Saturday, January 12, 2013

Saturday Afternoon Links

This and that for your weekend reading.

- Lana Payne sounds the alarm about the choice of the government of Newfoundland and Labrador to cry "deficit!" as an excuse to slash social spending when the actual deficit is virtually identical to the amount it's spending on added resource development - and far less than what the province has handed to wealthy residents in tax cuts.

- Chantal Hebert rightly notes that Idle No More and the predictable bigoted backlash only serve as a single example of Canada's need to better address minorities:
Over the past few weeks, there are those who have been dismayed by the toxic tone of the social media as the First Nations issue has heated up. But the twittersphere is only providing a more public outlet for a visceral and polarizing current that systematically surfaces in tandem with any discussion of the place of the country’s national minorities in modern-day Canada.

It was just easier to diminish the existence of that current back when it was not in plain sight.

Does not anyone remember the quasi-hysterical reaction and the over-the-top language that attended the adoption of a mere House of Commons resolution dealing with Quebec’s national status in 2006 in some otherwise mainstream quarters?

Or what about the vitriolic comments that so routinely make their way below media stories related to Quebec these days that many no longer take notice of them?

There are many admirable features to Canada’s attachment to a civic form of nationalism but the tendency to use it to refuse to come to terms with the distinctive elements that are at the root of the country’s identity is not one of them.
- Meanwhile, Lloyd Axworthy and Wab Kinew write about the need to respond to Idle No More with real change in how Canada addresses First Nations:
As the Idle No More movement marches its way into our national consciousness, it has become too easy to forget that this country began with co-operation between indigenous and European peoples. The responses have divided many, making supporters of some “average Canadians” and drawing vehement and, occasionally, vitriolic opposition from others.

While discussion always strengthens democracy, we ought not to get too caught up in the bickering to ignore the broader opportunity that Idle No More offers us: the chance to engage in nation-building, to make the country we love stronger. Canada’s future is strongly tied to the well-being of its indigenous peoples.
Some Canadians may fear that they’ll be worse off or face a higher tax burden if indigenous people do better. But the nation’s well-being is not a zero-sum game. Right now, there are thousands of young indigenous people who face much longer odds on the road to success than the average child. If we help them better fulfill their potential, they’ll eventually contribute more to our society. As the first peoples do better, we’ll all do better.

There’s a strong moral argument in favour of doing right by this country’s first peoples as well. Idle No More has garnered international attention, in the form of solidarity protests and also from some serious media outlets. Do Canadians really want to stand in front of the world opposed to equal and equitable opportunities for first nations, Inuit and Métis children? Do we really want to say we’re a country that dishonours its treaty commitments? We think not.
- Finally, Lee Berthiaume reports that the Cons are backtracking on their previous plans to send disaster areas a bill for calling in the Canadian Forces. Which certainly beats the alternative - but nonetheless serves as rather stark evidence as to how they'd like to govern if they could get away with it.

#skndpldr Candidate Update - Trent Wotherspoon

Let's close my mid-campaign updates with a look at Trent Wotherspoon - who started the campaign trying to lock in an image to swing the race in his favour, but looks instead to have generated the widest range of possible outcomes as the campaign kicks into high gear.

Wotherspoon's campaign launch remains the largest display of support any candidate has been able to show off. But the impressive turnout from his announcement has given way to what looks to be a mid-range campaign in most areas: Wotherspoon's organization has generated modest totals in online support and involvement, mid-to-upper-end fund-raising matched with large expenditures, and a list of endorsers that doesn't particularly stand out compared to those of Ryan Meili or Cam Broten.

But if Wotherspoon is far from being a prohibitive favourite as his campaign tried to project, he's still in the thick of the race - as the combination of a genial candidate and a generally effective campaign team gives him a solid starting point for the second half of the campaign.

That is, as long as Wotherspoon is able to answer the one question that's followed him throughout the leadership race: will he be able to back up his positive image with enough command of policy issues to serve as the face of the Saskatchewan NDP and its policies?

