Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Naughty, Naughty0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press (Wednesday August 16, 2006 at 7:30 pm)

Some folks just never learn:

Clinton Demands Action

You’d think that the trouble from his previous attempts to get some might have cooled his passion somewhat, but no.

Either that or the Globe needs to be just a bit more careful with its headline-writing.

Veto 01

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Vague Check, The Elephant (Tuesday July 25, 2006 at 9:10 pm)

Those who worry greatly about these folks’ opinions might recall a bit of controversy over the correct party date some years back. Seems that, while counting up the years, no one seemed to realise that there was never a year numbered “0″. Fortunately, this affected few people’s plans.

A more recent counting error isn’t quite so benign. Much ado (in the form of long-bated column text) was unleashed by US President Bush’s long-anticipated veto of a bill to promote stem-cell research. Some suggested that this veto represents a revealing change in his Presidency — he no longer has even enough power to control a Congress controlled by his own party.

But what might be made out to be the first real proof of Presidential contempt for the legislative branch isn’t. It’s not even the end for American stem-cell research, which will benefit from State-by-State funding in response to Federal limitations. What it points to are two more troubling trends: bad reporting and long-standing contempt.

While it’s technically true that the current President hasn’t vetoed any Acts before this one, he has produced a whole lot of signing statements — simple documents by which he indicates his intended implementation (or not) of part of an Act. By stating that he believes a certain provision (like, say, the treatment of military prisoners) to be beyond Congress’s powers, the President doesn’t have to implement it; and, barring subsequent Court action, the provision just gets ignored.

What’s the difference between that and a line-item veto? Well, the line-item veto isn’t allowed in the US. Their Supreme Court seems to think that letting the President selectively alter legislation isn’t much different from letting him legislate.

And the effect of signing statements is about the same (or likely will be found so once challenged). Sure, you could argue that there’s a slight difference in the strength of the vires argument to be raised in each case, but you’d sound not so different than someone belittling partygoers on December 31st 2000.

How different? Well, the math geek who’s worried about counting years is passionately trying to shed light on something of no earthly significance — that’s merely sad. The commentator who decries the use of the so-called veto and fails to keep track of the countless effective vetoes is missing something of tremendous political consequence — that’s pathetic.

Diplomatic Chemistry0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Golden Tacks, Crossroads of Culture (Thursday July 20, 2006 at 1:16 pm)

There’s a paean of sorts here to what might be called the Canadian way in the world: “scrupulous neutrality.” The importance of this tradition is clear:

For half a century Canada has taken some considerable satisfaction in its credibility as an international good fellow on matters relating to the Middle East. That status flowed directly from Lester Pearson’s volunteering of Canada for a peacekeeping role after the disastrous 1956 Suez invasion.

Canada’s role then and since then has depended on a scrupulous neutrality in an area where neutrality was almost impossible to sustain. Neither side could point to Canada and say its neutrality had been compromised, so Canada could serve as mediator or peacekeeper. No more.

It’s gloriously self-satisfying to know that Canada could have served as a mediator or peacekeeper. It might have been noble to think that it actually had; but what did Canada accomplish with fourty years of that reputation? Did it broker the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement? Was it the pivot on which the Oslo Accords swung? Or is it, perhaps, responsible for the current state of peaceful resolution?

The nobility of Canada’s position is of a different kind. Perhaps, like blue-bloodedness, it’s a mark of inaction. Or, like the noble gases, not much happens when Canada gets together with others.

Either way, and whatever the virtue or vice of the Prime Minister’s remarks, Canada’s history in this area isn’t anything to take pride in.

Fey Peddlars of Fay0

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

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

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

Why?

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

Sound logic? Only if we assume a few things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Save this House? Or that House?0

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

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

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

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

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

What is going on in the Commons?

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

And in the Senate?

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

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

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

*With apologies to Spirit of the West

Caveat Lector0

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

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

Hash Shipment Bound for Montreal

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the Plural of Anecdote?0

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which looks like a significant change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inchworm, Inchworm0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Vague Check, Trillium, Full-Timers (Tuesday April 11, 2006 at 10:03 am)

What do you get when newspapers and opposition politicians alike have poorer math skills than your garden-variety invertebrate?

