Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics


Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Gaia (Friday June 30, 2006 at 8:36 am)

With word out that Canadians are worried about global warming, the Still-Chilled Wonk figures the usual Liberal sites will soon be “freely thinking” about two things:

  • How big a mistake it is for the Tories to dump Kyoto
  • Why it’s important that the Liberals promote Kyoto

Both of which ignore the real problem: credibility.

It’s politics, not Captain Planet, that they’re playing with, so a theme song, youngsters with heart, and snappy tights just don’t cut it. Repeating “Kyoto” won’t work for the Liberals for one main reason: they blew it.

It doesn’t matter how many studies suggest that the last-minute proposals of the Martin government in 2005 could have mostly met the protocol’s requirements — which, by the way, is the policy equivalent of being mostly pregnant. The Liberals sat on the issue for over a decade while conditions deteriorated. And that, more significantly than meeting the targets at the end, is part of the problem. During the Liberal mandate, more pollution, rather than less, was the norm, even as they proclaimed themselves, over and over, to be committed to Kyoto; and that means that their inaction allowed the situation to worsen — far more serious than merely not improving.

Which means that, even if implementing Kyoto should be the first priority of a Liberal government, promising that isn’t the way to get to government. Having spent so long messing things up, the Liberals don’t have the credibility to make that pledge. It’s the NDP who have that credibility; and let’s not be stupid, helping the NDP isn’t a way for Liberals to win (no matter how much blather you hear about uniting “progressive” forces) — it’s a way to ensure that the Conservatives come up the middle in more Ontario ridings. Liberals, like Tories, must play to win. It’s a little thing called desire that the Tories show by setting out to challenge their parliamentary allies on their own turf. A stark contrast with the Liberal electoral tactic of being your strategic second choice.

All of which means that what Liberals need to take advantage of this public mood is a creative response — a new message to take to those concerned about the environment. They need to build credibility on the issue without constantly dredging up a reminder of their past inadequacy. It’s a difficult task, not least because it can go so very wrong; but it’s a chance to differentiate themselves from both the NDP and the Tories, show themselves in a new light, and carve out a constituency, and connections with it, that could support them for decades to come.

That’s what you call a crisitunity. The question remains: is the party crafty and creative enough to seize it?

*See crisitunity, language lovers! JJ

Fey Peddlars of Fay0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Saturday June 17, 2006 at 6:58 pm)

Some days you really have to wonder: does the press have no idea what it’s talking about, or are they really part of a grand conspiracy to keep the public clapping loudly?

The day this bit of trash appeared was such a day. Supposedly, the fact that a new limit of $1,000 per person for donations to political parties will mar the Liberals’ plans for their leadership contest.


Well, the fee to attend is $995. Since that total comes within $5 of the $1,000 limit, the theory goes, anyone who’s contributed more than $5 to the party will be unable, under the donation rules, to spend the necessary amount to attend. Therefore, the most active party members will be completely unable to attend the convention, throwing the whole thing into question.

Sound logic? Only if we assume a few things:

  • Those who donate money are those whom the party wants to attend.
  • The only way to attend is to be a paid delegate.
  • A leadership convention is a meeting of active party mmembers who choose leaders based on their deeply-held convictions.

The first two are nonsense. The third is true, but not the way you might imagine.

Let’s leave the first for a moment and consider how a convention works:

  • Delegates vote for candidates, round after round.
  • Candidates who receive too few votes in a given round are dropped from the ballot.
  • Some dropped candidates openly support other candidates, hoping to receive plum party positions for themselves and their prominent supporters.

Which tells us that the most desirable quality in a delegate is reliability. They should be relied on to vote in the expected way (i.e.-for a particular camp), and they should be relied on to vote for other candidates if their candidate tells them to.

Now, why would you expect those qualities to be found in a party activist? Aren’t these the people who already have a vision of the party, demand something specific from its future, and have their own plans? Leaving out those activists who join up with candidate’s camps, hoping for a little dose of patronage, why would you want independent-minded people to be delegates?

What you want in delegates are people who don’t care about anything but the fact that they’ve been given a chance to attend the convention. You want people eager to eat, drink, and be merry for two days, so long as they follow the would-be-leader, and vote as they’re supposed to. So low, in fact, is the level of respect for the opinions of delegates that delegates to the convention must run as delegates supporting a particular candidate (or as indpendent delegates) and receive a ballot on the first round already marked for their declared candidate. This is billed as a means for those voting for delegates at the association level to ensure that their voices are heard. It’s just a tremendous coincidence that it biases delegate selection against thought and for factional lines.

