Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Parlianauts0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Doubletake/Doubletalk, Vague Check (Wednesday November 30, 2005 at 10:21 am)

The Liberals have announced that Marc Garneau, a former astronaut, will be their flag-bearer in the Quebec riding of Vaudreuil-Soulanges, presently held by Bloc Quebecois MP Meili Faille.

As to whether Garneau will overcome the 3,000 vote gap between the Liberal and BQ votes in the last campaign, it’s unclear. Mme. Faille’s performance in the last campaign was only slightly lower than the Bloc’s performance overall, and her Liberal opponent’s was similarly higher than his party’s province-wide average. This time around, the discrepancy overall is far higher. If the last candidate was good enough to cause some movement between the parties, will M. Garneau be popular enough on the basis of his astronautical experience to overcome a far greater discrepancy? That’s not too certain.

But the most interesting comment came from M. Martin:

Prime Minister Paul Martin jokes that Mr. Garneau will find there are similarities between outer space and Parliament.

Indeed. Sending people to either costs a great deal and neither gives us our money’s worth.

Opening Shots0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning (Wednesday November 30, 2005 at 9:24 am)

The two main party leaders in the Canadian election have already begun to indicate the framework of their campaigns.

The Liberals are looking forward to the two points which most buoyed their performance in the last campaign: their record of management and attacks on Steven Harper to scare moderate voters away from his campaign.

The Conservatives haven’t tipped a strong hand yet, but so far, Harper has declared that he will have Parliament reconsider same-sex marriages, and led his own attacks on the Liberal Party.

In a broad sweep, nothing unexpected.

More closely considered, there are threats to each of these approaches.

The Liberals are trying to run on their record while polling suggests that a strong majority of Canadians want a change in government. This is why their strategy must focus on making the Conservatives as frightening an option as possible. If the moderate, volatile voters whom the Liberals must target to gain traction and hold their ground (let alone gain seats) want change, then the record won’t matter to them. The only hope is therefore to frighten voters away from the Conservatives.

The danger with this approach is twofold. First, while effective when the Liberals kicked this strategy in near the end of the last campaign (in response to dismal polling in the first few weeks), it is unlikely that a prolonged negative campaign can be as successful; and the Liberals can’t allow the Tories to make hay unanswered. If the Tories are campaigning, the Liberals are forced to do the same or risk losing valuable face time with voters. A strictly negative campaign will wear thin over the course of 50 days.

Second, the threat of the Conservatives may not lead to the result Martin wants. A resurgent NDP, especially in BC and the Maritimes, is starting to show up in the polls. If the NDP are competitive, a negative Liberal campaign runs the risk of driving leftist Liberal voters to their side, in addition to the small number that would be deflected to the NDP from the Conservatives. Some might think that NDP wins are to the Liberals’ advantage; but that’s only true if the wins come at the expense of the Tories. Movement from the Liberals to the NDP will reduce Liberal seat totals, and it’s the party with the highest seat total that will get first crack at the Prime Minister’s office. Coalitions need not apply.

Harper’s strategy may, at first, seem to be playing into Liberal hands. Why raise the spectre of reversal on same-sex marriages? Largely for the same reason. Canadians are tired of hearing about the sponsorship scandal, preventing the Tories from building a secure foundation on cries of “Liberal corruption!” He needs to get a message out to connect with voters.

But doesn’t this alienate Canadians and play into Liberal scare tactics? That’s the tactical choice. Harper wants to take more seats from the Liberals in Ontario. 32 Liberal MPs voted against the government’s same-sex bill. More than their personal stances, those numbers had a great deal to do with the nature of Liberal support in many Ontario ridings outside the GTA. By making his position clear early on and in a conservative Ontario constituency, Harper hopes to gain traction with those Tory-leaning voters who supported Liberal candidates and oppose “socially-progressive” policies.

Just as important, however, is the fact that he’s bringing his position on the controversial issue into the open. Much of the Liberal campaigning will focus on unknowns — the threat of an uncertain evil is more frightening than most specific threats. By taking a position on the issues which he expects the Liberals to use as the basis of their campaign, Harper is hoping to control the debate by keeping his image in his own hands. He will characterize his position on controversial issues, and not his opponents.

But of course, that way lies danger. If too many potential voters are alienated by his position, he’ll put the Liberals out of a job — making him look bad — but not the one he’s after. This could be especially dangerous to him in BC if it causes voters to abandon the NDP to prop up a Liberal government. Remember, BC will know the returns from the east before polls close locally. That adds a new dimension to the campaign — one that could backfire for the Tories. If they must lose seats in the West, it needs to be to the New Democrats.

Which is why, it seems, he’s making the statement now. Let anything that could proudce a negative impact come upfront and give it time, hopefully, to fade in significance over the course of the campaign. As Machiavelli would put it, do the harm up front and men will soon forget it. If it works, it’s strategically brilliant.

Its so early. How’d there get to be so much to think about already?

A Crime Under Any Elizabeth0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Doubletake/Doubletalk (Tuesday November 29, 2005 at 5:46 pm)

Having sat through a few high-school English classes, I remember this much: ambition was a serious problem in Elizabethan England. Enough so that it is offered as a justification for the murder of Caesar, and the force for the treacheries of Claudius and MacBeth.

And now, it seems, Canadians have their own little drama. A national election (oh, perfidious treachery), brought about most foully. I therefore offer you a selection from “The Weary Wonk of Windsor”:

Wherefore these honeyed words, purchased so dear
Wrought but of wind and air, that pray for ear?
Why pleads the Captain at the seaman’s door
For right to render him his servant more?
‘Tis Steven Harper, saith Martin’s son
And his ambition which hath brought this on.
Now, Martin says that Harper is ambitious.
It is a grievous fault, if it be so.
I speak not to disprove what Martin spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.

