Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Scraping the Senate1

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks (Wednesday May 31, 2006 at 9:02 pm)

It was with the usual vacuous contempt (politicians lie!!! tell everyone!!!) that the National Post kicked off its treatment of the Canadian federal government’s new pro-democracy move:

Like a group of slumbering sloths about to be frozen into extinction by an advancing ice shield, Canada’s senators debated softwood lumber and the sale of public buildings yesterday even as the government tabled its initial foray into reforming the Red Chamber.

The outrage! Doing their jobs! And while any sensible privileged sloth would be busy making margaritas. . .

But let’s not get mown down by metaphor. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a plan, and it’s probably a vote-winner. Those perennial fatcats of the Canadian Senate are about to get theirs. Or. . .some of theirs. Well, truthfully, none of them is going to notice anything. But the Senators who aren’t Senators just might — and that’s what really counts! Isn’t it?

The proposal is simple: any Senator appointed from this point henceforth will be limited to an eight-year term, rather than being able to serve until the age of 75.

A “baby step” for democratic reform? Not really. Limiting terms has very little to do with democracy — you could now, in theory, reappoint the same senators as many times as you like (no age limit anymore). Why, with the right genes, a senator could try chasing down Strom’s old record.

Oh, but you say it would make a difference if they were elected? Too true, too true. But they’re not; and that’s not what’s being proposed. A step in the right direction? Limiting terms is no more a step towards establishing democratic control of the Senate any than term limits on Prime Ministers would be towards democratic control of the Cabinet.

Does this do anything “democratic”? Any greater degree of control by the people (or demos, for the classically inclined)? Not one bit; and if you think that having senators reviewed on a regular basis is a surefire way to keep them honest, take a gander at how long US senators can stay in office. Fifteen of the top 20 of all time were in office up until the 1970s. Seven lasted into the past decade. Four are still going strong after more than thirty-seven years in office.

But again, Canadian senators aren’t elected, no matter how long their term in office is. So what effect, if any is this change likely to have?

Two possibilities spring to mind:

First, by increasing the speed with which seats open up, you increase the number of vacancies Prime Ministers can fill; and that means more patronage! While that might keep senators honest, we know who they’ll be promising things to. That’s hardly a positive step.

Second, it means something of a reduction in the Senate’s quality.

Yes, quality. There’s one thing that the Senate does very well: legislative review. But it’s not because of some glib and overused nonsense like “sober second thought”. Bills are read three times in the House of Commons before they’re passed, and the bar in the Parliamentary dining room just isn’t big enough to keep over three hundred respectable (and mostly alcohol-consuming) MPs drunk for the necessary length of time.

The Senate’s advantages are real, simple, and easy to understand. Since senators don’t stand for election, they do far less political posturing than MPs. This fact lets the government make necessary amendments in the Senate without losing face by admitting its legislation was flawed. That means better legislation without fuss. Those who might prefer to see the government lose face may be disheartened, but the arguments take place anyways. The opposition routinely points out legislative flaws in open debate in the House of Commons (you know what that is — it’s that 90% of the time that isn’t Question Period). If people don’t pay attention to the process now, why would rehashing the same arguments in the Senate improve things?

Second, senators have longevity. While the average MP lasts something under two elections and serves on a multitude of committees in that time in addition to their constituency work, the average senator lasts at least a decade, tends to stay on few committees and has no further concerns. That extra time really is paid to their reduced committments, and results in greater familiarity with the subject matter, be it the military or the arts. In turn, that expertise translates into better quality of debate, better consultation with experts, and better recommendations on legislation. Like it or not, this is a major advantage to long-serving senators, and one that’s hard to replace.

The Senate has these advantages precisely because it isn’t elected and is long-lived. While anyone’s free to argue that a democratic body would be better, the Frosty Wonk’s quite happy to agree with Liberal leader Bill Graham in suggesting that a second body like the House of Commons won’t do much beside adding intercameral (no, not that) friction to the legislative process:

Anybody who watches relations in the Congress of the United States between the House of Representatives and the Senate will know it’s a totally different system when you have two Houses battling it out over turf and who is going to speak for the people on any given issue.

Well put. And given that we stand to lose the only things that make the Senate worthwhile, it’s a wonder that those who pride themselves on strong thinking about politics don’t advocate its abolition, instead of waxing poetic over a tepid reimagining of the Commons.

