Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics


Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning (Thursday January 19, 2006 at 10:46 pm)

One of the most unusual features of this campaign was the timing of platform releases by the two leading parties. The Liberal platform wasn’t released until January 11th, and the Conservative platform even later — waiting for the 13th, ten days before the election.

One might expect an earlier release date. After all, shouldn’t the parties have an idea of where they’re going with policy well in advance of the election? Wouldn’t they be better off showing Canadians the goods from the get-go? Don’t they run the risk of missing the boat with voters interested in policies not yet announced?

As campaigns are increasingly run by strategic considerations, the function of a platform shifts from a de rigeur presentation of a party’s “position”. Everyone recognizes that delivery of the message is as important as the content of the message. Given that, there are a few important considerations in timing platform’s release:

  • The risk of other events detracting from the publicity associated with a platform release
  • The risk of delayed releases being botched by leaks, making the party look unprofessional
  • The need to generate publicity consistently throughout a campaign

Layout and publication take some time — text and its translation must be vetted thoroughly to ensure that the written material matches up with the campaign message. This election came about quickly enough that parties may not have had platforms ready for release at the outset. Still, if the campaigns had any strategy in them, it shouldn’t have taken long to release a platform. So why did the parties wait so long?

In the Conservative’s case, it was certainly intentional. The Tory plan began with a careful attempt to establish their identity through a controlled daily dose of policy announcements. Had their platform been released before their announcements, other parties could have disrupted their planned presentation or worse: levelled critiques before the Tories had had the chance to frame the issues. Their strategy worked so effectively that a number of early Liberal announcements (head-tax reduction, daycare funding extension) were responses to Tory releases. Control of the agenda can easily become control of the election, and the results have proven the Tory approach.

The Liberals have been busy reacting through much of the campaign. Most notably, the launch of their negative advertisements came after the holidays — few national events and announcements preceded the new year. Major events included the Prime Minister reading to schoolchildren, which failed to impress Liberal backbenchers. The Liberals had clearly calculated that voters would only begin paying attention after the holidays. While this might have been true, it’s clear that the Tory groundwork pre-Christmas had some effect, while voters are still wondering what “values” means when Paul Martin speaks of them. In the Liberals’ case, an early release could have provided a sense of the party’s position and offered the basis for further campaigning. The platform itself was vaguely enough framed to contain few things for the Conservatives or NDP to attack.

It’s not clear that platforms are particularly crucial to a campaign, especially since the specific presentation of policies has probably eclipsed their content in importance. The late release of platforms in this campaign may not, in itself, be an issue, but the one fact is a reflection of the two front-runners’ campaigns as a whole; and remarkably opposite in effect for each.


Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Doubletake/Doubletalk (Wednesday January 18, 2006 at 2:30 pm)

Unionists aren’t traditionally known for the subtlety of their political messages, so Liberal leader Paul Martin shouldn’t really have been surprised to find that he had some ’splainin’ to do when he arranged for Buzz Hargrove to toast him.

The CAW boss promptly urged Quebecers to vote for the Bloc Quebecois (a separatist party) to prevent Conservatives from gaining seats in Quebec, called the Conservative leader (a federalist party) a separatist, and suggested that Albertan values aren’t shared by others in Canada.

Curiously, it wasn’t Hargrove who offered the retraction, but Martin, in the following terms:

  • “I have large differences with Stephen Harper but I have never doubted his patriotism”
  • “[T]he values that we hold in this country go from coast to coast”

Which explains why Martin offered the retractions: he’s reversing his position on both of these points.

He did question Harper’s patriotism in the course of the second English-language debate, as reported here:

Harper desperately waves the flag in defence, even though as Martin said, “I never attacked Mr. Harper’s patriotism.'’ But he did manage to raise that ugly Harper speech of 1997.

And it hardly needs be repeated that the crux of the Liberals’ negative campaign has been the difference between their values and Tory values, as reported here:

“This is about the kind of Canada you want and it’s about values,” Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh said. “The Prime Minister has laid out very clearly that this election offers a stark choice between the values of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives and we Liberals.”

The only way out of this would be for Martin to claim that Tory values aren’t Canadian values. But doesn’t that return us to point one?

See, this is the problem with negative campaigning. Say enough things that you don’t believe yourself, and you’ll wind up with enough rope to be hanged from.

Fear And Apathy0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections (Tuesday January 17, 2006 at 11:23 am)

A potent combination.

Tony Ianno, Minister of State for Families and Caregivers (it’s just like being a Secretary of State — you don’t get an enormous Ministry, but you do get a bigger budget), is apparently running scared in Trinity-Spadina.

Olivia Chow, popular local councillor and wife of NDP leader Jack Layton, came within 800 votes of defeating Minister Ianno. Some attributed the narrow loss to her failure to resign her seat on city council.

But now, she’s done that; and hubby Jack’s making the rounds to convince NDP voters that the Liberals aren’t an option.

But how bad is it for the Minister?

Bad enough to shut down a student-oriented poll, out of fear that it was likely to result in easier votes for the NDP.

Was it set up in violation of Elections Canada rules? Quite possibly. Would his office have spent even an instant trying to shut it down if it expected to gain from it? Don’t bet on it.

Ah, Fudge0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections (Tuesday January 17, 2006 at 1:23 am)

The Liberals have been working hard to sour Canadians on the surging Conservative party. But now, it appears that something might be able to stick.

Initial attempts to discredit the Tory platform’s numbers didn’t seem to have much effect (partly, at least, because the Liberal reading of the numbers added Tory spending proposals to spending projections which included Liberal proposals). But now, there’s a new detail creeping in.

Eager to have their housekeeping skills approved, the Tories had submitted their numbers to an economist at the Conference Board of Canada for independent verification of the numbers. But, it seems, they didn’t give him all the details to look over. Instead, they omitted two major areas: health care wait times and “fiscal imbalance”.