So far, the debates have presented him surprisingly little need to address that issue: Wotherspoon has chosen to be almost entirely non-adversarial in asking questions of his competitors, and they've largely responded in kind. Which means that Wotherspoon hasn't yet had to explain any organizing set of principles or theoretical basis behind his interesting but occasionally-disjointed set of policy proposals. 

I doubt Wotherspoon's competitors will let him ease his way through the second set of debates the way they did early in the campaign. But even if he can skate away from larger issues for the moment, Wotherspoon will ultimately face tough questions from the NDP's political opponents and the media if elected leader. And the current campaign offers the ideal time for him to both work on providing answers that go beyond his scripted talking points, and put those skills to the test (both in the party's debates and in dealing with the media).

If Wotherspoon succeeds on that front (which I see as entirely possible), then he figures to be in as good a position as anybody to win over support as the leadership campaign progresses. But he'll have to choose whether to make the effort, or to take a seemingly safer path in the leadership race which may pose far greater risks in the long term.

#skndpldr Candidate Update - Erin Weir

As the candidate with the least name recognition in a field consisting of the 2009 Saskatchewan NDP leadership runner-up and two multi-term MLAs, Erin Weir has spent much of the ongoing leadership campaign working on being seen as a contender within the field, rather than being ignored an also-ran. And the most important publicly-available indicators (including his own campaign's much-ballyhooed poll, as well as the candidate fund-raising numbers) suggest he's met that standard so far.

In addition, Weir has excelled in the give-and-take portions of the leadership debates, sparring regularly with each of the other candidates and generally getting the better of the exchanges.

But to succeed in the leadership campaign, Weir will ultimately need to win over enough undecided voters and/or down-ballot support to build off of that initial position. And there's reason to wonder whether his early strategy and positioning may limit his growth potential as the campaign progresses.

In particular, Weir has focused most of his attention on policy costing and details - essentially taking agreement on progressive values as a given among the pool of possible voters, and choosing not to make much of a principled case for them himself.

In the longer term, that looks to me like a missed opportunity to build support for agreed values using the platform offered by coverage of the leadership race. But it also means that undecided voters comparing how candidates' messages reflect their own values priorities may end up finding less in Weir's presentation than in that of the other candidates.

At the same time, Weir's campaign has focused to a great extent on responding to economic news in the media - where he typically answers the compulsive self-promotion of the Saskatchewan Party (or in some cases the federal Conservatives) with what can seem to be an equally reflexive countermessage. That strategy certainly keeps his name in the public eye as a critic of the Wall government, but it too means that he's regularly seen responding to others' actions and messages, rather than building a leadership organization that can provide a model for the NDP's future growth.

To sum up, Weir's campaign has taken a relatively safe path toward being seen as a contender - but only at the cost of some significant limitations on his ability to emerge at the head of the pack. And it's an open question whether Weir's current messages have much chance of winning over additional members, or whether he'll have to change course significantly to reach out beyond his immediate pool of support.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Musical interlude

Love and Rockets - Sweet Lover Hangover

#skndpldr Candidate Update - Ryan Meili

When Saskatchewan's NDP leadership race started, one of the most important questions for all of the candidates was the level of organization Ryan Meili would bring to the campaign: whether he'd build significantly from what had been a growing base by the end of the 2009 race, or largely start his campaign from scratch. And he got a late enough start on the policy front in particular to leave that question in doubt for at least a few weeks.

By now, though, Meili's answer looks to have been fairly definitive. His rank on visible indicators of support ranges from a slight lead in fund-raising to huge advantages in Facebook and Twitter followers. And those numbers are matched by a greater range of ongoing grassroots activity in his campaign than any other - with the latest twist being the twibeard as a highly visible symbol of support (coupled with the most visible membership drive of any of the contenders).