Isn’t the Senate useful as a body premised on regional representation? Of course it is, and that’s the main reason why it won’t be going anywhere. But provincial leaders eager to keep it should be careful. After all, they get to bully the federal government right now through First Ministers’ conferences. Will their voices really carry as much weight if the federal government has the voice of a legitimate, regionally-representative Senate to wield against them? Ah, to forge a backbiting sword.

And yes, the Conservatives stand to gain from this move, however pointless it might be. After all, they’re changing things, and after decades of people talking about changing things, it makes a refreshing. . .change. But make no mistake about the hollowness of the change, as the Prime Minister himself doesn’t:

while he realized some people might oppose electing senators, he didn’t anticipate any opposition to reducing their terms from a possible maximum of 45 years to eight

Did you ever hear of important political reform that wasn’t controversial?

But wait! Is the Chilly Wonk proving himself wrong? Not really. The Frosty Wonk isn’t opposed, he’s just hoping that no one will take this very little little for something — anything — of true significance.

Just remember what the National Post’s editors didn’t: glaciers don’t just eliminate the useless — they also scrape the ground bare.

Dim Bulbs, Big City0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, All Politics (Tuesday May 30, 2006 at 9:37 am)

The last Canadian federal election seemed to suggest that voters were turned on by the Conservative message. But in one area, Tory hopes of success remained a mere flicker.

They were shut out of the three largest cities in the country: Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Given that, together, these three cities account for roughly sixty seats in the House of Commons (one-fifth of the total), writing them off makes an enormous difference to any bid for majority government.

But before getting carried away, bear in mind that the Conservatives didn’t do all that badly in these towns. While polling lower than they did overall, some things went very well for them.

Montreal is in a province where their leader’s mediocre French was to be a liability, and any victory a triumph. There, they finished strongly in several ridings: Hochelaga, Lac-Saint-Louis, Mount Royal, Pierrefonds-Dollard, Saint-Laurent-Cartierville, Westmount-Ville-Marie, Alfred-Pellan, Laval, Marc-Aurele-Fortin, and Saint-Leonard-Saint-Michel. In each, they came in either second or third place within striking distance at second.

In Vancouver (in a province where their fortunes dipped overall), they garnered strong levels of support outside of Vancouver East and Vancouver Kingsway, performed well (if not successfully) in a series of tight three-way races, and took narrow losses in North Vancouver and West Vancouver (whose full riding name is too ridiculous to be uttered in this place).

In Toronto (a province where the party had long-sought an electoral breakthrough), the party did lamentably badly in the core parts of the city, finishing third in most ridings (and a distant third at that), but came second in the more suburban fringe around the former cities of North York, Scarborough, and Etobicoke.

Which means that there is some good news. The Tories made a significant gain in Montreal, given that they may not have been seen by voters there as a serious federalist option. The results from the next election may yet prove their strategy there to be effective. In Vancouver, they may have had been given a harder time than usual, amid a backlash against the possibility of their reaching majority government status.

But Toronto? There’s really no excuse. Even if some of the ridings there aren’t within Conservative reach, the results are a serious blotch on an otherwise bright campaign.

Displaying the same political brightness that netted them an overall victory, they’ve devised a plan. If only the brightness were also evidenced in the plan itself.

Tory John Baird, President of the Treasury Board, is promising big things in the works for Toronto. Fighting overdevelopment of the waterfront (all those condos blocking out the view of the Gardiner Expressway), announcing millions for urban development, and shaking hands with the mayor — he’s doing it all in the hopes of improving his party’s performance in Canada’s largest city.

But it’s not likely to work. At least not the way the Tories might need it to. The problem the Tories face isn’t that they’re not doing enough for Toronto. Whether the city gets short shrift from higher levels of government or not isn’t the point — it’s that giving money to Toronto doesn’t necessarily bring home the political bacon.

First, bear in mind that the next election isn’t going to be five years off. Winter will bring a new Liberal leader, and with it, the prospect of an election within a year (a year of winter, that is). That means that big announcements can be made, but big achievements won’t be reached; and Torontonians are familiar enough with that scheme to be a little bit blasé when it comes to federal spending.

Consider the Waterfront Revitalization Corporation:

Five years ago, the city, Queen’s Park and Ottawa jointly put up $1.5 billion and unveiled a grand vision to remake 46 kilometres of Toronto’s lakefront — from Marie Curtis Park at the mouth of Etobicoke Creek in the west to Rouge Beach Park in the east — into vibrant neighbourhoods full of homes, businesses, parks and transit, with improved public access to the lake.