The first is easy enough to deal with. The Conservatives are promising to transport patients on long waiting lists to other jurisdictions for speedy treatment. It’s a bit difficult for Liberals to complain about this one, given that their identical proposal is costed at $75 Million. That’s not enough to break the bank.

Second, the “fiscal imbalance”. This imbalance is a vague theory, stemming from the fact that the federal government runs a surplus while most provinces are running a deficit. Attributing this in part to the 1993 reductions in transfers from the federal government for health care and social programs, the theory argues that the federal government now takes a dominant share of income taxes but no longer has a dominant role in delivery of the services which they pay for. Therefore, its control over those tax resources is inappropriate.

The proposed change would consist of the federal government reducing taxes while the provincial governments raise them by a corresponding amount. The net level of taxation (and hence, revenue) wouldn’t change, but more of it would be collected by the governments which spend it, hopefully shifting enough of the burden to ease budgetary pressures on the provinces.

While making sure that such a proposal has the intended effect (no overall impact on revenue) would be difficult, it’s not impossible — it’s just a matter of negotiation between the parties. The real point is that this kind of arrangement shouldn’t have any effect on funding for programs, just on who collects the funding.

So what’s the net impact of these omissions? About $75 Million in a budget of roughly $230 Billion, or a “fudge factor” of .032%.

Not worth worrying about? Hah.

The reviewing economist suggested that the wait time guarantee might not have been included because it was difficult to price and would require negotiations. How’d the Liberals manage it, then? Why couldn’t the Tories establish a cap for the federal contribution to such a program? Considering how small the difference in the platform would have been, what would it cost them?

In fact, this is the real issue: why hide something this small and petty? Why overlook somethiong this simple and easy? What kind of approach to management does it suggest?

Oh, and if it’s fudge ye want, fudge may ye have.

I’m Better Times Infinity0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Vague Check, Golden Tacks (Sunday January 15, 2006 at 10:11 pm)

Another day, another last-minute addition to the Liberal platform.

Desperate to find a positive, resonant message to keep Ontario from slipping away, and apparently unable to find anything compelling in his own platform, Liberal leader Paul Martin came up with another bold pronouncement: making the gas tax transfer to cities permanent.

In 2005-2006, $600 Million (or 15% of the amount received from federal gas tax) was distributed to cities, and the government has pledged to reach a distribution of 50% of revenues from this tax (or about $2 Billion) by 2009-2010.

But there’s nothing new in this promise — the Liberals already made it (see here). What has changed? The Liberals are promising that legislation will be passed to obligate the government to maintain the payments.

Sounds good — sounds great! The problem is that no such legislation can exist.

Parliament, subject to the constitution, is supreme. The only way to stop Parliament from passing legislation saying, for example, that red is green, is by something in the Constitution which says that Parliament can’t pass legislation to say that red is green (or something to that effect). Agreements between the federal and provincial governments can’t force Parliament to pass legislation or even honour a given agreement — the Supreme Court said so back in 1991.

Which is why no piece of legislation can possibly compel Parliament to approve any spending indefinitely, and spending must always be approved by Parliament. Any legislation passed which claims to have that effect will only last until new legislation is passed to do things differently.

So it’s a nice-sounding proposition, but short of becoming immortal and being declared dictator for life, there’s simply no way for it to be fulfilled. If you feel like fighting a lost cause, of course, promise anything you can — you can always point to your opponent’s later failures to implement your promise and claim, “I would have done it!”

Which makes this promise a prime example of childish politics. After all, any kid knows that a bid of infinity just can’t be beat!

Unless, of course, the Tories come up with infinity plus one. . .

Bribery’s Just Another Word For. . .0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections (Saturday January 14, 2006 at 8:43 pm)


Sounds so much better, doesn’t it? Is there really any difference?

What’s the real problem with offering a strong opponent a reason to help you instead of fighting? Isn’t that just a horse-trade of a different colour?

Casual observers might think that Liberal candidate David Oliver’s job offer to his NDP rival parallels the recent troubles of a BC Tory candidate.


  • Both kept something they were doing secret
  • Both secrets were exposed
  • Both exposes came within the same two days
  • Both party leaders have declared that the offenders won’t be allowed to sit in caucus if they win (well, sort of in the Tory case — see here)

So very much in common, but all completely superficial. The differences run deeper:

  • The Tory candidate concealed a quasi-criminal offence
  • The Liberal candidate concealed a legal bit of politicking

The cold Wonk knows there are those who would take offence at the suggestion that bribing an opponent to take a dive isn’t a big deal. But let’s look at this seriously: the NDP candidate had a duty to his party, not to the public. Trying to persuade him to break faith with his party just isn’t the same thing as violating a duty to the public, which, as the Wonk’s pointed out, is just what the Tory candidate has done, which is difference two:

  • The Tory candidate showed that he would break his public duty when it advantaged him
  • The Liberal candidate showed that he would persuade others to break their private duties when it advantaged him

We might not like the second one any more, but we certainly can’t say it’s the same thing. After all, isn’t persuasion to break private duties just what the government did in support of its budget when it persuaded Belinda Stronach to cross the floor?

Sure, (now) Minister Stronach claimed that she chose to cross. But if that were true, why would she have been made a Minister? Her political reputation? If she came freely, what bargaining power could she possibly have had?

Let’s try this scenario for a moment. You’re the Prime Minister of a minority government. A well-known and senior member (and one-time leadership candidate) of the opposition approaches you before a crucial vote and says that she can no longer support her own party, ideologically, and wants to join yours. Do you:

  • Immediately give her a Ministerial portfolio?
  • Give her a frontbench seat?
  • Give her a backbench seat and a portfolio some months later in a cabinet reshufle?