If we assume that donors tend to be activists with a sense of where and how the party is going, these are the last people a leadership candidate could want. What the candidate really wants from such people is volunteer effort; and there are plenty of opportunities to pitch in at a convention without actually being a delegate and paying the associated fee. Volunteers are needed to herd the delegates, pass on information, and just make the candidate look good, and their way is paid without fees.

If you’re keeping track, that’s why assumptions one and two are nonsense; and why number three is true — because those who care are involved as volunteers.

But if that wasn’t enough, consider this: the fee was set at $995. The Liberals must have been aware of the $1,000 limit, since Harper had introduced a draft version of the bill during the last election, well in advance of their knowing that there would be a leadership convention (unless they ignore what their opponents say). Considering that Liberal membership fees have been fixed at $5, it’s a remarkable coincidence that the combination of delegate fees and membership fees (a prerequisite for the former) comes to precisely the donation limit, isn’t it? It’s just a tremendous coincidence that such an arrangement is perfect for “instant members” — those noble souls signed up to represent a candidate, eat, drink, and do no thinking (let the activist volunteers do that for you).

And just how did the convention fees come out to the round figure of $995? The excellent (non-leadership) conventions in 1996 and 1998 cost a mere $400 per delegate. Considering that a leadership convention may attract more people (thus reducing the per-person cost) and has fewer events (such as policy break-out sessions and the like), should a leadership convention really cost two-and-a-half times as much? Even with that hefty dose of inflation since 1996? Is the media completely uninterested in such questions?

Sometimes politics is magical, isn’t it? After all, the Liberals couldn’t possibly be whining purely for political purposes, could they? And surely the press wouldn’t mirror a story presented on a partisan website without providing the necessary perspective, would they?

If the Frosty Wonk knew which was the more disgusting proposition, he’d tell you. For now, he’ll live with letting you make up your own mind: the vile pretence that delegate controls are democratic or the press’s lazy eagerness to sell you fairies.

Everything Old is New Again0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check (Saturday June 10, 2006 at 7:28 pm)

Those of you with memories greater than a goldfish might recall Liberal leadership candidate Joe Vople’s trouble with tots.

Well, Mr. Volpe has decided to put that all behind him. In a rigorous process,

he’ll start reviewing all donors to his campaign and their ages

This, he claimed, was a new ethical standard, and one that other candidates should live up to.

But really, is:

  • A man is known by the company he keeps

all that new a standard?

Those of you with memories greater than a goldfish might recall that Aesop fellow who wrote a bunch of fables. Clearly Mr. Volpe doesn’t. But it’s nice to see candidates in this race catching up to the ancient Greeks.

Clearly, this isn’t one of those “fresh, new” ideas we’d been promised. But if just one candidate can get as far as classical antiquity, there’s a chance the party can come up with a 21st century vision. Isn’t there?

90% of Canadians0

Posted by JJ in Brass Tacks (Wednesday June 7, 2006 at 5:34 pm)

That’s curiously the total proportion who hate micromanagement. Curious, that is, because it’s roughly the same proportion that engage in the practice.

The frosty Wonk is confident, though, that just as many would agree with the following assessment:

    Statistics Canada needs some serious micromanagement.

Not part of the micromanaging majority? Join us, brothers, by beholding:

Young Canadians who have high levels of proficiency in reading are more likely to graduate from high school, and to pursue postsecondary education, according to a new study.

Statistics Canada has apparently uncovered an interesting fact in the statistical jungle: if you read poorly, you’re less likely to go on to further education after high school.

Good to prove, you say? Really? Why? Let’s look at the possible uses:

Politician uses it to prove the need for literacy
Goes something like: “We must teach young minds to read, so that they can go on to learn more.” Public reaction? “Duh.”
Parent uses it to browbeat child
Goes something like: “Statistics Canada has found that. . .” Anyone who thinks this is a winning parenting strategy should probably look into joining whatever class Mrs. Federline’s publicist has chosen for her challenging charge.
Poor reader reads it, turning own life around
Uh. . .

Sure, Statscan (as all the cool kids are calling it these days) is dope (if not, in fact THE dope (no, not THAT), but hopefully, this isn’t their model manager.

After all, does spending good money to research questions whose conclusions weren’t in doubt and can’t be used to much effect really fall into this mandate:

Statistics Canada produces statistics that help Canadians better understand their country

But then, 90% of Canadians will probably never bother to read that.

