and determined to protect them as well as Stephen Harper’s ministers from any potentially harmful disclosures.

For Mr. Martel, it was unsettling that one of the first people she went off to see when she began her job was Kevin Lynch, then Clerk of the Privy Council. The Integrity Commissioner’s office is an independent agency, and is not answerable to the all-powerful Clerk of the Privy Council.
(I)f some of the cases she didn’t take up, such as Mr. Bruyea’s, are shown to be serious, the Conservatives could have a major problem on their hands. What better symbolizes ethical rot than the massive irony of having an integrity commissioner up to her eyeballs in cover-ups.
- Slowly but surely, the reality that high application barriers to social programs tend to result in more trouble than they're worth seems to be sinking in:
Thousands of low-income seniors who lose out on benefits every year because they don't realize they qualify could receive their payments automatically without even applying.
Daniel Jean, the deputy minister who led the review, offered a rare glimpse into the closely guarded review at a recent Conference Board meeting on public service transformation. He said improving seniors' access to benefits would be a "home run" in the drive to transform service. Not only would the proposal improve service for seniors, it would get rid of a cumbersome application process, reduce duplication and deal with some of the aging technology Auditor-General Sheila Fraser has sounded the alarm over, Jean said.
- James Travers chimes in on the Cons' politics of fear. But on the bright side, it's worth noting that his examples don't look to be cases where the Cons have actually managed to draw much support:
Never mind the absence of evidence that packing prisons makes citizens safer, that spending at least $16 billion on cold war stealth fighters is a national defence priority or that vandalizing the census is anything other than a feel-good placebo with sickening side effects. Clinging to federal power is now an exercise in appealing to the gut, not the brain.

If nothing else, that helps explain another loudly shouted Conservative warning. High on this capital’s list of preferred bogeymen is the spectral threat of a post-election coalition.
- Finally, the Hill Times takes a look at the federal political scene in Newfoundland now that Danny Williams' ABC campaign won't serve to overwhelm the efforts of the national parties. But while at least a couple of seats in the province figure to return to their pattern of being two-way races between the Libs and Cons, the riding with the most variables has to be St. John's South-Mount Pearl.

There, the Hill Times largely glosses over the NDP's chances in the next federal election. But Ryan Cleary managed to win 40% of the vote in 2008 - and more importantly, his raw vote total of 13,971 would have been enough to take the riding as recently as 2004 thanks to what was already a developing three-way vote split.

So there's plenty of reason to think that any of the national parties could come away with the seat. And to the extent there are any lingering effects from Williams' campaign, the smart money would seem to be on the Cons starting the race from a fairly distant third-place position.

How convenient

Just so we're clear, as a result of a Con staffer's flagrant breach of confidentiality, we can look forward to...the Cons paying less attention to the other parties' 2011 budget ideas, and thus having proportionately greater influence over the outcome.

I'd ask if there's any Con wrongdoing that doesn't somehow get spun into their controlling more than they did before their failure. But I suspect we all know the answer already.

Monday, December 13, 2010

On predictable results

Truly, nobody could have predicted. Then:
It's worth noting that the agencies chosen for the first round of cuts include some which are already well-known to be lacking for resourcesin ways which affect the federal government's bottom line far more significantly than the Cons' proposed cuts. For example, the Canada Revenue Agency was already unable to collect $18 billion in back taxes due to a lack of resources - and that was before the Cons decided to add more obligations without any apparent increase in funding.

Once again, though, the Cons apparently can't be bothered to try to figure out which federal dollars are already producing a worthwhile return, or where more money may in fact be needed. Instead, they're planning to simply assume that a significant portion of current spending should be chopped for no apparent reason.
Canadian individuals and businesses owe $25 billion in overdue taxes to the federal government, newly released figures show -- enough to pay off more than half the national deficit if the money were collected.

The tab for overdue taxes has been climbing in recent years, according to the Canada Revenue Agency. The $25-billion figure, the amount owing as of March 31, represents an increase of more than 35 per cent over the total owing five years ago, when overdue taxes stood at $18.5 billion.

