Saturday, April 16, 2011

On positioning

Following up on this post, lest there be any doubt why the NDP's strong prospects in Quebec are highly important to the outcome of any election, there are a couple of points worth keeping in mind.

First, while the NDP is making a strong push for first or second place in the national party standings, it's fairly obvious that there's an interim step in exceeding the Bloc's seat total for third. That may already be in the cards based on developments elsewhere, with at least a couple of seat projections anticipating that the two parties will intersect in the high 30s or low 40s. But obviously each seat the NDP can take from the Bloc makes the task much easier.

Which leads naturally to the second point. However distasteful their attacks on sitting MPs may be, the Cons have already concluded that their strongest line of attack on any alternative government is the prospect that the Bloc's support would be required. But if the NDP can shift a substantial number of the Quebec seats in play, that will significantly improve the chances that the total number of Lib and NDP seats would reach 155 - resulting in a far better chance of the change in government the Libs claim to want.

[Edit: fixed typo.]

On seats in play

After originally getting noticed mostly in Quebec, the success of the NDP's campaign (both there and elsewhere) is starting to win some attention in the national media. But the polls showing the NDP within striking distance of the Bloc are raising a noteworthy question: namely, what seats might be within the NDP's reach in Quebec?

Let's leave aside the obvious for the moment: Outremont which looks increasingly safe, Hull-Aylmer and Gatineau where the NDP has already ranked as a strong contender, and Abitibi Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou and Jonquiere-Alma, where star candidates (Romeo Saganash and Claude Patry) look to have put the NDP in the thick of the race.

Beyond that first set of targets, Les Perreaux has mentioned Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie as the party's next stated target. And Bryan Breguet has compiled a list of seats which are likely to be in play, which nicely picks up on the same ridings featured in the NDP's list of potential Quebec cabinet ministers.

But all of the lists so far have been limited to at most ten possible seats. And comparing the 2008 vote shares to those in recent polls, there's room for plenty more to end up in play.

After all, the best-case scenario based on recent polling would result in roughly a doubled NDP vote and a 25% drop in the Bloc vote - which if applied to 2008 results would flip Drummond into the NDP's column. (The NDP would also exceed the Bloc's vote in Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier, but would remain below the level of incumbent independent Andre Arthur.)

More importantly, though, that type of base vote switch would also make the NDP the top national challenger to the Bloc in a wide swath of additional ridings where there really hasn't been much serious competition in past election cycles - raising the possibility of attracting additional federalist votes to push the NDP over the top.

In some of those ridings (particularly in central Quebec), the Bloc would still have a fairly healthy lead. But ridings including Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, Shefford, Chambly—Borduas, Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, Longueuil—Pierre-Boucher, Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert, Verchères—Les Patriotes, Hochelaga, Laurier—Sainte-Marie (yes, Gilles Duceppe's riding), and Rivière-des-Mille-Îles would all see the Bloc with a lead of around 5,000 votes or less over the NDP in 2nd place.

So combining that list with the ridings already mentioned as possible targets, there are at least 21 Quebec seats where the NDP looks to have the potential to contend seriously at support levels which have already been identified in recent polls.

Of course, it's difficult to tell which of those ridings are most likely to see the NDP assemble enough strength on the ground to emerge victorious on election day. And most of them would indeed be out of reach based on the high-teens polling numbers seen in some other surveys.

But there's nonetheless a significant chance of the NDP ending up on the winning side of the largest shift in Quebec federal politics since the Bloc first came into existence. And that prospect should serve as plenty of motivation for the NDP's new ground campaign as the campaign progresses.

Saturday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your weekend reading.

- Brian Topp's take on the debates is worth a read in full. But particularly interesting is his evaluation of the Harper Cons' failings throughout the campaign:
Stephen Harper's "approach march" to the debates was foolish. His campaign misunderstood its opportunity to make a mainstream appeal to Canadians – something that is apparently not in the DNA of those who run it. And so Mr. Harper spent the first two weeks ranting angrily about the opposition...(T)he bad news, for Conservatives, was that there was nothing in the angry, outraged and isolated Tory Leader to appeal to mainstream (notably female) voters. As a tactical proposition, the first phase of Mr. Harper's campaign fed perfectly into the Liberal "we are entitled to your vote" narrative. It's a neat trick, for the Conservative campaign to be that bad all at once: missing your golden opportunity; undoing your establishing (sic) work; and providing much of the fuel one of your opponents is running on.
- Ellen Russell discusses the harm done to Canada's federal finances by the Cons' boutique tax slashing:
Tax cuts give Harper "announceables." He can look like he is doing something by announcing attractively named tax cuts, regardless of whether these tax cuts actually have any reasonable chance of achieving their stated purpose. If you really wanted to promote public transit or fitness there are much more efficient ways to do it. These quirky tax cuts have nothing to do with solving genuine problems and everything to do with buying votes.

Even if you qualify for some of these tax cuts (and many of us do not) they are not really much help to most Canadians. I know the Conservatives argue that every bit helps, so you should be grateful if you save $40 here and $15 there on your taxes. But that is not the point. Consider how much better off you would be if all of the money used up by those tax cuts were put towards something truly meaningful -- like a national childcare or pharmacare program.

Harper markets these tax cuts to Canadian families who are struggling to make ends meet, but they are often useless for lower income households. To get money back on your taxes you have to have the upfront cash to pay for your public transit pass or child's fitness program. Many households can't afford to pay for stuff now and wait until tax time to get a little something back. And if you are so poor that you don't have enough income to pay taxes, these tax credits give you zippo.

For a guy that is supposedly committed to smaller, less in intrusive government, these tax cuts are dripping with hypocrisy. Every time Harper makes the tax system more complex with a designer tax cut, more bureaucrats are needed to manage it. Somebody has to answer the calls from taxpayers wondering if Junior's attendance at "graffiti for beginners" class is eligible for the Children's Arts Tax Credit. So with each new tax gimmick, our tax returns become more complex to fill out. After years of this foolishness, you will never throw away receipts for anything, and even folks with simple tax returns will resort to hiring professionals just to make sure they are filling in the forms properly.

