Saturday, October 27, 2012

Light blogging ahead

I'll be largely away from the blog for the next week and a half. Expect only a few posts in the meantime, but I'll be back to the usual pace before too long.

Leadership 2013 Roundup

Yesterday saw two significant new developments in Saskatchewan's NDP leadership race, as the two candidates outside the Legislature took the initiative to earn coverage as the fall legislative session opened.

- Let's start with Ryan Meili's economic plan, which featured a few important concrete policies (such as a minimum wage set at 120% of the Low Income Measure) alongside some much more general ideas which call for further discussion and debate (e.g. ensuring that social policy meets "basic needs" for all Saskatchewan families). While there are a few tweaks on the NDP's existing policy (such as earmarking the proceeds of a legacy fund for education in particular), Meili looks to stayed on fairly safe ground - and it's not by accident that any criticism has been aimed at a lack of specifics rather than Meili's content so far.

Meanwhile, Meili also introduced two separate proposals for small business. And there, Meili looks to have avoided the trap of simply figuring that any money pushed toward smaller businesses is an inherent good - instead targeting his proposals toward offering new and growing businesses the opportunity to acquire training (through grants) and equity financing (though an exemption to securities laws).

- In the other main news yesterday, Erin Weir released the results of a "non-scientific poll" of Saskatchewan NDP members. While I'm in broad agreement with Scott's analysis, I'll avoid getting into the details of differences of a couple of dozen votes in each of the three regions; instead, he seems right on track in considering this to be the most important finding:
Essentially, the main take away is that this is a wide-open race. Whichever candidate does the work and successfully builds their profile with the members is going to be the one who ends up leading the party. I think there was some thought that name-recognition and 'star quality' (ala Justin Trudeau) might propel a candidacy early on in the race, but this poll suggests that that did not happen.
  - Weir also made the news recently by responding to the Sask Party's latest giveaway to the corporate sector. And the massive amount of money lost is in stark contrast to Weir's accurate statement as to the illusion of benefit:
Krawetz said in a worst-case scenario the two per cent rate reduction will mean about a $175 million loss in revenues to the government when fully implemented.

Economist and NDP leadership candidate Erin Weir said “corporate tax cuts federally and in other provinces have failed to spur business investment.

“A far more effective approach would be tax credits and rebates directly linked to investment and hiring.”
- Meanwhile, Cam Broten and Trent Wotherspoon were back in the Legislative Assembly this week. And in their first opportunities to participate on Friday (PDF), Broten asked several questions about the decline in First Nations and Metis employment in Saskatchewan, while Wotherspoon introduced a petition on education.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Stephen Maher follows up on this week's Supreme Court ruling on Etobicoke Centre by pointing out where we should be most worried about our electoral system:
Fraudulent voting is far from the biggest problem facing our democracy. Disengagement is.

Voting rates are declining steadily, particularly among young people, which means politicians see little point in discussing youth issues.

MPs are going to be looking at changes to the Elections Act after this fiasco, and they ought to tighten up the process. But I hope they won't require mandatory picture identification, as the Republicans are doing in the United States, because it discourages voting.

Our real problem is not with the tiny number of cheaters, but with all the people who stay home.
- And unfortunately, it looks like the Cons are taking advantage of exactly the opportunity I'd worried about in commenting on the case - seeking to capitalize on misplaced outrage at procedural snags to restrict real voting rights.

- Susan Delacourt wonders whether the failure of the Charlottetown Accord represented the point at which Canada's political class and citizenry parted ways. But I'd respond by noting that the constitutional wranglings of the '80s and '90s (which turned off the citizenry as reflecting elite concerns detached from voters' everyday lives) largely gave way to governments who have been similarly obsessed with negotiating elite-rooted trade deals inside and outside the country. And it's entirely natural for citizens to feel disconnected from governments who are more focused on limiting their own ability to act in response to popular concerns than actually improving the condition of Canadian lives.

- Janyce McGregor and the Huffington Post both review some of the contents of the Cons' latest attempt to run over democracy with an omnibus bill.

- Finally, I'll agree with Murray Mandryk that the most noteworthy development in the "Cons going off message" department is Brent Rathgeber's remarkably reasonable take on his party's union-bashing:
The proponents of C-377 argue that the tax deductibility of union dues somehow creates a public interest in what the collector of those dues does with them.  According to the theory, tax deductibility equals forgone revenue to the treasury, which makes it akin to public money and thereby creating a public right to know how the forgone tax dollars are spent.

