Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

The 143-Year-Old Virgin0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Bad Press, Golden Tacks (Tuesday July 13, 2010 at 11:47 pm)

The omnibus budget recently passed by the Senate has attracted some criticism, and rightly so. Bundling everything under the sun into a single piece of legislation makes sense only if you view parliament as an administrative hurdle, rather than a lawmaking body. Parliamentary committees have enough difficulties dealing with relatively narrow inquiries. They can hardly be expected to properly explore the implications of a budget (already a sizable stack of paper) further laden with detritus.

But the Globe and Mail’s editorial has made a serious error:

Loading much of the government’s agenda into one omnibus bill and then demanding its passage on threat of an election is entirely inappropriate in a mature democracy. Parliament has an obligation to carefully scrutinize all legislation. Bills with unnecessarily diverse objectives thwart this duty.

From which one might conclude that, in a mature democracy, the government should refrain from doing things which make it hard for parliament to do its job.

Rubbish.

In a mature parliamentary democracy, parliament controls the government. How mature is a democracy if parliament won’t stand up to the government under the threat of *gasp* an election?

Maturity, it seems, will still be some time in coming.

The Quickstep to Triviality0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Golden Tacks (Tuesday April 10, 2007 at 9:36 pm)

Justin Trudeau’s candidacy in the riding of Papineau is enough to catapult the tidings of his wife’s pregnancy into the national news section of the Globe and Mail, rather than the society page listing to which such information is so richly entitled.

Be on the lookout, then, for other upcoming news items:

  • Harper’s Immovable Hair a Toupee: Mother Unapologetic over Male Pattern Baldness Gene
  • Dion Prefers “Nouilles au Fromage” to “Mac ‘n Cheese”
  • Layton to Shave Moustache in Desperate Bid for Attention

Wait a minute. . .who’s to blame for this nonsense again?

Holding Out on Tenure0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks, Chancellor's Footrule (Monday April 9, 2007 at 3:22 pm)

News that an otherwise stellar academic’s lack of published works was behind the denial of his full professorship is bound to raise concern. After all, why should writing be the hallmark of professorship and tenure when Universities have become much more valued for teaching than research? Perhaps because there is a difference between tenure and professorship.

Tenure is designed to protect the academic from dismissal, preserving her freedom to explore, research, and express novel and unaccepted ideas. Why, then, should we be concerned with protecting the academic freedom of those who restrict themselves to training professionals, rather than participating in the academic discourse in which publication is still the most significant tool?

And, of course, why should the Courts be overruling decisions taken by University officers?

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.

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.

Golden Hacks0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks (Wednesday February 28, 2007 at 8:09 pm)

A recent complaint about a statement by a Conservative candidate highlights a serious problem with the way we think about democracy today.

Peter Kent, who will run for the Conservatives in the next federal election, proposed a model for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict which has not been endorsed by his party (and may run contrary to its own policy). Jason Cherniak rightly points out that his “three-state” solution is inherently unworkable, but proceeds to complain about the fact that it isn’t official Tory policy:

They [the Conservatives] cannot be allowed to give conflicting messages to two different communities in Canada without explaining their central guiding policy.

But of course, it’s not the Conservatives — it’s a Conservative candidate. One could ask whether the Liberals are guilty of the same sin when their MP for Scarborough-Southwest opposes same-sex marriage while the party supports it.

One could; but one would be suffering from the same fatal misapprehension as Mr. Cherniak — one would show little respect for representation.

MPs are required, first and foremost, to represent their constituents. As important as party lines may be for some purposes, why shouldn’t an individual MP put the demands of those he represents before his party loyalty?

Some might suggest that most voters choose the party, not the representative. As such, they expect the representative to support the party’s principles — that is the representation they demanded. But there are four problems with that analysis.

First, if a member is elected by a plurality rather than a majority of voters, is he necessarily representing what the voters want by doing what the party says? If an MP is responsible for the riding’s needs, isn’t it possible that there is a greater number of voters in favour of a particular thing than the number who elected her? What if that greater number includes among it at least some of the voters who elected her? Is the member responsible for representing only those voters who supported her, or is she responsible for representing the riding as a whole?

Second, even if the voters choose parties and not representatives, there is no reason to think that they do so knowing every part of the party’s policy. How many voters actually read the full electoral platforms? If they don’t, it’s hard to argue that every party issue is an issue on which the elected member has been directed. All that we can say for certain is that much of a plurality of voters wanted the MP’s party to hold power. Even if that is enough to show that the member must not do anything which could emasculate her party, it isn’t enough to show that she must never disagree with the party.

Third, the party line offers the MP no direction where there is a conflict. What if voters want to support both the party’s principles and specific projects which, at first blush, may not have been expected to conflict with the party line? What about matters not covered by the party’s electoral platform? And what if new issues crop up changing the needs of the constituency or the approach the party takes? Is the member to be bound by whatever his party’s leadership decides, or should he represent his riding’s interests? These situations aren’t rarities — government is a balance of planned actions and dealing with contigencies; and the idea that the latter are canvassed by party platforms is hard to swallow.

Finally, the interests of the voters who voted for the party may be advanced even if the member chooses to vote against the party line. If the majority of the party, heeding its leaders’ call, votes the way it pledged to, the interests of those who supported the member are advanced. By voting for her constituents’ interests against the party line, the member manages to advance others’ interests at the same time. So long as the member’s dissent doesn’t spell the downfall of the party, more representation, not less, is its result.

