Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

The 143-Year-Old Virgin0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Bad Press, Golden Tacks (Tuesday July 13, 2010 at 11:47 pm)

The omnibus budget recently passed by the Senate has attracted some criticism, and rightly so. Bundling everything under the sun into a single piece of legislation makes sense only if you view parliament as an administrative hurdle, rather than a lawmaking body. Parliamentary committees have enough difficulties dealing with relatively narrow inquiries. They can hardly be expected to properly explore the implications of a budget (already a sizable stack of paper) further laden with detritus.

But the Globe and Mail’s editorial has made a serious error:

Loading much of the government’s agenda into one omnibus bill and then demanding its passage on threat of an election is entirely inappropriate in a mature democracy. Parliament has an obligation to carefully scrutinize all legislation. Bills with unnecessarily diverse objectives thwart this duty.

From which one might conclude that, in a mature democracy, the government should refrain from doing things which make it hard for parliament to do its job.


In a mature parliamentary democracy, parliament controls the government. How mature is a democracy if parliament won’t stand up to the government under the threat of *gasp* an election?

Maturity, it seems, will still be some time in coming.

1+1 = Sunny Skies?0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, Brass Tacks (Thursday April 19, 2007 at 3:52 pm)

The problem with simple math is that it’s more complex than you might think. That’s why Jason Cherniak’s recent assertion of impending Liberal success in St. Catherines is as analytically sound as a proof that 1=2.

Here’s the theory:

  • In 2006, the Liberal candidate lost by 246 votes.
  • In 2006, the Green Party candidate received 2,305 votes.
  • Therefore, if a mere 15% of the Green votes switch to Liberal in the absence of a Green candidate, the Liberal candidate wins!

Spotted the fallacy? It’s simple, really. It assumes that the Conservative candidate, now an incumbent, doesn’t gain any votes. Incumbents often do; and absent some sign of real backlash in the area in question or serious nationwide backlash, there’s no reason to suspect that he won’t do as well or better in the next election.

But there’s another one; and this is the point that leads to the serious error of judgment in Jason’s analysis, to wit: the headline:

Dion-May deal pays off in St. Catharines!

It’s wholly within the realm of possibility that 15% of would-be Green voters will trend Liberal. It’s also within the realm of possibility that the Liberals’ effort to court the left end of the spectrum will alienate more centre-right parts of their support. If so, the quasi-coalition could cost more votes than it gains. Not only has he assumed that the Conservatives gain no votes, but he also assumes that neither the Greens nor the Liberals lose any votes.

Assuming that a deal has only positive effects comes down to begging the question, because that’s precisely what you’re trying to prove. It’s as analytically sound as. . .well, thinking it won’t rain because you don’t have your umbrella. Slapping a smile across your face no matter what might help your mood, but it won’t keep you from ending up all wet.

Campaign by Proxy0

Posted by JJ in The Elephant, Crossroads of Culture (Wednesday April 18, 2007 at 2:06 pm)

Attacking your opponent with unfavorable comparisons is a long-standing tradition. Why is it so popular? Simple — having to prove that what someone does is wrong takes far more time and effort than alleging that they act like others with reputations for doing things that are wrong.

The Liberals had a policy, for some time now of anti-Americanism as campaign fodder, especially concentrated on painting the Conservatives as pro-US lackeys in the 2006 campaign, as Canadians deepened their antipathy for the US government. Moderately successful as a last-minute tactic in June of 2004, it was significantly less successful in January of 2006.

But merely alleging a parallel and parallel action are two different things, as the Liberals have now realized. Taking the lead from their purported southern siblings, the Democratic Party, the Liberals will present a motion to require the government to serve NATO allies with Canadian plans for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The political value of which rests on two foundations:

  • The average Canadian likely has trouble distinguishing between the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (and some who can would not separate the two) . As a result, outrage over the situation in Iraq bleeds effortlessly over into Canadians’ impressions of the Afghan mission, particularly considering the dominant amount of airtime the former receives. Every report of Canadian casualties is measured in the context of the conflict they’re not engaged in. Small wonder that, absent any convincing explanation of Canadians’ purpose there (humanitarianism being no less vague than security), the public is closely split on whether the sacrifices are worthwhile.

    In that context, a motion to get out of Afghanistan is pretty much like a motion to get out of Iraq, and the Liberals hope to capitalize on that sentiment. The difference between this motion and earlier efforts is simple: this isn’t about saying no to being there, it’s about ending being there. The latter doesn’t look as negative, and isn’t an instance of saying “no” to foreign allies or badmouthing the mission the Liberals previously approved. Hence, no charges of hypocrisy.

  • Just as importantly, the motion is reminiscent of the Democrats’ bill down south. Not only does that give it the anti-Bush sheen the Liberals have loved to portray, it also rides on the coattails of coverage of that bill. Free publicity is free publicity, and there’s no reason to turn it down.