...(I)f tax deductibility truly created a public interest, it would have to be more consistently applied.  As a lawyer, my law society fees are tax deductible.  Does that mean that the public has a right to know what the Law Society pays its staff??  I would argue no and certainly there is no existing obligation for the Law Society to disclose.  As a member of the club, I believe I have a right to know but do not see a similar right for non-members of the club.

Moreover, if I take a client out for lunch, 50% of that is written off as a business expense.  Should the restaurant have to disclose how much it pays the server and the cooks simply because of the tax deductibility of the meal??

I have obvious and I believe logical concerns regarding Bill C-377.  Although I unequivocally support the principle that union members have an interest in knowing how the union leadership spends its money, I am less convinced that non-members have a similar interest.  I eagerly await the Finance Committee’s deliberations; if there are no amendments considerably limiting the breadth and the scope of the Bill, I will be unable to support Bill C-377.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Musical interlude

Iris - Lands of Fire

On full information

I'll put together another Saskatchewan NDP leadership roundup post later today. But first, I'll point out one development which calls for some attention of its own.

Erin Weir has put together a policy comparison page - showing all of the policies announced by each contender, along with the other candidates' responses. And while there may be room to quibble with some editorial choices (for example, treating Weir's child-care plan as a "response" to Trent Wotherspoon's pre-kindergarten proposal but not vice versa), the page is generally oriented toward giving members a full picture of all of the policies raised for discussion - not only those which most flatter Weir as a candidate.

Which makes for a rather noteworthy break from how politics are all too often handled. For now, parties and candidates tend to see their role as pitching themselves and their own policies while running down their opponents on both counts. And that's generally coupled with gross politicking around single votes covering multiple policies (e.g. through the "our budget funds X, you voted against our budget, therefore you're against X" line of argument).

Moreover, the idea of acknowledging areas of agreement or potentially interesting proposals that don't form part of one's own platform might seem utterly foreign within some parties.

But I'm not sure the current practice is necessarily the only (nor the best) way of presenting policy. Indeed, I'd think there's plenty of upside in a party making a conscious effort to offer a source of factual information as to what options are available, rather than presenting only its own most positive spin and leave it to the media to sort out the differences between different options. And the credibility built up by a single party which expressly values accuracy and comprehensiveness might go a long way toward breaking the impasse of identical-sounding claims from all parties.

Of course, we have yet to see how Weir's first step in that direction will influence the NDP's leadership campaign. But there's a chance that it could be one of the most important ideas we'll see discussed during the course of the campaign.

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Friday reading.

- Timothy Noah writes that since Republicans haven't been able to convince the American public that inequality is desirable or acceptable, they're taking another angle: engaging in inequality denialism to try to pretend a growing problem doesn't exist.

- Tim Harper discusses the importance of Kevin Page's attempts to get accurate fiscal information out of the Con government. And Andrew Coyne points out that the federal government's budget bears little relationship to the estimates which are supposed to keep MPs and the public informed as to what's going on - with even government ministers having little idea how their (nominal) decisions actually affect Canada's finances.

- Meanwhile, Don Lenihan provides an overview of the arguments to suggest Canada's democracy is in crisis. And Michael Den Tandt adds his voice to the mix.

- Finally, Don Braid writes about the revelation that Daryl Katz' massive donations to the Alberta PCs at the end of the last provincial election - and notes that the Katz story is merely a by-product of lax donation laws. Needless to say, this should give us reason to ask questions about whether Saskatchewan's elections rules should be changed to prevent similar (or worse) abuses - and whether Brad Wall's Saskatchewan Party intends to preserve a flawed system for its own benefit.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

On positive precedents

Naturally, there's plenty of discussion today about the Supreme Court of Canada's decision on Boris Wrzesnewskyj's challenge to the 2011 federal election results in Etobicoke Centre. But I'll take a moment to highlight a couple of passages which show why the decision doesn't affect challenges based on fraud or corruption - but may serve to support voter access in the long run.