But none of this matters because the premise against which it argues is utterly false. So long as the party does not object to individual candidates promoting their distinct positions, and so long as those members do not represent their positions as the party’s position, there is no misrepresentation to be feared. The suggestion that voters would naturally assume that the candidate’s expressed position is that of the party must rest on the assumption that they don’t research the party’s platform independently, which therefore ruins the argument that they vote based on the platform in the first place. If what they really vote on is the platform as presented by the candidate, without reference to any other materials, there is nothing misleading, so long as that candidate continues to uphold the platform on which she was elected. The candidate’s positions are the platform for purposes of this debate, and not the party’s documents.

This kind of diversity within parties is more than healthy — it’s crucial to the influx of new ideas and to the effective development of the party’s platform into meaningful, fully-fleshed-out programmes. It should be embraced, not thoughtlessly shunned. Big-tent parties like the Liberals and Conservatives bring holders of diverse opinions together on the premise that they can be united by reference to other principles. There needn’t be unity on every plank of their policy platforms.

In truth, if the individual MP’s distinct efforts at representing constituents shouldn’t matter, shouldn’t we forgo having them elected at all? Why not spare the expense and go with nationwide votes for the leaders, assigning them the ability to allocate their “weighted” share around a conference table? Isn’t the House of Commons a bit on the large side for the strict exchange of party lines this kind of thinking demands?

Is that proportionate representation? No. It’s preparing a roundtable at which Stephen Harper (Conservative) gets to cast 362 votes, Paul Martin (Liberal) 302 votes, Jack Layton (NDP) 174 votes, Gilles Duceppe (Bloc Quebecois) 105 votes, Jim Harris (Green) 45 votes, Ron Gray (Christian Heritage) 2 votes, and one vote for each of Tracey Parsons (Progressive), Sandra Smith (Marxist-Leninist), and Blair Longley (Marijuana), based on the 2006 election results. Is setting things up that way more or less unwieldy than having 308 individual members, some of whom will miss votes anyways?

It really depends on understanding what the system is meant to accomplish. Strict party lines are fine and good if it’s supposed to be about choosing sides in a debate; but however much parties rely on that structure to simplify campaigning, that’s not how government actually works. It’s not a simple matter of your side or mine, but a complex set of questions about where, when, for how long, which way, and with what goal in mind.

That’s why representation is the cornerstone of the democratic system we enjoy. And thinking about the meaning of representation reveals the golden cavaliers who defend party unity and integrity in the name of the people for what they really are: dolled-up hacks on high horses.

Starring: Someone’s Fuddleduddling Son0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Vague Check, Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Thursday February 22, 2007 at 10:32 pm)

The beauty of belonging to a political dynasty is that it’s not that hard to do. Legend has it that Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty was first chosen to carry the Liberal banner in Ottawa South because there would be no need to change the signs — the incumbent was his late father, Dalton McGuinty. It’s hard to consider the election of a Kennedy an accomplishment — unless he runs in Texas.

Which reveals what the dynasty’s latest champion always is: a star candidate. Their name recognition is the source of their appeal. The Frosty Wonk’s rarely been convinced of the value of a star candidate, but that’s mostly because they tend to run in safe seats.

There had earlier been some discussion of late Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s son, Justin Trudeau, running in the old homebase of Outremont. Fawning over the scion had been in high gear since his reconnection with his father’s old party, leading to guest-star appearances across the province.

And with good cause. Trudeau brings good looks, youth, and eloquence to his legacy. And just as his father’s charisma showed, those three, in stark contrast to more staid politicians, is a winning strategy for elections. But a popular package does nothing to fill the void in his primary asset: mere heredity provides neither political skills nor effective leadership. Indeed, these problems have been noted:

Last week, for instance, Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno surveyed some online comments about Mr. Trudeau and concluded, among other things, that he seems “unfocused and superficial, a dilettante trading on the family name.”

Trudeau has acknowledged that he needs to add something to his natural boons:

Look, for some reason, I was given an undue amount of power and influence that I certainly didn’t ask for and didn’t earn.’ So then you say, ‘Well then I have to try and be worthy of it.’

And he suggested a point of reference for worthiness, stating last July that:

. . .before he enters politics, there are a few things that need to happen. First, he feels like his opinions and beliefs need to get stronger and “anchored”. He knows that some people will like him because of his name and some people will hate him. By having strong beliefs on issues, his opinions will succeed or fail on their own merit, not because of his father. He doesn’t want to be used. He wants to be his own person. He also said that he realizes that there is a great responsibility that comes with being a Trudeau. He realizes it and will not enter politics until he feels that he can be judged and tested on his own merits, not based on nostalgia, or when he feels that he couldn’t possibly do any worse than the politicians that are in power.

But now that his candidacy has been announced (if not confirmed), does that mean that he has succeeded in strengthening and anchoring his beliefs in a mere seven months? Or does it mean that he’s using the escape clause, and going ahead because he thinks he can do at least as well as those around now? The latter interpretation does little to deny the charges of dilletantism or inexperience.

Some may hope that the struggle of an election will provide Trudeau with the experience he still lacks. After all, it’s a “contested” riding, currently occupied by the Bloc Quebecois.

Sadly, what lurks beneath the surface is a very different matter. Battles for the nomination in a riding consist of signing up more members than your opponents — a process which, however much a part of politics, has as much in common with winning elections as collecting coins does with effective customer billing. And the real campaign, once Trudeau (inevitably) wins the Liberal nomination, isn’t likely to be much more help.

In the last election, the BQ took the seat from besieged cabinet minister Pierre Pettigrew by 990 votes — a small margin considering that in 2004 and 2006, both elections under Paul Martin and post-sponsorship scandal, the Liberal vote in the riding was more than 6,000 votes below Pettigrew’s totals in 2000 and 1997 in the riding from which Papineau was carved out. On the whole, Papineau and its predecessor ridings had been solidly Liberal since 1957, including a margin of 701 votes in the Tory sweep of 1984.