Save this House? Or that House?0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press (Tuesday June 6, 2006 at 7:43 am)

Canadians were grateful for the assurance, after a series of terror-related arrests, that the important work of:

  • Voting on whether to have three more rounds of voting on same-sex marriages
  • Tinkering absentmindedly with the constitution
  • Passing the budget

Would continue without sacrificing live broadcasting, electronic recording, individual desks, or any of the other things that make Canadian democracy work.

But hold on just a moment. The Constitutional tinkering is going on in the Senate, not the Commons.

What is going on in the Commons?

  • The Budget is being debated
  • The elimination of conditional sentencing is being debated
  • A bill prohibiting the hiring of scabs is being debated

And in the Senate?

Approximately 16 bills are on the table right now, including:

  • Two bills on water quality
  • Four bills amending the Criminal Code
  • Three money bills
  • Two bills on volunteer activities
  • Two bills on administrative matters (the government’s accountability legislation)
  • One bill giving veterans certain hiring priorities
  • One bill regarding skidoos
  • That Senator bill

So aren’t you glad they’ll be preserving the hard-working Commons?

*With apologies to Spirit of the West

Caveat Lector0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, A House Divided (Monday June 5, 2006 at 6:23 pm)

The CBC had a warning this morning for the citizens of Quebec:

Hash Shipment Bound for Montreal

Street prices were expected to plummet as a large, well-publicized supply was about to flood the local market. Dealers, desperate to unload their old stock before the bottom fell out of the market, began a bitter price war. Like those between WalMart and Target, Macy and Gimbel’s, and Messalina and Scylla, casualties were high and public concern low.

The prospect of a buyer’s market kept many would-be buyers at home today. “Why hustle that extra fiddy when it’s gonna be twenny tomorrow? I got other ways to get off, man,” said one, speaking on conditional release. “It’s just common sense. Those b!#%-breakers ain’t gonna get me for the difference,” explained another, who was unable to recall his name.

Late in the day, the street price hit rock bottom: two packs of gum and a Towers rookie card, before suddenly, someone bothered to read past the headline:

Twenty tonnes of hashish seized off the coast of Africa was destined for the Montreal market, police say.

Ah. But say, wasn’t the headline far more fun?

Workers of the World, Unite!0

Posted by JJ in Hats Off, Gentlemen, Golden Tacks (Sunday June 4, 2006 at 1:17 pm)

Lest it be thought of this Frozen Wonk that he carries the same kind of hatred for unions that he does for, say, mindnumbingly pointless displays of hatred, things which fraudulently claim to be of “general interest”, and the ironically useless and tragically overused word “utilise”, be assured, it isn’t so. It’s simply that it’s often hard to find examples in the media of why unions matter.

But this week, this came along, as if to prove that much is still good and true in the world of organised labour.

A survey recently distributed by the Halifax Regional School Board asked teachers to identify their sexual orientation. The Board, which has just lost a case over the 2001 dismissal of a lesbian teacher, obviously suffers, at present, from a bad reputation in this area. While the survey was a poor decision on the Board’s part (you don’t need to know how many teachers are homosexual, because there’s no decision you can legally take which depends on that information), the real story here is the importance of the teachers’ union’s response.

Telling members not to complete the survey wasn’t, in this case, about the justification provided (the inability of the Board to safeguard the information) or about the spectre of unions bullying their members. It illustrates the crucial function of unions: to support workers whose relationship with the employer is otherwise one-on-one.

By telling members not to complete the survey, the union is reminding its members that there is a large, powerful body ready to stand behind them when they have to confront their employer with a justified grievance. That they are, in brief, not alone.

And in the case of a sometimes-disadvantaged minority, that’s a powerful statement indeed.

Spare the Rod, Spoil the Race0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Vague Check (Saturday June 3, 2006 at 8:21 pm)

It’s not that there aren’t any rules for the campaign to replace Paul Martin as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. There are. It’s just that, by themselves, rules aren’t enough.

Discipline and rules aren’t always about the particular taboo expressed. “Don’t bother me when I’m on the phone” sure sounds like a rule, but it’s really something more along the lines of “Don’t bother me when I’m on the phone unless there’s something more important than the phone call I’m on which I must know about because it’s of sufficient urgency that waiting would be cause personal difficulty for me or significantly enough personal difficulty for you that I’m moved to privilege it above my own business.” Which, as is clear, isn’t the rule it looks like on the surface.