To start with, here are Rothstein and Moldaver JJ. for the majority at para. 42-43, reading the word "irregularity" to require serious corrosion of the electoral process in order to result in results being overturned:
The word “irregularities” appears as part of the following phrase: “irregularities, fraud or corrupt or illegal practices”.  These are words that speak to serious misconduct.  To interpret “irregularity” as meaning any administrative error would mean reading it without regard to the related words. 

The common thread between the words “irregularities, fraud or corrupt or illegal practices” is the seriousness of the conduct and its impact on the integrity of the electoral process.  Fraud, corruption and illegal practices are serious.  Where they occur, the electoral process will be corroded.  In associating the word “irregularity” with those words, Parliament must have contemplated mistakes and administrative errors that are serious and capable of undermining the integrity of the electoral process.
One can disagree with Wrzesnewskyj's strategic choice not to argue that "fraud, corrupt or illegal practices" formed part of his basis for challenging the results. But the Supreme Court majority pointed to these terms as reflecting "serious misconduct...capable of undermining the integrity of the electoral process" - meaning that today's decision may actually support challenges to electoral outcomes based on Robocon and other concerns about electoral fraud. And Wrzesnewskyj's case failed because his evidence didn't show irregularities meeting that standard.

Meanwhile, the majority also discussed at para. 44-45 the constitutional importance of allowing citizens to exercise the right to vote:
Central to the issue before us is how willing a court should be to reject a vote because of statutory non-compliance.  Although there are safeguards in place to prevent abuse, the Act accepts some uncertainty in the conduct of elections, since in theory, more onerous and accurate methods of identification and record-keeping could be adopted.  The balance struck by the Act reflects the fact that our electoral system must balance several interrelated and sometimes conflicting values.  Those values include certainty, accuracy, fairness, accessibility, voter anonymity, promptness, finality, legitimacy, efficiency and cost.  But the central value is the Charter-protected right to vote.

Our system strives to treat candidates and voters fairly, both in the conduct of elections and in the resolution of election failures.  As we have discussed, the Act seeks to enfranchise all entitled persons, including those without paper documentation, and to encourage them to come forward to vote on election day, regardless of prior enumeration.  The system strives to achieve accessibility for all voters, making special provision for those without identification to vote by vouching.  Election officials are unable to determine with absolute accuracy who is entitled to vote.  Poll clerks do not take fingerprints to establish identity.  A voter can establish Canadian citizenship verbally, by oath.  The goal of accessibility can only be achieved if we are prepared to accept some degree of uncertainty that all who voted were entitled to do so.
This is where the Cons' defence of Opitz' seat may serve as a pyrrhic victory which ultimately undermines their goal of restricting access to the polls. That is, unless there's enough backlash against the Supreme Court's decision to give them an excuse to impose new ID requirements and other means of limiting participation.

Which means that the best response to the Supreme Court's decision is to encourage the precedent placing the Charter right to vote at the core of our electoral process, while highlighting the fact that there are still serious questions about real misconduct - not procedural irregularities - being raised in other cases.

New column day

Here, on the increasing attempts of executive government at all levels to declare democracy irrelevant - and how strong grassroots party structures may be the key to reversing the tide.

For further reading...
- Again, Andrew Coyne's column remains the definitive discussion of the issue at the federal and provincial levels.
- But I'll give credit to the Libs who have recognized that shutting down democratic debate is a serious problem - particularly Steve V, who also discusses Gerard Kennedy's outspoken criticism of the move. And we'll find out over the next few months whether the Libs' membership will see the importance of Kennedy's message, and set a higher standard for their own party's internal accountability than "Harper got away with it, so can we".

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Richard Thaler criticizes Mitt Romney's obsession with upper-end tax cuts by pointing out the factors which actually serve to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship:
Romney wants to cut top rates by 20 percent, maintain the favorable treatment given to capital gains and dividends, and completely eliminate the estate tax, which currently only kicks in on estates in excess of $5 million for an individual or $10 million for a (heterosexual) married couple.

In other words, this is a strategy that emphasizes maximizing the after-tax returns if and when you hit it big. Yet if you think about the way most new businesses are started, it should be clear that these tax incentives have very little to do with the decisions facing most new entrepreneurs.

