Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

That and Five Cups of Coffee. . .0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Vague Check, Strategic Planning (Sunday July 30, 2006 at 11:46 am)

Students often rank high on lists of the victimised. After all, following twelve or thirteen years of education at public expense, they’re actually required to subsidise the cost of further educational opportunities, taking on debt as though they were investing in their own futures. Weep, weep, those of you whose eyes still run dry, at the iniquity.

But what’s more, there just isn’t enough youth involvement in politics! The fact that “paper” youth clubs were a perfect basis for “instant Liberals” and domination of the party’s last Leadership contest means that the youth were used (victims again!), not embraced! Besides which, they’ve now cleaned up their act (which claim oddly enough involves both the hidden agenda gambit (criticism of youth politics means that you’re against youth politics) and admitting that there was a problem).

But surely low levels of youth participation must have something to do with an organised programme of victimization, rather than the failure of parties (now the keystone of the political process) to engage with them in any substantive way. Mustn’t it?

Why blame your inability to say anything of significance to a large pool of voters when you can blame matters on procedural obstacles like money? Students are poor, right? After all, with the price of feeding a daily coffee addiction climbing, there’s not much space left in that tight, tight student budget for frivolities like political activism.

Which explains why some people have suggested that the price of a youth club membership (generally, $5-10 CAD) in the Liberal Party was high enough to drive off potential members. Belinda Stronach, currently crusading for a cheaper party, takes this assertion seriously, arguing that her plan for $1 memberships is just the solution the party needs — why, everyone will join at that price!

But an economist, or indeed anyone concerned with exploring peoples’ decisions, might instead take note of this fact to point out the real problem. If this analysis is correct, it means that people would prefer five cups of coffee to membership in the Liberal Party. And if that membership isn’t worth ten dollars per year of deferred instant (or brewed) gratification, it just might be that the problem isn’t the price — it’s the product.

But let’s go with that other thing. The money. Gotta be. Poor, victimised students. . .

Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Saturday July 29, 2006 at 10:19 pm)

Sound like a square dance? That makes sense, because this particular problem is the joint product of noted square, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and note-worthy (sorry, puns run hot even for the Frozen Wonk) country star K.D. Lang.

Mr. Harper recently snubbed the outgames, an olympics-like event for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual (LGBT) athletes, by refusing to attend their inaugural running in Montreal (already underway). K.D. Lang, interviewed because of her status as Canadian, lesbian, and frontlining performer at the games, condemned the Prime Minister’s response:

“It’s a sad statement that the national leader of a country that’s one of the most progressive countries in the world chooses to support intolerance,” she told a news conference at the Olympic Stadium.

“They [the federal Conservative government] will probably make it (homosexuality) a political issues,” she said. “It’s not a political issue. It’s a human rights issue.”

Which explains why the Prime Minister, the political leader of the country, rather than the Governor-General, the head of the country, should attend. There’s no question that acceptance of LGBT lifestyles is grounded in a human rights argument, but saying that it’s not political is a transparent ploy. Recognising sexual preference and sexuality as a human right is highly political — it’s a core area of identity politics. And trying to skip the first step — recognition of the right — in order to claim that politics isn’t involved is not just misleading — it’s self-defeating.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, achieving recognition of certain rights in the courts doesn’t elminate the importance of working to gain public acceptance, because enforcing rights against the public’s grain tends to result in greater tension; and no one wants to have to run back to the courts every time rights are violated simply because the political groundwork was neglected in the euphoria of a favorable judicial decision.

But the foolish things entertainers say have been appropriately lampooned by others far more qualified. This is a place to lampoon dumb politics. And Mr. Harper’s reeks. Why?

Attending an event of this kind could resolve a major challenge for his party: the urgent need to prove themselves to the citified folk. Sure, the counter-argument exists: that spending time with LGBT groups could ruin their rep with core constituencies (anti-gay crusaders who haven’t worked their way up to being anti-bisexual/transexual yet); but it seems unlikely that anyone else stands to take that constituency from them. Given the chance that a few might be so committed to that particular issue to stay home rather than vote for a party that’s abandoned their principle, mightn’t it be mighty dangerous for Harper to give up the bad fight?

Not if you consider the possible trade-off. As part of a coordinated makeover strategy, it could sway enough old-school Tories back to a party they thought was captured by Reform. Moreover, if it makes enough of an impression to swing a few more urban seats, the loss of one or two in rural Ontario doesn’t seem so bad. It’s a gamble, no question; but it’s the kind of gamble (though not the only one) that Harper needs to take to transform his party from an acceptable alternative to a sought-after commodity.

His cowardly reaction can only lead to more of the same.

But the idea of an “Outgames” itself smacks of stagnation. Separate but equal was the hallmark of racism’s survival in the United States in the face of human rights (the 14th Amendment). And the idea of a separate set of Olympics for LGBT athletes falls right into that segregationist premise.