If you chose option 3, congratulate yourself. You’ve shown your opponents up dramatically — someone was willing to abandon their front ranks to become your mere footsoldier. The later shuffle will come along well after the initial shocks pass, and once the issue is passe (and the press favorable to your party), won’t make her look like an opportunist, either. Choosing option 1 might look like an honest expression of gratitude, but is that really the basis on which a shrewd operator like yourself gives out scarce political posts? Especially if it detracts from the recipient’s aura of sincerity. . .

If you don’t have options 2 and 3, then one thing is clear: she didn’t cross on principle.

In that event, it doesn’t matter whether she asked for a reward or you offered one. Two things are true:

  • She was willing to break her private duty for a reward
  • You were willing to offer a reward for her to break her private duty

And these are the offences we’re dealing with in the Liberal candidate’s case. Well, one of them, anyway.

When one party isn’t willing, the offence is obvious. Otherwise, it’s harder to spot; but we can’t be too hard on people for doing this kind of thing. It happens all the time in negotiations: one side offers the other an inducement to compromise one of their pledges.

The Prime Minister wants to get high and mighty on the issue:

“I have zero tolerance for that kind of thing, I acted, and that person is no longer a candidate for the Liberal party,” he said.

But isn’t this exactly what he did in changing the budget to secure NDP support for the measure? Offering inducements for the NDP to prefer some of their pledges and forego others?

Isn’t this what happened with Belinda Stronach?

Isn’t this, in all honesty, something to be expected in the process of political negotiations? Why is it that we can tolerate it when we can pretend it isn’t happening, but can’t tolerate it when it’s laid bare before us? Something about sausage springs to mind. . .

So if the offer isn’t a real problem, what is? It’s a clever strategic manouevre, if you pull it off. . .

No, it’s not that he got found out. It’s what that implies. For all the prudence in dealmaking, the revelation of deals like this makes the offeror look weak; and the Liberals can’t afford admissions of vulnerability while they’re behind in the polls. There is something left to lose, after all. Making your own party look weak is a serious offence, and when the other propsective party to the transaction won’t play ball, there’s no way to pretend that it’s anything other than weakness. That’s enough to require punishment, even if Paul Martin might wish the punishment could involve less self-sacrifice. After all, the offence may show weakness, but it also shows loyalty, if little judgement.

Of course the public won’t see much difference. A superficial similarity to Steven Harper’s troubles the day before demands a superficially similar response, whether deserved or not. There might be important distinctions to draw, but politics is no place to hone fine distinctions — just to pity those cut upon their edges.

Just Shy Of Right0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections (Friday January 13, 2006 at 11:24 pm)

Shyness just might be the explanation for former Conservative candidate Derek Zeisman’s failure to tell Customs officials he was bringing large quantities of alcohol back from his trip. It might also explain why he didn’t tell his party he was being prosecuted for smuggling as a result of his border bashfulness.

Faced with the consequences of discovery, a sudden case of shyness just might come over anyone.

So what’s Steven Harper’s excuse?

Oh, yes, the frosty Wonk knows: he’s declared that Mr. Zeisman won’t be allowed to sit as a Conservative if elected — until he’s cleared of charges:

Leader Stephen Harper said even if he wins B.C. Southern Interior Jan. 23, Zeisman will not be allowed to sit as a Tory until charges laid last year are resolved. Officials would not clarify what “resolved” means.

Let’s be clear about something. A criminal record doesn’t (and shouldn’t) necessarily prevent someone from sitting in the House of Commons (try to keep the cynical jokes to a minimum, please). Just ask Svend Robinson. If we really believe that people can change, past wrongs should simply be weighed among other considerations in deciding whether to vote for a candidate. Does any party have a perfect track record? Any candidate? Does it really matter what the offence is?

Yes. Some offences should be disqualifying; and Mr. Zeisman’s certainly is. It’s just not the offence that’s being talked about.

The problem isn’t that Mr. Zeisman may be guilty of smuggling, it’s that he’s definitely guilty of concealing important information from the public and his party.

If you can’t trust someone to tell you things which might make a significant difference, then how can you trust them in government? If Mr. Zeisman shirks his duty when it carries a personal cost, then he can’t possibly be considered suitable for public service. Whether he is cleared of all Customs offences or not, these offences will remain; and they are the serious ones.

That’s why Mr. Harper’s solution doesn’t go far enough. Mr. Zeisman should be expelled from the Conservative caucus (if not the party) for his offences, but not for a smuggling charge. And given these offences, Mr. Harper can’t be shy about what should be done: permanent and irreversible expulsion.

Good Sense Notwithstanding0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Golden Tacks (Thursday January 12, 2006 at 10:47 pm)

Getting folks riled up can be tough. Sometimes, they just don’t seem to care.

Confronted with that problem, Paul Martin responded with an idea so novel, he hadn’t bothered to include it in his election platform: prohibit the federal government from using the notwithstanding clause.

Is it a clever tactic, as the Hamilton Spectator suggests? Could it be that it will let Martin expose Harper’s position on various rights by accusing him of wanting to keep the clause so as to use it?

Perhaps, but it’s not worth the costs.

Canadians haven’t forgotten the trials and tribulations of a decade of constitutional wrangling. The prospect of reintroducing constitutional debate is hardly appetizing, especially given that most Canadians understand the political costs of using the clause. Given Martin’s performance so far this campaign, it’s unlikely he can wield a backbiting sword with the necessary skill to find his target.

Martin is again trying to present himself as a defender of the Charter of Rights. He’s not — that’s the Courts’ job. If he were so very disposed to defend it, why would his government have appealed the Court of Appeal’s decision in Harper v. Canada? Once the court determined that the Charter was violated by the electoral gag law, shouldn’t he have rushed to defend it? What exactly does this duty of defence amount to? Surely not selective policy advancement — that would just be cynical.

But to the point. Isn’t it notable that no other party has voiced support for the proposal (including the NDP)? They’ve got good reasons.

Could the notwithstanding clause be used to impose restrictions on child pornography? If necessary, yes. Could it be used to overrule the Supreme Court’s decision that convicts must be allowed to vote? If the public supports it, yes. Is giving up this flexibility worth an unlikely and minimal political benefit?

