Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Iran Ahoy!0

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

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

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

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

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

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

So clearly, they were misdirected at some point.

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

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

Effective Opposition 1010

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

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

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

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

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

Tales of the Quebec Election0

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

The most telling moment of the 2007 Quebec election?

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

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

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

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

Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leaves only one question: why pre-announce?

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

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

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

If You’re Like Us, We’re Against You0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meaning? Those crying foul are hypocritical and stupid.

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

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

Confusion in the Ranks0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

backed up by the bald:

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

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

Federal Budget, Part One0

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

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

Middle Class Incentives

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

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

So how does all this stack up?

Political Value
Very high

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

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

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

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

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

Business Incentives

A number of entries are aimed at improving business prospects:

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

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

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

Investment Value
Moderate

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

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

Debt = Taxes

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

Political Value
Low

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

Investment Value
Very Low

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

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

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

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

Double-Entry Budgets0

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow: Federal Budget, Part One

UNcomprehensible?0

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

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

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

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

Two Peas in a Pod0

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

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

Why, that’s simple!

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

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

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

Isn’t that what really matters?

The West-East Connection0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Trillium, Rocky Waters (Tuesday March 13, 2007 at 12:09 pm)

As coverage of the Air India bombing in 1985 suggests, South Asians are a significant and growing group within Canada. British Columbia and Ontario have benefitted greatly from this influx, with hundreds of thousands of South Asians moving into their major cities and the surrounding suburbs.

Against that backdrop, both the government’s attention to the ongoing inquiry and a new proposal to improve trade relations with India make a great deal of sense.

After all, those two provinces are exactly where the Conservative government underperformed in the last election. They lost five seats in British Columbia, four of which were in the Vancouver area, and failed to make a real dent in suburban Toronto.

Regardless, then, of the policy merits of the government’s recent conduct, its political purposes are clear: an international bridge from East to West may build a partisan bridge from West to East.

High-Water Mark0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Gaia (Monday March 12, 2007 at 7:51 pm)

The fight over global warming may be a bout that lifts all tides, but its god-child Kyoto, may ultimately prove a peril to the environmental movement. A bit counter-intuitive, yes, but there’s a reason for thinking so.

Kyoto provides a beautiful confluence of messages. If you’re for “keeping Canada in Kyoto”, you’re arguing for Canada to honour international agreements, which plays to the Canadian’s identity as a good international player, either flattering her for being one, or shaming her for not being one. It also makes the choice to be an environmentalist easy: you’re either for Kyoto and the environment, or against Kyoto and the environment. The fact that there are costs for being for Kyoto is as nebulous to the average person as the fact that there are costs for being against Kyoto. Therefore, saving those already interested in environmentalism, these considerations don’t really play into the mix.

What pro-Kyoto advocates therefore have at their disposal is the combined force of international goodwill (comity) and environmentalism with no evident costs. That’s a great message and an easy sell.

Which is where trouble lurks. The ease of selling “let’s do Kyoto” (try pronouncing “do” as “dough” — it helps) will boost the ranks of supporters, but the costs associated with implementing it may not prove as alluring to the general public. That means that at least some of those who now join the green chorus are likely to leave when talk turns from agreeing to meet Kyoto standards and doing what’s necessary.

And this is where environmentalists may run into future problems. Messaging for specific choices, such as reduced automobile use and changes in power consumption patterns isn’t gifted with the same embarassment of riches as pro-Kyotoness; and some possibilities, such as alternative fuels (nuclear, wind, solar) are contentious even among hard-core adherents to the environmental banner.

All of which means that winning the Kyoto issue may make it harder for the movement to get the actual policies it demands passed. Setting aside all nefarious purposes, it might be more beneficial, in the end, for them to avoid engaging Kyoto, providing (at least until 2012) a suitable hook for whatever other policies they hope to boost. It will be easier to justify other policies to compensate for non-compliance with Kyoto than to justify those policies once Kyoto is put in place.

If so, Kyoto’s adoption may prove an uncomfortable high-water mark for environmentalists; and that bodes careful consideration of the issue’s role in their longer-term strategy.

A New Hope0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Friday March 9, 2007 at 2:50 pm)

The fourth month of Stephane Dion’s leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada may well prove to be a turning point in his tenure. It’s the day that he decided to appeal to the right end of the political spectrum:

Dion Says He’d Cut Income Taxes

Months of positioning themselves as born-again lefties, fighting over the table scraps of the NDP have only resulted in their losing ground to the Green Party. Meanwhile, years of solid economic management under the governments of the late 1990s were no longer enough to secure the support of a group asking: “What have you done for me, lately?”