Monday Evening Links

Assorted reading material to close out your day...

- Aaron Wherry nicely highlights the proud Con/Lib bipartisan tradition of proclaiming a "first step" toward dealing with climate change. But it's worth noting that the phrase figures to be a particular favourite for the Cons due to the implication that virtually no progress has been made so far, suggesting that we shouldn't expect to reach a destination anytime soon.

- Andrew Potter's Canadian Business article on inequality is well worth a read:
While we are not living in anything like the original Gilded Age, rising inequality is not a myth, either. The good news about inequality in the United States and Canada is that, unlike inequalities of yore, where kings and aristocrats enriched themselves largely by confiscating wealth from the masses, it is not coming at the expense of those lower down the pay scale. The poor are not being economically impoverished — in fact, they are doing better in absolute terms than ever before. It is just that the very rich are running away from the rest of us. The bad news is that unchecked and runaway inequality, regardless of absolute income levels, and regardless of its causes, has unhealthy consequences that get worse as the chasm between rich and poor grows.

This is why the argument over inequality matters. The stakes are significant, and huge questions of public policy — including the shape of the tax system, the size and scope of social programs, and the priorities of the government — hinge on whether we care to rein in the widening divide between society’s most and least fortunate.
- John Ivison is at least somewhat skeptical of the Cons' current spin on a North American security perimeter. But do we really want to see the issue as merely a matter of political communication rather than one with serious substantive effects?

- Finally, Scott Taylor nicely calls out Peter MacKay for claiming to be the lone clairvoyant who can foresee exactly what F-35s will wind up costing:
Following that dog-and-pony show and some brief discussions with American industry officials, MacKay held a teleconference with Canadian journalists. Along with his counterpart, Industry Minister Tony Clement, MacKay told his selected reporters that the Conservative government is convinced the planned acquisition of 65 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters will be on time and on budget.

Such a ridiculous claim would be laughable were it not for the fact that, with an initial price tag of $9 billion and another estimated $7 billion in lifetime maintenance costs, the project will be the most expensive military purchase in our nation’s history.
When questioned about the cost overruns with the Cyclones and Chinooks, Ross admitted only that "in-service support estimation is very hard."

To support this argument, Ross pointed out to the parliamentarians: "We all drive cars . . . but who can tell me what the cost of gas will be next week?"

Apparently, MacKay can.

In fact, MacKay can assure us the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters — a developmental aircraft that is experiencing all sorts of technical teething troubles, a jet we will not officially contract to purchase until 2013 at the earliest and will not take delivery of until 2016 and plan to fly until 2050 — will absolutely be on time and on budget.

That’s unbelievable!

Well said

I'm not entirely in agreement with Brian Topp's suggested course of treatment, as it seems to me that a key element of making the case against cynical right-wing populism is to point out the hypocrisy of those who try to pitch it. But his diagnosis of the relationship between the Cons and Libs in diminishing the possibility of positive action is dead on:
Mr. Olson, quoting Mr. Muttart, notes the deep seams of optimism, fear, pride, anger at disrespect, belief in public order, patriotism, and concern about rapid change that motivate working class electorates. And he describes how conservative politicians can frame campaigns around these themes.
Conservatives are Tim Hortons, just like you. The Liberals and New Democrats are Starbucks – not like you. Conservatives are working class; progressives are the “elite.” Conservatives support the police and safety at home; progressives are with the crooks. Conservatives want to give you a bit of money off your taxes to help you out in uncertain times; progressives want you to pay more. Conservatives are proud of their country and will defend it; progressives hate their country and want to give in to our enemies. Etc.

Paul Martin and Michael Ignatieff were and are sitting ducks for this frame – perfect validators for it – which explains much of what has happened in federal politics in recent years. But these themes are now the common currency of conservatives at all levels of government throughout the English-speaking world.