This report from the National Post.

Hoping to seize on public anxiety after the recent case of multiple murders in Ontario, the aptly named Leader of the Opposition, John Tory, has questioned the provincial Government’s plans to add police officers to the provincial force.

The GTA, Mr. Tory suggests, is getting more than its fair share of the 1,000 new officers to be funded by the Government. While the area around Toronto will receive 25% of the new officers, OPP detachments outside the GTA will receive only 5% of the new officers.

Wondering why that only adds up to 30%? It’s because of a few clever distinctions. Tory is counting all officers going to the GTA, but only officers going to OPP detachments outside the GTA. The comparison is as pointless as apple consumption to fruit consumption, and given that, according to the government, most of the officers will be going to community police services, it utterly fails to reflect the real distribution of officers.

Consider that, according to this announcement, 51 of the 1,000 officers (that’s 5% for the journalists and opposition politicians) will be stationed in the Northern Ontario region. Since that still leaves a considerable area outside the GTA, it’s hard to believe that the region outside will be underserviced.

But take a look at things another way. In the last Canadian Census, the GTA was stated to contain 44.5% of the population of Ontario.

Reviewing the numbers, then:

  • Population of GTA: 44.5% of provincial total
  • Share of new officers: 25% of provincial total
  • Population of non-GTA: 55.5% of provincial total
  • Share of new officers: 75% of provincial total

So what, you might ask, is Mr. Tory complaining about? Equally questionable is the media’s presentation of his claims without any context whatsoever. The statement is clearly designed to mislead the public — does’t the press, that valiant defender of the public’s right and need for knowledge, have any duty to inform the public, or is that entirely at their discretion? Is there really no standard to hold them both to, or will we inch along to the truth instead of getting it in full measure?

Don’t Flush The Messenger0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press (Tuesday March 28, 2006 at 1:49 pm)

There are many examples of divine intervention through the aquatic world. A great fish swallowed Jonah, the first incarnation of Vishnu was a fish, and we may perhaps even count the fish responsible for the deforestation of the Arctic.

But the latest example gives some cause for pause.

As the National Post reported on page A3 yesterday, the appearance of the word “Allah” on the side of a goldfish in Lancashire has been considered a divine message.

But what is the message, exactly? That God exists? Isn’t that a given for anyone who might be interested in such a fish in the first place? Do the faithful really need scribbled messages on lower vertebrates to prove the point?

More to the point, does the obsession with objects of this kind distract us somewhat from the good works which religion at its best evokes and instead emphasise the formalistic devotion for which it is so often scorned?

And besides: if these are messages rather than coincidences, wouldn’t it suggest that the gods are a bit self-obsessed?

You Load Sixteen Tonnes, Whadda You Get?0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Vague Check (Monday March 27, 2006 at 2:04 pm)

The opposite of what you might expect, actually.

It’s been a hard slog of late for the Liberal Party of Canada, but things aren’t as bad as they sometimes seem.

The Chilly Wonk recently identified the possibility of near-crippling indebtedness as one of the Liberals’ major weaknesses at present.

That posting spurred an inside source to pass the word along: the party’s not as badly off as has been suggested. In particular, while still in debt (and running a deficit, to boot), it’s not more than a few million dollars, which is far from devastating for a political party at this stage in the electoral cycle. Add in the fact that a leadership contest is about to flood the coffers with memberships (at least 100,000 at no less than $5 apiece), and you’ve got a party well on its way to the sunny shores of fiscal solvency.

It doesn’t change the analysis of the Liberals’ throne speech threat. That ploy isn’t much improved by a lower level of party debt — the Liberals still aren’t ready for an election, and neither is the country.

But party workers who slaved in the pits of the last campaign might be glad to know that, another day older, the party’s lesser in debt.

Of course, that’s no defence against . . .