Considering that 2004 and 2006 were nadirs for the Liberals in Quebec, and given their resurgent poll numbers in that province, the likelihood that Papineau will return to the Liberal fold is high, regardless of the candidate selected. In those circumstances, a candidate with star appeal is a waste of resources. But of course, in those circumstances, a candidate with star appeal is likely to attribute success to his presence, however unnecessary it might have been. Prove that it wasn’t.

Which raises the question of star candidate strategy again: why waste them in ridings which can be won without them?

But it raises additional questions for young M. Trudeau. If he’s convinced that he’s ready to take on politics, why not take on a riding where, in combination with hard work, his natural gifts can bring an uncertain seat into the Liberal column? That would be an accomplishment. Papineau will not be an accomplishment. It will merely be the latest playground for a boy who was given everything, bringing him one step closer to following in his father’s footsteps without making him any more qualified to rank among the nation’s leaders.

New Model Needed0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, The Bullock's Bride, Golden Tacks (Monday February 19, 2007 at 9:08 pm)

As Italian designers rush to implement new rules to “ban anorexia” from the runway, questions abound as to why:

Protecting the Models from Competition
In this scenario, it’s designers’ eagerness for singularity-thin clothesracks that drives models to slim down. After all, if a designer wants the thinnest models possible and you’re not the thinnest, you’re effectively shutting yourself out of a job. But if the designers are committed as this manifesto suggests, this shouldn’t really be the problem, should it?
Protecting the Models from Themselves
The idea that subsistence on a single food group is good for you isn’t the kind of rational choice that can be dealt with by imposing consequences and repercussions. If anorexia is a disease, it’s not a matter of sane decision making processes. When weight loss takes on thematic content, we’re no longer talking about necessity — it’s called lifestyle choice. If anorexia isn’t a disease, then sane people who choose deadly lifestyles shouldn’t really be a primary object of our concern. It’s like lavishing attention on a child holding his breath.
Protecting Us from the Models
Perhaps it’s we, watching people who walk like doped-up stick figures with unwearable clothes pinned to them, who need to be protected. After all, what kind of idiot would think that fashion shows represent a sensible and imitable way of life? If there are such people, isn’t it they who are in need of correction, and not the people they’re watching?

But, as ever, when something must be done, doing something seems good enough.

Unintended Consequences0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks (Wednesday January 31, 2007 at 10:33 pm)

Unsure how to respond to growing inflation and stagnant economies in the 1970s, governments ramped up spending, amassing significant public debt. These liabilities became the rallying cry of a reborn conservatism when the programs they had funded failed to boost the economy.

There was a new wisdom: government should not spend beyond its means. Which, in common understanding, meant that borrowing should be eliminated as a feature of annual budgets.

Which conclusion puts governments in a unique fiscal position. Both individuals and businesses borrow money. Businesses in particular pride themselves on being able to “leverage” their assets by borrowing against them. Where the money borrowed can be profitably invested in other ventures, leverage can be a prudent way of getting more done with fewer resources. Individuals can do the same thing, borrowing against their homes for the money to invest elsewhere. It can be a risky approach, but so long as the benefit from the new investment is at least equal to the cost of borrowing, you’re no worse off.

Governments can have an advantage when it comes to leveraging assets. They can borrow funds at extremely low rates. And while it can be hard to value the benefit from investments in health care or the environment, many public projects, like roads and power generation can be profitably funded by issues of public debt. Some spending on borrowed money can, therefore, be just as effective and sensible for government as it is for private businesses.

But an unreasonably simplistic aversion to deficits continues, ignoring the purpose of intended borrowing. This is why those governments who attempt to leverage do so most often through bond issues tied to the projects in question. It provides additional security for the public, at no greater costs than the political and potentially lengthy delay.

Issues of bonds don’t generally qualify as leverage, since repayment is usually pledged against future income rather than existing assets. In the case of specific infrastructure projects, bonds can qualify as leverage.

Meanwhile, refurbishing assets, the bedrock of genuine leverage, is not so easily accomplished. Rather than incur the costs of renovations (owing in part to negligent maintenance), the Canadian government is preparing to sell buildings.

Is it clear that the cost of leasing back the space and reducing annual financing costs would be less than financing the refurbishing costs? Not necessarily. Is it clear that repaying net debt with the proceeds of such a sale would produce a greater reduction in annual financing costs than using the same proceeds to invest in infrastructure and programs? Not at all. Is it clear that debt repayment would be the public’s preferred choice? Yes.

Which means that years of demanding that the government be run “like a business” have ensured this above all: that it won’t be.

Between the Horns0

Posted by JJ in Hats Off, Gentlemen, Golden Tacks, Brass Tacks (Tuesday January 30, 2007 at 11:21 pm)

The dismissal of Mme Gélinas, environment commissioner, by Sheila Fraser, Canada’s auditor-general, was unquestionably the right decision. An office dedicated to neutral investigations cannot afford to become known for advocating or denouncing policies. Its task is to evaluate them.

But the dismissal, and Mme Gélinas’s outburst of support for environmental policies reveals a problem which neither modern democracies nor those who manage them have yet been able to solve.

Information is the lifeblood of democratic systems. If the public is not well-informed, it cannot make good decisions on policy. It may, however, be in a government’s interest to conceal information which would discredit them.

What to do, then, as a civil servant privy to information which suggests that urgent action be taken? What happens if the government refuses to act on or release it?

The Public Service’s oath requires silence; and with good reason. The public servant owes a duty, firstly, to the Minister whom he serves. Otherwise, he would be justified in releasing information whenever he disagreed with the Minister’s decisions.

Ministers are elected to make those decisions. Letting civil servants make them elevates the opinion of unelected civil servants over indirectly elected Cabinet members. The latter is somewhat more in keeping with democratic principles. After all, Ministers can be rejected at the ballot box. How does the public remove an obstructive civil servant?