At present, you’ll find that they’ve prepared a great number of plans, implemented none, and involved themselves in no actual redevelopment whatsoever. In fact, their promise for this year is to:

In 2005/06, TWRC will start delivering the kind of results the public expects from revitalization, results like major parks and recreational facilities, waterside destinations and new sustainable, downtown communities that are affordable for everyone.

And that’s five years after receiving $1.5 Billion. It’s enough to make even the most cash-crazy Torontonian at least a little bit skeptical of the value of infusions.

Exhibit two? Downsview Park. The Frosty Wonk recalls a time before Jar-Jar Binks, when staring at Britney Spears was bordering on creepy for an entirely different reason, even before anyone who didn’t love wasting their time gave the double quiver of a lamb’s cauda whether computers were particularly good at chess (actually, we’re probably still ahead on that one). In that time, called 1996, a park was begun, as a great federal endeavour. And lo, a decade later, it primarily boasts a film studio and a rentable indoor facility. It’s supposed, one day, to look like this. It presently looks like this. See the park? It’s that thing under the airstrip.

Point is, Torontonians have good reason to cheer and then get back to their usual business. They’ve heard it all before.

But the problem facing the Tories is more serious than the inability to buy votes with fancy, next-generation (delivery-wise, not vision-wise) projects.

Consider the fact that Toronto voters rated crime the number one issue in 2004, yet chose the Liberals as the best party to fight crime. It’s not like that hasn’t changed slightly in the more recent election, but the deep question it raises hasn’t: why would the party most likely to be identified with law-and-order issues poll second in dealing with them?

The answer isn’t “gun-registry”, but you’re getting warm. Citified folk, such as they is, like to consider themselves to be particularly citified. That is to say, chic and cosmopolitan. It’s in the nature of cities to have a broad selection of activities, new, exciting and diversely cultured (all the way back to Plato’s Republic, if you think about what that Thracian procession really signifies).

The gun registry isn’t the real problem, but it illustrates it nicely. Many of those opposed are from outside the large cities, where owning guns (and using them for various, completely legal reasons) is simply a part of life. Getting a yuppie, born and bred in the concrete jungle, to understand why having to register rifles is seen as a profitless bureaucratic exercise is asking him to experience someone else’s life — and one that, quite possibly, he disdains. It’s not that the urbanite really doesn’t like people from outside the cosmopolis, he just doesn’t know much about them, given his lack of exposure.

What he does know, he concocts mostly from things like the gun registry. When he reads about opposition from ruralists, his cosmopolitan mindset paradoxically doesn’t allow for their way of life — it simply brands them as the parochial, small-minded and backward yin to his own chic, multicultural and progressive yang. He lumps the issue together with their perceived intolerance or ignorance of other cultures, and other stereotypes of rural life, occasionally reinforced in his own mind by news of county fairs or rodeos (which are, curiously, more foolish to him than dragon-boat races or paying a cover charge to buy drinks and dance).

But surely there are other reasons, aren’t there? Don’t policy choices matter? Aren’t Torontonians fundamentally for a vision of federalism and social programs that the Conservatives oppose?

Some of them, yes. Some of them, no. But the crucial point is that there are probably enough whose concern is primarily with the image of the party as decision-makers to make a difference to Conservative fortunes. After all, the Liberals have MPs with remarkablyregressive” platforms, too (and in Toronto, to boot). Many of them voted against Martin’s same-sex legislation (which, you’ll recall, came to a vote largely by virtue of the BQ’s efforts).

It’s not that Toronto voters won’t vote for Conservative policies. Enough could for a few seats (and that would likely be enough for a majority government). What stops them is the thought that their five or ten MPs, however urbane, will be swamped in caucus by 20 to 40 MPs from Alberta, the BC interior, and even (gasp) rural Ontario who represent all the horrors of that backward, rural stereotype. Wrongly or rightly, therefore, it’s an image problem, and that can’t be solved by throwing money at people. It’s never worked for the nouveau-riche. . .

Fortunately for the Conservatives, there is a viable solution — and it’s one they’ve used before. It’s not as though they always had a bedrock of Western support. In 1942, the Tories held their leadership convention in Winnipeg as the first step in dislodging Liberal support from the West. Diefenbaker built on that to leave a legacy of support in the West.

The solution should be obvious. Familiarize Torontonians with all them countrified folk. Let them see the other party members for what they really are — thoughtful, honest Canadians who care about many of the same issues. Shine a little light on the best asset: people, not money.

What’s the Plural of Anecdote?0

Something very special has been threatened with the rise of weblogs, but don’t be worried. It’s simply the natural order of truth and common sense.