Newsflashdance0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Strategic Planning, Crossroads of Culture (Tuesday March 14, 2006 at 11:05 pm)

It seems like only last year that Canada’s Prime Minister was sashaying his way through a choreographed visit to Asia. Ah, but like a junior high box step, a year’s time hasn’t moved things along very much. The new Prime Minister has made his way to Asia; and though the trips might seem different, the most significant change is the quality of the choreography.

Consider:

Paul Martin’s Trip vs. Stephen Harper’s Trip

  • Destination: Indonesia/Afghanistan
  • Area’s Woes: Tsunami/Post-War Insurgency
  • Canadian Presence: Troop Deployment/Troop Deployment
  • Canadian Casualties: 260/30

Yes, that last one’s right. Canadian fatalities in Afghanistan (which have reached eleven) combined with injuries are significantly less than the total dead and missing from the 2004 Asian Tsunami. Let’s just ignore the fact that about a third of those fatalities (four) have come from accidents and friendly fire.

There is one crucial difference: the Indonesian mission was a response (effective or not) to a humanitarian crisis. The Afghan mission is follow-up (effective or not) to a war in which Canada was involved. By visiting Indonesia, Paul Martin was associating himself with a sense of Canada as nursemaid to the world. Harper’s visit associates him with a sense of Canada as a policeman to the world.

Law and order vs. health and welfare? Sounds like a traditional display of respective party values, and it largely is. But though these moves might attract different partners, the steps are pretty much the same.

Paul Martin’s trip was closely choreographed. It was quick, made for a select media audience, and rejected both interview questions and independent journalists, as handily documented in famed videography. The only strategic failure was, in fact, the release of that video and the (limited) reaction.

Prime Minister Harper’s trip is, by all accounts, quite different. He’s been photographed extensively interacting with troops, something which Martin kept to a minimum. The visit lasted almost two days, while Martin’s visit was as brief as could be managed (less than a day). But in truth, it’s just as managed (surprise, surprise!)

The quotes splashed across this morning’s National Post, and widely reported were from a planned speech, rather than responses to specific questions. Reporters seeking elaboration had to go through the Prime Minister’s aides, as reported in the Toronto Star’s coverage.

Shocking? Surprising? Not really. Foreign visits, like dance clubs, can be great places to show off; but the risk of foolish missteps rises with the opportunity for success. Politicians can be forgiven for practicing their moves and keeping them tight.

What’s the point?

If Martin’s carefully-crafted Kecak was a metaphor for his overwrought and passionless campaign, Harper’s uptight attan reflects his broader policy on the mission: keep it closed — no debate.

And that’s just wrong in both cases.

In Afghanistan, Harper has a supportive and welcoming posse of soldiers, a clear message, and rock-solid support. Are there really topical questions that can embarrass him under the circumstances? Is any Canadian reporter really going to tear into the mission in front of the soldiers? More importantly, what better response could the PM have than a strong reply with young, cheering servicemen and women at his back? Do what you will with the quality of the response, it plays well to the only groups he can hope to hit with this trip: the pro-military lobby and those who need evidence of his passion.

At home, the Conservatives’ anti-discussion message does two disservices to the armed forces. Peter McKay’s suggestion that debate would undermine troops’ morale is insulting to the very troops the Tories claim to support. The six-month reviews hinted at by Harper would be improved by a meaningful debate, undertaken at the government’s initiative, in which the government makes the case for the current deployment, rather than continuing, weakly, to shift responsibility to the commanding Generals and the decision of the former government.

Granted, there’s nowhere for pro-military voters to go. The worst-case scenario for the Tories is for those voters to stay home, not for them to shift. Those who object to the mission aren’t going to stay mum just because the government doesn’t want to debate with them; and there’s nothing to be done about that but taking the initiative. The Tories are playing it safe by not taking a strong stance on the mission and crying patriotic support in lieu of debate.