Meanwhile, Meili has also matured as a candidate since 2009 - combining generally effective general speeches with both clear explanations for his own policies, and thoughtful responses to questions that don't form part of his platform.

That combination of organization and candidate strength would seem to position Meili as the favourite going into the home stretch of the campaign. But it may also change Meili's challenge in the months to come.

While Meili has been in Cam Broten's cross-hairs in particular since the debates started last fall, he now figures to be a primary target for each of the other campaigns. And the more his competitors see a need to undercut Meili's position by offering reasons to vote against him, the tougher it may be for him to win down-ballot support to match a strong first-ballot showing.

Of course, the combination of a likeable candidate and active grassroots support can go a long way toward turning that balance in Meili's favour. But the one test Meili hasn't yet had to address is that of how to handle being at the front of the pack - and that looks to be his task over the next couple of months.

On party time

Not surprisingly, I have some reservations about Kai Nagata's view that the federal Lib leadership campaign has much to offer toward the development of progressive politics in Canada. But I'll give Nagata credit for this much: he's absolutely right to make the point that we should treat active and public involvement within party structures as a positive step, not a disqualifying factor for anybody wanting to be able to speak to broader issues.

Which makes this look like one of the more interesting developments in Saskatchewan's NDP leadership campaign so far. While all of the candidates are seeking to encourage supporters to join in one form or another, Aaron Genest has set up a group dedicated to promoting membership as an end in itself rather than a means of supporting a particular leadership candidate, with the promise of at least one event to get the word out in advance of the January 25 deadline.

Naturally, the first wave of group members is made up largely of familiar faces within the NDP. But I'll be highly curious to see how far the group can extend beyond that circle. And it could be that a message of general inclusion rather than candidate positioning could make an important difference in the future of both the leadership campaign, and the building of the party.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

#skndpldr Candidate Update - Cam Broten

We're now approaching the home stretch of Saskatchewan's NDP leadership race - with the membership deadline looming in just over two weeks, and under two months left until the vote itself. But while there will be plenty of news to cover in that time, let's take a look back at how each candidate's campaign has progressed so far - starting with Cam Broten.

At the start, I noted that Broten's most likely path to victory was as an everybody's-second-choice type of candidate. And his campaign thus far has largely followed that strategy.

On the bright side for Broten, he's been a consistently competent performer in the leadership debates, combining effective statements of values and messages about inclusion and unity with strong responses when he's been challenged on particular issues. And he's certainly made efforts to rise above the leadership race itself to speak to shared party interests.

Meanwhile, within the campaign itself Broten has managed to generate at least some flow of activity alongside the debate schedule, with particular emphasis on a slightly wider range of endorsements than would have anticipated. And as a wild card for the balance of the campaign, Broten had more cash on hand than his opponents at last notice.

That said, it's fairly striking that Broten's strengths have developed in the absence of much obvious activity out of his campaign aside from rolling out endorsements.

Broten's edge in cash on hand as of the end of November was based on his having spent less than Ryan Meili and Trent Wotherspoon. But his third-place ranking in fund-raising (with a total substantially closer to Erin Weir in fourth than the candidates ahead of him) leaves room for question as to how much grassroots enthusiasm his campaign is actually generating, particularly in light of his moderate-at-best rankings in other publicly-available metrics such as Facebook and Twitter supporters and activity.

Now, one can make the case that a second-choice campaign might have some strategic incentives to hide its true strength so as to avoid attracting too much negative attention. But I have trouble seeing it as a plus for a campaign if its best-case scenario involves laying low and concealing support rather than building momentum this close to the membership and voting deadlines. And if Broten isn't able to make some strides at the grassroots level over the next month, there's reason to wonder whether any amount of down-ballot support will matter.

New column day

Here, on the Cons' choice to start charging emergency-stricken communities for disaster relief work by the Canadian Forces.