When Chretien left Paul Martin in the House,
With many alllies more than those opposed,
Why sought Paul Martin succour from the vote
Two years before the need for it arose?
Was not this early plea the cause of strife
Which has since sapped the House of Commons’ Life;
And so, the cause of Paul’s minority
And of its fall (through meanest treachery)?
But Martin says that Harper is ambitious,
And Martin is an honorable man.

As nationwide, the Gritty runners spread
To paint the many ridings with their red,
Were not the placards of the Liberals faced
With Martin’s smiling visage and his name?
Sought he a prize for others in that race
Or other victors in th’elect’ral game?
Whose power was he seeking to augment
Or to whose will willed he the public’s bent?
But Martin says that Harper is ambitious,
And Martin is an honorable man.

Chretien withdrew from leadership, they say,
When party stalwarts undercut his stay.
How could he shepherd janus-faced flocks
Who played the ally whilst they plied the knife,
But for that Martin thickly laid his plots
To gain the object of his father’s life –
The Premiership? For which he wrought
Grave wounds on that whose leadership he sought.
But Martin says that Harper is ambitious,
And, sure, he is an honorable man.

Then, Harper, too, is honorable now.
So are they all now, honorable men.
I speak not to disprove what Martin spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
O, Canada, when were you wont to trust?
What cause have you such honour to bestow
And leave such men as these to hold your faith?
O judgement! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason…. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with thought,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

My deepest thanks and sincerest apologies to William Shakespeare

And they’re off — Way off0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Doubletake/Doubletalk (Tuesday November 29, 2005 at 12:57 am)

They’re off to the hustings, with a vote of non-confidence. But you must be wondering: what kind of difference will it make?

Probably none, if this report is to be believed. Canadians just aren’t convinced that this election will shake things up.

But what’s really interesting is this section:

Almost two-thirds of those asked said when it comes to honesty and integrity, all parties are pretty much the same. Yet 94 per cent said honesty and integrity in government are either somewhat or very important in determining how they plan to vote.

Donna Dasko, senior vice-president of Environics Research, says what strikes her about the poll is that no one party rises above the fray when it comes to honesty.

Funny that. What strikes me is how at least 60% of Canadians believe that their options cannot be distinguished on a basis which they claim is a major part of their choice.

Could this mean:

  • Canadians can’t focus long enough to know what they’re saying to pollsters?
  • Canadians are lying when they say that they see no difference in the parties’ honesty and integrity?
  • Canadians are lying when they say that honesty and integrity are important to their decisions?
  • Canadians will respond to polls so as to appear thoughtful and critical (holding honesty and integrity important and believing that political parties are all the same) without thinking critically about what their answers mean?

If so, would this explain why Canadians end up with politicians who:

  • Don’t answer questions properly?
  • Misrepresent options and policies?
  • Lie about their choices?
  • Worry more about looking thoughtful than thinking?

This is simple: we get what we demand, and it’s not worth a politician’s time rise to low expectations.

It’s election time, everyone. It’s time to demand more.

Stars in their Ayes0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Monday November 28, 2005 at 3:58 pm)

Preaching to the choir isn’t just a waste of time. Apparently, it’s a sound political strategy. After all, why bother increasing your appeal if. . .it’s harder than doing nothing. The only danger, of course, is that they might start to resent it.

And so they do. Local Liberals in Etobicoke-Lakeshore are upset that Michael Ignatieff, Harvard professor, author, and proponent of 80’s cartoons, is going to be annointed as the riding’s candidate, despite the fact that several competitors have already been campaigning for the post.

It’s not the first time there’s been some controversy over internal practices at the Liberal Party of Canada. During the last leadership battle (which began, of course, long before the announcement of Chretien’s resignation), there was a furor over limits placed on the number of membership forms that could be requested at a time. Shady internal practices are nothing new.

Why does this matter?

Because we’re talking about a star candidate here. Doesn’t that make a difference?

A star candidate like Professor Ignatieff has one main quality on offer: recognition. People are more likely to vote for someone they’ve heard of or are familiar with than someone they don’t know at all (unless, of course, they don’t like him). So there’s one of two possibilities:

  • A star candidate brings added lustre to the party
  • or

  • A star candidate’s name means an easier victory in the riding

Or maybe both.

The Liberals had a few star candidates last time around, including Ken Dryden and Jean Lapierre. Unlike Scott Brison, whose presence on the Liberal ticket was an obvious strike at the Conservative party he’d left, the others didn’t have seats in which to run.

Where were they placed?

Ken Dryden was given former Toronto Mayor Art Aggleton’s riding of York Centre, a seat which was Liberal all but twice since its creation in 1952, and which granted Eggleton 72% of the vote in 2004. Lapierre, a former radio host, was run in Outremont, which has been Liberal all but once since 1933.

Etobicoke Lakeshore has been Liberal all but three times since 1968, and has elected Liberals consistently and soundly since 1993. The real question is whether having a star candidate to run in the riding actually improves things.

If you’re able to recruit candidates with popular appeal, shouldn’t they be placed in ridings where that appeal will make a difference? What point is there in putting a strong candidate in a riding which you’re confident of winning? Shouldn’t those ridings be saved for the weaker, but necessary candidates? Barring that, doesn’t a strong riding association, responsible for bringing money into the party, deserve a certain amount of independence?