Just how the government will respond to the motion isn’t quite clear as yet. There’s every chance the motion will be backed by the other parties in the House, so defeating it isn’t likely to be a real option.

But, these more obvious points aside, it’s welcome to see that the Liberals are at last finding common ground with Canada’s largest economic partner and nearest ally.

History History History History. . .0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, A House Divided (Tuesday April 17, 2007 at 8:08 pm)

Stephane Dion, the Liberal Party of Canada’s leader, had an excellent opening this week. In response to a suggestion by new Quebec Opposition Leader, Mario Dumont, that negotiations on the constitution are in the offing (of the Atlantic, presumably), Dion put down a foot unused to treading on firm ground. He attacked the Prime Minister’s failure to clearly articulate his own constitutional position:

The thing [Mr. Harper] needs to do to prevent a problem is to speak out and say very clearly which powers, which responsibilities, he wants to transfer from the federal government to the provincial government,” said Mr. Dion in an interview Sunday. “If he continues to be vague and confused, I think it’s not good at all for the country. He owes that to Canadians.

And voiced an opinion strange to Canadians reared on an obsession with constitutional transformation as panacea:

. . .none of these issues that are facing us, including social justice … request a constitutional change to deal with. . .

All of which is good. Very good. Most of Canada is good and sick of debating constitutional issues, which strike them, rightly or wrongly, more as conflict over Quebec’s position in the constitutional order than any necessary transformation of a federal system which doesn’t seem to be falling apart just yet. Where there’s no smoke, there’s no fire, and Dion’s pointing that out both resonates with many Canadians (especially the Maritimers and Ontarians on which the Liberals rely) and gives him a firm, strong, and intelligible stance so sorely lacking in his recent work.

But then this comes along. He’s only just demonstrated an understanding — not of the constitution, as some have suggested — of the population’s attitude towards the constitution: “We like it, now shut up and govern.” How to follow that up? By trying to cast himself as a constitutional defender:

He noted, too, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other cabinet ministers have been conspicuously absent from charter commemoration events.

“I think every Canadian prime minister ought to make a point of publicly celebrating the charter,” he said.

One step forward, one back. What Canadians want, and let’s be clear about this, is not politicians outdoing themselves with displays of symbolic love. Neither is it blustering claims to establish their credentials as constitutional defenders. Paul Martin tried both, giddily claiming that Stephen Harper didn’t love Canada, and then proving his constitutional cred by offering up a clause of it on the altar of its own protection. Neither worked out very well for him.

To show so immediately keen a grasp on the right constitutional tack one day and show just the opposite the next is not a positive sign of much. Canadians are not afraid of losing the Constitution — they want politicians to follow it, not prate on about it.

At best, it shows that Dion is intuitively capable of resonating with the public, but incapable of deploying his natural understanding in strategic ways. Hence, a superb response to someone else’s statement, followed by a badly managed statement of his own.

At worst, it shows that what’s come before may come again. And this isn’t the first time that history is repeating itself with M. Dion, either.

Hopes and Dreams1

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, Blue Nose, Warm Heart (Friday April 13, 2007 at 9:35 am)

What Stephane Dion hopes to accomplish by not running a candidate against Green Party Leader Elizabeth May in the next election:

  • Prove his committment to the environment
  • Show that he’s capable of working with others

What Stephane Dion inadvertently says by doing it:

  • The Greens are a better choice than the Liberals if you’re environmentally-minded
  • The Green Party, rather than his own party, tells him what to do

Does no one remember the last time a Liberal leader tried to look multilateral and advertised his party as a second choice? That didn’t work out quite so well.

Nevermind the fact that, in addition to his own team’s inevitable pratfalls during the coming campaign. Dion can now also be hounded for every Green Party gaffe, like Vancouver-Kingsway hopeful, Kevin Potvin, a 9/11 conspiracy theory supporter who declared the World Trade Centre’s descruction fist-pumpingly beautiful in 2002. The National Post has the jump on this by juxtaposing the two stories in today’s ‘News’ section. Naturally, M. Dion won’t be receiving credit for the Greens’ insights.

Of course, the Greens may reciprocate by not running a candidate in Dion’s riding of Saint-Laurent-Cartierville, which may be the second-safest Liberal seat in the country. In 2006, Dion won his seat with more than 50% of the total votes cast and an 18,000-vote margin over his nearest rival. Not having to face the Greens will have about as much electoral impact as sailing an unmarked paper boat down the St. Lawrence, but without any comparable aesthetic merits.

Considering all of which, one question remains:

Is the outside chance of embarrassing Peter MacKay worth any of those downsides?