For further reading, see the initial report from Lee Berthiaume, as well as Michael Den Tandt's criticism of the move.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Karl Flecker discusses how the Cons' push to encourage employers to use temporary foreign workers will affect wages for everybody:
In fact, what Kenney said was untrue. He has conveniently forgotten that his government significantly changed the wage rules for employers hiring high-skilled migrant workers. On April 25, 2012, after direct consultations with a select group of employers, Diane Finley, Minister of Human Resources Skills Development Canada, announced a new "Accelerated Labour Market Opinion" to provide employers with "greater flexibility." "Wages," she said, "that are up to 15 per cent below the average wage for an occupation in a specific region will now be accepted."

Later in May, her department issued a backgrounder clarifying that employers would also be able to pay low-skilled migrant workers five per cent less than prevailing wage rates, and that the Accelerated Labour Market Opinion process "may gradually be expanded to include risk-based processing for all occupations and components of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program." Simply put, this means the Conservative government plans to implement a pay-less wage structure across all streams of the program. Given that migrant workers are now present in every sector of the economy, this change will create the means to lower wages for all workers.

Minister Kenney's public assurance that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program requires employers to pay at or above the prevailing wage rate of any occupation does not hold water.
- Meanwhile, James Keller reports that the Cons are now "vigorously defending" the use of "temporary" foreign workers for upwards of a decade - even in the case of HD Mining where Diane Finley had to admit to problems with the use of that type of labour.

- Both Chris Selley and Bruce Anderson make the point that the Cons' refusal to consult or listen to anybody when it came to their omnibus budget monstrosities has only made it impossible for them to feign any willingness to work constructively with First Nations.

- Finally, Scott Sinclair writes about the possible effect of CETA on fisheries regulation. But without diminishing the importance of our fisheries, the most significant takeaway is that every other sphere of government action figures to be similarly affected.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Deep thought

I for one proudly stand in favour of preventing bad things from happening. And I'd think it's worth being rather concerned that our federal government and its corporate puppetmasters disagree.

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Daniel Wilson discusses how Stephen Harper's antipathy toward First Nations is making a failure of his time in office:
On the global stage, he stood almost alone in opposition to 144 other countries in voting against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Domestically, he has tabled bills that diminish First Nations jurisdiction to that of administrative agencies of the federal government.  His party has consistently claimed that First Nation governments are corrupt or mismanaged.  He killed the Kelowna Accord. His steadfast refusal to fund First Nation child welfare agencies at the same rate as provincial agencies -- a gap of 22 per cent according to the Auditor General -- is the subject of a human rights complaint for discrimination. The cap of two per cent funding growth per annum for education, housing, infrastructure (like drinking water) and other essential services means that, while keeping up with inflation, First Nations are further impoverished each year at the same rate as they have children (approximately 3.5 per year).  To make his purpose obvious, he has legislation aimed at selling communally held reserve lands to private interests and the now infamous Bill C-45 created new arrangements for the leasing of reserve lands to non-band members.

Each of these steps is aimed at diminishing the power and capacity of First Nations to function.  Each is calculated to drive people off reserve. Like Harper's legislative attacks on environmental protection, each serves the goal of eventually allowing oil, gas, mining, and other resource extraction industries to go about their business unhindered.

But people stood up to the bully and in his first real test, he blinked. In reluctantly agreeing to meet this Friday, he has shown his nervousness. In the maliciousness with which his people have attacked Chief Theresa Spence this week, he has shown his fear.
- Meanwhile, Thomas Walkom discusses the real story behind Attawapiskat's dire straits - as much-ballyhooed resource development has done nothing to improve the lot of the community. Heather Mallick writes about the importance of First Nations activists standing up for themselves. And Pat Atkinson laments the Harper Cons' utter failure to consult First Nations.

- Ian Austen reports on a new study showing that the harmful by-products of tar sands exploitation are spreading much further than previously known.

- And finally, Jim Guy is the latest to question the Cons' choice to single out organized labour for punishment and the eradication of member privacy.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Wintry cats.