The typical business startup (think Joe the Plumber) begins with an initial stake that has been saved or borrowed, and 97 percent of small-business owners make less than $250,000 a year. It is a good bet that when Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Larry Page were creating their new businesses in their proverbial garages, they weren’t giving much thought to the tax rate they would have to pay if they struck it rich. Rather, they were hoping their startups would survive, something that less than half of new businesses succeed in doing.
Research in behavioral economics shows that when people consider risky propositions, they are especially concerned about the downside. Roughly speaking, people weigh losses about twice as heavily as gains, a phenomenon called “loss aversion.”

So if we really want to encourage risk takers and job creators, we should concentrate on what will happen to them in the all-too-likely event that their brilliant idea doesn’t pan out and the new venture flops.
Cutting taxes on high-income earners is unlikely to be the most cost-effective way of stimulating new business startups. If entrepreneurs who hit it big have to pay the same tax rate on their capital gains as on their ordinary income, they are unlikely to give up on their dreams. When people are contemplating starting a new enterprise, the last thing they are worried about is the tax rate their heirs might have to pay if they die as billionaires. But if they aren’t sure they can provide health insurance and a home to live in for their family should they fail, they may play it safe. 
- Meanwhile, Rebecca Leber discusses the return on investment in tax breaks for the oil industry - with the main effect of handing free money to already-profitable businesses being to ensure that they lobby for even more freebies.

- John Geddes documents the long-standing link between water protection and the environment which the Cons are apparently determined to write out of existence.

- But while the Cons are obviously still determined to read from predetermined scripts with no regard for any connection to reality, I'd think it's noteworthy that they're barely able to keep a straight face while spouting their most prominent (and farcical) set of talking points.

- And finally, for those who haven't yet seen them, Regina's unofficial election results are here - featuring more than a few disappointments, but some reason for optimism based on both some far closer races than we've seen recently and a few strong new voices within the city's representative bodies.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

#yqrvotes Endorsements

As promised, I'll close off my posting about the municipal elections with a quick round of endorsements.

I won't try to cover all of the wards and races, nor will I suggest that any of the candidates share all of my personal views as to how our city should be run. Instead, but I'll focus on those where the difference between candidates seems most likely to have a meaningful impact on Regina's governance for the years to come.

Mayor - Marian Donnelly

It's difficult to stand out in a field of nine candidates, but Donnelly looks to me to be at the head of the pack for both electability and policy. And with the Wall government looking to drive cultural activity out of the province, Donnelly's strong ties to Regina's arts community should help to fight the tide.

Ward 1 Councillor - John Klein

I've had my differences of opinion with Klein through our respective blogs - largely where the political conversation has turned to partisanship rather than issues of values. But he's been working to foster both democratic discussion and sustainable policy choices for years, and both would make for important themes on council.

Ward 2 Councillor - Heather McIntyre

Even among the candidates discussed in this post, McIntyre stands out as a must-support addition to council. She's been consistently active in municipal and provincial politics over the past few years, and has managed to work effectively with longtime power brokers and new volunteers alike without losing her core values.

Ward 3 Councillor - Shawn Fraser

As usual, there are plenty of progressive candidates running in Ward 3 - and there are at least a couple of others who would earn my endorsement in most of the city's wards. But based on Fraser's personal experience working to address Regina's most glaring social needs, he looks to be far better positioned to chart a more progressive course for the entire council rather than being limited to a support role.

Ward 5 Councillor - Femi Ogunrinde

In a ward which otherwise features an uninspiring race between two past Councillors jockeying for position as the insider candidate, Ogunrinde has made a strong case based on both general accountability and specific policy concerns focused on housing, transportation, infrastructure and community development.

Ward 9 Councillor - Dawn Thomas

Any of the challengers would make for a huge improvement over the incumbent Terry Hincks. But Thomas stands out as a driving force behind the city-wide stadium petition - and that commitment to giving citizens a voice should make for a valuable addition to council.

Subdivision 1 Public School Board Trustee - Jane Ekong

Ekong's message of greater integration between the school system and post-school life offers a valuable template for educational development. And a stellar resume makes it all the more likely that the rest of the school board will work with the concept.

Subdivision 3 Public School Board Trustee - Heather Lau

In a division where the other three candidates are effectively running status-quo campaigns, Lau is rightly pointing out the problem with school closures which create a disconnect between neighbourhoods and schools, as well as promising to advocate for students who require extra help.