One of the most difficult parts of producing online material, as the Frigid Wonk well knows, is properly representing facts. It takes more than merely linking to the source of a particular reference — you must provide context and fairly represent what is said. Leaving it to the reader to discover that the context is deliberately or completely skewed can’t be easily excused.

That’s why a recent report on a serious claim merits fuller investigation than has been given it.

Jurist, a respectable and serious purveyor of online information, has recently run a report on a purported increase in desertions from the British army.

According to Jurist, this increase, reported by the BBC, has reached 1,000 total deserters since the beginning of the campaign, as annually recorded:

A total of 134 deserted in 2003, 229 in 2004, 377 in 2005, and 189 so far in 2006, up from 86 in 2001, and 118 in 2002.

Which looks like a significant change.

The problem is that the numbers aren’t the total desertions, but the total number of deserters still missing, as stated here by the BBC — the very report to which the Jurist piece refers.

The difference is highly significant. Deserters don’t just wander back home and resume a normal life — they have to go on the run. Consequently, one would expect them to be found over time. Hence, a simple application of common sense dictates that if desertion rates remain roughly constant or even drop slightly, the number remaining at large would be higher in later years than in earlier ones.

But ignore that, as well as the fact that war seems likely to increase desertions anyway, because there’s sounder evidence than either common sense or properly labelled statistics. There’s purely anecdotal evidence by interested parties:

An increase in Iraq-related desertions is nonetheless supported by anecdotal evidence from Iraq war resisters in the UK and their associates, including the lawyer for former Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith [JURIST news archive], recently dismissed from the military and sentenced to eight months in prison [JURIST report] for refusing to return to service in Iraq, and former SAS member Ben Griffin [JURIST report], who told the BBC that “There’s a lot of dissent in the Army about the legality of war and concerns that they’re spending too much time there.”

As an old colleague of the Wonk’s once put it: the plural of anecdote is not data.

But surely, a cry goes up, the government, too, is an interested party; and they have an interest in providing false statistics as surely as the war protestors have one in falsely interpreting statistics.

Only too true, but aside from providing a slightly different (and perhaps even unjustifiedly alarmist) headline for the daily dose on the conflict in Iraq (government still defensive, protestors still opposed, if you’re not caught up), the story reveals no new salvo for either side. Morale and recruitment were already known to be down, and the army (an interested party, and the same one denying an increase in desertions) admitted the decline was due to the campaign.

What to do, then? Forget that “pinch of salt” nonsense — it’s not a guideline, it’s a glib line. Use a bit of common sense and realise that there’s nothing new added to the debate by this story.

If you’ve already chosen a side, this story wasn’t that likely to change your mind (if you’re pro-war, it just doesn’t seem likely that you’re swayed by army rebels). If you hadn’t, the story might persuade you. But should people be persuaded by shoddy research? Opponents of the war might suggest that what got the UK into it might just be the best way to get it out (Michael Moore, anyone?) But repeating a mistake-making process just doesn’t square with common sense.

The Frosty Wonk has a different perspective. Bull is bull, no matter how purely intended; and the plural of anecdote is urban legend.

Deploremus Union3

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Vague Check, Crossroads of Culture (Sunday May 28, 2006 at 12:37 pm)

The Frosty Wonk won’t get into the more serious issues at stake here (many others will). The real questions are:

1. Why are unions taking action on non-labour related foreign affairs questions?
2. Can we trust them to?

The answers:

1. Umm. . .they’ve got nothing better to do?
2. No.

While the first is far from certain, the latter is clear at once.

Having decided to support a boycott of Israel until it recognizes the Palestinian right to self-determination (which it has already done, actually, if you read this), CUPE Ontario “will develop an education campaign about the issue”.

Any problems? Well, yes:

1. CUPE seems to be confused about the history in question:

As noted above, the right to self-determination has been recognized. That’s what the Palestinian elections have been about. What CUPE really seems to be talking about is the right of return:

. . .the right of refugees to return to their homes and properties.

Which is controversial not only because it involves potential compensation issues, but because it involves the counter-claim for Jews evicted or forced from their own homes in the West Bank and other neighbouring countries in 1948.

2. CUPE seems to be a bit confused about the geography in question:

In Ontario, the liquor control board carried more than 30 Israeli wines, many produced in the occupied Golan Heights, CUPE said.