But the real question is this:

If star candidates are so very attracted to the party and its principles, why do they insist on running in ridings that are safe?

Halfway done is ill-begun0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks, Red Earth, Red Hair (Monday November 28, 2005 at 12:00 am)

Why isn’t there more press on this:

PROVINCE TO CONDUCT A PLEBISCITE VOTE ON THE MIXED MEMBER PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION FOR PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND

Right now, the only thing I’ve found on the last weekday before the big event is the National Post’s page 2 reference to the support of a former colleague of Kurt Cobain’s.

Is Prince Edward Island not worth the attention? We’re talking about a major change here, potentially. Local experimentation has a history of providing Canada with new ideas (public health care, for instance). Diversity of ideas is one of the strengths of a federal system.

So let’s pay attention for a minute or two.

The voting system currently in place in Canada is a “First-Past-the-Post” system. It has been used for over three hundred years as part of the Westminister system of Parliamentary Government.

The First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system was designed for the purpose of electing local representatives. The convention that the Prime Minister be the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons had not yet been established. Prime Ministers were chosen by the Crown, which was still head of government. As Parliament’s deference to the Crown shrank, and as it asserted tighter control over taxation and funds, it became more important to choose a Prime Minister (or someone recognizable as such) who could persuade Parliament to pass legislation.

There were already parties in Parliament, but they were not entrenched in the system as they are now. Parliamentary positions like House Leader and Whip were far from official, and although the effects were similar in many cases, factions had no electoral rights like those enjoyed today. Prime Ministers were frequently chosen from among the Lords, rather than the Commons.

FPTP was, therefore, a system designed to ensure that each voting district sent the most popular representative to sit in the House of Commons. The most popular candidate would clearly be the one with more votes than anyone else.

But the strengthened role of parties and their firm control of Parliament have changed the system. Parties are more rigid and strictly organized, in contrast to the more loosely ordered factions which they once were. Given the increasingly direct connection between the position of parties in the House of Commons and the selection of government, voters could now indirectly vote for a government by selecting their representatives on the basis of party. If enough voters supported a given party, that party would be certain to control the House of Commons, and their leader would be chosen as Prime Minister.

This change revealed the flexibility of the method of voting for representatives. It could be used either to select one’s choice of a representative or to select one’s preferred party. But as voters tried to use it for the latter purpose, it became evident that FPTP was an inefficient way of voicing their interest.

Since FPTP selects the most popular candidate, the candidate can be elected with a very small proportion of the votes in a district, if there enough other less-popular candidates. In theory, a candidate who receives only 10% of the vote in a district will win if no other candidate receives as many votes. Depending, therefore, on the allocation of districts and votes, it is possible for a majority of representatives to come from a party which is not the most popular across the country. This worst-case result may be rare, but it is still common for a party to achieve a majority which is highly disproportionate to its share of the votes received.

Proportional representation is designed to solve this problem. Rather than voting for a representative, voters vote directly for their preferred parties, and the total number of elected representatives is allocated to the parties based on their share of the vote. Proportional representation (PR) is therefore a system for selecting parties to govern.

This difference is what makes the issue tough. PR doesn’t really solve a problem with FPTP. FPTP was meant to select popular representatives, not to choose governments. The fact that it doesn’t do the latter efficiently is only a problem if the purpose of voting is to choose parties, and that wasn’t what FPTP was meant to achieve. The system can’t be faulted. It’s rather like faulting a bowling ball for being inefficient at digging holes.

There has been a change in what elections are intended to do since the FTPT system was first put into play; and given that, it’s worth taking stock of what we seem to want from modern election systems, and what they provide.

There are good reasons to want representatives. Representatives’ offices do a tremendous amount of work lobbying directly for consituents, mostly to government agencies. Provincial representatives frequently help constituents with welfare applications, and federal representatives are frequently called upon to help constituents deal with difficulties with pensions, passports, and a variety of other concerns.

At the same time, it is clear that, whether or not people support PR as an idea, they don’t like the relative standings of parties in terms of seats to vary greatly from the relative support each party receives at the polls. Moreover, some people are concerned that the votes made for a losing candidate are “wasted” in the sense that they fail to play a role in choosing the government.

FPTP offers a tried-and-true method for electing representatives, but can result in serious discrepancies between support and representation of parties and “wastes” votes.

PR offers a way to have representation of parties closely mirror support (given a lesser number of seats than voters, it’s impossible to mirror it past a certain point), and solves the “wasted vote” problem, but doesn’t provide representatives.

Perhaps this is why P.E.I.’s plebescite offers a system combining the two above:

  • 17 members will be elected by FPTP in defined districts
  • 10 members will be elected by PR in a separate, province-wide ballot
  • The PR method used is called the d’Hondt method

Seems like a sensible mix to start with, but let’s look at how this actually works.

The Commission report offers a vision based on the 1996 election campaign; but there are at least two serious flaws with their approach. First, they presume that the smaller number of FPTP seats will simply be apportioned proportionately between the parties. There is no good reason to believe this. A powerful plurality for a given party can be overcome by local safe ridings and powerful candidates. Most often, these considerations play at least some part in the electoral results.

Following this line of thinking demonstrates the second problem: a dual-vote system. The casting of separate ballots for representatives and for determining the governing party is a new twist. Assuming that the two votes would be identical neglects the effect of particular candidates on the voting pattern, an effect likely to be exaggerated by the ability to separate intentions for representatives from intentions for parties. Voters may no longer fear voting for candidates they prefer at the expense of the party which they prefer. Moreover, strategic voting might begin to take hold, with voters hedging their bets by voting for one party on one ballot and another on the second. How would this affect the outcome?