Most dangerous, perhaps, is the legacy problem. One government might bind the hands of its successors by appointing civil servants likely to agree with its policies. If they were able to speak out when they disagreed with government policy, civil servants could then undermine the political enemies of their former masters.

None of which is much consolation to the official who passionately believes that the public must know something. Mme Gélinas’s outburst wasn’t a condemnation of government policies. Her report measured those by their own expectations. It was a cry for more, and one which was too general to constitute either critique or praise for government policy.

But how to leave the choice to speak in the hands of civil servants without inviting abuse isn’t yet clear. So the public service is left on the horns of a dilemna; and it is unfortunately those ahead who best see what’s coming next.

Great Arguments — The Tyrant’s Tirade0

The Frosty Wonk’s primary line of work is political analysis, not rhetoric. But the cut-and-thrust of modern debate demands some effort at unraveling its arguments.

Today’s guest, Rock Samson, has coached prizewinning fighters in twelve disciplines since his discharge from an undisclosed paramilitary group. This makes him uniquely qualified to discuss questions of conflict; and he has agreed to offer his valuable services as a regular commentator on debating technique and argumentation.

Today, we’ll be discussing this piece, in which Gary Kamiya, Salon editor, recycles his own work from 2005 on the conflict in Iraq.

Rock: Wonk, Kamiya’s angry. The war’s ragin’ and he’s mad as a bear in a trap that nobody’s bitchin’ about it.

Wonk: But Rock, people are complaining. He’s complaining, isn’t he? There are protests all the time.

Rock: Not enough, Wonk. A few thousand protesters can’t gum up the works the way Kamiya wants. He’s lookin’ for an all-out brawl with the big boys — streets choked with men and women until the President cracks.

Wonk: Why does he think that’s likely to happen?

Rock: It’s gotta. Kamiya knows that any sane person wants to fight against the war with everything it takes.

Wonk: So why don’t they?

Rock: They don’t know what’s good for ‘em. If they were payin’ attention and had all the facts, they’d all agree with him.

Wonk: Is that what he means when he writes that:

It is too late to stop the fatal endgame of Bush’s war. But at least we can honor those who have died in that war, Iraqis and Americans alike, by refusing to look away from their deaths.

Rock: Right on. He knows that if you’re payin’ attention to the deaths, you’re against the war.

Wonk: But isn’t it possible for people to come to different conclusions based on the same facts?

Rock: Not if they’re usin’ their brains. That’s what rational thinkin’s for! There’s only one answer to any question. If you plug the right facts in, you’ll get the right answer. There’s just no other way.

Wonk: But reason doesn’t work that way. It’s not the same thing as logic — reasonable people can differ over the same things.

Rock: Kamiya’s not buyin’ that. Reason only has one answer — his; and he’s goin’ to the wall for it.

Wonk: So why does he bother to assume that people are reasonable?

Rock: Flatters ‘em. Check out Aristotle some time, Wonk, he explains why that matters.

Wonk: And if he claimed that people were incapable of coming to the right conclusion, he’d effectively be pointing to a problem with democracy, wouldn’t he? If people aren’t capable of coming to the right notion, then there’s a strong justification for excluding them from most kinds of decision-making.

Rock: Hold on there, ’cause you’ll love the rest. If everybody’s reasonable, and reason always gives the same answer on the same facts, then he’s got dynamite proof that folks don’t know the facts — they disagree with him! That makes his claim righter.

Wonk: I don’t think you can use that word that way.

Rock: ‘Proof’? Sure you can.

Wonk: Alright. So Kamiya’s argument says that people would complain if they knew what was going on, and that we know they don’t know what’s going on because they aren’t complaining.

Rock: You got it.

Wonk: How does he know that he’s the one who’s right? Isn’t everyone going to come to the same conclusion and justify it the same way?

Rock: Sure they could, but he knows his argument against the war’s right. So now, he’s got to explain why other folks don’t agree.

Wonk: So this is really a frustrated outburst? A temper tantrum?

Rock: Right.

Wonk: But if he thinks he’s right, why is he bothered by the fact that others disagree?

Rock: It’s a serious issue, Wonk. He’s sure that if enough people agreed, they’d be able to end the war!

Wonk: So the fact that he wants this to happen by convincing the public demonstrates his commitment to democratic principles?

Rock: Probably.

Wonk: But the idea that there can be only one right answer for any reasonable person is profoundly undemocratic! It’s authoritarianism applied to thinking! It’s tyranny!

Rock: Not no more it ain’t, Wonk. Not no more it ain’t.

Espèces de Crétin0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Golden Tacks, A House Divided (Sunday January 14, 2007 at 10:03 pm)

The announcement that the federal and provincial Quebec separatist parties will be working together to fight this year’s elections was, most likely, intended to strike fear into the hearts of federalists. It shouldn’t.

There are two possibilities: that they’ve done this before; or that they haven’t.

If they have, it hasn’t yet created the surge of separatist power that tears Canada asunder.

If not, there’s just one question: why should it take fifteen years of coexistence before two non-competing parties with identical interests decide to work together on their common mission?

Is that evidence of a strategic genius that federalist forces should fear, or of a bumbling self-sabotage which should undercut this separatist boast?

Self-Control0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks, Full-Timers (Saturday December 30, 2006 at 11:12 pm)

There are many reasons to oppose or support the gun registry, but one stands above all the rest: that constitutional fiat, good governance.

Those who portray much of political history as a transition from absolutism to freedom have a tendency to ignore this point, but a government can only ever act in accordance with the popular will. As easy as it is to understand that people will only take so much before rebelling, most folks continue to entertain the happy fables of absolute monarchy which made the rounds of the 17th century.