Only in a situation of extreme and dire desperation.

Besides which, Canadians are surely on to this ploy. If it’s that easy to stop the federal government from using the clause, isn’t it just as easy for another federal government to restore that power (don’t think too hard — the answer’s not well-hidden)?

Ah, but why think? Our leaders clearly don’t bother to, and they’re in charge.


Posted by JJ in Federal Elections (Tuesday January 10, 2006 at 11:02 pm)

Four leaders, two final debates.

The good news: no more debates to come.
The bad news: no real debates so far.

Evidently, the media discovered what had long been known: debates require debate.

And so, they introduced limited rebuttals. The effect?

Nothing much. The leaders chose to remain on message — a task simplified by the fact that there could only be one rebuttal in the formal format. Failing to answer posed questions had no real consequences without significant cross-debate.

What was revealed were the policies for the remainder of the campaign:

For the Liberals, fear of the Conservatives’ numbers has led to negative campaigning. Paul Martin spent most of his time trying to establish a campaign on the basis of “values” — painting himself as a defender of “Canadian” values and the Tories and Steven Harper as against Canadian values. Attack ads aired since then have attempted to portray Steven Harper as a frightening, American-style (the horror) politician.

This tactic may not help much. The Tories have been focused on defining themselves from the beginning of this campaign, and it may be too late to succeed at redefining them. The major hope for this strategy is probably to attract NDP supporters frightened of a Tory win.

And Jack Layton and the NDP are trying to defend against that outcome. His message at the debate was simple: the NDP are a “better choice”. Look for him to use the term again and again as the campaign moves into the final stretch. He needs to reemphasize that the Liberals are not an adequate substitute for the NDP, and Layton’s attacks on Paul Martin were designed precisely for that purpose.

Similarly, Gilles Duceppe spent two nights picking mostly at the Liberals. When he had the opportunity, he spoke up the Bloc Quebecois as a defender of Quebec’s interests. In the English debate, he often seemed tired, but the discussion of national unity brought fire back to his eyes; and his performance in the french-language debate was more fiery. No real punches were landed on him in either debate; as before, most anti-separatist rhetoric was designed for consumption by those outside of Quebec.

Harper, ahead in the polls, managed to keep his cool while being attacked. He seemed to believe that his strategy of a steady diet of policy announcements and carefully-controlled appearances was paying dividends. He offered nothing he hadn’t before, but managed to come through no worse off.

The only novel point in the debate was a vague pledge by Paul Martin to eliminate federal use of the notwithstanding clause. Considering that the clause has never been used by the federal government, this point, too, can only be effective if Canadians genuinely fear a specific use of the clause. Those who do have likely already sided with the Liberals or NDP, which makes the whole effort dependent on swaying NDP voters.

That will depend on how fearful those voters are; and how readily they believe Liberal attack ads. Will these voters be those who were swayed by aggressive negative campaigning before, or will they be those who prefer to take offence at the idea of such ads? Isn’t it the very bloc of anti-American voters who would be ideologically opposed to negative campaigning? Isn’t that the bloc the ads are intended to appeal to?

All of which means one thing: the ads may be the only real source of debate.

Daughters of Mnemosyne0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Bad Press (Sunday January 8, 2006 at 11:47 pm)

The Muses, if you’ll recall, were patrons of the arts and sources of inspiration.

Apparently, inspiring isn’t what it used to be.

When a reporter recently suggested that it was impossible for the Conservatives to form a majority government, their leader, Steven Harper, tersely retorted:

I don’t think we know that yet.

Which the Toronto Star reports as:

Harper Muses on Possibility of Majority Win

Truly inspirational.

In other news, man muses on backpacking through Europe by choosing between French and Italian salad dressing.

Is nothing happening? Oh, not so. The Liberals are shifting ground to attack the Conservative plan’s underlying economic base, the Conservatives are hinting at further substantive policy releases and the leaders are gearing up for the last round of debates.

But let’s go with the muse thing.

We’ve Heard That One Before0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Vague Check (Friday January 6, 2006 at 12:49 pm)

Conservative leader Steven Harper is now trying to reap the fruits of his earlier work. Having spent the previous half of the campaign promoting his platform, he’s now going to refer back to it, hopefully reinforcing the proposals.

But his daycare business? Nonsense.

How will he create 125,000 daycare spaces in five years by spending $250 Million each year? Simple! The cost per space will shrink!

  • Year one: $10,000 per space for 25,000 spaces
  • Year two: $5,000 per space for 50,000 spaces
  • Year three: $3,333.33 per space for 75,000 spaces
  • Year four: $2,500 per space for 100,000 spaces
  • Year five: $2,000 per space for 125,000 spaces

See? Division is easy! It’s funding childcare spaces that’s hard.

Ah, but Harper has at least admitted that this funding will only help with the set-up of spaces and that maintenance of those spaces will be funded by users. Will Paul Martin do the same?

The Last Boy Scout0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, A House Divided, Trillium (Thursday January 5, 2006 at 6:20 pm)

Tough, sometimes, being Ontario. Perhaps no other province identifies itself as Canadian first and foremost, without requital. Fearful of a breakup of the country, strong talk about separatists always seems a prudent strategy to reassure Ontarians of one’s electoral credentials (that’s why those words are always delivered in English).

Which is the most interesting thing about the recent release of a new poll.

The poll shows the Tories ahead nationwide, but that may be nothing more than people roused from their Christmas stupor to pay attention to what was an excellent December campaign by the Conservatives and a lacklustre one by the Liberals. Now that the Liberals are putting out policy statements, they may well attract a few stragglers back into the fold.