Let’s look at the effect of this system on the 2003 election results. I prefer thesee results because the returns in the 4 ridings taken by the Liberal party were far enough out-of-line with the overall numbers that we can likely attribute them to the candidates involved, rather than party support. On that basis, it’s more likely that we can reasonably predict the representative, FPTP standings, unless the new seats are strongly gerrymandered.

In that election, 23 Conservatives were elected with 54% of the vote, as compared to 4 Liberals with 42.4% of the vote, and no NDP members with 3% of the vote. How would this work out if we retain the assumption that the separate, PR vote would mirror the representative vote:

  • The Conservatives would take 13 FPTP seats, and the Liberals 4
  • The Liberals would take 7 PR seats, and the Conservatives 3
  • The NDP would take no seats, having failed to achieve at least 5% of the total vote (the number suggested by the Commission)

Improvement? By the measure of determining the government, yes. The Conservatives would end up with 16 of 27 seats, or 60% of the seats, with 54% of the vote. The Liberals would have 40% of the seats, with 42% of the vote.

What happens if we assume a certain amount of contrary voting? Say, 15%, based on 5% response to strong local candidates and 10% strategic vote-hedging, supposing that 4% goes to the third party (to the NDP, shared 3-1 between the Tories and Liberals), 8% to the Liberals from the preferred Tories, and 2% from the Liberals to the Tories (based on local candidates). Therefore, the Tories are down 9%, the Liberals up 7%, and the NDP up 4%. The representative votes would remain the same in this case, but the totals on the PR vote would be as follows:

  • Conservatives: 36,415 votes for 45%
  • Liberals: 39,652 votes for 49%
  • NDP: 4,855 votes for 6%

What’s the result?

  • Representative seats: 13/4/0
  • PR seats: 0/9/1
  • Totals: 13/13/1

Which leaves us with a relatively balanced reflection of the popular vote totals.

Of course, there are a lot of assumptions being made here. We simply don’t know how voters would react to the simultaneous casting of two ballots, one for government and one for representatives, in this way.

More importantly, we really don’t know whether this will result in better government. Remember, we’re solving a problem based on people’s desire to select government. How that will play out will depend. There remain a few concerns:

  • If a party that receives many votes doesn’t govern, are the votes for it “wasted”, regardless of whether it received seats or not? Does this matter?
  • Can parties use the “list” of candidates selected based on the PR vote to keep undesirable but loyal party politicians in office?
  • As the system focuses more sharply on political parties, will representatives be able to remain independent enough to be effective advocates? Will their scope of action become limited as parties gain in strength through a direct appeal for support?

All these questions are important. The frosty wonk’s going to keep them on ice for now, and watch what PEI decides.

No News is good news for some0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Trillium (Friday November 25, 2005 at 10:07 am)

The Ontario Liberal Party has won a by-election in Scarborough-Rouge River, an eastern Toronto riding formerly held by now-Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Alvin Curling.

Former city councillor Bas Balkissoon took nearly 58% of the vote in what has historically been a secure Liberal riding. Federally, it has been held by Liberals since its creation in 1988, and provincially, since 1999. It includes large portions of the former riding of Scarborough North, where Ambassador Curling had set a provincial record for total votes in his 1985 victory.

Notwithstanding the low voter turnout of 18% in this election, it seems clear that the seat remains safe for the Liberals. There’s no reason to believe that their voters were less likely to be affected by yesterday’s snows in Toronto than those of the other parties.

For the provincial Liberals, then, they’ve likely found a suitable replacement for Alvin Curling. But the by-election tells us nothing about the government’s current level of support.

For the federal Liberals, looking towards a January election, there is the fair certainty of this seat remaining in their hands.

No relief from normality0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, The Bullock's Bride (Thursday November 24, 2005 at 1:28 pm)

Anyone remember the riots in France?

According to the French Ambassador to the US, all is back to normal.

But wait, haven’t we heard this before?

Ah yes. “Normal” means up to 99 flaming cars per night.

And to think people are concerned. . .

All the Time in the World, Gentlemen0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks, Once-Sceptered Isle (Thursday November 24, 2005 at 12:21 pm)

Just when you think the glories of Britannia have faded:

Last Call Ends in England and Wales

Oh, Puritans may scoff (as they often do), but then, that’s partly why they left the place — they weren’t cool enough to hang around.

Some will have cause to complain — a reasonable cause I think. Won’t longer hours increase the chances of drunk drivers, alcoholism, and other dangerous side-effects of available liquor? Don’t these problems harm others?

Personally, I’m for liberty in a case like this. Smoking bans make sense because smoking will necessarily injure others (unless we have voluntary seclusion of smokers and offer servers the choice of whether to serve smoking patrons or not). Alcohol doesn’t; and the off-chance that, in combination with other factors, it could, isn’t good enough to establish fairly arbitrary rules against it. Let’s fight those factors, not alcohol. They tried prohibition in the movies, remember, and it didn’t work.

Whatever else may be, I say ‘Cheers’ to our good friends across the way on the spread of freedom in society, however plain or venal it may be. Please join me in raising them a glass in congratulations.

After hours, of course.

Softening on Softwood0

Posted by JJ in The Elephant, Hats Off, Gentlemen (Thursday November 24, 2005 at 11:58 am)

There’s been a lot of movement on the softwood lumber issue of late. As the Icy Wonk reported recently, the issue is getting a fair bit of play.

And at last, good signs for Canadian producers:

United States Says it Will Cut Wood Duties

Just what’s going on?