Quite so. But the occupied Golan Heights were not part of British mandate Palestine as divided by the UN in 1947 — they were part of Syria. Were Palestinians evicted by Israelis from a part of Syria twenty years before Israeli forces entered the area? However nicely you ask Israel to grant Palestinians access to the Golan Heights, they can’t let people back into homes they never had.

However you slice it, CUPE clearly doesn’t know what it’s talking about, yet wants to produce an educational pamphlet on the subject.

And that’s why unions might not be the best candidates to conduct foreign relations. Just in case you were wondering.

Principal Principle0

Posted by JJ in The Elephant, Golden Tacks (Saturday May 27, 2006 at 5:11 pm)

There’s trouble abrewin’ down t’the ACLU.

That formidable force for freedoms is known for defending the seemingly indefensible in the name of their cause: that rights and liberties must be freely enjoyed.

But they’re not trouble-free. Board members have been critical of some recent undertakings, including the use of data-mining (which some regard as an invasion of privacy) and terrorism checks on members (a practice which was later ended). This criticism has led to a draft proposal that:

. . .a director may publicly disagree with an A.C.L.U. policy position, but may not criticize the A.C.L.U. board or staff.

As an “obligation” for directors, it would make it possible for the organization to take punitive action against those who violate it.

What’s the big deal?

It privileges efficacy over rights — the organization’s effective action over the directors’ rights to free speech. Surely if matters come to a head in the form of a public fracas, something truly controversial is at stake which the ACLU has not been able to address internally. It’s not as though they invite childish whiners to join the board — unless this is just a preparatory step for precisely that.

Now that might not be a big deal in general, but for the ACLU, it’s the biggest deal going. Their entire existence is premised on the privileging of rights over efficacy — it’s their core principle. That’s why they fight for the rights of registered sex offenders to frequent public parks against the efficacy of banning them from the parks. That’s why they fight for capital punishment against the politically expedient (and popular) execution of criminals. That’s why they fight for so very many controversial causes — because rights are so fundamental to their vision of our society that they genuinely believe that nothing can be more important than their safekeeping.

If this were an isolated incident, it might be of less concern, but it isn’t. Another directorial complaint stemmed from an incident evidencing the same mistake:

Last month, she was quoted in The New York Sun as criticizing the group’s endorsement of legislation to regulate advertising done by counseling centers run by anti-abortion groups. The bill would prohibit such centers from running advertisements suggesting that they provide abortion services when they actually try to persuade women to continue their pregnancies.

While the group must be in favor of women’s rights, it must also be in favor of others’ rights to free speech, however much what they say may go against the grain of ACLU members’ beliefs. Giving people the right to speak freely means precisely that you must endure whatever they say. Or, to paraphrase a mad Frenchman, the defence of liberty must sometimes mean helping your opponents.

Endorsing a bill to punish protesters who physically obstruct or assault those who give or seek abortions clearly falls within the ACLU’s mandate — someone is clearly curtailing another’s liberty. Endorsing a bill restricting people’s ability to persuade by speech or press is quite another. It doesn’t matter what kind of speech it is — going against it is going against a liberty, and to prefer one person’s to another’s is something that the concept of freedom itself can’t do.

The latter is a policy choice; and that, unfortunately, is what’s really going on. A particular instance of freedom for pregnant women — the right to procure an abortion — is being used to make the choice, rather than the general principle of freedom, which would permit both activities. Policy is being preferred to principle. What this means is that simple, clear answers to specific questions are held up as more important than broad, fundamental statements of purpose.

It’s easy to see why that’s the case.

Policy is easier to grasp and looks more realistic. We live in an age of cynics, not of dreamers, and under the circumstances, vague, sweeping visions just aren’t popular. Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what your country can do to improve the plight of the disabled in aboriginal communities.

But the Frigid Wonk isn’t cold to the idea of policy (heaven forfend). It’s a welcome change from vague (mis)representations, which is why the Canadian government’s “five priorities” plan, derided as simplistic, resonates well with voters (a simplistic point, but forgive a Cold Wonk for a brief shortcut — he’ll make it up later). It’s about time that politics addressed serious problems head-on, rather than by way of mission statements (is the land strong?)

What a focus on policy neglects, though, is precisely the problem with an idea like “five priorities” — while you paint the boards, swab the deck, mend the sails, flush the bilge and mind the beam, no one’s got any idea where you’re going or why. You’re likely, without a guiding principal (sorry, principle), to wind up crashing back into your own port, just like the ACLU butting heads with its own raison d’etre. It’s simply a matter of time.