The interesting thing isn’t the nationwide spread. It’s the movement apparent in the numbers in Quebec. There, the Conservatives have squeaked over 20%, apparently wholly at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois. The last time that happened, for perspective (even if Tory and Reform votes are combined), was in 1997, under the leadership of current Quebec Premier Jean Charest. For such a change to have taken place while the party is led by an Anglophone hailing from Toronto and Alberta is hard to understand.

If it’s not a terrible polling mistake, it points to a dramatic conclusion: that some soft-core Quebec nationalists see a viable political option in the federal Conservatives.

Remember, if you will, that the Bloc Quebecois emerged largely as a splinter group of Quebec conservatives, who had been successfully wooed by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. That some of their supporters might return to the fold at this point means a great deal for both Quebec and, perhaps more curiously, Ontario.

In Quebec, it raises the prospect of three-way races in which the Liberals will no longer stand as the natural alternative to the BQ. The Liberals will no longer be able to take their position in Quebec for granted, and must quickly refocus their campaign in that province if this poll represents a real trend.

But the effect on Ontario will be just as politically interesting. In a province where obstinate (and often heartless) attacks on sovereigntists prove the leader worthy of Canada, the emergence of legitimacy for a second party in that province could throw political choice into chaos. Ontarians fighting for their vision of Canada (as surely as they swarmed buses for Montreal in 1995) will suddenly be offered more than one way to fight.

Will they trust Conservatives to preserve national unity? Will they fear Conservatives’ policy of renegotiating relationships between the federal government and the provinces? If the former, it may support this poll’s movement towards the Liberals. If the latter, it may reverse the poll without the Liberals’ lifting a finger.

Hard to gauge. But the truth is, given that outcome, Harper, too, could stand to refocus his efforts in these two provinces. Because however they vote, Ontarians will be want to believe that they’re doing their duty to Crown and Country.

Me Too!0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Doubletake/Doubletalk, Golden Tacks (Thursday January 5, 2006 at 5:33 pm)

Not to be outdone by the Liberals on a core issue, Jack Layton has jumped on the healthcare training bandwagon.

He’s offering to double the Liberals’ investment in the creation of training spaces for healthcare professionals. Instead of the $100 Million Paul Martin has promised to create 1,000 training positions for doctors, they’re offering $200 Million.

Does his proposal offer the funds or any proposal to ensure that these professionals remain in Canada on graduation?


Remember, the problems run deeper than having available professionals. There are reasons why those professionals aren’t around, and they’re worth looking into.

Granted, an election isn’t the time to sharpen policy. But given how out-of-touch the announcements are, don’t you wonder what the politicians are doing in their time off?

Sounds good, though, and that’s what really matters.

Vote Wonk — he’ll bet $400 Million.


Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Doubletake/Doubletalk (Wednesday January 4, 2006 at 10:47 pm)

Canada’s Justice Minister, Irwin Cotler, has declared that there won’t be a “quick fix” solution to gun crime in Toronto:

“I didn’t park my principles at the door when I became justice minister,” he said. “I maintain an open and responsible approach … and in the end I’ll be able to make an informed, principled judgment.

“I am not going to be rushed and I am certainly not going to be pressured. There is no easy answer and there is no single answer.”

Which raises the question: why did the Prime Minister make announcements of major initiatives (a handgun ban and reversal of the burden of proof for bail in gun crimes) within days of major incidents involving gun crimes in Toronto?

Why would the Minister make a statement undermining his own party leader (at the risk of self-contradiction)?

Could it be that the former law professor wants to preserve his professional reputation? Given lawyers’ reaction to the announcement, that might be just what’s happened.

On the Treadmill0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Vague Check, Golden Tacks (Wednesday January 4, 2006 at 4:39 pm)

Ever feel like you’re running just to stay in the same place? Just traversing the same route again and again?

Well, then you know what a politician feels like. That’s just what incumbents do.

The Prime Minister kicked off his campaign with a re-hash of older issues, followed with a new one (the head tax — more on that to come), and topped off with a great big helping of the same. To wit: the health care promises made today.

The highlights:

  • $300 Million to teaching hospitals
  • $60 Million for hospital administration
  • $75 Million for inter-provincial travel for those on waiting lists
  • $100 Million for training 1,000 more doctors

Truly, a “bold plan”. Let’s have a look.

The money for teaching hospitals is billed as an investment to decrease waiting times by increasing these hospitals’ capacity. But when you consider that the money for training new doctors isn’t pledged as separate, we may have a duplicate announcement there. Besides which, a one-time grant of $300 Million isn’t likely to have a lasting effect on hospital wait times. With over 20 such facilities in Ontario alone, no hospital in Canada is going to get much more than $10 Million (and likely far less). With an average annual operating budget of $75 Million in Ontario (some variation nationwide, but teaching hospitals probably have somewhat higher-than-average expenses, being in larger centres), and a province-wide hospital budget shortfall of $760 Million in 2005-2006, the amount in question won’t last long at all.

Much of the money for administration is going to centralized information services, hoping that the main obstacle to speedy service is proper coordination between healthcare professionals. While a pilot project in Alberta has shown that some benefit can be obtained from better coordination, it took an approach that was genuinely bold, putting the professionals together for their joint purpose, rather than offering them the opportunity to email each other more effectively.

The waiting-list travel option only helps if another province has shorter waits for the same service, and it’s not certain that this will always be the case. Travel will only be available to other public facilities in Canada which can offer the same procedure sooner. Moreover, the Liberals have promised to make it available only for the few kinds of hospital services for which the provinces have already committed to common standards. Will they be successful? Not perfectly, but the Liberals are at least admitting that this plan is an extension to their existing “fix” to health care.

And on the subject of retreading, let’s not lose sight of the $100 Million five-year committment to train 1,000 additional doctors. Since those doctors will be trained at the medical hospitals, nothing suggests that this money is separate from the $300 Million assigned to that purpose. More importantly, though, $20 Million a year might help train 1,000 doctors (at a funding level of 20,000/year per doctor), it won’t do anything to pay for the extra doctors. Canada doesn’t suffer from a doctor shortage in combination with a surplus of healthcare funding — it needs doctors but can’t pay for them. Training more physicians may do no more than provide more Canadian-trained physicians for export if not accompanied by a program to pay to keep them at home.