Playing it safe isn’t a sound strategy. Voters who decided to try them out in the last election won’t be impressed by inaction or reaction. The Conservatives’ controlled election strategy let them set the agenda and spread a substantive message without fear of contradiction. The current strategy of control leaves the agenda in others’ hands — it hugs the rail. Hugging the rail didn’t work for the Liberals, and it’s hard to see what inroads the Conservatives expect to make by it.

The answer is to do what worked for them in the election — take the initiative. There will be opposition and there will be debate, but if the Tories take a stand, they can frame it to their advantage and still pull out at the end of Canada’s six-month term with the dignity of a job well done. The stand isn’t “no debate”. It has to be about the difference to be made in Afghans’ lives and Canadians’ role in that project. A grateful Afghan President is ready to help make that case; and the Tories should take him up on it.

In other words, it’s time to change choreographers. Hands at sides, shifting weight doesn’t fly in high school — it doesn’t fly in office either. If the Tories want to hang on to government, they need to strut their stuff. Going to Afghanistan shows they know they’re in the show. Let’s see whether they can dance.

Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Hats Off, Gentlemen (Wednesday January 11, 2006 at 11:09 pm)

If you haven’t heard of Duffy vs. Duffy, watch it.

No, this is serious. Download the plugin, do whatever is necessary, but watch it.

Canadian journalists have long suffered from a case of shrunken cojones (a certain risk in northern climes). Avoiding hard questions seems almost a religion. As regular readers will know, important questions aren’t hard to ask — if the frozen Wonk can ask them, anyone can.

The problem is that politicians are allowed to deflect. Journalists allow them to avoid questions, rephrase them, turn them back, or any number of other simple ploys to give the answer they want, rather than what the questioner is demanding.

That’s why special effort demands kudos.

Mike Duffy wasn’t putting up with John Duffy, Liberal strategist’s, evasions. He told him off, revealed the strategist’s off-camera plea to avoid the issue, and insisted on the importance of the question. Let there be no mistake, John Duffy doesn’t have to answer; but he does have to live with the consequences of not answering.

Will Duffy’s ratings rise? Sure hope so. He deserves it, a tip of the hat, and some kind of award from his colleagues.

Will someone cynically wish that this happened to politicians in moments of strength, and not just in moments of weakness? Yes.

But let’s not let that detract from a good thing.

Kudos, Mike.

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.

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.

In Other Elections0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Crossroads of Culture (Wednesday December 28, 2005 at 11:49 pm)

While the Green Party has at times had difficulties in fielding a slate of candidates, we can be grateful that they haven’t resorted to armed insurrections.

No, not grateful. Indifferently unsurprised. If they did, we’d be apoplectic. Or so the cold Wonk hopes.

Gracefully as ever, The Toronto Star declines to delve much into the nature of the problem. Reuters offers a bit more:

The gunmen, who spent years battling Israel but sometimes felt marginalised within Fatah because of the dominance of an Old Guard leadership, fear they will not be fairly represented on Fatah’s ticket unless the primaries are repeated.

Fatah’s younger generation is also concerned that if Old Guard leaders hand-pick the candidates, rather than allowing them to be elected in popular primaries, the ruling party will be less able to fend off a Hamas challenge at the polls.

It’s not everyday, mind you, that armed gunmen have this sophisticated a political nit to pick, so it might be worth considering. Is the political structure of Fatah so impassable that no younger representative can rise? It would seem the sort of poor political (and richly self-interested) approach of which the gunmen speak to avoid promoting at least a few of the Young Turks, if only to keep the rest of them from wasting bullets on their own policemen. If so, the point is well-taken. But then, no one called Fatah a party, did they?

More to the point: if armed violence is the only political solution the “young guard” could devise, what makes them think they’d do any better in the elections? Aren’t they confusing politics with war again? If they’re not, and the elections are to be won by violence, what difference does it make who runs for Fatah, so long as the movement intimidates the population as one? A different candidate won’t change the number of guns they have on call.

Could the outcry be no less self-interested than the corruption it opposes?

Land of the Midnight Sun0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Bad Press, By other means. . . (Thursday December 22, 2005 at 6:41 pm)

Much ado about 60+ degrees of north latitude, that oft-neglected part of Canada.

