Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Godfrey, Good Night, and Good Luck0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Hats Off, Gentlemen (Wednesday April 12, 2006 at 11:44 pm)

As you may have heard by now, John Godfrey, an early declarant for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, has decided to back out of the race, citing medical concerns.

Godfrey had proposed a new path for the Liberal party, one combining a dedication to environmentalism with the fiscal prudence which has been the standard for governments since the early 1990s. But being first-to-market isn’t necessarily an advantage. It can give others a chance to make those minor adjustments which can turn a good position into a great one.

Whatever his reasons, it was clear that Godfrey would have had a difficult go of things. Stephane Dion, a fellow former Minister with a higher profile in and outside of Quebec, declared his own candidacy on much the same platform — a combination of economic growth and environmental sustainability.

Hot ground, apparently. But between another former Minister entering the fray, a crowded slate of Toronto candidates (Ignatieff, Kennedy, and possibly Bob Rae), and his personal concerns, Godfrey’s chances of winning the leadership were slim; and for a man of his age and experience, it wasn’t about putting his name out.

It’s always a shame to see a race cool off, as it must when a shoot-out participant gets shot out; but if he has half the political smarts of a man of his experience, he’ll wind up well ahead in the future leader’s eyes and possible Cabinet. Briefly a runner, but stronger for having done so.

Inchworm, Inchworm0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Vague Check, Trillium, Full-Timers (Tuesday April 11, 2006 at 10:03 am)

What do you get when newspapers and opposition politicians alike have poorer math skills than your garden-variety invertebrate?

This report from the National Post.

Hoping to seize on public anxiety after the recent case of multiple murders in Ontario, the aptly named Leader of the Opposition, John Tory, has questioned the provincial Government’s plans to add police officers to the provincial force.

The GTA, Mr. Tory suggests, is getting more than its fair share of the 1,000 new officers to be funded by the Government. While the area around Toronto will receive 25% of the new officers, OPP detachments outside the GTA will receive only 5% of the new officers.

Wondering why that only adds up to 30%? It’s because of a few clever distinctions. Tory is counting all officers going to the GTA, but only officers going to OPP detachments outside the GTA. The comparison is as pointless as apple consumption to fruit consumption, and given that, according to the government, most of the officers will be going to community police services, it utterly fails to reflect the real distribution of officers.

Consider that, according to this announcement, 51 of the 1,000 officers (that’s 5% for the journalists and opposition politicians) will be stationed in the Northern Ontario region. Since that still leaves a considerable area outside the GTA, it’s hard to believe that the region outside will be underserviced.

But take a look at things another way. In the last Canadian Census, the GTA was stated to contain 44.5% of the population of Ontario.

Reviewing the numbers, then:

  • Population of GTA: 44.5% of provincial total
  • Share of new officers: 25% of provincial total
  • Population of non-GTA: 55.5% of provincial total
  • Share of new officers: 75% of provincial total

So what, you might ask, is Mr. Tory complaining about? Equally questionable is the media’s presentation of his claims without any context whatsoever. The statement is clearly designed to mislead the public — does’t the press, that valiant defender of the public’s right and need for knowledge, have any duty to inform the public, or is that entirely at their discretion? Is there really no standard to hold them both to, or will we inch along to the truth instead of getting it in full measure?

Bye, Bye, Buy0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Thursday April 6, 2006 at 4:16 pm)

Passing up an opportunity? That’s not the Belinda who ran for the conservative leadership, having already played a pivotal role in the party’s emergence from its two progenitors. That’s not the Belinda who crossed the floor for a Ministerial post. That’s not even the Belinda who played a reporter in a low-budget made-for-TV movie.

So what’s the deal? What’s made this ambitious, young multi-millionaire daughter of a Billionaire choose her pocket borough of Newmarket-Aurora over the prospect of a glittering career as Leader of the Opposition and (dare she dream) Prime Minister of Canada?

Seasoned observers might point to her track record. Ms Stronach is still regarded as an inexperienced politician, whose dealings with the media have a tense, scripted quality. Her French, as has been noted, is less than satisfactory for a party with national aspirations, and, truth be told, it may be too soon for her to overcome whatever bias may arise from her privileged past.

Good enough reason for Liberals to fail to get behind her, but there’s a very clear sign that she’s not giving up for good; and that sign is a worrying omen.

Rather than running, Belinda says, she intends to devote her efforts to changing the leadership selection process:

. . .she would like to see an “even more open and democratic” process that would see more people encouraged to join the party at affordable prices and with an opportunity to participate directly in the selection of a leader rather through a delegated process.

Not scared yet? You should be.