Subdivision 6 Public School Board Trustee - Lauren Numrich

Of course, older schools can only be kept open if they're properly maintained. And alongside a strong general platform, Numrich is rightly highlighting the need for ongoing investment in our existing schools.

Separate School Board Trustee - Kendra Strong-Garcia

Like many of the candidates, Strong-Garcia brings a strong education and work background of her own to the city-wide race for the separate school board. But Strong-Garcia supplements that with a noteworthy combination of inclusiveness toward marginalized students, and an emphasis on modernizing both the classroom and the board.

Separate School Board Trustee - Nicole Sarauer

Finally, Sarauer is a former work colleague of mine who has already stepped away from private-firm legal practice to work for Pro Bono Law Saskatchewan, and is looking to add a place on the separate school board to that spirit of working toward the greater good.

Needless to say, I'll encourage all readers who haven't yet decided who to support to research Regina's candidates, then get out and vote. And hopefully, we'll see more than a few candidates from the above list joining a strong group of new city and school board representatives by this time tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Basket case cats.

Leadership 2013 Roundup

A quick look at the latest developments in the Saskatchewan NDP leadership campaign...

- Erin Weir has unveiled an ambitious child care plan intended to make publicly-delivered daycare and early learning available to all parents. But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Weir's plan is that it may actually undersell the value of making child care available: while Weir costs out the proposal at a price of $180 million per year plus initial capital investments, there's reason to suspect that the return on allowing parents to participate more fully in the labour force might actually outweigh the initial price tag.

- Meanwhile, Trent Wotherspoon's latest policy offering deals with poverty and a number of associated issues. But alongside his focus on the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, I'm particularly intrigued to see this in the midst of a grab bag of proposals:
Ensure that all provincial income security programs provide a socially acceptable level of funding and index future increases to the cost of living.
Of course, there's reason to wonder whether current income security programs actually cover all of Saskatchewan's citizens who ultimately need assistance. But the argument behind the proposal would seem to lend itself to closer consideration of that question as well - and I'll be interested to see how Wotherspoon and the rest of the leadership candidates define a "socially acceptable level of funding" for citizens in need.

- Finally, Jason wonders whether NDP members might be inclined to support Ryan Meili as a matter of buyer's remorse. But I'd hope that the takeaway from 2009 has less to do with wanting a one-time do-over than with a desire to rather than the value of giving all candidates a fair hearing (rather than falling in line with establishment choices).

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Heather Scoffield reports on the Canadian Index of Wellbeing's stunning finding that Canadian quality of life declined by a quarter between 2008 and 2010, while the Vancouver Sun and Lindor Reynolds comment on the collapse in well-being far beyond the economic damage of the recent recession. And Jane Gleeson-White puts the need for such measures of well-being into a global context:
GDP is a partial and misleading measure of national wealth and wellbeing. The problem is that it does not measure key goods in our economy, those unpriced but priceless services carried out by domestic workers and by nature – for example, the coastal defence of coral reefs, the pollution-filtering of wetlands, the nutrient recycling done by the soil and the unpaid work we do in our homes.

And yet GDP does include bad elements such as pollution, crime, cigarettes and their related health costs and environmental disasters, which boost GDP and so generate economic growth.
Under current GDP measures, countries that cut down forests for timber exports, dynamite their reefs for fish, pollute and degrade their soil for intensive agriculture and allow farms and factories to contaminate their waterways get rich.