Tax cuts are also hard to get rid of, even if they serve no useful purpose. Government spending measures are reviewed constantly, ostensibly to verify that taxpayers are getting value for their money. But tax cuts stay in force indefinitely, with virtually no scrutiny to check if they are actually achieving anything for the forgone tax revenue.
- The Star provides its English debate response counterpart to yesterday's report from the French debate. And it may be most striking in revealing that pitches for a majority government, for more cooperation and for specific policies (without any particular statement as to who will be involved in those efforts) both proved fairly popular with viewers who were often annoyed by the balance of the debate:
Interest and happiness, on the other hand, was highest when the politicians talked about specific policies. And, perhaps notably, happiness was highest among the four clips when Harper said in his closing remarks: “I hope Canadians do elect a majority government.”
Viewers registered strong opinions about the presence of Canadian troops in Afghanistan, becoming highly “disturbed” and “annoyed” when Ignatieff spoke about an extended commitment. They liked when the leaders talked about working together, though they were also happy and interested when Layton slammed the Liberals for arrogance.
- Toby Sanger points out how Canadian finance and insurance companies are abusing tax havens more and more to avoid paying their fair share at home.

- And finally, Erin rightly questions Jeffrey Simpson's bizarre distinction between a corporate tax rate of 18% (in the Libs' platform) which he finds to be acceptable, and one of 19.5% (in the NDP's platform) which he uses as an excuse for typical corporatist hand-wringing.

Sociopathy embraced

Shorter Doug Saunders:

The best way to make corporations more socially responsible is to eliminate their lone social responsibility.

Fighting truth with lies

Whatever one thinks about the relevance of James Moore's writings on abortion just months before he was first elected to Parliament, surely the more shocking part of the story is his campaign's thuggish response to what by all accounts is an accurate reproduction of what he wrote:
Mr. Moore did not immediately respond to the Globe and Mail's requests for comment Friday evening, but in an interview with CTV News, he affirmed his pro-choice views and called the Liberals' claims “garbage” and “a lie.”

He then suggested if the article was reported on by the media, he would send out a press release falsely accusing the Liberal opponent in his riding, a university student, of cheating on all his exams, CTV reported.
In other words, Moore quite explicitly threatened an opponent and the media to stop telling the truth about him, lest Moore start spreading known lies in response.

That would be a serious enough abuse coming from a staffer who could be thrown under the bus. But coming from one of Stephen Harper's perceived star cabinet ministers, the incident looks like confirmation that the Cons are rotten to the core. And I'd think it's well worth pressuring the entire party - from Harper on down - as to just how many times they've followed through on Moore's publicly-stated strategy of spreading known lies to try to change the channel from the truth.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Musical interlude

Some Saskatchewan flavour making its way to the world stage from...

Sheepdogs - I Don't Know

Friday Afternoon Links

Content goes here.

- Linda McQuaig highlights the reasons for the increasingly large gap between the super-rich and the rest of us:
Common sense tells us it’s wrong that hedge fund manager John Paulson made $3.7 billion in 2007, while a typical nurse earned about $45,000.

Paulson made his billions by betting against the subprime mortgage market, helping trigger the 2008 financial collapse. In what moral universe is he worth as much as a single nurse — let alone 82,000 nurses?

Our tolerance for this sort of absurd discrepancy illustrates our abject submission to the dictates of modern economic doctrine. According to this economic dogma, Paulson’s income — just like the income of a nurse — is determined by natural market forces, and any attempt to adjust incomes amounts to meddlesome interference in the free workings of the marketplace.

It’s a doctrine which has been good for Paulson, and others who dominate the financial and corporate world, while helping to keep nurses — and women in general — much lower down the income pecking order.

But, in fact, there’s nothing natural or innate about the marketplace. The so-called “free market” is nothing more than a set of laws devised by humans.

Change the laws, and you end up distributing income very differently.
- Paul Wells' debate wrapup doesn't draw any strong conclusions, but notes that Stephen Harper and the Cons seem to have figured out that their coalition argument is a losing one once it faces the slightest challenge:
Perhaps the most agile combatant onstage was Layton. The polls so far suggest he’s in some danger of losing seats and declining in his share of the popular vote, for the first time since he became NDP leader in 2003. Here he was able to act out the role he claims is his: more principled than Ignatieff in his opposition to Harper, yet somehow better able to work with any party that wants to play. “Mr. Harper thinks the idea of people working together is somehow a bad idea,” he said. “He calls it names.”

The name Layton referred to was “coalition,” the spectre Harper has preferred to brandish at every stop. Oddly, Harper didn’t talk about a coalition here until an hour into the debate, and only then in response to accusations from Duceppe and Layton, who said Harper was perfectly happy to scheme with them in 2004 against Paul Martin.

Harper has lately talked a little less about a formal, contract-on-paper “coalition” to usurp the power he feels is his, and a little more about some looser arrangement of opposition parties against him. That saps his argument’s ability to scare but increases its plausibility. Duceppe turns out to be a keen student of parliamentary democracy: “When you say that the party with the most seats forms the government,” the Bloc leader reminded Harper, “you forgot something: that party has to have the confidence of the House, with the Speech from the Throne. Otherwise, there is no democracy at all.”
- Meanwhile, CBC's At Issue panel reviews the debates as well - with all comers agreeing that the NDP has positioned itself nicely for the rest of the campaign to come.

- And finally, Greg highlights the Cons' selective outrage over special ballots - even as they've succeeded in shutting down the preferred means of enabling students to vote.