What history teaches is that a government which defies reality isn’t likely to last very long. And one which continually passes laws which it can’t enforce isn’t far removed from the boy who cried wolf, only more laughable.

This point was an essential part of James Madison’s 18th century condemnation of a Virginia proposal to fund religious education:

13. Because attempts to enforce by legal sanctions, acts obnoxious to go great a proportion of Citizens, tend to enervate the laws in general, and to slacken the bands of Society. If it be difficult to execute any law which is not generally deemed necessary or salutary, what must be the case, where it is deemed invalid and dangerous? And what may be the effect of so striking an example of impotency in the Government, on its general authority?

Whatever else might be said of the gun registry, this much is true. From the outset the government was confronted with the real possibility of mass civil disobedience:

. . .even the most fervent gun control supporter could not have anticipated the level of resistance to Bill C-68. . .six provinces and two territories backed a constitutional challenge to the firearms legislation. . .all four western provinces as well as Newfoundland opted out of administering the firearms program, meaning Ottawa had to directly incur the costs of doing so. Individual gun owners also proved obstinate, waiting until the last minute to apply for a licence or register their firearms and creating backlogs that were costly to unclog.

Confronted with uncooperative behaviour, the government began to bend:

In an attempt to placate critics, the Justice Department reduced registration fees and offered refunds, forcing the government to foot a bigger portion of the bill.

No wonder the program ran from a few millions into the billions of dollars, sparking a profoundly negative audit.

These are not the marks of mere disapproval. Some degree of controversy has been raised even over the registry’s completeness. The refusal of half the provinces to enforce federal law; the acknowledgement that registration would not take place without cutting or refunding the registration fees; the possibility that many millions of firearms possessed by otherwise law-abiding citizens have not been registered — these are the marks of rebellion; and only force or government acquiescence can quell that.

Whether, then, you believe in maintaining a registry or not, it should be clear that this registry is too ill-omened to live. If you’re keen to have guns registered, destroy the present registry and create a new one which does more to respect legal owners (read the last few letters). You eliminate what has become a twin symbol of mismanagement and authoritarianism and simultaneously make an effort to co-opt some current detractors. If you’re keen to eliminate the registry, there’s a more profound reason than being pro-gun ownership.

And that reason is the principle of parsimony in government: the ability to control anything else depends, first and foremost, on the ability to control oneself.

Something for the Ladies?0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, Golden Tacks (Wednesday November 29, 2006 at 7:15 pm)

The unfortunate thing about contentious issues in Canadian society is that the more important the issue is, the less likely it is that reasoned debate will prevail. The nation debate is but one example. A more obviously mishandled one is the Women’s Program.

This program is a nationwide distribution system for grant money designed to focus on promoting women’s equality through social development programs. It was created in response to suggestions by the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1973.

And now, the Conservative government has moved to close twelve of its regional offices as part of its plan to cut $5 Million from Status of Women Canada.

Naturally, this has produced a vocal outcry from the opposition:

Canadian women are still only earning 71 cents to every dollar earned by their male counterparts, more and more women are living in poverty, and we are still waiting for the government to create child-care spaces. With the closure of these regional offices, the government is taking away one of the very few remaining resources for women.

Which are all serious problems. What’s not certain is what they have to do with the closures.

And there’s no excuse for that. After all, the current government’s proposals for restructuring the agency can easily be compared with the previous government’s review of the agency just last year.

Key points from that report:

  • Overall, stakeholders perceive the design and delivery of the WP to have several important strengths. These include . . .its social development approach. . .its decentralized structure and presence in communities. . .
  • . . .the Program’s decentralized delivery model can also contribute to increasing the costs associated with providing this form of assistance [social development funding]. . .
  • . . .program staff and managers believe that the WP suffers from poor internal communications and information sharing among the regions and the national office.
  • Staff from several regions stressed the importance of in-person contact with organizations in their own communities and said that they lack the personnel, as well as the travel budget, to serve all communities and groups within their region equally

In summary, then, a few key points emerge:

  • Women’s groups value the program’s local representation as well as local officers’ help
  • Local offices are costly and aren’t well integrated with the national office, resulting in poor coordination and redundancies

Which means what for the government’s proposal?

Whether they’re doing it well, they are addressing legitimate concerns about the expense and inefficiency of running so many offices. But the fact that the officers are going to be relocated to Heritage Canada offices raises further questions:

  • Will these officers remain exclusively officers of the Women’s Program, or will they be officers shared between the two agencies?
  • Will they have better resources and communication with the national headquarters at Heritage Canada offices?

In a best case scenario, the officers are simply relocated to larger regional offices and Heritage Canada facilities in the same communities and others begin to provide more local service. In that case, more communities will have a local presence, though the staff in each community won’t have as much time to work locally. On the other hand, more work will be done to coordinate efforts on a larger regional base. What that means is broader, if not better, community presence, the same amount of work in the agency and better agency performance.

In a worst case scenario, the officers will be shared between Heritage Canada and the Women’s Program. In that case, the resources for women’s groups will be reduced, and there’s no guarantee that these dual-use officers will have the time to conduct the kind of effective national communication which the report recommended. That would be a serious problem.

Of course, it’s not clear which of the two it will be. Not from the government and not from the liberals. From one, we get uninformative rhetoric, and from the other, well, more uninformative rhetoric. The NDP, if you’re wondering, have gone further still, suggesting that the closures will result in staff cuts.

What no one is doing is asking what point on the range between the best and worst-case scenarios above the proposal falls. Partly, perhaps, this is because it’s not possible to be certain before the changes are implemented; but the simple explanation is clear: because while every one of them truly cares about women’s support, not one of them truly cares about supporting women.