It is Orwellian double-talk. The conservative agenda seeks to impoverish all of Tim Hortons’ clients and to transfer their savings and income to people who view Starbucks as pedestrian. The conservative agenda is about the most massive transfer of wealth from ordinary people to the elite since the 1920s. The conservative agenda leads to more crime. The conservative agenda is about subordinating our sovereignty to global corporate interests – including the sale of our key assets to foreigners – and to the foreign policy agenda of another country.

On battlegrounds

The headline from the latest Leger poll is that the NDP has caught the Libs in Quebec - and I certainly don't want to downplay the importance of that news. But I'm not sure that there isn't an even more significant takeaway from the Leger results.

After all, plenty of other polling has shown the three national parties in an effective tie in Quebec in smaller sample sizes. But those have generally seen the logjam in the mid to high teens, leaving the Bloc poised to increase its seat count with its usual 40% share of the vote.

In contrast, Leger is showing the NDP and Libs tied at 21% - with the Bloc dropping to a 34% level where it almost certainly can't count on vote splits breaking its way.

So if Leger's polling is on target, then the NDP hasn't just caught up to the Libs, but has done so at a level where there should be plenty of seats up for grabs. And that could make the results in Quebec far more interesting than the current conventional wisdom seems to expect.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

From day one

I don't yet have much to add to the CP's coverage and associated Pundits' Guide posts about the latest area where the Cons' 2006 election return is being challenged.

But it's pointing out that based on the revelations not surfacing until now, the details of how Harper and company won power nearly five years ago are just now trickling out even where they relate to publicly-available returns, with the Cons fighting every step of the way. And that combination of the delay in the truth coming out and the Cons desperately trying to suppress it should leave little reason for confidence about what's happened during the time they've been in power.

Sunday Afternoon Links

Some light reading to close out your weekend...

- As the country's political conversation turns to new free trade agreements and continental integration, Erin points out one more example of how the last set delivered exactly the results feared by their detractors when it came to innovation, rather than the gains promised by free-trade supporters. Which is why the Star is right to be skeptical of yet another process that figures to exclude Canadian citizens from having any say.

- But at least with Canada seeing far too little resistance to corporatist policy demands, the potential EU trade agreement figures to raise some activist ire across the Atlantic.

- And there's some relatively good news on a global scale when it comes to dealing with some of the problems that are being denied or ignored by the Con government in Canada, as the Cancun agreement on climate change at least suggests some surprising positive momentum (even if it falls far short of actually defining how the world will deal with greenhouse gas emissions in the years to come).

- Finally, via impolitical, Sylvia Bashevkin's commentary on how progressive political scientists are having little impact on the broader political scene is well worth a read. But it's worth noting that the problems identified by Bashevkin go far beyond political scientists as such:
The core belief that civil society exists, and that it operates in part as an essential check on the actions of democratic states, has been endangered for decades—or for so long that we risk forgetting this foundational idea. One crucial reason why progressive political science enjoys minimal public profile is because it is grounded in the valuation of a highly oppositional idea, one that has been seriously on the defensive since the rise of neoconservatism, namely the belief that citizen mobilization and government action can produce positive improvements in the lives of individuals and for the collective entity we call society.

Given the dominant view since the 1980s that markets matter, while states and societies (if the latter even exist) do not, it is hardly surprising to find low rates of voter turnout among citizens who came of age in that decade and following. Eroded levels of electoral participation and declining public trust in political institutions and leaders have spread to middle-aged and older voters as well. Moreover, a dangerous feedback loop has evolved to reinforce this pattern, since diminishing the importance of government means fewer and fewer of the best and the brightest are attracted to run for office or join the public service. The tenor of parliamentary debates has arguably declined as well, with civil behaviour and meaningful policy debates increasingly rare in our aptly named question periods (that produce few answers to the problems facing Canadians). What citizen realistically believes, particularly in an age of such dauntingly complex policy challenges, that democratic government can provide solutions to problems when both the A and B teams have deserted the polis?
The demand for political science analysis is, of course, the flip side of the supply problem. It is true that progressive perspectives have been diluted by a rightward shift in print and electronic media organizations since the 1980s, but this is only part of the story. The more troubling piece is that conservative advocates have been better communicators, finding new ways to dress up old ideas such as laissez-faire capitalism and patriarchal family organization in spiffy new outfits for each debating season. Even with rising levels of formal education in Canada and most of the industrialized world, those concepts are still easier to explain than Keynesianism or gender equality and, in anxious times, they enjoy the advantage of evoking nostalgic ties to a shared (however imperfect) past.