Once upon a time, party leaders were selected by the party’s sitting MPs. While it’s true that this was less democratic, that process had some advantages to it. Since the potential number of voters was fixed by elections (something beyond the leadership candidates’ control), it wasn’t possible to “stack” the votes by adding additional voters, and it was very hard to control the voters without already being leader or having the support of one’s predecessor. This system isn’t without its political side — most members are keenly interested in keeping their seats, and are likely to consider a candidate’s ability to help them do just that. In that way, the ability of the candidates to win votes in every constituency is built into the system (though its efficacy depends on the political astuteness of the sitting MPs).

What the Liberals have now is a broader vote — a delegate process. Every association of the party can elect a certain number of delegates to represent them at a national convention, where a series of votes ensue until a single candidate has a majority of all delegates selected. But associations include both the associations in each riding (whose number is, therefore, determined by Elections Canada), and a number of other kinds of associations which may or may not exist: youth clubs, women’s clubs, seniors’ clubs, aboriginal clubs, and university or college clubs. These other associations can be established by calling together a sufficient number of members who meet the qualifications: youths, women, etc. Calling members together takes only one thing: money; and that’s the problem with this system.

By recruiting people (often done with promises of booze or after-parties) and paying their memberships (”It won’t cost you a thing!”), a candidate can add enough members to the register of a given organization to elect delegates supporting him or her. Only a few things obstruct this: diligent association executives and other candidates. If you’re planning far enough in advance, you use the same method in earlier years to elect a sympathetic slate of executives.

This was how Paul Martin took the party over from Jean Chretien — it’s not that the man had no support, simply that he used what support he had with this technique to squeeze out a leader when there was no reason to. And without long-term, strong opposition, he was able to do precisely that. The Liberals claim that they will clamp down on the process of “buying” memberships, but the reality is that it’s nearly impossible to prove that the money coming in with a membership form came from someone other than the prospective member.

Stronach was up against serious opposition, and without the timeframe in which the considerable resources at her personal disposal could lay the groundwork for a dominant position (Martin was spending for years before the actual campaign and its spending limit began). Given that the party is still reeling from the aftershocks of Martin’s reign, it may be some time before it’s willing to tolerate that approach again.

Which is why Belinda wants a one-member, one-vote system. There’s no fighting with other candidates for control of meetings, just a massive recruitment drive, where massive spending, unlike spending limits, can really count. Limits go out the window because of the fact that membership fees come from the members (whether or not that’s actually true, it’s the way it is) — only the candidate’s spending is limited, not that of members. So her proposed fight for a “more democratic” mechanism is really an effort to install a system that’s easier to buy.

But what about the political value of the system? Isn’t a candidate’s ability to recruit new members a solid indication of their ability to garner votes? It didn’t work that well for Stockwell Day.

The problem is simple: you can’t bribe voters as easily, because people take elections far more seriously than the ability to vote in party leadership contests. Which is also why Paul Martin’s ability to conquer his own party didn’t translate into the ability to win the public’s heart.

And that’s why Liberals and the public alike should be concerned about Belinda’s quest to “improve” the process. It will do nothing to ensure strong or politically viable leadership, and much to make money a more effective political weapon. Make no mistake, then. Ms Stronach’s not saying “bye” — it just sounds an awful lot like it.

Endrun0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Tuesday April 4, 2006 at 10:15 pm)

During the last election campaign, the media were the best friends the Conservatives could have hoped for. They captured their opponents’ gaffes and let their own gaffes go relatively unexplored. Was it that we weren’t really that interested in knowing why Tory calls were coming from the U.S. Senate? Was it just a question of media bias?

Not exactly. The Conservatives ran a tight campaign, focused and on-message from day one. That was precisely the strategy which got them through the election, despite lingering doubts about their policies and agenda. The media made few remarks on this point, frustrating Liberals and just plain anti-Tories alike.

But recent weeks have proven that the new government isn’t about to get a free run from here on out. Several articles have commented on the clamping down of lips and central command of messaging which have become early hallmarks of the new regime (a fact noted by the Cold Hard Wonk early on).

Are the Conservatives really that frightened of themselves? Given the recent furor over an MP calling for the imprisonment of journalists who produce inaccurate or fabricated articles, they just might have good reason to be. After all, the humiliation of a reporter whose work proves to be made of lies (that’s what English speakers call “fabrications”, folks) is probably enough of a punishment.

So what is the Tory response? Well, they’ve emerged from their seclusion with a five-point plan, which, if other pentaplans are anything to go by, will likely end up both more pointy and less piercing than hoped.