Misplaced Priorities0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Golden Tacks, Full-Timers (Friday November 10, 2006 at 11:40 pm)

While hackles are raised over government musings, government action goes ignored.

Fierce reaction to the possiblity that the Harper government would seek to preclude federal spending in certain areas is overkill for several reasons. First, federal spending on social programs (the contentious sectors) is a relatively minor contribution. The previous government’s daycare proposal would have been a drop in the bucket had it been for a national program (it was little more than that in Quebec). On health care, the federal government wants credit for lowering its own taxes to “allow” the provinces to increase their spending through higher rates of their own. While that’s a fair explanation for the complained-of decline in federal contributions to health spending, the claim that the federal government continues to support healthcare on an annual basis by not raising taxes rings a bit hollow. Based on the government’s figures for 2004-2005, the federal contribution, with $17 Billion in tax points is $27.2 Billion. Less the tax points, that comes to $10.2 Billion of $83 Billion in spending, or just over 12% of funds (the exact proportion varies by province).

Second, unlike the government’s Senate reform proposals, there wouldn’t likely be a public backlash if the Liberal majority in the Senate blocks a constitutional bar on federal spending. Therefore, even if the possibility being discussed materializes into legislation and is passed through the House of Commons with the aid of the Bloc Quebecois, the Liberals would have no reason to fear killing it in the Senate.

It’s the second reason that explains attention to the issue. The idea of Constitution-wrangling is inherently dangerous (if not psychotic); and the same threat of public unease which has dimmed Michael Ignatieff’s hopes in the Liberal leadership contest will surely afflict the already-beleaguered Tories.

So can blogger attention to the issue be faulted? It’s a pure political ploy, after all — drawing attention to the foibles of your opponent.

The Cold Hard Wonk loves politics, but there is good and bad. Full points to the bloggers for calling the Prime Minister out on a dumb-as-dishwasher proposal, but minus several times as many for ignoring the far more serious problem.

Unlike the fearsome Constitutional amendment, the government’s plan to place police representatives on the boards which approve judicial candidates is more than possible. That makes it a clear and present danger.

Someone arrested and brought before the court suffers from a problematic bias. Police arrest can create an unfair presumption of guilt — a matter that can’t be left for the police to determine for one simple reason: it’s their job to find guilty people. The only thing that stands between an accused and conviction is the premise that their guilt must be proven, and the judge is the guardian of that narrow premise.

To properly guard against false convictions a judge must be as neutral as possible. That means in particular that a judge must avoid the understandable urge to believe that once the police do their duty the arrested party is likely to be guilty. It’s a hard thing to do in a society where people are raised to respect the police. It must also be a hard thing for a dutiful officer to cope with — that after all their effort and care, their word counts for nothing more than any other person’s. That’s why it’s essential that the two be rigidly separated. Police must have no role in judging and judges no role in investigating. By maintaining that separation, neither can be unduly influenced.

What happens, then, when the police, as an organization, are given the power to vet judges? Could a candidate’s just indifference be mistaken for hostility? Could the police representative, acting faithfully and in what she believes to be good faith, weed out the very candidates whose balanced views burden justice? Is that a temptation too great to be risked?

Without question. That’s why the Canadian Judicial Council is seriously concerned. It’s an issue which should be of real significance to Canadians, though it is undoubtedly harder to present than the simple gut reaction to Constitutional debate. In choosing to talk about the unimportant but volatile issue over the dangerous while ignoring the dangerous but subtle one, they’re playing easy politics at public expense.

There is another option — cover both; and politicians claiming to stand up for Canada should be asked why they didn’t.

Flush but Uneven0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks (Friday November 3, 2006 at 1:28 pm)

Greetings, dear readers. Once again, it is I, Dr. Glaucon Equipoise, Q.E.D. The Wonk, ever gracious, was glad to grant me some bytes of his to make a brief point.

Though we are loath to tolerate lacunae, the threat of uncertainty — or worse — demands some distances be maintained. One such disparity is that between “sexual” and “sexist”:

Sexual
relating to the instincts, physiological processes, and activities connected with physical attraction or intimate physical contact between individuals
Sexist
prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex

Though the two should seem quite separate, recent events suggest that confusion lingers. To wit: a recent political demand to remove lip-shaped urinals lest they breed “sexism”.

I do not doubt that Wonk devotees can divine the fullest implications of this demand. Suffice it to say that once sexuality and sexism are fully confounded, neither they nor we will long remain in issue.

Urging you to remember Woody Allen’s admonition:

Sex is better than talk. . .Talk is what you suffer through so you can get to sex.

I remain your devoted philologist,

G.E.

The Persistence of Chivalry0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Golden Tacks (Wednesday November 1, 2006 at 10:43 pm)

It’s not so very long since the “progressive blogggers” alliance promoted a “Five Things Feminism Has Done For Me” theme, proving once more that nothing advances understanding (or elicits wisdom) like arbitrary numerical targets.

One point consistently failed to make the list, though:

A helping hand can hobble, too.

Why should it be there? Because overcoming socially rooted stigmas takes careful, self-conscious reflection. Sometimes, the best-intended plans to help oppose prejudice can also reinforce it.

Consider the many progressive bloggers decrying Foreign Affairs Minister Peter McKay for referring to MP Belinda Stronach as a “dog”.

It’s not the first time shameful personal insults have been tossed across the Commons floor. It’s not even the first time in recent memory. But the response raises some questions.

Stronach’s response has been admirable. She asked for an apology the following day, and has since clarified the request as follows:

I asked for an apology to the House. This is our place of work. This is the nation’s boardroom and I still feel that it’s inappropriate for a colleague or a minister to refer to another colleague as his dog.