On consensus reactions

Cyberpresse's focus group on the French debate provides plenty of interesting material. But perhaps even more noteworthy than the reaction to each leader generally (which shows Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe as the debate's winners) is the response to specific arguments which figure to be rather important to how Canadians vote on election day:
Dans le premier extrait -un échange entre Stephen Harper et Michael Ignatieff- il est question de démocratie. Le deuxième reproche au premier de tout vouloir contrôler, de ne pas respecter la démocratie. Manifestement, cet argument de Michael Ignatieff ne passe pas la rampe. Les gens se montrent automatiquement ennuyés. Vient alors la réplique de Stephen Harper, qui rétorque que les gens n'ont que faire des «chicanes entre parlementaires». La réaction des gens passe alors à l'irritation, en majeure partie.
Which signals two rather important points, at least among this particular group of respondents.

First, Michael Ignatieff didn't manage to particularly impress voters with his own shots at the Cons' record on democracy. Which likely signals why the Libs haven't managed to make much progress even as the Cons have spent much of the campaign under well-deserved fire.

But perhaps more importantly, while Ignatieff's own outrage didn't find much sympathy, Stephen Harper's condescending response - to the effect that he needs a majority in order to put a stop to the inconvenience of parlamentary debate - managed to shift the respondents' mood from boredom to outright irritation. And if that makes for a common reaction to the Cons' closing argument for the campaign, then there figures to be plenty of room for voters to seek out more positive alternatives.

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Pogge tears into the media tendency to proclaim the Cons "competent" when they've succeeded in little other than abusing Canadian institutions:
If I'm to give Harper his due, I have to acknowledge that he has ability when it comes to undermining democratic institutions and agencies that have been built up over decades. He's definitely good at figuring out how to sabotage the federal government's ability to work on behalf of all of its citizens instead of the select few who support the Conservative agenda. And he has a special knack for using taxpayer dollars for partisan advantage. He's quite good at a certain kind of corruption.

I guess that's what passes for competent government in some circles. Good to know.
- Meanwhile, Susan Riley gets it right:
far from providing a "steady hand on the tiller," Harper's response to global economic uncertainty has seemed improvised and contradictory. Only weeks before the Great Recession, Harper was insisting there wasn't going to be one. When it struck, he insensitively advised Canadians who were watching their life savings evaporate that is was a good time to buy.

After promising "never" to run a deficit, he presides over the largest in our history. In spending billions on stimulus, he was only doing what every other western government did in response to the meltdown, and what opposition parties urged him to do. But this is followership, not leadership.

Of more urgent concern is Harper's incoherence about his future plans. Suddenly, the government will pay down the deficit a year early, in 2014-'15, he tells us, thanks to $11 billion that wasn't mentioned in the recent budget.

This windfall comes not from the end of the rainbow, but from unspecified cuts in government operations. Incredibly, there will be no layoffs, no reduction in services, nothing to threaten John Baird's reelection. Fixes to government computer systems, a little attrition and bingo: $4 billion savings a year. Painless and utterly improbable.
- And in case anybody hasn't found it yet, Shit Harper Did has plenty more examples for the incompetence file.

- Finally, I'm still waiting for Stephen Harper's "I do not accept the truth" to be remixed. (Hint: it's available near the end of this shortened clip.) But until that happens, this will stand as the best riff off of the election debates:

Tough on vote theft

Malcolm points out the long history of uninformed right-wing anti-democrats playing lawyer to twist election rules to their advantage.

But the more important piece of the Cons' Guelph ballot box heist is the fact that they also sought to play judge, jury and executioner by grabbing the ballots themselves - apparently trying to make sure that they'd get their way regardless of how thoroughly their lawyering failed. And that looks to be a step up from garden-variety disruption, if not entirely unprecedented.

That said, I do have to wonder whether the effort might end up backfiring severely on the Cons. After all, they've spent the entire campaign trying to lull Canadians outside of their base into believing that the election is nothing but a tiresome distraction, and that individual votes simply don't matter. But it's rather difficult to maintain that claim while actively trying to destroy votes that have actually been cast. And it wouldn't be surprising if students in particular come to value their votes far more once they're aware that their government is working to steal them.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Thursday Afternoon Links

Content goes here.

- Sure, it's nice to see some relatively principled Conservatives abandoning the party. But was there anything about the Harper Cons' vote-buying that shouldn't have been obvious long before the latest revelations in Vaughan?

- Meanwhile, some might see reason for concern that the Cons are working to keep people from voting in Guelph. But from the standpoint of living up to their campaign message, I suppose one can say they're walking their talk in considering elections to be an inconvenience that are best rendered as meaningless as possible.

- Adam Chapnick makes the case for keeping per-vote funding to political parties as a means of making sure that every vote counts. And I broadly agree - even if there are other reasons to vote one's conscience beyond the subsidy.

- Gloria Galloway thanks Rick Mercer for getting students to pay attention to politics.

- Finally, Simon Enoch points out that we can already see the results of Con-style austerity in the UK - and that a focus on the Cons' idea of economic management figures to do far more harm than good.

Tomorrow's Conservative Slogan Today

"Stephen Harper"? We have no knowledge of any "Stephen Harper". Vote for Stephen Harper.

French Debate Followup

As expected, last night's French debate came down largely to a contest between Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe. But while the reviews have been mixed as to which of the two came out on top for style points, I'd think the main point of distinction between the two is one that plays perfectly into the NDP's message for the balance of the campaign.

To my mind, much of the Bloc's success in the past has come from locking in on a single unpopular opponent, then setting itself up as the leading opposition to that party in Quebec. But that has often produced (presumably) unintended consequences, as both the Cons in 2006 and Libs in 2008 were able to perform better than expected in Quebec when they weren't considered the Bloc's main target and also painted themselves as alternative choices.

That made Duceppe's choice of messages and targets a crucial factor in last night's debate. And he mostly continued his pattern of taking aim at the Cons, telling voters to keep supporting his party in order to prevent a Harper majority.

But that left Duceppe with little reason to offer much substantive disagreement with the NDP. Instead, his main line of attack on Layton was a strategic voting argument - but one with particularly little prospect of resonating.

After all, most such arguments actually come from a party which at least has a theoretical chance of achieving the goal of defeating a mutual opponent. But in the Duceppe's case, the pitch looks even more empty than usual: even if the Bloc were to win every seat it contested and nothing else changed, the absolute best-case scenario would be the same relative party positioning and choice of governing arrangements it found unacceptable a month ago.