Fortunately, the strategy has another prong: an endrun around the fifth estate. Cabinet Ministers are beginning to crawl out into the light, but it’s not the light of a media scrum, where journalists are firmly in control. Consider the recent announcement that a major government policy speech will take place at the law school at London’s University of Western Ontario on April 12th. Seem familiar? It should to Ontarians, who in 2003 witnessed the presentation of a Provincial budget in the government-friendly confines of a Magna International plant.

That budget was worse than a flop. The exercise failed to impress the public any more than the far cheaper and less elaborate tabling in the Commons which usually marks a budget’s emergence. Far worse, it reinforced the image of then-Premier Ernie Eves as a slick business tycoon. What do the Conservatives hope for?

Three main things:

  • An announcement in Ontario shores up support there
  • An announcement in a University suggests that the Conservatives are interested in education and students
  • An announcement at a Law School emphasises the more broadly acceptable “law” part of “law and order”

If all three are hits, then the Conservatives will successfully create the day’s agenda and event. A successful run could lead to more of the same; and there’s no negative association to fear from this event. The general public won’t readily distinguish between press scrums and planned events attended by the press — not when it comes to transparency and government accountability. More importantly, they really can’t tell whether the politicians come to the press or the press to the politicians. Where the Tories’ provincial counterparts failed, the federal party may succeed.

But then, the press doesn’t like to be sidestepped. They kicked up a bit of a fuss when Stockwell Day moved his conferences to a basement room upon reaching the Hill. If the press doesn’t like the government’s endrun, there will be a far more serious backlash than a few articles critical of the lack of communication — the criticisms will soon turn to the messages that do get out; and without a good relationship, it will be very difficult for the government to explain its side of the story.

The government might do well to recall the humiliating electoral defeat which followed the last attempt at such an endrun within a year. It’s a bad precedent to follow; and that may be harder to get around than a few unruly reporters.

Revolutionary Potential0

Posted by JJ in Hats Off, Gentlemen, Golden Tacks (Monday April 3, 2006 at 10:19 pm)

It has been some time since the Canadian House of Commons saw a Speaker from the opposition benches. It last happened in 1979, only once before that, in 1926, and curiously, in every case (including today’s) has been a Liberal Speaker in a Conservative minority Parliament. Knowing that, there’s a kind of special satisfaction in witnessing the curious ritual by which the Speaker-elect is dragged to his post.

The custom harkens back to the very origin which gave the Speaker his title: representing the will of the House to the monarch. In Stuart times, the golden age of the Absolute Monarch, speaking to the King on behalf of his adversaries was a dangerous prospect. The unwillingness of the designee to assume his duties led, in one case, to his being forcibly restrained to keep the House in session.

Isn’t it peculiar, then, to realize that in the years since that fateful revolution the powers of the King have passed to the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister has become a fixture in the House, and the Prime Minister is himself selected for the ability to command the support of Parliament? It’s despairing to think that the very institution which once stood as the brake on executive power is now expected to be dominated by the very force it once held in check.

Under the circumstances, then, it’s a wonderful thing to see a Speaker who has less to lose from his impartiality and can serve as the object of no cheap attacks on his character. Not that the Speaker’s impartiality has been questioned — far from it. But sometimes, little misunderstandings make it look like the Speaker stands closer to the government than he really does.

It is often believed that the Speaker votes “with the government” when forced to break a tie. This is something of a misconception. The speaker must vote first to continue debate, and did so in the last Parliament by voting in favour of an NDP budget amendment on May 19, 2005. While this vote kept the government from falling, it was cast to continue debate or “maintain the status quo” — the real guiding principle of such decisions. Technically speaking, an opposition amendment is against the government’s interests, regardless of whether the government is for it or not.

No, the real threat to the Speaker of late has not been claims of partisanship — it has been the increasing unruliness of the House. The past few Parliaments have been marked by animosity and hostile remarks in a place which is supposed to be ruled by civil dignity.

Speaker Milliken has suggested (as recently as his interview today on CBC Radio 1) that the appearance of disorder is exaggerated by the media. After all, what’s more exciting: a reasoned exchange on the finer points of trade negotiations, or an exchange of feigned offence leading into trashy insults? A viewer watching a two-minute exchange between hotheaded minister and frustrated critic isn’t likely to have a balanced impression of the remaining forty-three minutes of Question Period, much less the remaining hours of House debate.

But voters looking for more decorum shouldn’t be blaming speakers. Considering the childish venom which plagues campaigns and voters alike, is it any wonder that the resulting members make stupid remarks, inside or outside of the House?

Forget about revolutionizing debate. Canada is presently blessed with a Speaker of the House who had a subscription to Hansard while in University. In knowledge of procedure and the powers of the Chair, there are few better qualified to do their part in revolutionizing the quality of Parliamentary debate. When, pray tell, will the public do its part?