Given the context (the two had a relationship awkwardly end) and highly personal nature of the remark, it would seem, well, exploitative to suggest that it represents a deep and abiding misogyny. It would have been equally specious to suggest that the “Libranos” poster created to lampoon the investigation into graft involving former Liberal Minister Alphonso Gagliano and other Liberal members represented an abiding belief that people with Italian heritage are all mobsters. Women aren’t foolish enough to believe that what one person says by way of insult represents everyone else in the party’s beliefs. Isn’t that insulting their intelligence?

Moreover, Stronach (repeatedly) demanded an apology. Is there a reason why a chorus of men should add their voices? Is it proof of their sensitivity? Does it conjure up an image of gallantry? Doesn’t that imply a woman unable to defend herself? Isn’t that itself an unacceptable prejudice?

Stronach understands the problem — that’s why she emphasised that her complaint was over the violation of Commons decorum. Have others done the same, or have they emphasized the harm done to (poor, downtrodden, defenseless) women in their rush to protect (poor, downtrodden, defenseless) women?

Chivalry can be one of the most resonant parts of romance; and it’s not because it portrays women as weak. It’s not about weakness and strength at all. Chivalry is about trust — that one person can trust another so completely as to rely on them for their preservation; and it goes both ways.

But it’s hard at times to know whether chivalry really helps its intended ward. The extra level of consideration needed to know when gallantry supports and when it subverts is what feminism asks; and those who stand for it deserve better than exploitation, prejudice, and insult.

Consider Reconsidering0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Monday October 30, 2006 at 11:15 pm)

For Liberals who bravely cheered Paul Martin’s hail Mary during the 2006 election, Michael Ignatieff’s pledge to open constitutional negotiations with no more directed aim than recording Quebec’s nationhood in the unbending stone of the written Constitution is divine nectar. But, setting criticism of the plan’s inherent wisdom aside, consider what this latest news means for its most urgent function: winning votes.

Since the Ignatieff-heavy Quebec wing of the party demanded the change (sparking suspicion that the resolution was pushed through largely to prove the extent of Ignatieff’s command of Quebec), it must be considered at the same nationwide convention at which Liberals will choose their new standard-bearer. Suddenly, the candidates are rushing to avoid the spectre of such consideration:

There appear to be several options available to the party. It is possible to amend a resolution in the smaller workshops, or to not designate it as a “priority” to be moved forth for debate on the full floor. A resolution may also be amended on the convention floor, providing there is enough support for such a change, a senior Liberal told the Star.

Why, do you ask? It’s not just the haunting problem of a party emerging from a leadership convention deeply wounded by a divisive policy debate. Given how controversial the issue really is, it shines brightly enough to compete with the main event. When you’re trying to maximize publicity of the new leader, you really don’t want to have constitutional scholars clogging up the media with analysis of plenary discussions.

And yes, it is controversial. Ignatieff defends his plan:

“Other candidates have said … recognizing Quebec as a nation in the Constitution is too difficult,” Ignatieff said in that [the Quebec City] debate. “Yes, it’s difficult, but we must do it. Otherwise, what alternative are we offering against (Prime Minister) Harper’s status quo and the Bloc’s politics of fantasy?

And yet, his staff suggest shelving it:

“All of the candidates agree that now is not the time for constitutional discussions,” said Ignatieff’s national director of policy and Internet strategy, Brad Davis.

Controversial, it seems, even within his campaign, since this couldn’t possibly be another example of the equivocation Iggy never does. But a few questions are worth asking:

Why introduce a policy in such a way as to potentially upstage yourself?

Why recommend constitutional amendment if you agree that it’s the wrong time for it?

Why propose policy likely to alienate a large portion of your party while trying to unite it after a bitter feud?

Who could possibly recommend a candidate with the political clumsiness to do the above?

Slippage Theory0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Friday October 27, 2006 at 10:31 pm)

One of the biggest question marks in any multiple-round vote has to do with loyalty. Not the kind of loyalty that keeps people behind a candidate, either — that’s relatively rare. It’s the kind of loyalty that keeps people behind a former candidate when he or she decides to call it quits. Then, faced with the fact that their chosen one is no longer an option, they must decide whether to follow him no matter whose side he moves to or find their own way.

It’s an especially difficult question in leadership contests. Failed candidates try to maximize their strength by moving to potential winners. By carrying their supporters with them, they bolster their choice’s chances and their own. But if supporters aren’t loyal, the move means little in the end.

Which is why Bob Richardson is right and wrong about the prospects of coalitions among the lower-ranked campaigns in the Liberal leadership race. He’s right to point out that two early dropouts weren’t able to carry their supporters with them. He’s wrong when he suggests that this means that movement among camps at this point will be equally ineffective.

The difference is simple. Bevilacqua and Fry dropped out of the race prior to the delegate selection, meaning that their supporters had not yet been transmuted into that gold of conventions: delegates. So when they moved to other campaigns, their scant support was a meagre offering at best. What they had were a few organizers and some hundreds of members, worthless without the organizers to control them.

We’re no longer talking about the control of thousands of members across hundreds of ridings. We’re talking about the control of hundreds of delegates. Delegates aren’t merely members — they’re members who’ve committed to attending the convention to support a particular candidate. That already makes them different from a member at large; and believing that they’re as open-minded and prone to wander as regular members is a mistake.

Just as important, the number of organizers needed to control those delegates is significantly smaller than those needed to mobilize and control the thousands of members used to elect them. As a result, bleed of supporters isn’t as significant. And just as there is a difference between members-at-large and delegates, there’s a difference between organizers-at-large and convention organizers. The latter are chosen to work in the rarified air of a noisy convention floor.