The services provided by nature and households are not included in GDP because we consider their work to be free. But these services are not free – and we are beginning to pay their hidden costs in environmental destruction and climate change.
- Meanwhile, the Cons continue to work more on illusions than reality - as John Geddes discusses the millions of public dollars being spent to bolster Conservative branding and gloss over the gross failures that have led to our decline in well-being:
These are not supposed to be political ads. They feature no Conservative politicians. Still, they hardly feel like public-service spots. They aim to set a mood, rather than convey practical information. And get ready for more of the same on other key Tory themes. Under fire from the Opposition NDP for planning to gradually raise the eligibility age for Old Age Security to 67 from 65, starting in 2023, the government has budgeted $8 million for OAS ads. With Harper’s image as an economic leader tied so closely to streamlining approval of natural-resource projects, his government has $5 million earmarked for ads to promote that thrust. “The problem with this kind of advertising,” says Queen’s University politics professor Jonathan Rose, “is that it serves no public policy purpose.”
Beyond the content of federal ads, serious questions surround how much money is being spent on them. Approved ad budgets for each department are disclosed quarterly on the website of the Treasury Board, the central agency overseeing federal spending. But those quarterly figures don’t seem to be a reliable predictor of actual advertising outlays. In 2010-11, the last year for which final figures are available, $65.4 million in ad spending was approved on a quarterly basis, but $83.3 million was ultimately spent, according to the government’s annual report on advertising. Asked to explain how $17.9 million more was spent that year than initially approved, a Treasury Board official said departments are allowed to dip into their general budgets to top up ad spending.
- Lawrence Martin rightly wonders why the Cons' attempt to lock Canada into a long-term investment deal with China absent any discussion or debate hasn't resulted in more of a reaction. But then, with Jim Flaherty looking to sell off the CMHC, it's not as if there's been a lack of other issues similarly demanding a response.

- Finally, the Star weighs in on Jason Kenney's grab for unilateral and unaccountable power to determine who's able to enter Canada:
(T)here is well-founded concern that this new law could be applied inconsistently and arbitrarily. And proponents of free speech may argue that it shouldn’t be the role of the government to keep out those with views we may find collectively reprehensible.

Yet Kenney says he will try to ensure that the law can’t be abused. He intends to issue a list of criteria by which one can be denied before the parliamentary committee, and reach out to his own party and the opposition for feedback. He insists he isn’t looking for “some broad generalized power to prevent the admission of people to Canada whose political opinions we disagree with.”

But the question is: if Kenney can already step in for “exceptional cases” at the border, why the need to enshrine it in law? And given his government’s track record, how can we be sure the law won’t be abused? We can’t. This is a bad plan and the minister would be wise to drop it now.

Monday, October 22, 2012

On upcoming decisions

Others have rightly taken umbrage at the use of this weekend's Saskatchewan Roughriders game to try to push a new stadium on Regina voters. But while I'll agree the 'Riders' move was unseemly, it's at least arguably within the mandate of a privately-controlled organization which stands to get what amounts to a massive subsidy to advocate on behalf of a benefit for itself.

In contrast, the City of Regina has no business whatsoever advocating for one position over another in the elections which will choose representatives who are supposed to be able to make the City's decisions, nor declaring that the election is irrelevant to the City's eventual choices. Which means that the most alarming statement on a new stadium from the past weekend is this one:
Brent Sjoberg, Regina's chief financial officer and stadium project lead, said the option of renovating Mosaic Stadium was taken off the table when the province indicated it would not chip in funding. The city then decided to move forward with a "prudent" plan to build a new stadium with the least impact to city coffers.

He dismisses the argument that an adequate financial plan has not been presented to the public, adding the city has been transparent throughout the process by providing the true costs of the new facility.

"(I'm) comfortable with it so far. From my perspective, I've heard (the plan is) on balance," Sjoberg says. "Of course not everybody agrees, and that's fine. That's how communities work. But ultimately the new council will make some decisions in the coming months to say that yes, they believe this plan and all the elements are the right ones to move forward with."
Now, I presume Sjoberg hasn't actually been provided with an advance copy of this week's election results. But he seems to be trying to say that it doesn't much matter who gets elected - that some combination of the previous council and the city administration has made the decision, and that the sole role for our new elected representatives will be to rubber-stamp it.

Needless to say, a City employee is in no position to make that call for himself if voters decide otherwise. And Sjoberg's combined attempt to both swing the election and declare it irrelevant should offer Regina's citizens an obvious reason to elect councillors who have a rather more appropriate view of how representative government works.

[Edit: fixed formatting.]

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- The Toronto Star's Public Editor Kathy English discusses the wall being built around information by the Harper Cons. But at least as interesting to me is the Cons' determination to put up roadblocks in the way of information which can obviously be obtained through other means - such as this example from a report on their axing of Harold Leduc from the Veterans Review and Appeal Board after he exposed their breaches of privacy:
An outspoken member of a veterans appeal board, who said his privacy was violated and that the federal agency treats ex-soldiers with disrespect, won't be reappointed.