So Layton was able to combine his criticisms of Con and Lib governments with the prospect of something different and better, while Duceppe was left building up public outrage toward...nothing more than the promise of the same status quo he railed against in criticizing Harper. And while Duceppe may have managed to earn a draw or better in first impressions coming out of the debate, the contrast between competing populist cries of "yes we can!" and "no we can't!" is surely exactly what the NDP wants voters to have in mind come election day.

Of course, the Bloc does figure to have a huge advantage on the ground along with a more efficiently-distributed vote - so even a significant shift in public opinion might not result in more than a few seats changing hands. But there's still ample reason for optimism that the NDP will be able to build on its already strong position in Quebec - and at least a chance that the frustrations channeled into the Bloc for so long will finally find an outlet in a national party instead.

[Edit: fixed wording.]

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Jim Stanford thoroughly debunks the tired claim that corporate tax cuts will magically lead to increased investment and economic growth by looking at the actual results of decades of cuts in Canada.

- Meanwhile, it's enough of a plus that we've seen more discussion lately on the need to promote equality rather than accepting growth (concentrated among the wealthy) as the only economic goal worth pursuing. But Toby Sanger points to an IMF study showing that even those who want to focus on growth are best off working to fight inequality.

- It's tough to disagree with Andrew Coyne's take on Tuesday's English debate, particularly as to the strategic box the Libs are now stuck in. But I'll note once again that they could have given themselves a far more coherent position by actively and publicly seeking a place at the head of a coalition, rather than twisting themselves into pretzels trying to pitch a need for cooperation by others but not by themselves in order to work for change.

- Maxwell Cameron challenges Tom Flanagan's attempt to equate politics with war:
(T)he great evolutionary advantage enjoyed by humans arises from our capacity for co-operation, not competition. Great civilizations have never been built on competition alone. The human capacity for empathy, for social problem-solving, and for moral judgment are the foundation of human progress. Without our ability to imitate, collaborate, learn, and understand one another, we would have developed neither language nor tools, neither art nor, indeed, war.

Yet over and again, our public discourse emphasizes conflict and competition over empathy and co-operation. Tom Flanagan’s claim in a recent commentary in The Globe and Mail that “an election is war by other means” is a good example of this bias. Since all is fair in love and war, why should we worry when politicians attack each other, bend or misrepresent the truth, and present themselves, not their ideas, before the electorate? To think otherwise is high-mindedness, says Flanagan.
When we treat politics like war, our adversaries become enemies. They are no longer collaborators as well as competitors in a struggle to serve the common good, but nuisances or worse. They must be crushed or eliminated. This is indeed a step toward war.

Campaigns are not only about selecting leaders. Our deliberative institutions are weakened when we obsessively focus on the horse race among leaders and ignore the platforms they propose to implement. There is nothing particularly high-minded about the expectation that substantive debate occur around an election. We want to know not only who is going to govern us but also how they are going to govern us.

One of the reasons we are in this election campaign is precisely because of the contempt for Parliament exhibited by a government that does not accept that truth in politics matters and that ministerial responsibility is an inherent and indispensable part of our system of government – a government that thinks it is OK to bully top civil servants into submission, punish whistleblowers, and hide from accountability.
- Finally, Scott Feschuk offers the definitive take on Canada's Ethnic Costume Party government.

- Update: No, the brilliant return of Points of Information hasn't gone unnoticed.

New column day

Here, on the politics of exclusion practiced by right-wing parties both federally and provincially.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On aftereffects

Macleans' Bull Meter assesses Jack Layton's concerns about reduced family-class immigration paired with increased use of temporary workers and finds them to be...entirely accurate.

By the same token, Stephen Harper's assertion that "we've been increasing (immigration) categories across the board" - coupled with a particularly smarmy "simply not true!" directed at the correct numbers from Layton and Michael Igantieff - would figure to earn an entire herd of bulls.

And the example makes me wonder about the unanticipated aftereffects of last night.

So far, the default assumption seems to be that Harper managed to get away with lying his way through the debate, both in terms of flat-out false statements of fact and in portraying his party's positions as being far more in line with Canadians than they actually are. (It takes something beyond mere acting to pretend that the Cons' reason for killing the NDP's Climate Change Accountability Act in the unelected Senate was that it didn't contain enough concrete measures, rather than because it would have put an end to the Cons' strategy of delay and obfuscation.)

But might the most important takeaway be less the tone of the debate itself than the subsequent checking of Harper's indignant statements of "fact" - so many of which don't stand up to even a modicum of scrutiny? And if Canadian hear enough that Harper's tone of defiance is based on yet another set of flat-out falsehoods, might that well make for a turn in the campaign?

Wednesday Afternoon Campaign Links

Assorted campaign material.

- Patrick Brethour is right to note that tonight's French debate figures to offer a showdown between the NDP and the Bloc for votes which Gilles Duceppe has taken for granted in the past:
With NDP support continuing to grow in Quebec, Mr. Duceppe is now taking square aim at Mr. Layton – witness the Bloc Québécois Leader’s odd cross-examination of his NDP rival in Tuesday night’s English debates. The days when the Bloc could treat the NDP as a somewhat-sympathetic irrelevancy are gone.
(Duceppe's challenge to Layton on Bill 101) does point to an important dynamic in the Quebec campaign: the NDP is a credible – and perhaps lethal – threat to the Bloc.

The polls show historically high support for the NDP in the province. In the latest Nanos Research poll, the NDP is at 17.9 per cent, in third place, with the Bloc at 38.6 per cent. The NDP’s support is up nearly six percentage points from its 2008 results, although that increase is within the regional poll’s margin of error.

Other polls put the NDP in an even stronger position. An April 4-5 Angus Reid poll pegged Bloc support at just 34 per cent, with the NDP in second place, at 24 per cent. Were those numbers to show up on election day, Mr. Duceppe could bid farewell to any ruminations about becoming Quebec premier, not to mention having to worry about keeping his current job.