Sometimes, it just seems unfair. The arctic showed so very much promise once the Northwest Passage was finally found. But then, it is frozen rather more of the year than the Panama Canal.

But Canadians surely respect the region that gives their nation its special something. Oslo may be farther north, Russia may have more Arctic territory, but Canada has. . .a territory largely administered by and for populations native to the region (and the line “True North strong and free” in the national anthem). That and a hotel located within dogsledding distance of a local tourists’ graveyard.

Small wonder, then, that the party leaders have been spending so very much time on the three seats representing this northern region.

Mr. Layton’s recent visit even attempted to capture some of the magic of Ed Broadbent’s dogsled ride with his wife, back in 1980, which helped the NDP in garnering one of two seats. Though there was a photo-op, the equipment must have malfunctioned, as the National Post ran the 1980 photo on page A6. Either CanWest (still primping to be a national network) didn’t send anyone to cover the event, or the Post decided that not enough readers would care. Probably the latter. Besides which, the 1980 election was more interesting. Anyone for Social Credit?

Mr. Harper, meanwhile, has proposed the acquisition of three heavy-duty icebreakers and the increase of military forces stationed in the Arctic, at a cost of $5.3 Billion over five years. The priority would be to detect and respond to foreign ships and others in the Arctic.

Mr. Martin has gone on the defensive, attacking the Conservative plan with two claims: first, that the icebreakers will cost at least $1 Billion each plus $150 Million per annum to operate; and second, in the words of Defence Minister Bill Graham, that the plan is an expensive response to a non-existent military threat.

Mr. Graham might be having some difficulty in remembering that he took a costly trip to the Arctic not long ago to help reestablish Canadian claims to an island repeatedly “visited” by the Danish army.

Why offer himself up in such hypocrisy? Criticisms tend to sound less partisan when they come out of Ministers’ mouths than the campaigning party leader. Besides which, all parties seem to agree that the region is only going to grow in importance.

As Mr. Layton put it, global warming is likely to make the Canadian north more amenable both to shipping and to exploration for mineral and other natural resources. His proposals, to increase locals’ role in the development and benefit from these resources is a classic strategy for sovereign control (as well as a prudent campaign promise): make sure that the locals have a vested interest in promoting your control of the region.

The prospect of global warming means a harder time for Canadians. Ensuring sovereign control over the Arctic isn’t merely a spitting contest between states — it is the only way to enforce Canadian interests such as environmental protection, resource extraction, and the rule of law. If Canada fails to develop the capacity to enforce its jurisdiction in the North, others will expand their own sovereignty to take on the role.

The Liberals point out that there are presently over 4,000 Army Rangers covering the North; but a quick check shows that only about 1,600 of those are actually in the Territories (and many of those in northern BC and Alberta).

As for the cost question, the United States Coast Guard has just requisitioned $110 Million USD for the acquisition of a new heavy icebreaker for use on the Great Lakes. Is it conceivable that an Arctic version will cost at least eight times as much? Hardly. Arctic-use icebreakers cost the US Coast Guard $11 Million each to operate in 1994. Why would it cost the federal government more than three times as much to operate Canadian icebreakers a mere ten years later? With inflation, we’d expect a 30% increase over that time, not 200%. Isn’t the US military known for overinflated costs anyway? Does the Liberal party have a source for a quotation on icebreakers which it produced in less than a day? It was a fairly quick response. Did they go with the first quote? And were they on the public payroll or the party payroll when they did it?

The question really isn’t whether Canadians need to have the capacity to respond to sovereignty threats and rescue efforts in the vast Arctic region — it’s how much is necessary to achieve that aim. Misleading quotations of troop figures and brash announcements of massive investment do the same thing for the debate: little. A campaign is a poor time to refine policy — it must be at its bluntest to avoid seeming insignificant. The pity is that Canadians may respond to such sweeping statements and genuine needs with indifference; and the North which succours their identity deserves better.