A Long Time is Four Months in Politics0

Posted by JJ in Hats Off, Gentlemen (Thursday April 12, 2007 at 10:23 am)

Opportunista par excellence Belinda Stronach has announced her departure from politics. Last Christmas (the Frosty Wonk’s heart’s just dripping with familial warmth), between the lights and roaring fire of the hearth, her father asked her to take a multi-million dollar executive position with his multi-billion dollar company — for the good of the family.

It took her four months to think “long and hard”, before her dimming prospects at a quick route to the top in politics paled before the bright lights of the quick route back to the top in business.

This may prove to be nothing more than a temporary withdrawal until the time seems right. Only time will tell. After all, Belinda categorically denied her interest in the leadership of the new Conservative Party when she was busy working on its merger, only to run for that post weeks later; and claimed that her last-minute crossing of the floor in 2005 was based purely on longstanding differences with her party, notwithstanding the timing of the event and the front-bench ministerial post she instantly assumed. Why should her decision to be “involved in a different way” be any more certain than these pronouncements?

Apart from unnecessary and scurrilous news stories, Canadians aren’t likely to notice Belinda’s absence from national politics all that much. Magna shareholders, on the other hand, may want to ask one important question:

How suitable for a senior leadership post is someone who takes four months to make a decision?

La Belle Province No More0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Vague Check, Strategic Planning, A House Divided, All Politics (Wednesday April 11, 2007 at 3:41 pm)

Liberal leader Stephane Dion commented yesterday on the recent Quebec election, suggesting that, contrary to many observations, the ADQ’s success in that province poses no threat to the Liberals’ hopes for federal seats.

Per M. Dion:

The votes for (ADQ Leader Mario) Mr. Dumont were in a large part protest votes. . .Mr. Harper [his federal opponent] cannot channel a protest vote because he is the government.”

An argument which could be disputed, to be certain. But that doesn’t undermine Dion’s point. After all, eight of the ten federal seats taken by the Conservatives in Quebec came at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois, not the Liberals. If the Tories continued to snag seats at that stunning pace, the Liberals would lose only one more to them, while possibly gaining a few (Papineau, par example?) back from the BQ.

The ADQ won 37 new seats in Quebec, of which 20 came from the provincial Liberals and 17 from the Parti Quebecois. Those are fairly even numbers, and they mean that, even if the ADQ got some votes from the Liberals as a protest, they could not have achieved their victory without overtaking the PQ — a feat the Liberals had not accomplished in those ridings. If the ADQ poses a worrisome threat, it seems to be more portentous for the separatist parties than for the Liberals.

But if the federal Liberals think they have nothing to fear, they’re wrong. The main reason why they might not recognize the threat is that it didn’t emerge with the recent election, even if the recent election showed some of its symptoms. The real threat is the Liberal Party of Canada’s increasing isolation within Quebec.

Consider this: from 1945 to 1980, in thirteen consecutive elections spanning thirty-five years, the Liberals took fewer than 47 (of 65-75) Quebec seats only twice: once in 1958, when John Diefenbaker swept the country, and again in 1962, when he faced off against an Anglophone Liberal leader, the short-termed Lester Pearson. Over that time, the Liberals took more than 60 seats six times and more than fifty-five nine times. They averaged roughly 53% of the vote in Quebec, hitting a low of 39.2% in 1962 when Pearson first fought Diefenbaker and a high of 68.2% in 1980, when Trudeau returned to champion constitutional repatriation.

Now consider this: from 1984 to 2006, in seven consecutive elections spanning twenty-two years, the Liberals took 36 (of 75) Quebec seats in their best showing — 2000, against Joe Clark (who never did well in Quebec), Preston Manning (who barely spoke French), and Gilles Duceppe (who was scorned for weak campaigning). In four of those campaigns, they failed to win as many as 20 seats, and broke 25 only twice. They averaged roughly 33.5% over that span, hitting a high of 44.2% in the 2000 campaign and a low of 20.7% in 2006 (the second post-sponsorship scandal campaign).

Which shows a significant dip in Liberal fortunes between 1980 and 1984. No points to those who can guess why.

But that’s not all — there’s another interesting point to consider: 21 seats in Quebec are in Montreal. In all but two of the thirteen elections before 1984, the Liberals took a majority of the seats outside of Montreal. In no election since has that happened. In 2000, the Liberals’ best showing since 1980, they managed merely 16 of the 54 seats outside of that City. In five of those seven elections, they did no better than six such seats. The Liberal Party has clearly maintained its former grip on the City of Montreal, but it has lost its strength beyond.

What the numbers show is a far more dangerous threat to the Liberals than anything posed by the ADQ. If the 1997 and 2000 election victories had as much to do with the Bloc Quebecois’s poor campaigning as it did the Liberals’ own performance, then their two positive showings had more to do with the lack of a third option than it did with any efforts of their own.