This “bold new platform” is neither bold nor new. It backstops existing initiatives, adds a temporary drop to a burning desert, and allows for the party to weasel out of making a real contribution through funding promises which aren’t explicitly separate and can easily be reannouncements of one another.

No wonder that Canadians, inundated with a surfeit of healthcare announcmenets, don’t feel like they’re getting anywhere. In the last WHO healthcare systems report, Canada’s system came 30th. According to 2005 polling, there’s been no change in Canadians’ appraisal of the system’s woes, despite significant announcements and new transfers during that period.

So much effort just to stay in place. And they say using treadmills is healthy.

Meet The New Boost0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning (Tuesday January 3, 2006 at 10:26 pm)

Not just the same as the old boost — it’s also the same as the other guys’ boost.

The campaign is back, and with a bang! We know now what we knew then, but the leaders are busy making sure we remember it.

Paul Martin presented a “major” campaign speech at a closed event in Winnipeg — lunch at the Canadian Club. A prudent approach, which eliminates the possibility of followup questions from agravating journalists and allows the Prime Minister to come off as his speech reads, which is well.

The speech has two purposes. It tries to connect past Liberal performance with present Liberal promises in order to lend them an added weight that a mere opposition party’s platform can’t easily achieve. As importantly, it provides an attack on his Conservative opponents by trying to characterize their positions.

The former may ultimately be unsuccessful. The major social program Martin promises is the day care proposal. As previously discussed here, the actual proposal isn’t a major social program — it’s an existing minor program. Mr. Martin’s other new political points — the handgun ban and foreign affairs, won’t do much to boost Liberal presence in Conservative strongholds.

Which reveals what Martin is aiming at: survival. This approach offers nothing to soft support in Quebec or to inspire confidence in the West outside Vancouver. It is aimed almost solely at the preservation of existing support in Ontario and hoping that such a move will work.

It very well might. Much of the ground lost by the Liberals in Ontario has been lost to the NDP — support which could come rushing back should Jack Layton’s attempts to guard his base fail. Recent polling suggests that Ontario is the only place where this approach will make a difference.

And, of course, to counter this blend of re-announcements and self-actualizing, Steven Harper had offered his own re-announcements and self-actualizing. Rather than anything which might build on his existing momentum, Harper seems to be sharing a Liberal assumption that voters haven’t cared until now.

It’s hard to justify that argument — there has been significant movement in the polls already. If all the parties bring up are re-launches of old promises, it bodes ill for a campaign with three weeks to run.

Gaffe: Screw You Guys. . .0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Doubletake/Doubletalk, Golden Tacks (Monday January 2, 2006 at 11:21 am)

Why do people keep forgetting what politics is about? Perhaps because they don’t seem to grow up.

How many times was the playground witness to precisely this? Spurned by the rules of a game they chose to play, a child picks up the only ball (his), and with a huff, goes home.

So much for the threat of Albertan separation by a Conservative campaign manager, whose carelessness is matched only by equal measures of faithlessness and fickleness. After all, if he’s willing to abide by the rules and exercise control if his party wins, he must be equally willing to abide by the rules if it doesn’t.

But it’s far too easy to succumb to contempt at this stage. The selfishness of participation which it displays is too childish to justify; and the convenience of the man’s patriotism isn’t far removed. Having spotted that, it’s a simple matter to decide that the problem is with separatists, or perhaps with the power-hungry.

The danger in this superficial a reading is harder to get at.

Selfishness is only the beginning. There’s nothing inherently wrong with looking after your own interests. It’s hard to know what other people want, if not condescending. Part of the hope in a democratic system is that everyone will express their interests in such a way that the choice of government reflects as much of the public’s interests as possible.

The problem is in mistaking this principle of democratic politics for a principle of pure self-interest.

The process is what makes the government’s actions legitimate in a democratic country, not the choices the government makes. If the process is democratic enough to make a Conservative government legitimate and bind Liberal voters, it must be democratic enough to do the reverse.

By focussing on the outcome, the purpose of elections shifts. Government becomes a prize to be wielded for the satisfaction of those who obtain it. Rather than using government through their lens to solve everyone’s problems, they turn its power to providing for their narrow interest — rewarding supporters rather than tending to what’s important.

And the result trickles on down. The present bitterness of American politics is buttressed by a sense of “us” and “them”. This characterization may be drawn from past behaviour, but it serves to reinforce and justify future behaviour: “When we’re in charge, we’ll get our issues dealt with.”

But there’s a lie in that justification. The parties aren’t really keen on their “issues”, it’s their solutions that they’re hoping to implement. It’s not that their issues aren’t public, but that the government disagrees either with their priorities or with their proposals — and that is its right.

Its right ends, though, at narrow self-interest. There was a time when this marked the distinction between democratic and tyrannical government. The former looked after everyone’s interests, the latter only after its own. Now, we seem to accept it as partisan politics without batting an eye, even as we compare ourselves proudly with former days of democracy. No wonder that civil disobedience has been hailed in the US as a general political tool rather than a focussed application for specific rights — in the face of perpetual tyranny, perpetual disobedience must be right.

The real problem revealed is that respect for the democratic process is shaky. It’s a serious concern because it’s something that playing with the process won’t solve. The lack of respect isn’t based solely on the outcome of elections — it’s also based on the political choices governments make. Ultimately, if those who obtain power only use it to get their own way, no democratic process can result in anything but a tyranny, even if it is a tyranny of the majority.

And it’s worth remembering: the process — indirect election of the government — is the only democratic element in most country’s governments today. If we don’t respect it, democracy is nothing more than lip service until we grab our balls, stomp our feet, and go home.