The crucial edge the right enjoys, however, follows from a conscious, decisive push to invest in foundations, think tanks, conferences, media outlets and so on to promote a particular point of view, and to train like-minded folks to sing with impact from the conservative hymnal. Alas, nothing close to matching funds has materialized in the rest of the political spectrum—a phenomenon that underpins the absence of fresh, compelling voices that could champion consumer rights or affordable housing, with these perspectives creatively repackaged in attractive ways.

If only it were so

John Ibbitson's cheerleading to make Canada a fully-owned subsidiary of the U.S. takes a surprising turn as he describes the process he thinks would be followed in further signing away Canada's authority to govern itself:
Some observers, including this writer, would like to see both countries go further. The Big Bang theory, as it’s called, envisions a fully integrated North American security perimeter and a fully integrated North American economic sphere that would include a customs union and labour mobility agreement.

This will never happen, because most Canadians don’t want to get that close to the Americans, wrongly fearing the federal government would lose control over its immigration and refugee policies. Such a comprehensive accord would require legislation – heck, it would probably require a referendum – and the political environment in Ottawa is too fragile and unstable for any government to attempt such a thing.
So let's see how much truth there is to Ibbitson's effective claim that we have a problem with democracy interfering with the negotiating of corporate trade deals, rather than the other way around.

Last I checked, agreements encompassing at least part of what Ibbitson wants to see put in place with the U.S. had been negotiated between multiple sets of Canadian provinces. Exactly one carried out even the slightest consultation with citizens before entering into a binding deal - and there, a new government implemented the deal even though the consultation concluded against it.

What's more, on the national level, both the Cons and the Libs have been backing further international trade deals at every turn. Which means that absent a 1988-style turnaround by the Libs, it looks far more likely that legislation would be quickly rammed through Parliament than that anybody beyond the NDP and Bloc would even think to demand public input. And even in the face of such a call, it's hard to see how anybody who's paid the slightest attention to Canadian politics in the Harper era can claim with a straight face that the Cons would voluntarily order an unpredictable referendum on a policy they want to push through, rather than (at most) hand-picking an "expert" panel to give them the result they want.

So the real risk is that by pretending there are far more hurdles in the way of deep integration than actually exist, the likes of Ibbitson will make it all the easier for the Cons to make radical changes to Canada's ability to govern itself without a trace of public debate.

They know nothing

It doesn't figure to be by accident the Cons' leading media ally is pushing a story about the Board of Internal Economy which governs MPs' expenses rather than digging into far greater and more opaque spending by the Cons. But it's still the Cons who come off worst when it comes to having anything to say about a committee that's of obvious interest to all MPs:
Many MPs – including Democratic Reform Minister Steven Fletcher – did not want to say whether they support the board holding some open meetings.

“No comment on that one,” said Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai.

“I know nothing,” echoed Conservative MP Ted Menzies.

“I don’t have an opinion. I would rather speak with our (caucus) members and see what their views are on it,” said Liberal MP Scott Brison.

“Having never sat on this committee, I’m not even sure how it works but…I don’t see how the public would gain by knowing the internal nitty-gritty,” said Bloc Quebecois MP Nicole Demers.

“I’m not on that board. I keep very concentrated on my committee responsibilities. I’m not certain what they are even looking at right now. Thanks so much,” said Conservative MP Chris Warkentin as he ran away in the opposite direction.
And for those keeping track, there's exactly one party which isn't contributing to the list of MPs playing dumb or trying to avoid the issue:
NDP MP Joe Comartin said he thought “it probably would help” if the board didn’t always meet behind closed doors and if it better communicated how decisions are reached.