The real rule is: “Don’t privilege your conerns above others’ unless you’re sure that they would, too.” Which is a rule of a kind, but has something else in it: an appreciation of what is and is not acceptable to others.

Just how we get to that appreciation is the hard part. It’s rarely articulated precisely and often changes from time to time. It is, more or less, unexpressable as a rule, which is why it isn’t. It’s expressed as a lengthy series of superficial rules and lessons which, in effect, amount to the difference between social awkwardness and acceptance.

And this is true of more than rules for children. Consider the following rules:

151. (1) An elector shall, after receiving a ballot,
(a) proceed directly to the voting compartment;
(c) fold the ballot as instructed by the deputy returning officer; and
(d) return the ballot to the deputy returning officer.
Return of ballot
(2) The deputy returning officer shall, on receiving the ballot from the elector,
(a) without unfolding the ballot, verify that it is the same one that was handed to the elector by examining its serial number and the initials on it;
(b) remove and destroy the counterfoil in full view of the elector and all other persons present; and
(c) return the ballot to the elector to deposit in the ballot box or, at the elector’s request, deposit it in the ballot box.
(2) Except as provided by this Act, no elector shall
(a) on entering the polling station and before receiving a ballot, openly declare for whom the elector intends to vote;
(b) show his or her ballot, when marked, so as to allow the name of the candidate for whom the elector has voted to be known; or
(c) before leaving the polling station, openly declare for whom the elector has voted.
(3) No deputy returning officer shall
(b) place on any ballot any writing, number or mark, with intent that the elector to whom the ballot is to be, or has been, given may be identified.

All of which amount, at first blush, to the following rule:

  • No one can know how a given person voted.

Which is really nothing more than the following rule:

  • No one can confirm another’s vote so as to be able to contract for it.

Which really means:

  • No one can offer some payment in exchange for someone’s vote.

Which helps to explain some people’s reaction to concrete policy proposals like tax rebates and childcare spaces. It’s not that these things are against the rules. They’re just against that unspoken principle to which the rules point. It’s what, in a less precise way, is often referred to as the “spirit” of the law (no, not that). And the spirit is becoming more wraithlike, it seems.

This week saw some exciting ghostbusting activity, centred on the campaign of erstwhile Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Joe Volpe. It seems three precocious youngsters each decided to make the maximum donation allowed by law, $5,400, to his leadership campaign.

It just so happened that the children in question were those of a senior executive who also donated the maximum amount. It just so happened that the executive works for a company many of whose senior executives also each donated the maximum amount. It also just so happened that many members of those senior executives’ immediate families also each donated the maximum amount.

It’s almost as if someone wanted to get around the individual donation limits by having a much larger donation made through a group of closely-related people.

Well, if you think so: prove it.

It’s never clear whether so-called “white collar” offences are harder to prove because they’re rarely committed or because the corpus delicti isn’t material (no, not material, material). Of course, the question of whether that is what’s happened here isn’t material (other way ’round this time), though it is what NDP MP Pat Martin has asked the authorities to investigate.

The problem is the response. While Volpe’s team was technically correct to say that they hadn’t broken any rules by accepting those donations, they clearly did something which at least looks like breaking the real rule behind the written rules: that no one be able to disproportionately influence a political candidate. While independent donations aren’t really a major concern, that latter point is, and as possible as it may be that three siblings under fifteen independently made maximal donations to the same candidate their parents were supporting, it’s just not that likely.

But again, even if that is the case, it goes against the real rule, which is to protect the general public from any particular group gaining control of a public figure (and if a nuclear family isn’t a group, I’m not sure what is). The fact that Volpe’s team has returned the money while continuing to deny wrongdoing is farcical. If it wasn’t wrong to do it, then there wasn’t any reason to retract. That it wasn’t an offence doesn’t preclude its being a political mistake, which is no less wrong and, potentially, carries much higher costs.

And those costs are not confined to his own camp. The affair reflects poorly on the Liberal Party as a whole, not only because of his identification with the party, but because of the party’s official response:

“Elections Canada regulates contributions to leadership candidates. The Liberal Party does not,” Mr. MacKinnon said.

Which is interesting, because Elections Canada regulates other things, too, like campaign expenses for leadership candidates. And the Liberal Party isn’t shying away from regulating that:

Second, we have closed all loopholes and eliminated exemptions on candidate spending to fully align campaign oversight with the Canada Elections Act. In other words, this means that our spending limit will be retroactive and include spending prior to the formal call of the convention.