Zero-Sum Gains0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Bad Press, Strategic Planning (Sunday January 1, 2006 at 3:06 pm)

The Globe and Mail and Others have the lead: the Canadian election is closer than a dead heat (something like a boxed cat), with the Conservatives leading slightly outside of Quebec.

Of course, those paying attention to the polling would have noticed the trend somewhat earlier. Ipsos-Reid and Pollara had both produced similar polls since the 19th of December and Strategic Research had been posting similar numbers (with better regional coverage and lower margins of error) for a week before that.

But now that Decima Research and SES (a polling company affiliated with CPAC) are finally on the same page, journalists won’t have to run the risk of going out on a limb. Or is it that they only choose to listen to a particular pollster? Is either option acceptable?

More important than the raw polling numbers (given that we don’t elect Parliamentarians that way) is the regional and local breakdown. Remember, strong support in PEI contributes little overall to the national numbers, but can produce 4 seats. Similarly, the gap between the Liberals and Tories in Quebec may be wide, but the Liberal lead there doesn’t translate into an edge over the Conservatives when they’re likely to lose seats there to the BQ.

And there are two very interesting local trends emerging. And they’re something more than interesting, because while they’re interesting in themselves, together they may have no effect at all.

Regular readers will be familiar with the Liberals’ recent reliance on the Maritimes. Without those 22 seats, the Liberals would have been unable to pass their own budget without massive concessions to either the Tories or the BQ (both seemingly unacceptable political choices, though for different reasons). A return to historic sharing of the region could see a swing of six or seven seats from Grits to Conservatives and a major blow to Liberal hopes of government.

The interesting thing is that, despite Harper’s liabilities in the Atlantic region, it seems to be coming around to his camp. Although the margin of error in SES’s Atlantic polling is massive, the trend in the numbers is consistent enough to be either a consistent flaw in the poll, somehow causing subsequent polls to shift support from Liberals to Tories (highly improbable), or, most worrying for the Liberals, a reflection of underlying movement to the Tories.

Let’s assume that the Liberals lose five seats in Quebec, and that minor Tory gains in Ontario are offset by losses in Saskatchewan to the NDP. If the Atlantic trend holds, we could be looking at:

  • Liberals: 118
  • Conservatives: 107
  • Bloc: 59
  • NDP: 24

In such a case, the Liberals would be unable to pass measures without Bloc or Tory support, while the Conservatives would stand a more reasonable chance of passing bills with the aid of the Bloc and the many right-leaning Liberals from Ontario (though, as the frosty Wonk has mused before, BQ aid may come with a heavy price).

A frightening prospect for the Liberals; but not for nothing a mare usque ad mare: BC may prove to be their salvation.

Numbers from British Columbia show a high level of Liberal support, arising mostly from increased performance in the Lower Mainland area, surrounding and including Vancouver. Conservative Leader Steven Harper has been promoting West Coast issues in an attempt to stem the tide, but with little success. The six or seven Tory ridings in this region of BC which were secured by less than 2,000 votes may well wind up in Liberal hands this time around (barring vote-splitting with the NDP — it’s too early to really tell how that will work out).

The parallels between the coasts are striking:

East Coast Seats, 2004
Liberals: 22
Conservatives: 7
NDP: 3
West Coast Seats, 2004
Liberals: 8
Conservatives: 22
NDP: 5
Independent: 1 (Chuck Cadman, RIP, former Conservative forced to run as an independent — likely a Tory gain)

The numbers are virtually a mirror image of one another, from the perspective of the two leading parties. So as interesting as the movement is in both regions, the swing of those seats in BC would change the above seat total projections somewhat:

  • Liberals: 125
  • Conservatives: 100
  • Bloc: 59
  • NDP: 24

So what’s changed? Not much. It’s slightly easier going for the Liberals in this case, since they’ll only need a few Bloc members to support their measures. Otherwise, we’re back in a situation where they can’t govern without support from unlikely bedmates. Tory gains are completely offset by losses (the only net gain being the return of Surrey North to the fold), and Liberal losses accrue to the benefit of the BQ and NDP.

But remember this: after a second campaign in as many years’ time, the parties won’t want to go back to the polls again. Even if the electorate were willing, it’s just too expensive. The House will have to come up with some face-saving way to ensure that the country is governed unless numbers change in that juicy prize: Ontario.

Moving Voters0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Vague Check, Gaia (Friday December 30, 2005 at 10:36 pm)

The Conservatives have released a public transit proposal, consisting of a 16% tax credit on the receipted amount spent on public transit fares. Any purchase of passes or bulk purchases of tickets would be eligible for the tax credit, the value of which would therefore vary considerably. In addition, the credit could be transferred within a given family, so that a parent could claim amounts in respect of children or a spouse. The Conservative website calculates an average value of $153 for the credit, dependent, of course, on whether commuters actually ask for receipts.

The Liberal response to this proposal has been far better than most. Naturally, there is an irrelevant shot taken at Conservative opposition to Bill C-48. C-48 was a brief bill allowing the Minister of Finance to spend part of the budget surplus. In it, $900 Million was allocated to the environment, including (but not limited to) public transit and energy-efficient upgrades to low-cost housing. The Bill gives broad discretion to the Minister in allocating those funds, and doesn’t specify what portion is going to “public transit” or what that money goes to (hopefully, they weren’t paying icebreaker prices for whatever they spent it on).