Renewed talk of the same social spending enhancements promised during the 2006 election campaign had little to offer the middle class which gains little from welfare-style initiatives while its purchasing power is eroded by increased housing and fuel costs. A pledge to deal with their tax burden directly means a great deal to this constituency; and that’s a smart move for a party in danger of abandoning the right’s issues.

Most of all, it signals that Dion is ready to fight the Toreis on what they consider to be their turf for the swing votes in Ontario that propped up the Liberals for so long. That’s the winning fight, and it means a fighting chance for the party he leads.

Think Globally, Screw Up Locally0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Wednesday March 7, 2007 at 7:22 pm)

By and large, the Conservative Party of Canada has been schooling the Liberals in political strategy for some months now. This, therefore, seems to be something of a miscue. But following closely as it does on this, we have what begins to look like a serious systemic failure.

Central campaigns may be the focus of contemporary electoral politics; but that doesn’t mean that local campaigns aren’t worth thinking carefully about. In 1999, relative unknown Leona Dombrowsky won a 2,000-vote victory for the Ontario Liberal Party in a new riding whose two predecessors had both been staunchly Conservative. In doing so, she outpaced the party’s own 8% growth in support, increasing Liberal votes in the new riding by 6,000 over the combined total of its predecessors, or more than 40%. The central campaign had written the riding off — her dedication and unique campaign (which emphasised her as representative) took it on and took it.

It’s a rare case, true; but it’s a rare case which unfolded because the conditions were right. The party didn’t try to force her to use their “standard” signs and didn’t pressure the campaign to emphasise the leader. The party’s lack of interest in the riding meant that the riding was free to do what was needed locally to win.

These two new stories suggest that the Conservatives aren’t paying the right kind of attention to local campaigns.

In New Brunswick, controversy has erupted over the lack (thus far) of a nominated candidate for Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe:

The Moncton constituency has been a Liberal stronghold and some riding-association members argue that it is difficult to retain a good candidate for a long period of time if no election is imminent. They want to wait until an election is called.

Most of the people who spoke to The Globe after the meeting with Mr. Finley say he was not sympathetic to that request.

Locals usually have a fairly keen notion about the availability of strong local candidates, and the “gruff” and “disrespectful” tone taken at the meeting betrays a kind of indifference to local custom and feelings. That’s a mistake.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the successful nomination of Ed Holder as the Conservative torchbearer in London West. The problem? His victory came at the expense of Albert Gretzky, whose impressive name came within 1,400 votes of taking the riding in 2004, while the surrounding London ridings went Liberal and NDP. Holder may have won the nomination battle, but it’s far from clear that he’ll be able to best Gretzky’s combination of name recognition and campaign experience on the trail.

The choice of Holder smacks of a hands-off approach to riding battles which may preserve local autonomy; but only in an illusory sense. Victory in such meetings has far more to do with paying for members than the ability to connect with local voters. It doesn’t do much to secure an electoral victory.

Indifference, as might be expected, creates problems at both extremes: too much involvement and too little. Which is why indifference isn’t the smart choice when it comes to local-central relationships. The smart choice is a mutual respect which places each on an equal footing, recognizes each one’s strengths, and defers to those strengths wherever possible.

After all, party leaders aren’t just leaders of central campaigns — they must lead the constituencies, too.

Driving to Distraction0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Monday March 5, 2007 at 8:26 pm)

At long last, Liberal leader Stephane Dion has realized what he should have known back in December: three months’ worth of Parliamentary debate aren’t worth seventeen days of speaking directly to local crowds.

The going rate for live Hansard performance isn’t what’s at issue here, though. It’s the virtue of his whirlwind bus tour (amid whirlwinds) of Canada, setting out his platform.

Which is a fantastic idea for several reasons:

Getting His Legs
Having sought the leadership on a tripod of “Prosperity, Social Justice and Sustainability”, Dion came to Ottawa with a monopod of “environment, environment, environment”. The most obvious change in his approach is the rediscovery of, at least, social justice, and possibly even prosperity:

We will argue that there cannot be true prosperity without social justice, that good social policies make for a stronger economy.

And, as everyone knows, three legs are better than one.
Standing on His Own Two Feet
The main problem with being in opposition is having to oppose. When the government keeps bringing out announcements, your time can be utterly consumed in preparing responses. That means that the government sets the agenda and tone of the debate. Perhaps the greatest failing of the Liberals’ campaign in the last election was leaving the Conservatives to set the agenda unopposed. By taking off, unhindered by the close presence of his opponents, Dion gains a series of open forums to spread his message. With luck, it will let him set the agenda, while the Prime Minister remains hamstrung by the daily surprises of government.