Which means that the supporters who matter at this point won’t be as footloose as those who went before; and not just because they’re with campaigns that have real chances of making the grade. The idea that mergers will only shake delegates loose to be drawn, mothlike to the Ignatieff lamp was implausible before the candidate’s spate of overweening gaffes. At this point it’s wishful thinking. Some will go that way, no question. But that kind of shedding won’t be what puts any candidate over the edge in this contest.

Mixed News, At Best0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Golden Tacks (Wednesday October 18, 2006 at 9:10 pm)

The old line is only half true: the only poll that matters is the one on election day. As the Chilly Wonk recently pointed out, the most significant nationwide numbers aren’t necessarily relative standings. Much more significant is the absolute vote count, only partly because voter turnout can have as significant an impact on the outcome of an election; and polls taken months away from an election can’t reveal much about those numbers.

Which is why much of the analysis offered by the Globe and Mail on a poll released today isn’t particularly useful. Consider:

Until now, Conservative support has been holding steady at around 36 per cent, prompting some strategists to argue that the party now has a new and higher electoral base from which to work.

Which the article presents to imiplicitly disprove via the polling numbers. But as the Ice-Cold Wonk showed in that previous article, the change in the Conservative base came in 2004, not 2006, with the real merger of the two parties. Moreover, the Tory increase in 2006 didn’t come from tugging at Liberal voters — it could be completely accounted for by the increase in voter turnout. Base/bonus voter arguments aren’t the issue.

What is? Movement. To work with the polls, which only offer relative performance, we’d need to start with the assumption that total votes remain roughly constant — the polls tell us nothing about that. Just as importantly, movement in regions has to be closely compared with the real opportunities for seat gains to appreciate how that movement translates into electoral victory. The Globe and CTV don’t do that. Fortunately, it’s not that hard to do.

Let’s start in Quebec (since the poll, irritatingly, ignores the Maritimes as a separate category). In 2006, a rise in Tory tides resulted in a gain of 10 seats in the province, eight from the Bloc Quebecois, and two from the Liberals. A Liberal gain of 7% in Quebec, as the poll suggests comes directly from the Tories, would result in a transfer of 105,000 votes from one party to the other. That number could be swallowed entirely by a reversal of the shift in votes in the eight seats taken from the BQ, which would gain the Liberals nothing — they trailed the BQ by thousands of votes in each of those ridings, and the BQ’s numbers seem to also have risen in the polls. The Liberals lost only eight seats in Quebec in the last election. Of the six lost to the BQ, only three were lost by less than 3,000 votes. So if the movement in Quebec suggested by the poll is right, the Liberals could still wind up gaining no seats. At the least, it would suggest that the Bloc stands to regain between six and eight seats from the Tories. The Liberals might retake five seats, but it will take more than the movement this poll suggests to grow past those numbers.

The Ontario numbers have shifted primarily because of movement to the Green Party from both Liberals and Conservatives. But the Tories have lost less from the change than have the Liberals; and if the Liberal bleeding comes from continued losses on their leftist flank, it may forebode a poorer Liberal performance in the urban areas where those voters are concentrated. If so, these slight changes are unlikely to bring any real change in seat totals in the most populous province in the country.

The “West” is so diverse a region that polling covering changes in that area can mean many things. The only party shown to have lost support since the election is the Conservatives — to the tune of seven percent. The Greens have picked up five points of that, most likely in BC. The Liberals picked up four points of that (impossible, true, but as the poll shows a total of 99% at the election at 101% on October 18th, that’s the way it is). The Liberal gains probably include both a mild improvement in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and an upswing in BC.

Given those numbers, it might be reasonable to expect the Liberals to reclaim Winnipeg South and possibly retain Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River (taken in 2006 by a mere 70 votes). In BC, the change will be harder to predict. While Green strength largely saps the Tories’ strength in BC, only in Fleetwood-Port Kells did the Conservatives win by less than 4,000 votes. Liberal strength might lead to a recapture of Victoria from the NDP, but with a 6,800 vote lead to erase, that could prove difficult. The genuinely competitive three-way races in BC don’t allow any obvious conclusions from such vague polling data.

Which suggests Tory losses of up to twelve seats, dragging their tally down to 113, Liberal gains of up to eight seats, bringing them to 110, and Bloc gains of five seats, taking them to 56. The NDP, with no change to speak of, would remain at their present level of 29. Even if the Liberals take back every seat from the Bloc (which would mean overcoming 3,000, 4,000 and 5,000 vote leads), they would only manage to equal the Tory total, in which case the Conservatives could remain in government, still needing only Bloc support to stand pat.

What’s it all mean? If the Tory slide is due to dissatisfaction with government policies, then barring complete disasters, there isn’t much farther to go — there’s already public disclosure of those policies. That means that a Liberal attack strategy for the election can’t bring them much more than a very weak minority position. Both they and the Conservatives must come up with a strong election message to have any chance of making significant gains.

Just as importantly, it signals that Liberal plans cannot rest on Ontario. The lack of change in that province is perhaps the most significant detail for Liberal eyes. Hopes for future majorities need to rest on broadening efforts across the country. A real effort to take more BC races is crucial, as is a plan to recover lost ground in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Maritimes.

For the Conservatives, it shows that they can’t rely on controlling the agenda. The need to respond to events around them prevents them from running the kind of careful, controlled campaign that brought such success in the 2006 election. While there’s a chance they can retake the momentum, it will be more difficult than taking it originally was. The good news for them is their continued strength in Ontario; but a real breakout in either the Maritimes or BC is crucial to their future hopes — they’ve nowhere else to look to.

Lest we forget, growth in Green numbers is hardly a bad sign for that party, either. What they’ll do with it is a different question.

It’s not an easy way forward to majority status for any party. That’s perhaps the best news of all — it means, whatever else the parties had in mind, a real fight for Canadians to watch.

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