#skndpldr Roundup

With the holiday break coming to an end, let's take a quick look at what's new in the Saskatchewan NDP leadership campaign before taking stock as to where the candidates stand.

While the official debates resume this weekend, the most important date to watch for is the January 25 membership deadline. Ryan Meili and Trent Wotherspoon have both put together targeted efforts to recruit new voters through their own campaigns, but eligible voters interested in joining can also do so through the NDP's provincial office.

The break has seen plenty of talk about endorsements - with Jason Hammond and Scott Stelmaschuk both discussing the role they see endorsements playing within the campaign. Beyond my earlier comments, I'll add only that I see less of a distinction than Scott between "name dropping" endorsements and other types: as much as members may respect senior figures within the party, I wouldn't necessarily see the support of a past MLA carrying much more weight than that of any other endorser with a relatively similar inclination and ability to reach out to voters. And the most important effect of public endorsements may be to encourage a wider range of people to actually make the effort.

Meanwhile, Wotherspoon added to his broad base of support by earning some Manitoba cabinet endorsements. And Cam Broten has continued to add past Saskatchewan candidates and cabinet members to his list of endorsers - though it's beginning to look rather striking that his campaign's news has consisted of nothing but endorsements since mid-October.

Finally on the policy side, Ryan Meili unveiled two more platform planks: a housing strategy that includes ending homelessness in Saskatchewan within ten years, and a sexual and reproductive health plan to improve equitable access to reproductive health services.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Michael Harris discusses the impending moment of truth for the Cons in owning up to their substantive failures toward Canada's First Nations:
Whether it’s Canada’s natives or its health ministers, Stephen Harper’s preferred place for his opponents is under his thumb. He has replaced the alternating current of democracy with the direct current of oligarchy. Ordinary people remain as invisible to him now as they have been since 2006.

For that reason, Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike has been a disaster for the man who doesn’t like to negotiate, let alone negotiate with a nobody, especially a nobody who has managed to put him under the gun. Remember, this is a guy who wouldn’t even talk to Canada’s premiers. Now they know the drill: stop eating.
What aboriginals need is for treaties to be honoured on something other than the long hours of the geological clock. What they need is legislative protection for their lands and equal say in the laws that govern them as guaranteed by the Constitution. But what they have gotten from Stephen Harper since his “official” apology to Aboriginal Peoples in 2008 has not quite lived up to the billing of a “renewed” relationship.

The Harper government has unilaterally changed the Indian Act. It has unilaterally changed environmental legislation that weakens protection of fresh water and endangered fish species. It has made it easier for major developments to take place with less study of the environmental impact and no equal say for aboriginals. And in 2012, the very year Stephen Harper pledged to renew the search for justice for all native peoples, his “little minister” — as Chief Spence described John Duncan — announced sweeping cuts for core aboriginal organizations across Canada.

One hundred expert academics signed a damning letter to Duncan last November decrying the loss of funding for native communities in the area of health, clean drinking water, education and infrastructure. “The potential loss of expertise is staggering, and could take a generation to recover from,” the researchers warned.
- Frank Graves rightly notes that social media hasn't yet had as strong an impact on our political scene as some might have expected. But I'll note that it's still an open question whether it will eventually fulfill its potential - especially when it's possible to look to the U.S. for obvious examples of success in reaching new voter groups.

- Donald Savoie writes that the decades-old fad of trying to run government like a business has proven unsuccessful:
Public servants of yesteryear would emphasize proper data-gathering procedures and produce analyses with predictive power. Politicians grabbed the policy-making levers and decided to turn bureaucrats into better managers. Public servants were not about to admit that their management skills were lacking, so politicians looked to the private sector for inspiration. As a result, strategic plans were turned into business plans, citizens into customers and cabinet into a powerless board of directors, and attempts were made to tie pay to performance.