It’s sad to see an organisation of such strength and quality gripped with controversy from such a simple mistake; but it’s good to be reminded of this simple truth: principles matter, no matter how vague. And that’s why they should be privileged over policy, no matter how effective it is.

Unequivocally Qualified0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk (Sunday May 21, 2006 at 7:05 pm)

Just to be clear:

adjective leaving no doubt; unambiguous

So when Michael Ignatieff expresses his “unequivocal support” for the present and renewed Canadian mission in Afghanistan, we can surely expect no backpedalling.

Ah, but:

My support for the renewal of the mission is dependent upon believing that this proposal is continuous with, and not a departure from, the existing mission of the former government.

That’s what academics might call a hedge:

noun equivocation; evasion; fudge

Right. So what part of that was unambiguous?

*All preceding definitions are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary

The Politics of Failure0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, A House Divided (Sunday May 14, 2006 at 9:27 pm)

Can this man make them work again?

Not long ago, the frosty wonk had the pleasure of meeting one of Mr. Ignatieff’s young Turks. The suggestion that another candidate had a better policy platform for the party was met by the angry retort that anyone could do those things. True enough. If Mr. Ignatieff isn’t ashamed to borrow good ideas, he might do well.

The question is, what ideas will he borrow?

He’s already suggested that he’s willing to borrow ideas from rival candidate Stephane Dion. What else?

A recent speech launching his Quebec campaign offers a few disappointing hints.

I believe in federalism of recognition and of respect. Respect for provincial jurisdictions. Recognition of Quebec’s specificity. And respect for truth.

Sounds great. But isn’t this the same kind of vague, noncommittal approach to serious policy issues that characterized his predecessor’s campaigns? Ignatieff sure seems to think so:

Think of Quebec’s astonishing development over the past fifty years: all that happened within a federal system that evolved a federal system that met, and can continue to meet, the needs of Quebec.

I, too, am ready to meet those needs.

So. . .there wasn’t anything to fix in the relationship? No problems? Then why, oh why didn’t things work out better between the province and the Liberal party? Why losses to the BQ? Why losses to the long-vanquished Tories (Mulroney doesn’t count — proto-BQ need not apply)?

I’m also tackling the myths from the past, such as a federal government that shackles provinces, a federal government that steamrolls over them.

This isn’t just compelling, it’s arguable. There’s no question that separatists exaggerate the problems with federal-provincial relations, perhaps to the point of making it a myth; but can Ignatieff change that? Can he really dispel such a myth?

Those who already side with federalist forces might already agree, but then, it’s not clear that they’re all on the Liberal side — the recent election may have shown that. At least some of the Tory gains in 2006 in the province came from the Liberals, and the overall growth in voter turnout may also have been at least partly due to federalists finding a viable voice in the Conservative party.

That’s why dispelling myths will take more than telling Quebecers what they are and what they have. Harper gained support there through concrete pledges to specifically change provincial-federal relations. In return, Ignatieff, who claims he’s fighting Harper, suggests that the two sides undertake new joint programmes:

So, let’s work together on a Canadian productivity strategy.

This will include programmes for infrastructure, science and technology, energy, and minority and aboriginal youth. Is anything left out? Certainly: the line between federal and provincial jurisdiction.

Ignatieff insists that it be respected, to be sure:

Let’s work together, but be careful not to step into each other’s jurisdictions. The Federal government must respect provincial jurisdictions. The provincial governments must also respect the Federal government’s legitimate jurisdictions.

But what does that mean? Isn’t it just more sitting at tables and bickering, regardless of his plea for an end to the very same thing? It’s completely unclear where the boundary lies in the very areas he indicates. In fact, not one is uncontroversial; and he offers nothing to say where these lines can be drawn, beyond his earlier insight:

Everything’s always worked out before.

Perseus fought the mythical Medusa with a mirrored shield; Theseus fought the mythical Minotaur with a ball of yarn. Clearly, myth-slaying has become still less substantial in the intervening years.

Respecting jurisdiction is fine when you know what it is, but the agreements of those fifty years have failed to clarify jurisdictions, even if they’ve been very successful at moving little pieces of paper from place to place. In fact, it has been these very joint programmes which have muddied the boundaries between levels of government and lent this political debate real force. More of the same is unlikely to help.

If Mr. Ignatieff is bold enough to share his vision of these boundaries, he might prove that he has what it takes to find and walk a dividing line. If not, he’s simply borrowing one of the worst ideas the Liberals ever had: that their undisclosed vision of federalism was enough to win Quebec; and that’s a plan for failure.