The News on the News0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press (Sunday December 11, 2005 at 4:41 pm)

Did you ever wonder what the opposite of “more news” is? Did you ever wonder what might come of the “technique” of news anchors interviewing other journalists rather than someone who might have the vaguest notion of what was going on?

The answer to both is the following:

Blizzard over in Halifax, but Rain Forecast

From our friends at the CBC. If it weren’t for that “but” there, you might wonder whether there was a story here at all. But (how the power of that word overwhelms the senses) just stick that ‘but’ in and we know that after this weather, there’ll be more weather. What an angle!

Shocking.

If you read further, you’ll learn that some people spent much of the day without power. It was back by suppertime, though. Apart from missing a few Christmas-themed animated movies, not too much of a loss, really. If you’re really into the Grinch, you might have to rent it this year.

I assume there’s some sort of “regional representation” requirement at the CBC, probably along the lines of the Senate split (24 each to West, Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic, plus some left over for the territories), but was this really the most important thing to happen east of Quebec today? Does sticking this up as the “Atlantic” story really demonstrate any kind of affection for or provide any understanding of that region?

For the Children0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Bad Press, Vague Check (Wednesday December 7, 2005 at 7:57 am)

Part of the problem with “just the facts, ma’am” reporting is that presenting subsequent releases of partisan information without context is misleading, at best.

Consider the following. Tories promise $1,200 per annum per child under 6, regardless of whether the money is used for child care or not. Liberals promise to renew a $5billion dollar program with a $6billion dollar extension when it expires.

What’s a voter to do? The Prime Minister claims that the Tory program puts only $25 dollars a week in the hands of parents — presumably, that’s insufficient. The Tories counter that their payments provide freedom of choice — presumably, that’s preferable.

Does the Star column help? Not really, because it doesn’t clarify some important points:

  • According to government figures, there are roughly 2.2 million children under six living with parents
  • The additional funds the Liberals are promising would not increase annual amounts
  • The existing agreements leave the implementation of programs and use of funds largely to the discretion of the provinces. Ontario has, for example, decided to use them to expand “affordable child care”, probably along the lines of the Quebec system
  • The Quebec system includes a $7-per diem charge (far more than $25/week), and many daycares charge significant additional fees for materials, services, and other standard features, within the law of the program

What’s the upshot? Depends.

Despite the numbers quoted by the Star, if every eligible child (under six) applied for the $1,200, the program would cost $2.6 billion per annum, more than double the amount on offer from the Liberals. The comparison the Star offers is unconscionably deceptive, pairing the Tories’ 5-year plan cost with the Liberals’ 10-year plan cost.

Foul play, gentlemen, foul play. You might be tagged as playing favorites.

The Liberal plan could be more beneficial if its effects are targeted to a smaller group. If a given province uses the money exclusively to subsidize daycare for lower-income earners, then it could provide benefits equal to or greater than the Tory plan; but not if spread widely through the middle class.

The difficulty in evaluating the two rests on precisely this point: it’s impossible to say what the effect of the Liberal’s plan will be without knowing in advance how the provinces will use the funds, and that information simply isn’t available. The agreements in place now are regarded merely as “agreements in principle”, isolating them from any genuine enforcement mechanism. What is more, nothing binds the provinces to use the money to create new daycare spaces or opporunities. The federal government’s inability to make provincial governments follow its lead on medicare doesn’t suggest that it has the ability to produce a comparable program for child care.

Similarly, the Tory plan rests on the assumption that such funds, in combination with tax cuts to businesses subsidizing child care, would successfully provide the additional spaces necessary for young children. That’s far from certain. Going by the Quebec results, the $1,200 wouldn’t cover the existing $7/day, let alone additional expenses. But then, the current program doesn’t cover them either.

In this respect, Prof. Friendly of UofT’s comments are right on the money, but in respect of both plans: we can’t evaluate them very well. Neither plan offers real provisions for establishing the effects of the policy.

And make no mistake: this is a policy choice. It’s just that they make it as hard as possible to tell what the policies amount to, beyond vague philosophical statements keyed to “free choice” and “public” care.