The Liberals’ best seat total in the latter elections — 36 in 2000 — was eleven seats more than their worst performance in the former — 25 in 1958; but it was achieved with virtually the same percentage of the vote (44.2% vs. 45.6%). Their worst share of the vote in the former elections — 39.2% in 1962 — was only 5% behind their 2000 peak, and better than any other performance between 1984 and 2006.

What this suggests is that the Liberals are a different party in Quebec now than they were before 1984. Before 1984, they could count on taking 50% or so of the Quebec vote and built a majority starting from the roughly 50 seats they expected there. Since then, their expectations should be for roughly 35% of the vote and far too few seats to rest easy before hearing the Ontario numbers.

Since 1984, the Liberals have had to rely on Ontario for their bedrock, and with that under serious attack since the disappearance of the Progressive Conservatives in 2004, there are no signs that this is a sustainable long-term strategy. The West of Canada still looks unwelcoming to what overtures Liberals have made; and the Maritimes hold too few seats for even dominance on the scale of 1997 to make a stand there.

Which means that the Liberals are faced with a serious problem in Quebec — they have lost their long-term stronghold without finding an alternative. If they cannot break out of Montreal in the face of what now seems a second viable alternative to the separatists, they will have to find a new and unfamiliar way to build majorities. And that strange future brings a promise of minority status at best and certain weakness for some time to come.

The Quickstep to Triviality0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Golden Tacks (Tuesday April 10, 2007 at 9:36 pm)

Justin Trudeau’s candidacy in the riding of Papineau is enough to catapult the tidings of his wife’s pregnancy into the national news section of the Globe and Mail, rather than the society page listing to which such information is so richly entitled.

Be on the lookout, then, for other upcoming news items:

  • Harper’s Immovable Hair a Toupee: Mother Unapologetic over Male Pattern Baldness Gene
  • Dion Prefers “Nouilles au Fromage” to “Mac ‘n Cheese”
  • Layton to Shave Moustache in Desperate Bid for Attention

Wait a minute. . .who’s to blame for this nonsense again?

Holding Out on Tenure0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks, Chancellor's Footrule (Monday April 9, 2007 at 3:22 pm)

News that an otherwise stellar academic’s lack of published works was behind the denial of his full professorship is bound to raise concern. After all, why should writing be the hallmark of professorship and tenure when Universities have become much more valued for teaching than research? Perhaps because there is a difference between tenure and professorship.

Tenure is designed to protect the academic from dismissal, preserving her freedom to explore, research, and express novel and unaccepted ideas. Why, then, should we be concerned with protecting the academic freedom of those who restrict themselves to training professionals, rather than participating in the academic discourse in which publication is still the most significant tool?

And, of course, why should the Courts be overruling decisions taken by University officers?

Misdirected Strategy0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Thursday April 5, 2007 at 2:57 pm)

The genius of Liberal strategy rolls on.

Jason Cherniak covers a rally in Toronto yesterday for Liberal Leader Stephane Dion. Bragging in particular about the good response to Dion’s speech — at a rally.

So what’s the problem?

Liberals are still trying to attack the budget
That ship has sailed. Polling suggests that the budget was very well received, and it’s unlikely in that case that there are many votes to be swayed. Those who had a negative impression of the budget amounted to no more than 21%, suggesting that only hardcore partisans were angered.

Let’s be clear: the budget was well-targetted at a group that has been long ignored: the middle class family. There isn’t a lot of political advantage to be taken from attacking the budget as the Liberals have been for weeks without moving the polls. What’s worse, the critiques: “overspending” and “GST cut is a worse choice than income tax cut” don’t really fit with the strong prongs of their campaign message: fairness, environmentalism, and “richness”. Stop talking about the budget and focus on important issues.

Liberals are still attacking politics
Remember when Paul Martin attacked Stephen Harper for putting political ambition ahead of the national interest? Canadians don’t. Why not? Because it’s hypocritical and transparent.

Politicians have packaging and headline-grabbing on the brain, and Canadians know it. Trying to demonize your opponents for playing politics insults the public’s intelligence. Liberals are also devoted to short-term flash at the expense of long-term pain: that’s why the Kyoto Protocol was quickly signed but never properly implemented.

Complaining that Harper is more of a politician than you are is childish, whiny and shrill, and the only votes it gets you are ones you already have. Stop it and think of some real reason to complain — the public won’t do that for you.

Liberals are now attacking themselves
Why take aim at the Clean Air Act when your own party has effectively redrafted it in committee? Do you really want to give the Tories more ammo?

But perhaps the most telling volley from this maginot line of press coverage is the following:

Dion brought up farmers and the wheat board to great applause - in Toronto.

Which leads to one dazzlingly stupid conclusion: Liberals think that Toronto is where they need to win votes.