Whatever the numbers, the Bloc’s worry is clear. There is no obvious line of anti-federalist attack on the NDP.
- Con Ryan Hastman says he's losing in Edmonton-Strathcona. We can only hope he'll be proven right - but it's never a bad time to pitch in for Linda Duncan to help make it so.

- The Cons are after Arab "ethnic costumes" for a photo op in Etobicoke - passing the invitation to (among others) an organization de-funded by Jason Kenney. Presumably plenty of fun is being had in responding; bonus points to whoever passes off the most absurd fake costume as an authentic staple of ethnic culture.

- Finally, Edmonton-Leduc NDP candidate Artem Medvedev earns some ink in the Journal - albeit in a Todd Babiak article that's far less serious than Medvedev's candidacy.

Wednesday Morning Links

Assorted post-debate material for your mid-week reading.

- Douglas Bell notes Liam McHugh-Russell's appeal for people to vote for what they really want:
Today, people love Layton and they aren't afraid of an NDP-led government: if there is an option for an NDP-Liberal coalition, people prefer Layton and his party to lead more than two to one. The problem is, they just don't think it's going to happen.
So the question to Canadians is: why not vote NDP, leave the Liberals in the wilderness, strike a blow against Quebec separatism and get the government you want? All that's stopping you is the belief that it can't happen.
- Susan Delacourt posts on the unfortunate rewards consistently reaped by politicians who simply pretend that embarrassing questions don't exist. And sadly, the result of last night's election debate looks to fit the pattern.

- Meanwhile, there's another addition to the list of blatant Harper government lies which the Cons will presumably ignore until it's too late to hold them accountable, as draft documents show a border security agreement in the works months before the Cons directly denied that anything of the sort was under discussion.

- Finally, a double dose of Dan Gardner: first on the importance of the public debate which the Harper Cons are so eager to stifle...
often the disagreements of our representatives reflects disagreements among Canadians. We have different values and priorities, different visions. Very simply, we disagree.

That's fine in a mature democracy. We disagree, we debate, we discuss and negotiate. And if we still can't find a reasonable compromise, we vote. It's all good.

But not to Stephen Harper, it seems. Underlying his comments, particularly in the first half of the debate, was a tone of disdain for Parliamentary "bickering." It was all so annoying to him. As head of government, he had important things to deal with. Why should he be bothered with this bickering? Give him a majority so he needn't bother.
Surveys tell us that half of Canadians are so clueless about Canadian governance that they actually think the people elect the prime minister. Rather than sweep away that ignorance, Harper makes use of it. Indeed, he fosters it in order to advance his immediate political interests.

You want to hear squalid? Don't listen to Parliament. Listen to Stephen Harper talk about the constitution of Canada.
...and second, his reminder that the Cons' attempts to take credit for an economic recovery are utter nonsense on multiple fronts:
(I)f Harper deserves credit for the economic recovery, shouldn't he also be blamed for the recession? The Liberals tried to make this argument but it never really stuck. And rightly so. The recession was obviously caused by forces beyond our borders.

But the same is true of the recovery. "We don't have a lot of independent control over our economy, for good or for bad," Don Drummond, former TD chief economist told me last month. "The bad part of it is the rest of the world dragged us into this mess. But the flip side of it is that for Canada's economy to repair itself is largely dependent on what happens in the global economy."
Look at Australia, our economic and political cousin. As one may guess, Australia's prime minister is not Stephen Harper. And yet, Australia survives. Indeed, it thrives. Thanks mainly to commodity prices, Australia's economy is booming.

Australia also underscores a final, critical point. Canadians have an exaggerated sense of how well Canada is doing. Yes, as Conservatives like to note, the latest OECD report shows Canada's economic growth is among the best in the G7. We're doing relatively well, no question. But we're hardly leading the world, a fact evident in the statistic that people care the most about. Canada's unemployment rate was 7.8 per cent in January. That's better than the 8.4 per cent OECD average. It's better than Spain, Ireland, the U.S. and Italy. But it's about the same as the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Sweden, Finland, and even Belgium, which has been without a government for almost a year. And it's much higher than the unemployment rate in Austria, Germany, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands -where the rate is 4.3 per cent.

In Australia, the unemployment rate is five per cent. A sudden increase to the Canadian level would be considered a national disaster.

If there is indeed a uniquely sunlit island of tranquillity in the world, it's not us. And Stephen Harper cannot take the credit.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Bookish cats.

Canada 2011 - English Debate Wrapup

Out of sheer chance, each of Jack Layton and Michael Ignatieff was presented with a head-to-head showdown with Stephen Harper on his main theme of the campaign: Layton on health care, and Ignatieff on governance. But only Layton looks to have emerged having accomplished what he needed to - both in terms of suggesting something positive to go with challenges to the Harper Cons' style of governance, and more importantly in terms of having baited Stephen Harper into some key mistakes which will help to feed the rest of the campaign.

Ignatieff of course got the chance to have his one-on-one encounter first. But his best line on the topic (about Harper shutting down anything he couldn't control) had already been used in an earlier segment on foreign affairs, leaving little impact when it was repeated in the showdown. And perhaps more importantly, he simply didn't have much to offer other than to criticize Harper with a laundry list of abuses which Harper brushed off.

And it's that lack of a response that looks most crucial in defining the rest of the campaign as between the Libs and Cons.

It might have been different if he'd had anything at all to put forward by way of alternative suggestions. But in order make any headway without serving up much of substance for himself, Ignatieff at least had to get Harper to demonstrate some recognition that his stay in office has given rise to at least some issues of governance worth dealing with.

Needless to say, Harper didn't do anything of the sort, choosing instead to retreat into talking points without acknowledging any of the examples recited by Ignatieff. And after running through the list a second time (rather than asking for direct responses on particular issues which may have been more difficult to avoid), Ignatieff let the conversation turn elsewhere - leaving neither any lasting dents in Harper's facade, nor any impression of having much idea what he'd offer instead.