But there are challenges ahead. What they are should be fairly obvious from the tack Dion’s chosen to take:

“We will argue that there cannot be true prosperity without social justice, that good social policies make for a stronger economy. Canadians deserve to know that their federal government will be there when they need help. And they deserve a federal government willing to help them.”

Which means that he plans to cast the Liberals, once more, in the mantle which they already kind of have: the defenders of Canada’s social programs. By implication, then, the present government is the enemy of those programs.

But both of those claims are old hat. While Dion may be justified in believing that the Liberals didn’t lose the 2006 election over their social program policies, it’s important to remember that they didn’t win it with them, either. That’s true for at least two reasons.

First, that as between the Conservatives and the Liberals, voters already likely to pick the Liberals as the party favoring social programs. But, try as the Liberals did to come up with proposals for new social programs, the election wasn’t fought on that issue, denying them that advantage.

Second, that enough voters came to see Liberal attempts to demonize Conservatives as self-serving and silly. That’s a big reason why voters didn’t think that the Tories’ ascendance would spell the end of health care. And if voters don’t feel that the social safety net is threatened, it won’t be a campaign issue.

Which is why Dion is trying to show that the Tories are breaking down the social safety net. He baldly claimed as much in Question Period in the Commons last Tuesday:

Stéphane Dion: Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister uses fiscal policy to enforce his neo-Conservative ideology. He attacks women’s equality. He attacks funding for literacy. He attacks the poor and vulnerable and he restricts their access to the courts, all by slashing their budgets.

Will the Prime Minister stop his campaign of intimidation against decent Canadians? Or will we same more of the same unfair treatment in the next budget?

And on his tour, he’s trying to substantiate it:

He said that, if elected prime minister, he will reinstitute programs cut by the Tories, such as the multi-billion-dollar daycare subsidies negotiated by former Liberal minister Ken Dryden.

“For this province, Mr. Harper will cut $97-million in investment in child care,” Mr. Dion said in a speech in Dartmouth. “Imagine how much it will hurt your families. No more. We will restore the Dryden plan for Nova Scotia and for Canada as a whole.”

But this attempt will likely fail to net him votes. Why not? It’s not that the accusation of intimidation is patently the same silly demonization that has failed before. Neither is it that the child care plan in question was both a laughably minimal investment and poorly chosen (if endearing) priority (it was). It’s that the fact that the investment was so minimal that its cancellation isn’t likely to cause the widespread concern on which Dion hopes to rely; and hence, there is not enough loss to make the accusations ring true.

His claim that the loss of $97 Million hurt local families is true; but given that that amount would only create 650 daycare spaces (or, at most, partially fund 6500 existing spaces) in a province with over 40,000 children of eligible age, it’s incredibly unlikely that the program was widely-enough implemented for its loss to be broadly felt. More likely, in Nova Scotia as in Ontario, the funds were used to prop up existing funding programs for the poorest working families. Those voters were never likely to vote Conservative if they were likely to vote at all.

Which means that while Harper works on the professional, centrist voters, Dion continues the Liberal strategy of fighting over leftist votes with the NDP. Is it any wonder that his efforts thus far suggest votes moving from both parties to the Greens?

The strengths of Dion’s tour must be combined with proposals which move the party forwards to take maximum advantage of his unopposed whistlestop podium. For the moment, he seems to have settled on his predecessor’s approach, burnishing credentials no one doubts his party has. And however polished those issues may be, their shine is only a distraction from the real task: reclaiming the middle ground on which Liberal governments once stood.

Fighting for the Other Side0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Gaia (Friday March 2, 2007 at 10:50 pm)

The lesson of the recent poll suggesting that the federal Conservatives are outpacing the Liberals isn’t that the Tories are secure. Neither is it the ebb of Liberal support, evident even in polls cited in rebuttal by their most unapologetic supporters. Nor is the lesson, as Warren Kinsella put it, that Liberals might do better by attacking their political opponents than by attacking pollsters.

But it’s closest to that last one.

It’s simply this: don’t campaign for your opponents.

Without the credibility to deal with an issue, fighting to make it the issue only benefits those with the credibiity to speak to it. Given that, who would be surprised to see support slipping from the Liberals to the Green Party as the Liberals pummel the airwaves with environment talk?

Does that explain the Greens’ leader’s — Elizabeth May’s — eagerness to shower Dion with praise?

And what does it say about Dion’s support for May’s inclusion in televised debates? Does he really think that the Greens will be tag-teaming the Tories with him, even as their chances lie with swiping his support?