Iran Ahoy!0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Crossroads of Culture (Thursday March 29, 2007 at 2:19 pm)

How fortunate for Iran that just as the United Nations Security Council agreed on a resolution against its nuclear efforts, a group of British sailors wandered into their territorial waters. Possibly. It’s the perfect way to focus global attention on someone else’s alleged aggression.

No one has asserted, thus far, that the trespass was intentional. This leads to only one possible conclusion: someone was misdirected. But whom?

The Sailors?
Possibly. It’s plausible that a group of sailors on a small vessel drifted out of position or got things wrong. The British have released GPS data placing the ship within Iraqi waters.
The Iranians?
Possibly. After all, they did change their story early on:

A map with coordinates that Iran provided on Saturday “turned out to confirm [the sailors] were in Iraqi waters,” and Iraq has supported that position, Style said.

Iran later provided a second set of coordinates on Monday that placed the vessel inside Iranian waters, Style said. Those coordinates placed the ship “over two nautical miles” from the position shown by the HMS Cornwall and confirmed by the merchant vessel the British personnel had boarded when captured.

So clearly, they were misdirected at some point.

But who was really misdirected? Consider: misdirection is one of the key skills in magic.

And where do mages come from? If you said Iran, you’d be right.

Effective Opposition 1010

Posted by JJ in Vague Check (Wednesday March 28, 2007 at 10:00 am)

Once again, the Cold Hard Wonk welcomes its master of debate strategy, the first (and only) man to bare-knuckle box an antelope, and three-time winner of the Marquess of Queensbury’s “Most Pugilistic” award, Rock Samson. Mr. Samson?

Thanks, Wonk. Fightin’ means stickin’ it to ‘em every chance you get. They open their eyes, you poke somethin’ in ‘em. They bend over to pick somethin’ up, you knock ‘em down.

That’s why I love what the Liberals are doin’ with those boxes they found. The Tories left some of their stuff behind in their old offices about a year ago. Now the Liberals are pullin’ it out and shovin’ it in their eyes. That’s just good arguin’. After all, if the Tories really knew what they were doin’, they’d never leave things just lyin’ around in their offices.

I’ve gotta tell you, Wonk: I’m lookin’ forward to their next move. Probably some DNA tests on gum they found stuck to the Minister of the Environment’s old chair. Now that’s effective opposition.

Tales of the Quebec Election0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, A House Divided (Tuesday March 27, 2007 at 10:05 am)

The most telling moment of the 2007 Quebec election?

Not the mindless eagerness of the CBC in predicting Jean Charest’s defeat with 75% of the vote counted and his opponent holding a lead amounting to no more than 2.3% of what would be the final vote count.

Not the fact that it was a former high-up in the Quebec Liberal Party who founded the ADQ.

Certainly not that the PQ’s quest for sovereignty isn’t enough of an issue to carry the province.

It was the moment, during Mario Dumont’s speech at ADQ headquarters, where a crowd closeup showed a beaming, clapping woman. On her hat? A blue-on-blue “Harper 2007″ button.

Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, The Other America, Trillium (Monday March 26, 2007 at 11:45 am)

Warmed by recent polls which hint at a positive response to last week’s budget, Prime Minister Harper has taken the unusual step of broadcasting his next strategic move: a swing through Latin America and the Caribbean.

Canada has a longstanding and powerful connection with the Caribbean, largely as the dominant hemispheric member of the British Empire and Commonwealth. The Caribbean presence in Canada remains strong. Roughly 600,000 immigrants have come from the region since 1961, a significant portion of whom have settled in and around Toronto. The City of Toronto proper was home to nearly 170,000 new immigrants from the Caribbean as recently as 1996, and the city’s annual Caribana festival is the largest in North America.

Canada’s foreign relations record will certainly be bolstered by the trip, as has been duly noted:

“There are opportunities for people to engage,” said Mr. Dade, who has worked for the U.S. government and the World Bank in the region.

“People want to see alternatives, and we’ve got a strong alternative to the States. Now is a time more than ever where that’s popular and of interest to people.”

But the real force of the trip will be the local direction; and that’s why it’s so important.

Throughout the region, Harper will encounter governments who are eager for a good relationship with Canada and who share his vision of government. Caribbean society tends to be more socially conservative and religious than Canadian, but just as devoted to public programmes for health care and education. This combination means a warm response from political and ideological allies throughout the region, boosting the Prime Minister’s international reputation while contrasting him favorably with Bush’s protested tour of Latin America.

The importance of an improved diplomatic image for a government which dissappointed many with its previous international efforts should not be understated. But foreign trips aren’t enough to sway the public. At best, buffing the government’s diplomatic credentials is a defensive action — fortifying it against criticism on that front. Its positive purpose lies elsewhere.