Harold Leduc and two other members of the troubled agency have been shown the door, and in their places the Harper government has appointed a nurse with extensive experience in addiction treatment and former military officers.
Federal officials, speaking on background, refused to identify the other two board members who were dropped, but the names William Watson and Ellen Riley do not appear on the latest order in council lists.
- Pierre Martin offers up two examples in support of an implicit theory that we should take fairer taxes on higher-income individuals off the table. So let's ask a question about one of those examples: would Barack Obama be happy to win only the votes of people who want tax cuts for the rich to expire?

(Hint: It might help to do some research before answering.)

- Alice takes a closer look at the upcoming federal by-election campaigns. And it seems particularly noteworthy that the NDP is seeing hotly contested nominations in both Calgary Centre and Durham after placing little emphasis on those seats in past federal elections.

- Finally, Michael Harris suspects that the Cons' secretive trade deal with China may be the type of action that forces MPs to start genuinely challenging Stephen Harper's decision-making:
(I)t is British Columbia that may prove to be Stephen Harper’s Waterloo. Has anyone ever been interred by a pipeline? Has anyone drowned in an ocean of bitumen? Or strangled on a tangle of national giveaways of the kind that lay snarled in the recent trade deal with China, the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act (FIPPA)? The deal is so bad for Canada that it was consummated with all the secrecy of the Manhattan Project. Astonishingly, it is set to become law on November 1, 2012 – without a word of parliamentary debate. 
And Deep Rogue Ram offers its own take on the China pact:

On continued control

I'd certainly be interested to see some evidence that Conservative MPs are doing anything more than dispensing party talking points. But while there may be some better examples available, the contents of Jason Warick's report this morning look to me to fall far short.

Let's go point by point...

- At last notice, Con MPs weren't allowed to present private members' bills which hadn't been vetted by Harper's staffers. And from the fact the Cons are publicly lining up behind Rob Clarke's bill to trash the Indian Act with nothing to replace it (as well as the fact that it fits with the Cons' explicit government legislation), it's a stretch to claim C-428 as a sign of rebellion.

- It's absolutely true that the Cons are trying to distance themselves from Kelly Block since her anti-refugee mailout started giving rise to protests. But if you can find an inch of daylight between the talking points that have been rightly protested by Block's constituents and the ones dispensed by Jason Kenney and others as the Cons' party-approved excuse for slashing refugee health care, you're a more creative thinker than I.

- And Warick's final example - that of Gerry Ritz - looks to me like a signal of business as usual rather than any noteworthy development. The XL Foods beef fiasco is nothing new for a minister who's presided over this type of health and safety disaster before. Yet Ritz continues to be a member of Harper's cabinet charged with overseeing Canada's food production - meaning that his actions and words are plainly those of Harper's government, not an example of an individual MP at odds with his boss.

(Though I'll grant that if Ritz wanted to make the case against his party's belief in industry self-regulation by secretly sabotaging the industry for which he's responsible, he could hardly have done better.)

Which means that Warick's list is quickly pared down to a brief outburst by anti-abortion MPs. But Harper has always allowed socons to have their occasional day in the spotlight as long as they keep up the trained-seal routine on other issues.

So no, we don't have much reason to think the Cons' Saskatchewan MPs are exercising any real independence. And we should be careful not to be too generous with the label - lest Harper manage to claim he isn't being unduly controlling based on an erroneous interpretation of what Con MPs are actually doing.

[Edit: fixed typo, added link.]

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Jim Coyle wonders whether or democracy is in decline, and cites as evidence the utter disconnect between the primary functions of elected representatives and the way politics are covered in the media:
(R)eal influence and authority has left the precincts — drifting inexorably over recent decades into first ministerial offices, where cabals of unelected appointees make most decisions that matter and tell elected members what to say and how to vote.

Luminaries such as economist Don Drummond have far more access to premiers, and far more sway over public affairs, than any mere MPP.

In exit interviews of federal members, conducted in 2011 by the Samara democracy research organization, MPs characterized themselves as “potted plants” and “clapping seals.”

Their greatest frustrations, they said, usually came from the arbitrary demands and punishments of their own parties. Many admitted to voting for bills or measures with which they did not agree.