Statue of Snobbery0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks (Saturday April 1, 2006 at 6:28 pm)

Those who came in steady waves to the shores of New York last century were greeted by a towering monument, on whose base a simple message read:

“”Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Canada had its smaller share of this great bounty of new settlers, but it took time before the many cultures they brought with was elevated to the status of a founding myth.

The contributions of these immigrants cannot be measured until one of two things ends: their lineage or Canada; but the impact of the ideology of multiculturalism which resulted from their arrival is felt deeply whenever questions regarding immigration arise.

A sore point arose this past week, as government plans to crack down on illegal immigrants were deftly represented as an attack on a particular ethnic community. The prospect of such an interpretation is serious enough to draw a specific denial from the Minister of Immigration, who pointed out that deportations of illegal migrants were neither faster nor more directed than under the preceding government. The former Liberal Minister of Immigration, Joe Volpe, claims, as might be expected, that his government was ready to “tackle immigration issues”, but talk is cheap (and the Frigid Wonk is grateful for that).

Two issues loom large in Canadian immigration policy:

Efficiency
All aspects of the system work relatively slowly. This has been a long-standing complaint from skilled workers, those already here hoping to sponsor family members, and refugees. It must be recognized that while the government sets targets for immigration, it does not necessarily meet them. There’s a difference between talk (cheap, remember?) and action, and governments are expert in exploiting it.
Efficacy
While skilled workers are sought, they often have difficulty in getting their credentials recognized locally. This has been a long-standing problem, and despite repeated recognition of the problem, little changes (talk/action).

What’s most interesting is that these problems have nothing to do with the deportation of illegal immigrants — at least, not at first. Regardless of whether they are gainfully employed, settled, or otherwise ensconced in Canadian society, those who do not or will not do things legally can’t credibly complain when the law turns against them.

At second glance, though, there is a connection, and it has to do with the recognition of credentials.

Skilled workers, the largest opening for would-be immigrants, must meet certain criteria to enter Canada. One might expect that these criteria would be designed to indicate priorities for hiring, so let’s take a look at those.

The “Education” factor, worth 25% of the evaluation, rates Master’s and PhD degrees highest, with 25 points, and apprenticeships with the equivalent of high school lowest, at 12 points, among educated skill sets. One would logically conclude from this ranking that Canada’s greatest need is for people with Master’s and PhD degrees, and lowest for labourers.

Have you ever heard the one about the PhD driving a taxicab? Is it because her credentials weren’t recognized? Could it have anything to do with the fact that Canada, like most other developed nations, has a greater need for labour and skilled trades than it does for advanced degree holders? Illegal immigrants filter into the building profession because that’s where they’re desperately needed; and the present system of selection militates strongly against these workers — they wouldn’t likely qualify if they tried.

But wait a moment — doesn’t Canada need doctors? Well, yes, that’s true, but the major problem in that regard isn’t finding doctors — it’s finding funding for those doctors in the public health care system; and it isn’t going to be resolved by immigrant doctors, because they won’t work for any less than other doctors where rates are set provincewide.

The government has recently begun to respond to the diminished prestige of trades with advertising, but after years of lavishing attention on Universities (without improving them in any perceivable way), it’s a hard sell. Like other Western nations, more students aspire to university education than we need workers with such training; and Universities have responded by increasing their class sizes.

Post-secondary education in Canada is a complex picture (and a debate for another time), but one thing should be clear: Canada doesn’t lack for University graduates. What it lacks are labourers and those committed, like the waves of immigrants before them, to a dream of a better life.

But immigration policy, guidelines, and selection misrepresent these needs. Rather than rewarding the dreamers, the builders, and those who need a new beginning, it rewards abstract thought and people already accomplished in their homelands. The storied pomp is welcomed with open arms; and the huddled masses left behind. In elevating the cultures of their past, Canadians have put their achievements beyond the reach of mortal men.

This narrow-minded elitism is the disservice done to those now being deported, because their perseverance, desperation and diligence is precisely what Canada most needs. But its head is turned to other things, and the descendants of hard-working settlers lift up their noses, not a guiding lantern, at the sight of their forebears.

Does Canada need a statue to remind it of its heritage? A poem? What will it take to kill the obsession with technical policy and begin the work in earnest? Vague cries for recognition of credentials are no solution, neither is haste. Canada must reexamine its own history and ask itself what it is that it wants to be.

So long as immigration policy fixates on elitist achievement, it will continue to lure the accomplished and devoted alike into disappointment. Only by recalling the humbleness of its past and the beauty of opportunity can it come to recognize the glories of the future in a hammer and the unbreakable language of a hopeful smile.