That elsewhere is Toronto. The population of 170,000 Caribbean expatriates in Toronto in 1996 constituted 5% of the population, while most estimates put the proportionate population in Toronto at over 8%. Historically, Caribbeans have voted together with most other immigrant communities — for the Liberals; and the magnitude of immigrant populations in the Toronto area has as much to do with the Liberals’ successes there as it does with their selection of candidates who represent local ethnic communities. But the weakening of the diplomatic connection with the region is evident in the stalled state of trade negotiations, even as the Caribbean strengthens its integrated community and regional role with overtures to Haiti and Cuba.

A shower of attention on the region will be welcomed by Canadians of Caribbean descent. If that group can be swayed to their side, the Tories will have successfully attacked a significant bastion of Liberal support. A mere shift from, say, a 30%-50% split of such support with the Liberals (NDP etc. gets the rest) to a 40%-40% split could constitute movement of 1.5-2% of votes in the Toronto area — taking a big bite out of the Liberals’ lead for a minor investment of time and nearly no investment of budget spending. That’s an sound strategic move against a City which represents the last major Liberal fortress of support.

Which leaves only one question: why pre-announce?

For some, it might be the surest sign yet of the government’s willingness to go to an election. Consider: if an election is called before the trip, there’s no electoral payoff unless the public already knows about it. By announcing it well in advance (beginning of spring for a summer trip), the Tories secure at least some of the trip’s benefits even if it is pre-empted.

Of course, this advance notice also gives the Liberals plenty of opportunities to shore up their support in the community. With the exit of their only Caribbean-born politician in Ontario (Jean Augustine), they will have to depend on local workers and the unpredictable Hedy Fry, a Vancouverite. But given recent Liberal tactics, the Conservatives may be skeptical of Liberal strength. That would make this an excellent time for the Liberals to move to secure a strategic constituency. Failing to do so may only lead to openings on more fronts.

And absent that, Harper’s move to warmer climates will succeed, and the Tories will hot up their chances in Ontario’s seat-rich capital.

If You’re Like Us, We’re Against You0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Vague Check (Thursday March 22, 2007 at 2:16 pm)

Some folks who hunger for the good old days of Parliamentary debate remember what it is supposed to be: debate. After years of poorly-scripted and single-minded nonsense from Reform, and bland denials from government, they yearn for the days of that legendary exchange:

Member: In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, if he believes what he just said, the Minister must have half a brain.

Speaker: I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to retract that statement, honourable member.

Member: I apologise, Mr. Speaker. The Minister doesn’t have half a brain.

One of the chief characteristics of debate, such as that of Question Period, is the ability to craft a clever, biting, and witty retort to an opponent’s statements. Throw yesterday’s exchange between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition into that category:

Hon. Stéphane Dion (Leader of the Opposition, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister has to see that his minister was negligent and incompetent with respect to a very serious issue for a country like Canada: the protection of the human lives we are responsible for.
The Prime Minister cannot keep his Minister of National Defence, not unless the Prime Minister is telling us that it is not important for Canada to protect the human lives we are responsible for.

Right Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the Minister of National Defence has provided a clear explanation to the House of Commons. As the member knows, this government was at the time operating under an agreement signed by the previous government. We have since entered into a new arrangement with the Independent Afghan Human Rights Commission.

I can understand the passion that the Leader of the Opposition and members of his party feel for Taliban prisoners. I just wish occasionally they would show the same passion for Canadian soldiers.

It’s that last part that has Liberals up in arms. How dare the Prime Minister score points by taking a well-crafted shot at the opposition! That’s not what debate is about!

But the opposition claims that it’s wrong to say something unpleasant about them for political gain. That’s why they’ve taken the opportunity to respond in kind:

“It’s indecent,” Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe said.

“That’s the same logic as Bush: `You’re with me or against me. If you’re against me, you’re with the enemy. If you’re with the enemy, you support the Taliban’. . .

“But what makes democracy great is that you treat your enemy like a human being – which is something dictatorships do not do.”

Why is it okay to suggest that the Prime Minister is a dictator? Because it’s being done OUTSIDE of debate. And there’s ample precedent for that. Consider the number of times the Liberals have done it to the Conservatives:

  • During the 2004 campaign.
  • At the outset of the 2004 campaign, trading barbs with the Conservatives.
  • In Winnipeg during the 2006 campaign.
  • With a series of ads which:
    • Attack Harper’s comments to an American think-tank in Montreal when he called the U.S. a light and inspiration to Canadians and the world;
    • Claim Harper will either have to raise taxes or run a deficit to pay for his campaign promises;
    • Claim Harper and Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe have a close relationship that will not benefit national unity;
    • Claim that Harper once said Liberal ridings in the west of Canada are either dominated by recent Asian immigrants or recent migrants from eastern Canada;
    • Report comments Harper made to an American audience, advising them not to feel bad for Canada’s unemployed, who receive “generous social assistance and unemployment assistance,” and that Canada is content to become a second-tier social country;
    • Quote a U.S. newspaper editorial that described Harper as the most pro-U.S. leader in the western world.
  • During the 2006 debate, suggesting that Harper was allied with the United States, while simultaneously claiming not to be doing that very thing.
  • Claiming, in the dying days of the 2006 campaign, that Harper had a secret plan to stack the Supreme Court with dangerously conservative judges.