In contrast, Layton managed to use his time in the health care debate to set out strong distinctions between the NDP and the other national parties - both in its commitment to keeping funding going in the long run, and in its plan to make improvements before the 2014 round of negotiations with the provinces.

Perhaps more surprisingly, though, Layton also got Harper to show a few more cards than he probably wanted to. Rather than shying away from the issue of privatization, Layton challenged Harper directly. And Harper allowed that he sees no problem whatsoever with "alternative delivery mechanisms" - leaving himself vulnerable on the question of what changes he's prepared to endorse while funding the provinces, and how those figure to alter a system that serves as a point of pride for Canadians.

(Hint: Tim Horton's as "alternative delivery mechanism" would have been a great issue for the NDP even before its first ad of the campaign featured that very example.)

Of course, it remains to be seen what effect the debate will have on the course of the campaign. But Layton seems to have been able to get much further in positioning himself as a legitimate contender than Ignatieff did in trying to close the door on the other opposition parties. And if the Libs don't back down from their pretense to being the lone alternative, tonight may have laid the groundwork for the NDP to win a direct challenge to that title.

On healthy choices

There's little doubt that the consensus on continued boosts to the federal government's health transfer from 2014 onward takes at least part of the health-care debate off the table. But notwithstanding that basic level of funding, there are still some highly significant points of distinction between the parties - and it's worth pointing those out in advance of the debate which will pit their visions against each other.

First, there's the question of how any given party will influence health-care costs. And while one would think that any reasonable perspective would involve trying to minimize costs to ensure the maximum possible return on federal funding, there's a radical difference in philosophies in the area where the federal government can most directly affect the prices available.

Not long after taking power, the Cons started inflating brand-name prescription drug costs with needless giveaways to the pharmaceutical industry. And they're now promising a free trade agreement with Europe that would inflate costs by billions more - eating up at least some chunk of the continued federal funding increases, along with plenty of private money.

In contrast, the NDP has fought against those types of giveaways at every turn, and promises to use national purchasing power to look for billions in possible savings. Meanwhile, for those looking for a party to go in both directions on drug costs, the Libs are both promising a national purchasing plan, and backing the CETA-linked giveaway.

The second area worth pointing out is the role played by the federal government in enforcing the Canada Health Act. Here, the Cons have taken an entirely laissez-faire view, ending all federal enforcement so that any accountability based on the principles of universal medicare relies solely on provincial self-reporting. Which makes sense given their general attitude that the federal government doesn't have any direct role to play in health care.

While the Cons work to render the Canada Health Act irrelevant, there's also a difference of view between the NDP and the Libs as to what to do with it. The Libs have paid at most occasional lip service to the idea of making changes to deal with innovations in private health care, while the NDP has long been pushing to strengthen the Canada Health Act to deal with double-dipping and other means of using public money to subsidize private health care.

Finally, while the parties have come to agreement on the escalator clause, it's well worth noting that there are some other substantial platform planks that involve separate investment in health care. The Cons have offered up a minimal amount of funding to move doctors and nurses to rural areas; the Libs have money booked for a similar program as well as a Canadian Brain Health Strategy and a tax credit for home care; and the NDP's platform includes funding to train and recruit doctors and nurses, dedicated transfers for home care and long-term care, and money for prescription drugs and mental health services.

So even if the transfer to the provinces looks to be locked in for 2014 and beyond, there's still plenty to choose between Canada's federal parties on the health care front. And the choice should be clear for anybody who wants to see the federal government take the lead in making better health care more accessible to Canadians.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- The Cons are apparently looking to take the fun out of #spotasenator by making it no challenge whatsoever - using the thoroughly embarrassing Pamela Wallin to raise money in Palliser. For those looking to put people over patronage appointments, Noah Evanchuk's next Regina canvassing blitz happens Sunday.

- Meanwhile, the Cons' cone of silence extends to Canada's northern reaches, as Western Arctic candidate Sandy Lee (while enjoying her own #spotasenator moment with Mike Duffy) has refused interviews unless she receives a copy of the questions in advance.

- Martin Patriquin and Phillipe Gohier's discussion of the state of Quebec politics is well worth a look - particularly in noting how the NDP is appealing to voters who have previously backed the Bloc as a populist option.

- Linda McQuaig is right to note that positive results from a coalition may be well within reach. But it's worth also recognizing that one of the main obstacles is the Libs' continued insistence on undermining any effort to build multi-partisan hope for change.

- Finally, pogge annihilates Adam Radwanski's willingness to accept the Cons' spin about their track record even faintly resembling "competent government".

Deep thought

I'm pretty sure this whole "fabricating quotes from Sheila Fraser" fiasco will blow over without any particular damage to the Cons.

After all, as Mother Teresa said, "be faithful in (Stephen Harper), because it is in (him) that your strength lies". And who are we to doubt such a sainted figure?

On costly thanks

I can only assume that Huntsville Mayor Claude Doughty somehow thinks he's defending the Cons' G8 scandal by speaking out. But if anything, his comments only raise more serious questions about how the Harper Cons have consistently abused public money:
Claude Doughty, mayor of Huntsville, the main site of the summit in Ontario’s Muskoka region, defended the program, saying some of the projects were meant more as a “thank you” to area municipalities for being host than as G8-related facilities.

I don’t think there was ever any intent that some of them would be used by the world leaders,” he said. “You have to appreciate that a lot of people in Muskoka did a lot of work to prepare for the G8, myself included. And for those municipalities that went out of their way to really do those things, this was a bit of a token of saying, ‘Thank you.’
So what's new about Doughty's response? Well, until now the Cons had normally at least tried to pretend that their G8 spending had something to do with the conference. But on Doughty's account, a substantial chunk of money was spent on projects that everybody knew had nothing to do even with the G8 - let alone with the border security fund the Cons used as their pot of money to dole out G8 largesse.