According to the US Department of Commerce, the countervailing duties on imports of softwood lumber will likely be cut from their current level of 16% to 0.8%.

A few notes to clarify what’s going on:

  • This decision has been in the works for a little while, being the result of an administrative review within the Department of Commerce
  • A committee will review the decision in between 25 and 45 days’ time. Until then there will be no change in the duties levied
  • The change in the level of countervailing duties will not affect the imposition of anti-dumping duties of 4% on the same products

This is a great step forward, so long as it actually goes into effect. The review committee has the authority to change the decision and impose a different rate.

For now, good news for producers.

Watching the Watchmen Who Watch the Watchmen Who. . .0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks (Thursday November 24, 2005 at 12:19 am)

First, there was the incident.

Then, there was the investigation.

Then, there was the trial.

Then, there was the inquiry into whether the investigation should be investigated.

Now, there will be an inquiry into the investigation.

Does anyone else think that this is a few more steps than ought reasonably to be necessary?

Is the appointment of an inquiry going to compensate the victims’ families for what is seen to have been a failure of justice?

If, however, the purpose of the inquiry is to find out what went wrong and provide the victims’ families and all Canadians with the hope of fixing what went wrong, either now or for the future, was it reallly necessary to hold an inquiry into whether such an inquiry was necessary?

If inquiries are to be the essential part of Canadian governance that they seem likely to become, we should probably call them with the courage not to second-guess their necessity.

Cur sic custodiemus ipsos custodies?

If that makes no sense to you, it shouldn’t be the only thing in this post to cause that problem.

Right-Wing Conspiracies0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, A House Divided (Wednesday November 23, 2005 at 11:37 pm)

Keen followers of Canadian politics might recall Alberta Premier Ralph Klein’s last interaction with a federal election. Days before the end of the 2004 campaign, Klein made passing reference to a proposal which “might violate” the terms of the Canada Health Act.

The Prime Minister seized the opportunity and suggested that Klein’s forthcoming reform proposal was part of a secret arrangment with Conservative Leader Steven Harper to ruin the Canadian health care system.

Whether the shift in polls to the Liberals in the days leading up to the election was a result of this event or a longer series of attacks on the Conservatives is uncertain. But Tory supporters weren’t pleased by the possibility that the most senior active Conservative politician in Canada may have torpedoed the party’s chance at federal power.

Is he at it again? In a recent interview, he suggested that the Liberals will return with another minority government, largely due to an expected failure on the part of the Conservatives to make further inroads in Ontario.

Once again, Conservatives are less than pleased. Deputy Leader Peter McKay has recommended “duct tape” to deal with the party’s difficulties, adding that the Premier’s comments were “not helpful.” What is he thinking?

Premier Klein is no fool. He’s campaigned effectively and powerfully long enough to know the effects of his own statements; and he’s not been blinded to the need for careful campaigning by the apparent strength of his own support base.

Prime Minister Martin can’t possibly have a monopoly on conspiracy theories. Let me offer a few of them up.

First, take a look at the broader context of Klein’s comments in 2004. A major part of his government’s appeal has been the contrast of his policies with those of the federal government. Since the National Energy Program, Ottawa-bashing has been a major component of Albertan identity; and the Premier’s ability to portray himself as a fighter against the status quo of government has been a consistent part of his campaigns.

Would Klein’s government be as necessary or urgent if a Conservative government were in power in Ottawa? Especially considering that the government in question would be based principally in Western Canada, and built on the movement launched by Albertan Preston Manning?

Now consider the fact that Premier Klein was about to enter his own election campaign. If the Tories had won, he would have been campaigning during their honeymoon period, while hope still ran high. Under those circumstances, Klein’s supporters would likely have been harder to rally; and his purpose would have been diminished.

Now there’s a conspiracy theory for you.

But if you think Klein doesn’t want the Conservatives in federal office, consider the following theory.

Last federal election, the Conservatives started strongly, and by mid-campaign, were neck-and-neck in the polls with the Liberals. Talk was already beginning of a Conservative government. Forced on the defensive, the Liberals at last resorted to the tactics of past campaigns, alleging that the Tories would attack health care and rights. The Conservatives, forced into one of the more common no-win scenarios of what now passes for debate, were forced to disprove a thing of which there was no evidence to begin with. An assertion is easy to make and hard to disprove. The result was clear as it had been before. Conservative support was eroded or Liberal supporters rushed back to save themselves — either way, the Liberals won.

But the Conservatives have learned their lesson. Don’t look strong. It’s not just advice to keep your own campaign focused. Canadians don’t like strong figures, they like to tear them down (that’s a whole theory on it’s own, but forgive me, I’ll get to it eventually). Most importantly, your opponents ease off when you already look threatened, and your supporters aren’t likely to see the same urgency in supporting a position they believe will win.

Does that sound familiar? It should. It’s the same reason why Klein wouldn’t want a federal government based in Alberta while running his own campaign. It’s not a new idea, just ask Sun Tzu (verse 20), but it’s still a good one. Looking weak might be an excellent tactic at this point.

Ralph Klein is no fool.

Heart and Detail: Politics and Law0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, A House Divided (Tuesday November 22, 2005 at 1:20 pm)

With a new leader heading up the Parti Quebecois, it’s time to return, once again, to Canadians’ favorite activity: self-destruction.

With a strong mandate behind him, PQ Leader Andre Boisclair has declared his objective: to hold a referendum after the next PQ election victory.