Which would suggest that casting your opponents in an unfavorable light, truthfully or not, is an acceptable part of politics. Doing so in Parliament requires more finesse, which is exactly what Harper’s response above contained.

Meaning? Those crying foul are hypocritical and stupid.

Why stupid? Because there aren’t any political points in crying to the public over fouls in Parliament when the public no longer considers Parliamentary debate to be pure or austere.

Which shows a common but spectacular combination of incompetencies: poor debating skills, and poor political acumen.

Confusion in the Ranks0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks (Wednesday March 21, 2007 at 1:49 pm)

With all the fuss and hubbub of dealing with a government budget, it’s easy to understand that Liberal leader Stephane Dion might be a bit flustered. So his muddled explanation of confidence motions as a reason for kicking Joe Comuzzi out of the Liberal caucus is somewhat understandable:

The consequence is that he is not any more part of our caucus because a vote on the budget, like a vote on the Throne Speech, is vote of confidence. You cannot vote against the caucus on it.

But Canadians shouldn’t be misled by M. Dion’s obvious confusion. Voting against caucus on a confidence motion is an issue for the party in power, not the opposition, because it is the party in power that risks its own failure. Voting against the party line in opposition is only a certain sin if the leader decides that it is.

The real sin of Mr. Comuzzi is that any dissent in Liberal ranks will make the Liberals’ own reservations about the budget less persuasive. And given that every criticism raised thus far by the Liberals is based on comparisons to spending which they promised in future years but weren’t around to ever implement, the party hasn’t yet hit on a simple and persuasive message to counter what little the budget contains.

After all, when your best line on the budget is:

The net personal tax relief is a modest $80 per tax-payer.

backed up by the bald:

. . .the Conservatives simply don’t understand the pressures facing low- and middle-income families.

you’re not so much fanning the flames of discontent as you are rubbing twigs together. And if members of your own caucus are hot-headed enough to break ranks over the issue, you’re confused if you think that you’re the one on fire.

Federal Budget, Part One0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Brass Tacks (Tuesday March 20, 2007 at 8:13 pm)

There are a few things in the recently-released 2007 Canadian federal budget which point at policy rather than at programs. Now it’s easy to give them the once-over, with patent pending double-entry budget analysis!

Middle Class Incentives

The budget has a horde of provisions aimed squarely at the middle class, calibrated for greater effect at its lower end. These include:

  • Child Tax Credit of $2,000 ($310 tax reduction per child)
  • Increased Spousal Amount ($209 tax reduction where a single spouse supports the household)
  • Broadening the scope of the transit fare tax credit
  • Increasing the 48 hour duty-free exemption to $400 from $200
  • A new rebate program to encourage the purchase of lower-emission vehicles

So how does all this stack up?

Political Value
Very high

Middle-class Canadians have seen their costs of living increase significantly, while most attention usually goes to lower-class income earners and the unemployed. The middle class usually feels ignored, whether justifiably or not, but constitutes the single largest group of certain voters. These offerings benefit them (and especially lower middle class taxpayers) more than other groups for a few reasons:

  • They’re well-off enough to buy cars, but rarely to spend much on them — a rebate for cars they were more likely to buy (cheaper, smaller models) is a big plus.
  • Those who don’t take cars likely still commute to work — adding kinds of fare passes to the existing rebate scheme is a plus
  • Families with one supporting partner are disadvantaged because the same amount of money, earned by a single taxpayer, is more heavily taxed than that amount split between two taxpayers. By increasing the spousal allowance, that problem is eased.
Investment Value

You could invent an elaborate theory about how the only way to improve economic performance is by increasing consumption and explain why a happy, spendthrift middle class is the most efficient way to accomplish that; but there are probably better ways to get the middle class to increase spending — further GST reductions, for instance. Besides which, increased exemptions for personal imports don’t really help the domestic economy.

You could also talk about how downtrodden the middle class is, but in all fairness, there are others more downtrodden than them.

In the end, if the program’s greatest impact is to ease the tightness in lower-middle-class budgets, it’s not clear exactly how the amounts in question can be expected to really benefit the economy long term. The best use for the money for the average beneficiary would be to offset existing personal debt.