In other words, even the Cons' own allies say they were paying off their friends with our money - all while covering up the true nature of the funding. And however Doughty thinks he's justifying the Cons' actions from a local perspective, I'd fully expect the inconvenient questions he's unwittingly raised to ensure that he'll never ride the Cons' gravy train again.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Monday Evening Links

Content goes here.

- Andrew Jackson notes that there's more than one way to eliminate a budget deficit - and that the NDP is on the right track in its choice of ways to get there:
As Mike McCracken says in a short note included in the NDP platform, major changes in the mix of spending compared to the current fiscal plan would likely give a boost to job creation. The big items in terms of job creation are significant tax credits to business for job creation and real investment in place of no strings attached tax breaks; the major green jobs package; and modest funds allocated to child care and other services which would create new jobs while meeting caring needs.

While it is fiscally cautious, the New Democrat platform does point to a better way to bring down the deficit, through job creation rather than through spending cuts.
- Robert Silver nicely sums up the reality surrounding the Cons' attempts to pretend that some undisclosed and inaccessible auditor general's report will rebut the thoroughly damning draft released today:
Stephen Harper’s spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, among other Conservatives, alleges that the final report tells a very different story.

In the midst of an election campaign, this is what we call all-in poker. If Mr. Soudas et al.’s version of events is accurate and the report exonerates entirely the Conservative government, there is zero chance that the report will not be leaked by the Harper camp today. What, is Stephen Harper suddenly paralyzed by Parliament and its rules? Really? “Oh, I would really, really like to release a report that I have a copy of that exonerates me and saves my now-floundering election campaign; but damn, those rules of procedure won’t let me.” Yes, this sounds like the Stephen Harper that we all know and love.

Or – and it is kind of binary with these Conservatives – the final report is bad news for Mr. Harper just like the draft report is. It doesn’t exonerate the Tory Leader at all. If that’s the case, then not only does Mr. Harper have the substance of the report to deal with but the subsequent spin that will make it so much worse for him.
- It never hurts to give voters a low-effort way to participate in the election campaign. And the NDP's Spot a Senator project should nicely serve to harness the power of public interest to call attention to unelected nonrepresentatives using our money to boost their parties.

- Jesse Brown asks whether any Canadian political party is appealing to the tech-savvy voter. Cory Doctorow provides the answer.

- And finally, Murray Dobbin discusses how the Harper Cons' brand of consumer-based and cynical politics builds on decades of efforts to distance citizens from the governments who are supposed to respond to their interests.

On archaic practices

Susan Delacourt reminisces about the days of yore when governments not only informed opposition members of Parliament of federal funding in their ridings, but actually allowed them to take credit for it.

How times have changed.

Monday Morning Links

Assorted content to start your week.

- While I don't share her pessimism about the possibility of votes translating into seats, it's well worth noting Lysiane Gagnon's column on the NDP's position as the top national party in Quebec:
Mr. Duceppe used to focus his attacks on Stephen Harper, since the biggest fight in Quebec is waged between the Conservatives and the Bloc in the Quebec City area, while the Liberals are painfully holding on to their old bastions in a dozen of Montreal’s predominantly anglophone ridings. Rumour, meanwhile, has it that, because of the bonne entente between the Bloc and the NDP, the Bloc is running a weak candidate in Outremont to help Thomas Mulcair, the lone NDP MP in Quebec and the right-hand man of Mr. Layton, keep his seat in what used to be a traditionally Liberal riding.

But the latest Angus Reid poll is a wake-up call for the Bloc. For the first time in its history, the NDP has become the second political force in Quebec, with 24-per-cent support – only 10 points behind the Bloc, which lost two points since the previous Angus Reid poll on March 24.

Moreover, Mr. Layton is more popular than ever in his native province: 36 per cent see him as the best choice for prime minister (against 15 per cent for Mr. Harper and 10 per cent for Michael Ignatieff).
- Cheryl McNamara points out plenty of the good reasons for Canada's current opposition parties to work together in unveiling a new citizens' group pushing for a post-election coalition:
Harper is banking on a disengaged and ill-informed electorate for his political success. He accuses the opposition of forcing an election on Canadians, who clearly do not want it or understand the magnitude of the contempt of Parliament charge; and he presents a Conservative majority as the only stable solution to the dysfunctional Parliament that his government has orchestrated over the past six years.

If his party is handed another minority, what then? The contempt of Parliament charges and past indiscretions have made it impossible for the opposition to work with it. The only alternative is a coalition government, and Harper knows this.
If the Canadian electorate are sick of elections every few years, they better start warming to the idea of coalition governments.

Everything Harper has worked hard for is in danger of taking a hit. He will not go down without a fight. Caving into his anti-coalition tactic will neither serve the left nor democracy. It's up to the engaged electorate to give the Liberals and NDP the political will to stand up to Harper and do what they must do to restore stable governance.
- Most of the criticism of the Cons' latest patronage arrangement has understandably focused on the plan to pay more salary and severance to political staffers. But perhaps the more telling change is that the Cons are also robbing from the non-partisan to pay the partisan by funding ministers' and staffers' travel expenses out of the pool of money normally directed toward the civil service:
(M)inisters will have a little more money to play with since the government has decreed that their offices should no longer have to foot the bill for international travel by ministers, their staff and parliamentary secretaries. Those costs will now be absorbed by government departments instead.
The policy document specifies that separation payments "are to be funded through departmental operating budgets," a policy that does not apear (sic) to have changed.

However, the offloading of international trips onto departmental budgets is new.
- Finally, Bill Curry trumpets a "new" development model for First Nations communities - consisting of partnerships between band governments and developers which is leading to direct investment returns for the communities themselves in addition to the development they're seeking to promote.

Needless to say, that outcome looks like a win-win for the communities involved. But it raises the question of why our municipal and provincial governments are bound and determined to avoid any development models which would result in similar returns for our own public sector.

The trifecta

Law-breaking. Lies. And cover-ups. All in one juicy story about how the Cons (and particularly Tony Clement) abused the massive public funding allocated to year's G8 summit.