The other objections are a mixed bag:

Funding a tax credit doesn’t create new transit systems
True. The trickle-down effect from a potential increase in use (more later) is likely to be too small to justify the infrastructure costs for cities to create new systems.
No expansion of capacity in existing systems
True. No funding goes to the system, and the increase in use, again, would likely be small.
Public transit won’t become more accessible or affordable
False. If accessibility means making it easier for people to use public transit, that’s just not true. A $153 reduction in the cost is still a reduction in the cost. The Liberals might be pointing to the fact that a tax credit only shows up after income tax is paid, therefore making transit no more affordable to those who are too poor to afford it now; but that doesn’t mean that those who can afford it don’t end up spending less, neither does it mean that there aren’t many people for whom it might make a difference. Those who scrape by would find it easier to get that money back at the end of the year.
It won’t significantly increase ridership
True. People take cars either because of convenience or because they must. Most commuters who choose cars because they have to use one to get to work either can’t get to work by public transit or because there is some other compelling reason for the car. Considering the cost of a car, if it was only obtained in order to commute to work, $153 isn’t likely to make the difference between choosing the car or choosing public transit. If the driver already has the car and doesn’t have to use it to get to work, then it must be chosen for convenience’s sake. Those who choose the car for convenience, be it greater flexibility in travel times, cargo, or itineraries, aren’t likely to be moved by the credit. Convenience shows up every time you use the car — it’s more significant than a minor contribution to the car’s costs payable at year’s end.
No reduction in greenhouse gases
True. Unless the program results in a massive decrease in car use, it’s unlikely to have any effect on greenhouse gas emissions.
The program will decrease spending on greenhous gas emissions and meeting Kyoto targets
Misleading. While true, the spending targeted for redirection is money set aside to buy additional carbon credits so as to allow Canada to increase greenhouse gas emissions without the increase counting against Kyoto targets. The spending in question is an accounting remedy which shifts the benefit of underindustrialization in the third world to the first world without doing anything to actually reduce emissions.

Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with the policy, but it isn’t a solution to either environmental woes or overreliance on automobiles. It’s purely a taxation carrot for a country still playing the hare to its own polluting tortoise.

The Conservatives have promised that future announcements will deal with the environmental impact of and funding for public transit. Once those are in, Canadians will be in a position to judge the relative benefits of each party’s offerings on this matter.

Trust in Evidence0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Doubletake/Doubletalk (Thursday December 29, 2005 at 12:11 pm)

The real shame about some scandals is the way responsibility gets shifted.

It’s very unlikely that Ralph Goodale, Minister of Finance, was personally responsible for a leak from his office, and just as unlikely that the Prime Minister was responsible for a leak from his own. Both men were probably busy that afternoon. Besides which, neither really has much to gain.

It’s the staff members that one really has to worry about.

A Minister’s office (including the Prime Minister’s) isn’t like an MP’s, with one to three people on staff. There will be at least ten, perhaps twenty staff on the political side of the office (in the Prime Minister’s, a much higher number), not counting the dozens of other people within the Ministry who often have access to the policies and documents which they help to prepare. These offices include everything from logistical and secretarial staff to policy analysts, and both have access to highly confidential information, although not everyone will always have access to the same information.

As a result, there could easily have been ten to twenty people on staff who knew that a decision favorable to income trusts was about to be released, any one of whom could have passed that information along to traders or engaged in trading themselves. The result would be insider trading either way, a criminal offence, in addition to a serious breach of their duties to the Crown (which can also be a criminal offence).

In the light of which, Minister Goodale’s insistence on remaining in his post isn’t really unreasonable. Shouldn’t he be looking into his own office and undertaking his own investigation? Should he wait for the police to determine whether someone in his office is incapable of fulfilling their duties, while they continue to work? Should the Prime Minister?

After all, it’s not like this story is new. The call for the probe came back in November, when the matter actually took place.

Which makes the Prime Minister’s comments (from a prepared speech — no followup questions were permitted) hard to understand:

“The fact is first of all, we’re dealing with Opposition allegations and that’s all we’re dealing with, and we’re dealing with Opposition allegations during an election campaign.”

The allegations were made prior to the campaign. And it’s not just Opposition allegations — the RCMP undertook a preliminary review of the matter, and in a letter of December 23rd statedthat:

“Based on the information obtained during the review, the RCMP will be commencing a criminal investigation,”

Clearly there’s something more than an allegation, given that information emerging from a preliminary investigation has led the RCMP to believe that a criminal investigation is worthwhile.

But wait, didn’t Paul Martin say that there wasn’t any evidence? Oh yes:

The RCMP obviously have a responsibility to follow up on matters such as this — that’s their job — and they’re doing it. But the fact is the RCMP have also said that there is simply no evidence to demonstrate that those allegations in fact hold water.

And his statement seems absolutely true, backed up by the RCMP’s own remarks:

The RCMP noted in a statement Wednesday that “there is no evidence of wrongdoing or illegal activity on the part of anyone associated to this investigation,” including the finance minister.

Isn’t this all getting just a bit confusing? The RCMP says that it has information suggesting that there should be an investigation, but that there’s no evidence against anyone they’re investigating. What’s going on?

It’s important to remember the difference between evidence and information. If the RCMP says they have evidence, they’re talking courtroom-grade, not simply suggestions or likelihoods. That’s why they don’t bandy the word around. When the Prime Minister says that there’s no evidence that the allegations hold water, it sounds like he’s saying that there’s nothing to suggest that the allegations are true, but he can only be telling the truth if he means evidence in the same, narrow, legal way.

Martin responded well to the post-election emergence of the Gomery scandal last year: he promised punishment for those involved (which includes a lecture tour and an unenforceable banishment from the Liberal Party). Why, in a case where wrongdoing is pointed at, doesn’t he prepare the same statement? A proposed draft:

The RCMP’s investigation will have the fullest cooperation of both Minister Goodale and my offices. I share their concern, and want to make certain that there was no wrongdoing by any member of my staff. Their preliminary investigation has shown no evidence of wrongdoing; but if there was a leak in either office, we will insist the individuals responsible be punished according to the law. Selfishness and greed have no part to play in government, and I will not have anyone in my office putting their own interests ahead of their public duty.

But why take a strong tack? Especially when you can try to pretend that an RCMP investigation is merely an opposition ploy. Is there some reason why politicians think they can’t admit to mistakes in such a way as to take responsibility and redirect the issue?

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