Business Incentives

A number of entries are aimed at improving business prospects:

  • $500 Million, to be accessed through provincial programs, for employers to train workers.
  • A new office, plus increasing spending on public-private partnerships.
  • Simplifying tax and other paperwork for small businesses.
  • Increasing the lifetime capital gains tax exemption for small business owners.
  • $270 Million for Centres of Excellence in Commercialization and Research
  • Targeting $11 Million of new research council money for management, business, and finance research.
  • $50 Million plus over several years to sponsor new private-sector-oriented research at universities.
  • $80 Million to improve Temporary Worker programs and other immigration-related initiatives to provide workers in booming industries.
  • Accelerating tax write-offs on capital investments by manufacturers.
Political Value

Most folks driven ideologically by dreams of public-private interaction are already in the Conservative camp. There’s little to be gained from appealing to them, unless you figure that the rest of the budget is likely to turn them off.

Apart from small business owners (which really hearkens back to the category of middle-class Canadians), there aren’t many incentives here for parties as yet to be won over. It’s mostly a sop to industry, and not much of one at that.

Investment Value

We’re talking, mostly, about saving businesses much of the expense of conducting their own research. That constitutes an investment in advancing the products and services of Canadian businesses; and providing them with a cheap source of labour, temporary and more permanent, is an extra boost to that. But it’s not much of one; and getting business to rely on that kind of help may not be as good for the long term as it is for the short-term balance sheet.

Allowing manufacturers to write off their investments more quickly may make Canadian manufacturing somewhat more competitive; but can it really make it competitive with the real sources of manufacturing competition: China, India, and our trading partner Mexico? Seems unlikely.

Debt = Taxes

The new budget contains at least one policy objective which isn’t so much a spending item as a pledge: that any reduced servicing costs derived from paying down the national debt will be converted directly into personal tax relief.

Political Value

Voters are justifiably jaded about pledges for theories of allocating spending. If promises on tax relief can’t be believed, who can get excited about promises of where the money comes from for the tax relief?

Investment Value
Very Low

The debt wasn’t accumulated because of increases in taxation. What’s the logic in connecting decreases in debt to decreases in taxation? The mere fact that the country is in severe need of investment in infrastructure suggests that the better use for such savings would be to direct them at that. After all, investment in infrastructure really is investment; and the debt was racked up while buildling the infrastructure in the first place.

If the tax relief provided is along the lines of that witnessed in this budget, then there’s not much reason to prefer it to useful spending on roads, water systems, and other infrastructure as quickly as possible. More to the point, compared to infrastructure spending, money aimed at tax relief just isn’t a very important investment.

And there you have the overview. Yes, there are other programs and spending items in the budget. Some are about infrastructure, some are about the oil sands in Alberta; and most of them get enough press already. But these elements are the real indicators of the government’s political direction; and comparing their political virtues to their investment value, only one conclusion can be drawn:

That’s for tomorrow, in Federal Budget, Part Two.

Double-Entry Budgets0

Posted by JJ in Brass Tacks (Monday March 19, 2007 at 5:41 pm)

As Double-Entry Bookkeeping is to accounting, so double-entry budgeting is to politics. Double-entry budgeting isn’t about accuracy, though. It’s about efficacy.

State spending can be measured in two ways: by its political value and by its investment value. Political value is the degree to which a spending item improves the government’s chances for re-election. Spending that pleases more people than it alienates is more valuable than spending that does the reverse. Investment value is the degree to which a spending item improves the public interest which it targets. Spending that solves an underlying problem is of greater value than spending that merely compensates for problems.

Take, for example, a program to cope with rampant escalation in food prices. A program which subsidized food purchases with public money might prove to be of great political value, but since it does nothing to solve the real problem, it is of little investment value.

The best spending, then, is that which hits highest in both columns. That’s why, in this week of budgets, the Frosty Wonk will provide a rundown of the Canadian federal and Ontario provincial budgets, using the patent, if not patented, double-entry system.

Tomorrow: Federal Budget, Part One


Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk (Thursday March 15, 2007 at 9:52 pm)

Some may have wondered at the United Nations’ recent declaration that Canada’s use of the term “visible minority” to track population change is a problematic form of discrimination.

Others may have wondered at the United Nation’s new Human Rights Council’s inability to do anything on human rights abuses.

But together, it becomes clear. The UN works well as a soundstage for serious events of international significance. When it comes, on the other hand, to its own initiatives, it is spastic, irrelevant, illogical, and irretrievably compromised by the partisan interest of its members.

Two Peas in a Pod0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk (Wednesday March 14, 2007 at 9:54 am)

As Stephen Harper and Stephane Dion engage on the broad plains of the centre, the Tories’ occupation of environmentalism and the Liberals’ occupation of law-and-order may cause some to wonder: what’s the difference between the two?

Why, that’s simple!

As Dion points out, the Tories are on a massive spending spree, in the face of a possible election.

And as we all recall, in the face of a possible election in 2005, the Liberals went on a spending spree.

But if that still doesn’t help you, don’t forget: the Liberal leader’s name ends in “ane”, while the Conservative leader’s name ends in “en”.

Isn’t that what really matters?

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