If the argument is that this is a fight between “public” child care and “free choice”, then we’re having a stupid argument indeed — one based on gut reactions to terms that only have meaning in the narrow discourse of our political millieu. If the question is which plan will better provide daycare to children, then a bit more needs to be demanded than which label politicians want to give the system (and each other). Some details would help.

In consideration of which, it’s hard to pick a winner between the two. Oh, the strategic implications are obvious: Harper tries to look like he cares deeply about social programs (softening his image), while Martin claims that Harper’s proposal means that he’s against public child care, which is meant to make voters associate the position with an attack on public health care (ah, wascally wabbit).

But who cares about such nonsense? Sadly, far too many people. The point is, which is better?

The wonk’s heart thaws at the thought of freedom, which instinctively makes him prefer the Tory plan. The Liberal plan has the benefit of being cheaper, but the benefits themselves are harder to determine. Moreover, more money going to daycare just seems more likely to ensue from the Tory plan. At least the money under the former can be put directly towards child care spaces — in the latter case, it is far from certain.

Nah. It’s worth waiting to see what the NDP put out before crowning a winner.

Until then, the children will just have to make do with these castles in the air — and we all know how they love them. Sad part is, adults should know better.

Moi, j’oublie0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Bad Press, A House Divided (Thursday December 1, 2005 at 9:11 am)

James Travers of the Toronto Star has a story to tell. There was a time, he says, when Quebec was a base for the federal Liberals — when they could count on the province for their seats; and represented the country there.

Ah, but that was before three problems, says he: a ‘perfect storm’ of politics. Chretien’s mistakes in dealing with soft sovereigntists, Gilles Duceppe’s resuscitation of the Bloc Quebecois, and the sponsorship scandal. Since then, the Liberals have had to fight; and Martin’s pleas for unity must reverse this trend.

All well and good, save two mistakes: the trend, until recently, was the other way around; and one election does not make a trend.

The Bloc Quebecois secured 54 seats in 1993, 44 in 1997, and 38 in 2000. Clearly, Chretien’s approach to soft sovereigntists was playing right into the BQ’s hands. Moreover, the last time the Liberal party held a majority of the seats in Quebec was 1980, under Pierre Trudeau. Indeed, that was some time off. Since then, they’ve been engaged in competitive battles, first with the Tories, then with the BQ.

Gilles Duceppe became leader of the BQ prior to the 1997 election, and was at the helm as they slipped from their position as official opposition in that election and saw their seat total eroded yet again in the next. Has he since mounted a more effective campaign? Certainly. But it’s hard to say whether the credit for that should go to him or to a combination of unpopular policies by provincial Liberals and ongoing changes in Quebec politics.

So the “trend” is that the BQ gained seats in the last election. I suppose it will be a trend if (more likely when, granted) they gain seats in this election. But the writer woefully misrepresents history and does his audience a serious misservice.

The truth is that Quebec has been a battleground for the Liberals for a quarter century now, and not a base of support. Whatever Chretien’s faults, it’s clear that the BQ lost seats during his tenure in office. Is Travers right about Gomery? Sure. Is one out of three good enough? Not really.

Are there any fact-checkers working over there at the Star?

Taking the Debates out of Debates1

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Bad Press (Thursday December 1, 2005 at 12:05 am)

The format for debates in the Canadian federal election has apparently been chosen, and boy, howdy, are we in for a treat.

Rather than have the leaders shout over or at one another, clashing directly, the parties and press have cleverly agreed to a format akin to last year’s American Presidential debates. One by one, the leaders will respond to questions, in splendid isolation from cross-debate, criticism, or anything that might interfere with the delivery of prepared statements.

Yes. The debates will consist of a series of prepared statements.

Naturally, this provides the parties with the opportunity to present their positions in an uninterrupted format (and without paying a cent from their campaign funds, either), without exposing the leaders to the threat of having to be questioned sharply on the basis of their responses.

Now that should ensure a worthwhile discussion of serious issues.

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