Why one and not the other, when both are investigable and enforceable by Elections Canada? In truth, the donation process is one of the most politically charged parts of the campaign, and party oversight could easily give rise to allegations of favoritism or abuse of central institutions to disadvantage or advantage particular candidates.

But in the real world, the effect is that the Liberal Party doesn’t seem to be concerned about the real rules, which everyone innately understands, even if they can’t express them clearly. And that makes them guilty of violating the spirit of the law. The spoof website and foolish inter-campaign brouhaha which have followed add little but prolonged public attention to the party’s half-committment to the rules.

Like an ill-bred child, the party, like Joe Volpe’s campaign, looks anti-social. It proves unable to find its way in a world of unspoken rules and boundaries. Either it pushes too far and oversteps its rights or withdraws where it should take action and fails to make amends. Either way, it transgresses the spirit of the game it’s playing, and will pay for it.

But such a result is to be expected where discipline has been abandoned. The party was perfectly willing to ignore its constitution and devise ad hoc rules for what should have been regular conventions when, in 2000 and 2002, the leadership question was politically inconvenient for top brass. Rules for the distribution of membership forms have also been imposed on the fly, and even if not intended to advantage particular candidates, doing so unquestionably distorts the result. Party leadership has, on at least one occasion, asserted that a clause of its constitution could be ignored on the grounds that it contradicted another clause (as it happens, the two were concurrent conditions, one of which could not be fulfilled because it had already been broken).

Lack of discipline has its effect — the loss of respect for the spirit of the rules. After all, if you can change them or sophistrate them out of existence, how important can they be?

And that’s what the whole affair shows, to disadvantage. A party undisciplined is a party spoiled.

Independence Gets Held Up0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks, Chancellor's Footrule (Thursday June 1, 2006 at 5:21 pm)

Among the legislative victims of the last federal election in Canada was a short document known by the catchy title of C-51. It was one of those workhorse pieces of legislation that’s rarely celebrated by anyone but the few folks it’s meant to help. I won’t bore you with its long title — let’s just call him bill.

This bill had a singular purpose in life. You see, one of the things that Parliament does is set out just how much money everyone paid by the Crown gets. That includes MPs and Judges, and that’s where things get a bit tricky. Some folks tend to think that if a government were, say, to change what MPs and Judges earn, it would make them more inclined towards that government’s way of thinking. Bias is what those folks are getting at.

And that’s why for some time now, a group of independent thinkers gets appointed every three or four years: to figure out how much Judges should be paid. So long as the government goes ahead and does what that group says, no one gets upset and thinks the government is up to something.

So long as that’s what the government does.

But after poor little bill died on the Commons floor, we got a new government, with a different plan. They’ve decided not to do what that group said:

“Instead of the 10.8-per-cent increase, plus the cost of living, we have said 7.25 per cent, plus cost of living, is more appropriate,” said Toews.

In a statement on its website, the Justice Department said it made the change because of concerns “with the commission’s reliance on urban lawyers’ private practice salaries as a comparator, and the value placed on the judicial pension.”

Which has got some folks very upset:

NDP MP Joe Comartin is accusing the Conservatives of trying to pick a fight.

“What we have here is another reflection of the contempt this government holds towards our judiciary,” he said.

Now, the Chilly Wonk isn’t saying that Mr. Comartin’s right and he isn’t saying saying that he’s wrong. But the MP does miss the point.

It would be one thing for the government to say that there just wasn’t enough money around and that, given the circumstances, the Judges would be getting the same increase as everybody else. Or that they’d get what the group said less whatever percent the budget’s short by. But that’s not what they’ve done.

Instead, they’ve taken issue with the justification and said that something’s wrong with what the independent thinkers thought.

If Mr. Comartin’s missing the point, he’s not the only one.

If you’re going to change your mind based on what that independent group winds up saying, then there’s no real independence. It’s going to be what you decide and not what they decide. You can’t say that they were wrong to think about this or that when the whole point was to let them do the thinking in the first place.

Truth is most folks won’t likely be upset. They’re not that worried that the Judges will start thinking like a government that pays them less than they were planning on. Besides, most folks don’t likely think they’re underpaid and don’t think much of the idea that they can’t get good Judges for what they’re paying now. And maybe they’re right.

But that’s not the point. A government that doesn’t get or doesn’t care what independence really means is dangerous. Folks need to remember that independence has to be upheld, and not held up.