Faced with the prospect of a third referendum, Prime Minister Martin has rolled out the federal weapon prepared after the last referendum: the Clarity Act. Boisclair’s denial of the applicability of the Act to a future referendum brought the following comments from Martin:

Specifically, Mr. Boisclair has indicated he would not be bound by the provisions of the Clarity Act which were recognized in a Supreme Court of Canada ruling. Mr. Boisclair’s declaration amounts to a rejection of the rule of law in favour of political expediency,

The problems with that line of reasoning are legion, but can be summed up fairly simply. Quebec passed a law within days of the Clarity Act, denying its validity. Though it was not passed unanimously, a motion denouncing it was proposed by the Quebec Liberals, introduced by Jean Charest, and passed unanimously by the Quebec Legislative Assembly that same year.

So what’s all the ruckus about?

The Clarity Act does three things. First, it sets out terms to describe what kinds of questions on a referendum will or will not be considered to result in an expression of the “will” of the people of a province and allows the House of Commons to debate the question. Second, it bars the federal government from negotiating with the government of a province for that province’s ceasing to be part of Canada. Third, it spends a lot of time on political grandstanding.

Grandstanding aside, there are serious problems with the Act. A bar on the federal government’s negotiating will only last until the federal government passes a bill allowing them to negotiate — an easy thing for a majority or a minority with the likely support of the Bloc Quebecois. Moreover, this bar depends on the definition of “ceasing to be part of Canada.” While the House of Commons can likely bind the government on this point over whether the referendum question relates to ceasing to be part of Canada, it doesn’t have the same authority to determine whether that is the purpose of negotiations, and the prohibition refers only to that point. The decision to negotiate, therefore, is largely a political one, based on the parties’ ability to spin their objectives.

So much for clarity.

As to the determination of whether the question is clear or not, the terms of the Act are clear enough. But there is no reason to believe that such terms would be binding on Quebecers, nor that the presence of such a law would be determinative of their will. In the case of a referendum, the courts could be used to resolve the question of whether the referendum question was clear; but the arguments will be political and fact-based, rather than objective.

True, the Supreme Court of Canada did recognize the principles in the Clarity Act, but that isn’t to say that the Supreme Court decided the Act was binding on Quebec, merely that it stated the principles which would apply to the interpretation of a referendum question.

Moreover, the Court’s decision pointed out that no legal finding would bar Quebec from unilaterally declaring and achieving de facto independence. The effectiveness of such a move, they pointed out, would be determined by the behaviour of the parties as understood by the international community.

Which could offer one explanation as to why the Prime Minister is trying to paint the PQ as lawbreakers. Presumably, this portrayal might influence the international community. But if that’s the resaon, doesn’t it amount to an admission that de facto secession will go ahead? Obviously, that’s not the point.

What is, then? Surely the Prime Minister doesn’t think that a law denounced by his federalist allies in Quebec will sway supporters of sovereignty. Will it sway federalists in Quebec? Will it push them to his side? Surely they are already supporting the federal Liberals as against the Bloc Quebecois; and in a referendum, they don’t need anything to sway federalists.

Are so-called “soft” sovereigntists going to be swayed by the weak claim that they risk breaking the law?

Consider the sovereigntist position. A separate Quebec is not a legal matter for Quebecois, it is a dream with calls to freedom, history, spilled blood, and religion.

Do we really believe that we can offer an alternative in threats of legal niceties and semantic analysis?

Are English Canadians glad to see the Prime Minister attack the PQ and its new leader? Certainly. Perhaps that’s the hope: that Ontarians and Westerners will rally behind the Prime Minister’s attack and rush to support him in the next election. Sadly, encouraging him in this won’t help.

We need to appeal to hearts, not pedants; people, not the law. That’s where the appeal of the PQ lies, and it can’t be easily avoided. That’s a political contest — a battle for the imagination, dreams, and the future. We need to understand the difference between a political battle and a legal one. If all we can produce to counter separatism is the threat of legal action, then Canada truly has nothing to offer; and the battle for its heart is already lost.

Son of Brison0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Vague Check (Monday November 21, 2005 at 11:43 pm)

Several weeks back, Opposition Leader Steven Harper finally did something we might call on an opposition to do: offered an alternative. Harper unveiled a proposed “Accountability Act” to deal with government spending in the wake of the Gomery report.

Several options were open to the governing party in the wake of a move which surely gripped Conservatives but likely left most Canadians unmoved. What was their choice? Attack a generally undistinguished opponent.

The Honourable Scott Brison, Minister of Public Works and Government Services, accused Harper of violating lobbying rules and the National Citizens’ Coalition of violating election rules. Both demanded a retraction.

Today, the Minister revealed that he now understands the allegations to be untrue.

Now the question is this: what was the source of the Minister’s confusion?

  • Did he make such allegations without determining whether they were true?
  • Did he make the allegations based on mistaken information? From whom? Are they still working for the government?
  • Did he determine the allegations were true himself?
  • Was this (gasp!) merely a ploy? A public allegation followed by a quiet retraction?

If the allegations were provided by someone else, then shouldn’t he let us know who that was? If an aide, was he dismissed for exposing his boss to a serious error? Doesn’t it concern Brison that he’s provided with bad information?

Whether it was bad information or carelessly alleged, shouldn’t it concern anyone that Brison is overseeing the same department largely implicated in the sponsorship scandal? One with a broad mandate for expenditures? Is someone who fails to properly investigate serious matters someone we can trust with such responsibility in the wake of Gomery? Or ever?

But I’m overreacting. A ploy is a ploy. The real question is: why do voters continue to reward this kind of transparent and childish play?