The notion that public administration could be made to look like private-sector management has been ill-conceived, misguided and costly to taxpayers. Management in the private sector has everything to do with the bottom line and market share. Administration in the public sector is a matter of opinion, debate and blame avoidance in a politically charged environment. It doesn’t much matter in the private sector if you get it wrong 40 per cent of the time so long as you turn a handsome profit and increase market share. It doesn’t much matter in the public sector if you get it right 99 per cent of the time if the 1 per cent you get wrong becomes a heated issue in Question Period and the media.
Public servants now produce all manner of reports and navigate various accountability requirements to fabricate a bottom line. The result: Ottawa has an oversupply of officers of Parliament, accountability and oversight processes and performance and evaluation reports. Hundreds of reports are carted every year to Parliament, where they remain unread unless one of them has information to embarrass the government.

The business vocabulary in government has, if nothing more, empowered managers to grow government operations by stealth. The Chrétien-Martin review (1994-98) eliminated 45,000 positions, but by the time Stephen Harper launched his own review in 2011, the government had added more than 70,000 positions. Thousands of new oversight positions have been created in Ottawa to manage accountability processes. Thirty years ago, 70 per cent of federal public servants were located in the regions; today, the number is 57 per cent. Without putting too fine a point on it, public servants in the field deliver public services, while those in Ottawa provide policy advice and manage processes and oversight requirements.
- But if there's one lesson we should hope to take from a business mindset, it's that we shouldn't leave obvious sources of revenue on the table - and plenty of voters look to have bought into that view.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Frank Graves' review of the current state of Canadian politics focuses in on the growing gap between the Cons' waning interest in listening to the public, and their growing expenditures on advertising and marketing:
In Canada in 2006, the federal government spent roughly the same amount of money on polling as it did on advertising (I declare a major self-interest on this point). Polling for the federal government is non-partisan and designed to solicit the feedback of citizens and clients for government on programs and policies. Government advertising is also supposed to be non-partisan and is intended to explain or communicate.

Cynics suggest that advertising is now more partisan in nature and is designed to persuade and comfort the public. Note, for example, the continuing federal marketing effort on Canada’s Economic Action Plan, which actually concluded its stimulus phase a couple of years ago. Although the numbers are difficult to nail down, it is clear that the federal government now spends somewhere between ten and twenty times as much on advertising as it does on ‘listening to Canadians’.

This dramatic shift from parity of polling and advertising is a fairly minor example of the shift from a focus on policy and engagement to one on persuasion and branding. Policy research has dropped dramatically in the Government of Canada, as Alan Gregg (sic) and others have noted.

This is not unique to Canada and the shift from the pursuit of rational public policies to massive investments in political marketing intended to cajole and persuade is our final example of a force we can expect to see bending Canadian politics for the foreseeable future.
- Meanwhile, Charlie Smith suggests that corporate self-regulation has been a failure when it comes to advertising standards - and wonders whether the NDP will call for public regulation instead.

- Keith Reynolds points out the inevitable intersection of two major corporatist trends: as the same time that P3s are pitched as a possible source of corporate tax revenue, tax avoidance schemes serve to make sure that the least possible amount of P3s spending actually stays within a province:
Partnerships BC calculates how much the private sector will pay in taxes. It calculates all of the expected tax revenue for BC and half of the expected tax revenue for the federal government. This amount is then added to the predicted cost of doing the project publicly because it is considered revenue lost to the province from taxes. The total predicted cost is then compared to the total predicted cost of doing a P3.

But what happens if the tax revenue predicted from the P3 project doesn’t materialize? That means the province does not get the expected revenue, which is a big deal in cash strapped British Columbia. It also means that the comparison used to decide whether to use a P3 to do the project publicly was biased against public operation because of overly optimistic revenue expectations from the P3.

One of the ways companies cut their taxes is by moving their headquarters to tax havens.  Instead of claiming their profits in the country where they actually deliver services profits are claimed in the tax haven and taxes are paid at much lower rates.
- Finally, the NDP's list of Harper Con lowlights offers a useful reminder as to just how far Canada has sunk over the past year.