It makes two mistakes: it believes that self-segregation somehow improves awareness; and that having one’s own things doesn’t hurt becoming part of an integrated community. Neither is true. What Mark Tewksbury’s sexual orientation had to do with his Olympic medals is obscure at best; and the games’ claim to “overcoming difference” through sport seems spurious if it’s designed to only include those who are differentiated from society’s norms. It emphasises the difference and suggests that they need to be separate — quite the opposite of the point intended.

So while the ability to organise and host the Outgames must be a great boost to a community which has long had to deny its identity; the objectives the games profess to seek can’t be achieved by this action — they can only be obstructed.

Which, perhaps, offers some hope for the two parties to this issue — they have something in common than they may not have supposed: a penchant for rallying to self-defeating positions.

The First Rule of Peacekeeping Club0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, By other means. . ., Golden Tacks, Crossroads of Culture (Friday July 28, 2006 at 3:22 pm)

It’s an excellent club for politicians. They get to make peace instead of making war, and the public at home isn’t usually sure whether you or the United Nations is in charge. That makes it the best of all possible worlds for a government, which can:

  • mobilize a military response, satisfying those moderates with just a touch of warmongering bloodlust but a mortal fear of the actual sight of blood
  • work with the United Nations, satisfying those moderates keen on multilateralism but reluctant to surrender sovereign control
  • help people (people who need help!), satisfying those moderates eager do good but vaguely uncomfortable with the “hippie” politics of some NGOs and utterly ignorant of the Red Cross Society

Which can, in many countries, be a winning coalition. It’s just good politics.

Which is what, one must assume, was the point of Bill Graham’s rebuke to Stephen Harper’s musings on the UN mission in Lebanon: UNTSO. After the Israeli bombing of one UNTSO position left Canadian Major Paeta Hess-von Krudener missing and presumed dead, the Prime Minister questioned the fact that the UN observers had not been withdrawn from the area, given the severity of the conflict.

This prompted the Leader of the Opposition to call the Prime Minister’s comment “completely unacceptable”, as reported in this article:

Graham says Harper seems to have forgotten that Canada has been part of UN missions for several decades.

That seems unlikely. The Prime Minister would be somewhat less likely to ask such questions if he thought Canada had little involvement. In point of fact, questioning the effective deployment of UN forces should really be the least the government does to ensure the safety of Canadians who serve in them, as at least one former observer pointed out.

Then why object so strenuously to the Prime Minister’s reaction? Should there have been greater condemnation of the Israeli army? The Liberals’ own statement on the subject does nothing of the kind, so that seems unlikely. It can only be an attempt to stand up for peacekeeping against those who would oppose it — a conclusion supported by Graham’s complaint that support for the Israeli position undermines Canada’s reputation as a peacekeeping nation.

But criticism isn’t always destructive or wrong-headed, any more than peacekeeping is always flawed. What the Liberal Leader is really trying to do is make the connection that, by criticising the conduct of a peacekeeping mission, the Prime Minister proves himself to be against peacekeeping. It’s a variant of the “hidden agenda” argument that’s become so popular in Canada of late.

Hidden agenda theories are popular because of the recent plague of ideological arrogance that has left much of the population, like zombies, aggressive, infectious, and sorely in need of brains. The ideologue can’t comprehend that another position could be valid (or that his could be better) — things are merely right or wrong (a point which all hues of the political spectra cry foolishly). It’s simply too hard to take the fact that an issue is arguable, or that multiple answers could be right, depending on perspective.

The result of admitting no argument is that criticism and counterpoints must be invalid by definition. If so, then they can only be explained in one of two ways. Either the speaker is too stupid to understand that he can’t be right, or she’s making the point for an unknown strategic reason. That unknown reason must be the real agenda, and is divined much as the unknown reason for lightning (a panoply of powerful pushers). Of course, many people who believe in hidden agendas don’t believe that Thor makes thunder; but it might just take a bolt out of the blue for them to make the connection.

What’s worse, given the reality of its existence and the immediacy of threats, debate over the validity of peacekeeping may not be as important as debate over its execution. There are real lives engaged in the activity, and an important way to safeguard them is ensuring that they are properly commanded. It’s not like the mandate for the operation is hard to find (the group in question is presently attached to UNIFIL):

  • Confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon
  • Restore international peace and security
  • Assist the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area

Which raises the question: what part of the mandate was the group expected to undertake at the time? The UN’s subsequent reorganization of the mission as much as admits the truth of the Prime Minister’s complaint. It’s nothing to suggest that the situation become unsafe following the bombing — it was already unsafe at the time of the bombing, it’s just that either:

  • Command hadn’t realised it
  • or

  • Command hadn’t acted on it

Which of the two is acceptable?