The Battle is Mid-way0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, By other means. . . (Monday November 21, 2005 at 2:50 pm)

If you recall, the federal government recently backed out of a sorely-needed equipment purchase.

As of today, a portion of that purchase looks to be back on.

This is great news for the armed forces, as long as it goes forward.

The sad part remains the price question. The entire original $12 Billion acquisition package was for necessary replacement of equipment, not for expansion or new acquisitions. No one has opposed maintaining the size of the military, and the budget surplusses since 1998 have been more than sufficient to finance the status quo, amounting to $62.7 Billion to 2003/2004. The question has been one of priorities.

New programmes and tax cuts are good and fine; but if Canada is serious about maintaining its international commitments, it can’t afford to let its military fall apart. Replacing necessary equipment is a fundamental prerequisite for meeting our international obligations.

The fact that only some equipment can be replaced because Canadians aren’t willing to foot the higher bill is distressing. Things can’t be done properly by half-measures.

The only question is, which Canadians aren’t willing to foot the bill? Those who would pay the tax, or those who would pay the price?

Ruckus from Caracas0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, The Elephant, The Other America (Sunday November 20, 2005 at 2:45 pm)

And the Globe strikes again, giving us the latest:

Chavez Lashes Out at Bush

That’s not news, folks, it’s status quo, like “Elderly attain greater age than the young” or “Man expresses personal opinion”. Are they just trying to remind their occasional readers of the international political situation? Are people paying so little attention that they miss a story with some 40,000 Google hits (1.7 Million if you search for “attacks” rather than “lashes out”).

Is there nothing more to this story? Ah, but there is. The “lashing out” is taking a few forms:

  • The expulsion of a group of Christian missionaries
  • The claim that the US has already made full preparations for an attack against Venezuela
  • The order of 100,000 Kalishnikov rifles
  • A mass call for volunteers for the army reserve

But of course, it really boils down to a criticism of Bush, doesn’t it. I suppose that sells papers to Canadians unconcerned by a third-world populist, flush with oil revenue, whose preferred technique for governing involves terrorizing his own citizens with the prospect of a powerful and hated enemy.

The last round of expulsions involved accusations of colonialism and vague mentions of a plot to overthrow the much beloved, much criticized President, Hugo Chavez. By expelling that group, the government asserted, it was protecting indigenous groups both from cultural imperialism, and from the sight of the overly-luxurious accommodations which the missionaries built for themselves.

President Chavez has held himself out as a campaigner for indigenous rights, and has granted a number of Venezuelan indigenous groups portions of the lands which they believe their ancestors occupied. These grants do not include mineral or oil rights.

Making personal attacks against Bush is merely another political move on Chavez’s part. It’s well-designed to play both nationally and internationally. It may even win him a few points with opponents of Bush in the US. But is it really the meat of the issue?

It’s not clear that Chavez will be bad or good for Venezuela and the world, and less clear by far when we draw attention to the most irrelevant facts in that determination: a litany of personal attacks on the US President.

Is that really what Globe readers want? Hopefully not. Hopefully, they expect a bit more.

Binns for the long haul0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning (Sunday November 20, 2005 at 1:30 pm)

Having flirted with the idea of stepping down from the Premiership of Prince Edward Island, Pat Binns has rejected the notion.

He had been considered as a possible choice for the Conservative Party in his former federal riding of Cardigan. The riding was won in 2004 by former Minister of Labour and Solicitor-General Lawrence MacAulay. MacAulay had resigned from Cabinet after Ethics Commissioner Howard Wilson determined that his help in securing government contracts for a not-for-profit community college in P.E.I. was a breach of conflict-of-interest rules.

Granted, the college was run by his brother, but it was also the only college on the island offering training for corrections officers. Clearly scandalous.

MacAulay’s determination to have local officers trained locally rather than out-of-province is hard to hold against the man, especiallly if you’re a Cardigan voter. MacAulay’s margin of victory improved significantly in 2004 over his 2000 performance, a plurality of less than 300 votes over his Conservative opponent. Notably, PEI has not elected a non-Liberal since 1984.

MacAulay will be running again, but the other parties have yet to announce their own flagbearers. Without a strong candidate, the Conservatives seem unlikely to come close to their 2000 performance.

But beware. Considering that the riding boasts approximately 35,000 people, you might think that the candidates would have the time to answer reasonable questions put to them in a simple format.

The fact that no one bothered is the second most distressing thing. The most distressing is that one such person was elected.

Going soft?0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, The Elephant (Saturday November 19, 2005 at 11:39 pm)

Has the American will to violate Canadian softwood exports begun to bend?

To the delight of the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the US House of Representatives has voted to repeal the Byrd Amendment, properly known as the Continued Dumping and Subsidy Offset Act (search within the page for “dumping” to reach the Byrd Amendment at Title X.)

Passed in 2000, the Byrd Amendment was designed to assist American industries coping with the effects of subsidized foreign imports. Where the US imposes countervailing duties against imports from a given country which it believes subsidizes its producers, the revenue from those duties can be distributed to American companies competing with the subsidized foreign producers.

Essentially, it adds a second kind of protection for American industries which the US government determines to be threatened by foreign imports. Duties are meant to raise the price of imports to the level of local products, to make them less attractive. By diverting the proceeds of these duties to American companies, the companies are both protected from competition and offered a cash bonus on their competitors’ sales. Business becomes a win-win proposition.

In a nutshell, this is why the amendment isn’t regarded as fair trading, even though countervailing duties can be. The WTO ruled that the amendment was a violation of international trade obligations, and therefore an unfair trade practice on the part of the United States.