They said the politics most commonly seen by the public “did little to advance anything constructive.” The most useful work by MPs was done away from the spotlight, they said, in caucus or in the less-partisan environment of committees not much covered by journalists. What is showcased, instead, is theatre, posturing, stonewalling and, too often, vicious personal attacks.
- But it's worth putting the concern about the disempowerment of elected representatives in context. And while the Cons' rejection of accountability in budgeting serves as a typical example of the executive decreeing that Parliament shouldn't be able to know what Canada's government is doing, it does seem noteworthy that Con MPs joined the opposition parties in agreeing that there's a serious problem to be addressed.

- No, we shouldn't put too much stock in the results of the federal by-elections called today for votes on November 26. But it's well highlighting how the Cons' spin about them lacks any basis in reality - and Kady is up to the task.

- Finally, Gerald Caplan writes about Canada's developing culture war:
(T)here’s something larger going on here. There’s an irreconcilable clash of cultures. There are two diametrically opposite ways of seeing the world constituting a profound conflict of values. So not only do the two sides disparage each other, they can’t begin to understand each other.

It’s a good bet that Rob Ford enthusiasts and Omar Khadr antagonists are mostly the same people and that both are part of Stephen Harper’s original and most reliable base. This 30 per cent – although not necessarily the support he has received beyond them, especially in the last election – disproportionately opposes abortion, gay marriage and gun control and denies global warming and evolution. Many, paradoxically, belong to the 99 per cent. As in the U.S. and Europe, culture often trumps class. They resent more successful peers rather than the 1 per cent.

These are the new conservatives, threatened by a world where the only certainty is constant dizzying change. They find less and less in common with other Canadians who in turn find them baffling, strangers in a strange land. The two groups can barely connect with each other. This is not the Canada we once knew and no one knows how to deal with it.

Sunday Morning 'Rider Blogging

There were certainly some bright spots in the Saskatchewan Roughriders' loss to Montreal yesterday, as is normally the case when a team has chance to win late against one of the CFL's elite competitors. But the sad part of yesterday's loss was that the 'Riders missed a number of obvious opportunities which could easily have turned the tide.

Let's start with the defence which has been the key to most of the 'Riders' recent success. Facing an Als offence missing much of its receiving talent, the 'Riders managed to give up exactly what the team couldn't afford. For three quarters Jamel Richardson was a one-man passing attack, regularly finding room in a secondary which didn't have many other dangerous receivers to corral. Then Anthony Calvillo managed to post two stunning rushing touchdowns, as a 'Rider pass rush which was able to break down the Montreal line apparently couldn't work quarterback containment into its scheme. And finally, in the fourth quarter the 'Riders had trouble stopping an inexperienced running back from draining the clock - a highly disappointing performance for a defensive line which was much more stout until the last couple of games.

That combination of problems on defence forced the offence to make up a massive deficit in the fourth quarter. And while the 'Riders got within a touchdown of completing the comeback, there was still plenty of room for improvement.

Of particular note, the 'Riders' receivers were at best inconsistent throughout the game. Kory Sheets alone dropped one sure first down pass, plus a couple of tosses which might have given rise to big plays in the fourth quarter. But nearly every other receiver also muffed at least one pass at some point in the game, with unfortunate consequences: as Darian Durant worked to spoon-feed the ball to his receivers, the Als' defence had more opportunity to set up tackles and limit the 'Riders' yardage after catches.

But there was one important exception. And if there's anything the 'Riders can build on from yesterday's game, it's Greg Carr's performance as a possession receiver.

When Carr was acquired earlier this season (in what struck me as a downright bizarre trade), I fully expected him to settle into a role as a designated big-play receiver - someone who could test defences once or twice a game with his size and athleticism while being too unreliable to help much in a possession game. But Carr made a number of tough catches in traffic against the Als - all despite the wind making it difficult for Durant to place the ball as precisely as he'd like. And if Carr continues to hang onto the ball consistently enough to be considered a steady target to move the chains, the 'Riders' receiving corps looks to be far better than if it has to rely on Chris Getzlaf as its second-best option.

Unfortunately, Carr's production yesterday wasn't quite enough to turn the tide. But we saw at least some hint the 'Riders offence may enjoy one more major weapon than it's been able to deploy through most of this season. And with the 'Riders now certain to face nothing but road games in the playoffs, they'll need to develop all the upside they can as the regular season winds down.