We'll see if any more news is forthcoming during the course of the election campaign, or whether we'll have to rely on second-hand reports of Sheila Fraser's draft audit as the best information available. But either way, it's hard to imagine a story that cuts more directly to the Cons' supposed strengths - and the gap between the Cons' spin and the reality documented by Fraser would seem likely to support the narrative that it's long past time for a change.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

You have a choice

Along with its platform, the NDP has also unveiled a slick video laying out the party's message concisely - both in terms of some key platform themes, and the overarching point that Canadians shouldn't listen to the attempts of the Cons and Libs to narrow their range of choices:

NDP Platform Notes

A few observations on the NDP's platform released this morning.

First, the platform stands out from those of the NDP's competitors in its focus on actually eliminating poverty. In addition to promising an immediate end to seniors' poverty through the GIS, the NDP is also pushing for a quickly-implemented Child Benefit aimed directly at child poverty, as well as legislated goals and targets for general poverty reduction which don't seek to pass the buck to other levels of government.

That focus on taking immediate action toward eradicating poverty contrasts nicely with the Libs' platform, which merely paints the GIS as a reduction to seniors' poverty and try to depict such unrelated measures as RESPs and volunteerism as somehow dealing directly with general poverty issues. And of course the Cons are looking to pretend that there's no problem worth fixing.

So for Canadians who see eliminating poverty as a top priority for their federal government, the NDP's platform offers both the most immediate action, and the strongest commitment to ensuring that a country as wealthy as ours doesn't leave any of its citizens behind.

Second, there's plenty of material dealing with jobs and economic development. And while I'm not a huge fan of how the platform accepts framing like "job creators" (albeit meaning those who actually creating jobs, in contrast to the Cons' definition where it tends to mean the wealthy) and "competitiveness", the combination of some direct reference to those with direct incentives for hiring through the Job Creation Tax Credit (along with investments in capital, infrastructure and renewable energy) should do plenty to ease any concerns about how an NDP government would handle the economy.

And on the democratic reform front, the NDP nicely pairs much-needed values as to a willingness to work with competing parties and encourage dialogue with civil society with new legislation to limit some of the abuses of prorogation and patronage that we've seen under the Harper Cons. (And yes, PR is also a part of the platform.)

On the downside, the NDP has followed the Libs' mistake in leaving any near-term emission reduction targets to be determined later. Which is of particular concern given that proceeds from a cap-and-trade system are included as a part of the platform's costing starting this year.

In all, the platform looks to have accomplished much of the political task of providing realistic commitments which are easily understood and measured. But there's work left to be done in differentiating the NDP's plans from the often similar-sounding (if weaker) promises already released by the Libs - and in establishing that the NDP should indeed be in a position to make good on its promises when the campaign is done.

By their own logic...

The Cons are claiming that a failure to mention a seemingly settled issue in a party's platform should be taken as evidence that the party lacks commitment to it.

The Cons' own platform doesn't mention the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms - except to criticize the fact that it doesn't mention property rights.

So does that mean that by the Cons' own standards, we should be worried that they're not committed to the Charter, and will gut it at their first opportunity?

(Of course, I'm sure there are even better examples. So search away at the Cons' platform to see what it is that they're failing to defend.)

Sunday Morning Links

A few quick links to pass the time before the NDP's platform release...

- Liveo Di Matteo offers a reality check on the size of federal government spending - which (temporary stimulus aside) is at its lowest point in the last five decades even before the Cons promise to keep slashing billions more each and every year.

- Pogge follows up on John Ibbitson's column on Con voter suppression by pointing out another example of the Harper Cons' efforts to drive voters away from the polls:
What Ibbitson doesn't mention is all the talk about "an unnecessary election" which I think is designed to have the same effect. In our parliamentary system, when the government loses the confidence of a majority in the Commons in the manner that just happened, an election is necessary. The exception would be when an election has recently been held but that clearly wasn't the case late last month when the motion of non-confidence passed. This election is clearly necessary.

But all the claims to the contrary coming from the Conservatives — and echoed by a lot of the pundits — seem designed to encourage voters to blow the whole thing off and stay home. It's possible, in fact probable, that not all of those who have picked up that rhetoric are consciously attempting to suppress turnout. But I'd bet good money that some of them are trying to do exactly that.
- Alice notes that national polling numbers won't tell the full story of how well positioned Canada's parties are to take advantage of any opportunities - with the Libs in particular figuring to have a difficult time turning soft support into votes on the ground.

- Finally, Andrew Potter comments on the sad reality that the two men portrayed (however questionably) as the lone choices to lead Canada have both reached their current positions by showing contempt for our country:
Setting aside the firewall letter, Harper has never really hidden his disdain for parts of Canada that aren’t as successful at digging oil out of the ground. He accused the Maritimes of having a “culture of defeat” and once said that Canada “appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status.” Never mind his own recent boasts about the economy and his education plan: these aren’t the instincts of a man blessed with an expansive and generous view of his countrymen.

And so it is that Michael Ignatieff and Stephen Harper, for all their differences in world view and intellectual temperament, have both spent their careers riffing off the same underlying theme, that Canada itself is irrelevant. Given all of this, it isn’t clear why either man wants to be prime minister. Harper—who most days could win handily an angriest-man-in-Canada competition—clearly loathes his job, the press, and the daily imperatives of life down on Supreme-Soviet-Upon-Rideau. As for Ignatieff, he has certainly worked hard to dispel suspicions that he’s off to Harvard at the first opportunity, but his job application True Patriot Love is such a cloying Via Rail portrait of Canada that it is hard to take seriously the idea that he actually believes it.

So when Canadians head to the polls on May 2, it is with the rather unpleasant knowledge that whoever ends up prime minister, we will be led by someone for whom the federal government is little more than a convenient vehicle for his own snobbery, condescension and resentment. It’s a depressing choice: Stephen Harper, the alienated and embittered Albertan, who has perhaps come to appreciate the rest of the country for which he has shown such contempt. Or Michael Ignatieff, the gallivanting, sugar-spun cosmopolitan, who has finally decided he needs a country after all.