So is there something for Canadians to cheer at? Just what does this vote mean? The House of Representatives is just one of two powerful Houses in the US Congress. The mere fact that the bill to repeal the amendment got through the lower House doesn’t ensure its passage through what is certain to be a serious debate in the Senate.

But more importantly, the repeal is hardly a blow against protectionism. As it happens, the main impetus behind the repeal is trimming the budget. After all, if duties are coming in, it hardly helps things to have to pay them back out again. By repealing the amendment, the government keeps $3.5 Billion dollars a year in its own pockets.

Which means, of course, that the repeal of the amendment does not indicate an imminent reversal in the US government’s attitude towards softwood imports. Consider:

  • The amendment was first introduced in 2000, while Canada and the US still had a trade agreement on softwood lumber. It had nothing to do with the softwood dispute in the first place.
  • The amendment had been ruled a violation of international trade obligations. The reverse is true of the American duties on Canadian softwood lumber.
  • The decision to repeal the amendment will disappoint American producers. The maintenance of now-legitimated countervailing duties will probably be politically expedient, if not more important than before.

While motive isn’t always important, thinking that this change bodes well for Canada on the softwood issue would rely heavily on it. We’d have to believe that the repeal comes from a desire to end protectionist policies.

But if that’s what Congress wanted to do, why would it be done so partially and as an integral part of a cost-cutting measure? No one was tricked into voting for the proposition — it wasn’t a rider. It was in the meat of a bill coming out of committee — the most considered form a legislative proposal takes. Why wouldn’t the House simply legislate against the practice of countervailing duties?

Because this isn’t about ending protectionism. The celebration is premature, to say the least. Canadians will continue to feel violated by American hardball for the foreseeable future.

Ave atque vale. . .0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, Hats Off, Gentlemen (Friday November 18, 2005 at 3:23 pm)

The Honourable Claudette Bradshaw, former Minister for Labour and for Homelessness, present Minister of State for Homelessness, has decided to step down from politics and will not run in the upcoming federal election.

Kindly take a moment to thank and think well of a dedicated servant of the public and much-beloved representative of the riding of Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe in New Brunswick. Some of her work as a Parliamentarian may be reviewed here.

Her retirement will raise interesting questions about Liberal support in that riding. She has held the seat since 1997, taking nearly 60% of the vote in the 2004 campaign, beating her nearest competitor by 15,000 votes and scoring 15 points higher than the Liberal average in that province. Her victory in 2000 was similarly impressive, though her margin in 1997 was smaller.

Some feel that her success was partly owing to her impressive profile in the riding. If so, then the Liberals will need to rely on a similarly strong candidate to secure the riding. Her performance in 1997 was far enough above her party’s average in the province to suggest that her personal characteristics were significant from the beginning.

The absence of an incumbent is always significant. In this case, it may mean the seat isn’t as certain for the Liberals in the next campaign. For now, it may be worth watching the nominees.

Petrified wood. . .0

Posted by JJ in The Elephant (Friday November 18, 2005 at 2:24 pm)

Isn’t it about time that we did something about softwood lumber?

It’s an important issue with a lengthy history. Most recently, the United States has placed a countervailing duty on imports of Canadian softwood lumber, levied to counter the effect of unfair subsidies. Since the US has been a growing market for Canadian softwood lumber, the effect on Canadian industry is significant.

The agreement which expired in 2001 was beneficial for Canadian producers and exporters, but there has been no replacement agreement since. The WTO has recently ruled that the new regime of duties levied by the US government meet international requirements. Canadian producers aren’t pleased with the prospect of losing the $4.25 Billion (and counting) recaptured through duties on US goods which the WTO would otherwise have endorsed. Not that such funds would necessarily have gone to the producers.

Naturally, the industry isn’t happy, and bad trading relations are like an open wound for a haemophilliac — they don’t heal themselves.

Which is why the government is taking action. The Prime Minister reports that he has spoken with President Bush this week, suggesting that the government is getting tough.

But I have a strange sense of deja vu. Haven’t I heard this story before?

A few weeks ago, at the Summit of the Americas, the two men spoke on the same subject.

The same scathing attack was part of the Prime Minister’s speech to the New York Economic Club in October.

The two leaders spoke by phone on the issue in September.

Why am I hearing the same story again and again? Maybe because the government has chosen to do so. According to the Minister, Canada intends to stay the course on this issue.

I’m sure diplomatic pressure requires a constant stream; but you’d think Canadians would be less than impressed at hearing this story repeatedly without word of progress. Isn’t anything actually happening that they can speak of? If not, why insult our intelligence with a show of irrelevant bravado or by suggesting that the leaders’ meetings are where the real work is being done on the issue?

And it’s not as though this is a recent effort by the government. This very approach was first reported last November. If harrassment remains a major part of their strategy, they’re starting to look more like the dweeb who hits on the cheerleader every day than the bold defenders of Canada they hope to.

Or maybe they just want to look like they’re standing up to Bush. Has the Canadian government decided to start taking political tips from Venezuela? The tax cuts just announced fit right in with the Chavez method. So does an oil-based economy. Hopefully, the Latin influence won’t extend to the coming election.

It would be nice for the government to report some progress on the issue, instead of pandering to our traditional insecure yearning to get one over on the Americans and our fashionable and irrelevant disapproval of the current President. So far, the government seems content to report that they’re still speaking. That is, frankly, not an accomplishment — it’s the expected minimal maintenance of relations. In the absence of further evidence of progress, this isn’t reassuring. The government’s professed strategy sounds interesting, but will it work? Staying the course is fine, so long as you’re not stuck in port.

Next Page »