Whether the attack was intentional or not is an argument for another site — the Chilly Wonk just doesn’t know; but it’s not the same issue as a real and important question about the work being done by Canadian soldiers abroad: are the UN missions being properly managed?

The question transcends troop safety and demands to know why the mission has failed at achieving objective 2, despite its frequent reports and demands to both sides? That, too, is an important question.

Asking important questions about the conduct of peacekeeping missions doesn’t go against peacekeeping, doesn’t go against the UN, and doesn’t go against Canada. It just goes against the first rule of political choices: never make the hard argument when the facile one will do.

Broken Telephones at DFAIT*2

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, Crossroads of Culture (Thursday July 27, 2006 at 3:34 pm)

In the wake of the Canadian government’s lacklustre rescue operations in Lebanon, there is no shortage of government policies to be reconsidered. Poor communication with Canadians in Lebanon was a serious obstacle, though the problem (whether understandable or not) wasn’t confined to Canadian efforts. But the evacuees have a suggestion, and the Liberal Party of Canada thinks it’s a valid option for the reworking of official communications:

But for many Canadians in Lebanon, one of the few sources of information is relatives back in Canada.

Many Lebanese-Canadians have expressed frustration that the government chose not to take advantage of these unofficial lines of communications and make details of their plan for evacuating Canadians available to the public as soon as possible.

Liberal Consular Affairs Critic Dan McTeague agreed with this criticism.

After all, there’s no more reliable means of communicating complex instructions than by broadcasting them publicly and having people watching them call their friends and pass along the message.

Consular Affairs Critic Dan McTeague was formerly employed (before the beginning of his mindnarrowingly insider political career) as the kid who stood behind that chubby kid in the schoolyard (you know, the one who talked about sex) yelling “Yeah!” encouragingly and offering authoritative confirmation of the details by way of his Swiss friend’s father. Which helps to explain the origin of his position on the unborn, same-sex unions, and rap.

That he panders shamelessly, that is; not that he learned it from the chubby kid (who is, the Frosty Wonk is told, quite the 50 Cent fan).

Look forward, under future Minister McTeague, to a major innovation in AIDS education — the chubby kid getting federal funding for his “condoms” bit.

*DFAIT-Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Canadian Foreign Service

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.

A Motto Usque Ad Morons0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check (Monday July 10, 2006 at 9:24 pm)

Arctic sovereignty has finally become a major issue for Canadians. Need proof? It’s come to changing the country’s motto from “from sea to sea” to “from sea to sea to sea“. This is no time for men to sit idly by while ice breaks, the Danes invade and adorable animals die! The hour of talk is at hand! Or should it be at hands? (Hecatonchires need not apply)

Because as we all know only too well, nations are defined by their mottos:

More than symbolism, as climate change melts the North’s ice and exposes its shorelines, the newly minted motto would help Canada assert its sovereignty over the Arctic, advocates say.

More than symbolism? True — it’s symbolism that no one cares about. After all, does “I wrote down what’s mine and what’s yours” ever make a compelling case?

But if an uber-celebrity like former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson is for it, who can resist her case:

“It’s in European terms [the old motto, that is]: You go marching across [from sea to sea],” Ms. Clarkson said in an interview. “But going up, which more and more people realize is the way we have to conceptualize ourselves, is something that should be in our motto.

“It’s much more than symbolic; it’s real,” she said. “We have overlooked the North. Or we just haven’t thought about it.”

Which does raise the question: isn’t it largely by European incursions that the whole issue of sovereignty has been raised? Is it really a European mindset that ignored the Arctic? Weren’t Europeans desperately looking for the Northwest Passage? Well, maybe she overlooked that. Or just hasn’t thought about it.

Besides which, once the motto is changed, it’ll take its proud place alongside those other compelling images on the Coat of Arms, like the unicorn, which reminds us to. . .chase virgins; or the fleur-de-lis of Quebec, which have done so much to dampen separatism; or the Lion with a crown, a maple leaf, and permed leg hair which raises our consciousness of the annual “Mr. Sugarbush” competition held in scenic Shawville. Wait. Why do we still have a Coat of Arms? Isn’t it just a bit pretentious? After all, when a professor of Medieval Latin suggests the coat of arms should go, you can be sure it’s well past its best before date.

Mottos are the most pretentious part of a modern coat of arms for one reason: the only purpose of a contemporary coat of arms is to mystify whatever it’s on with a display of anachronistic pomp. The motto could be “two female horses get it on”, or “ollie ollie all are in free”, or even “if you’re reading this — get a life” (in a dead tongue, of course) without really affecting national status, pride, or whether those darn kids give a hoot (or whatever it is they give these days). Does anyone remember when they added the second motto on a garter to an armorial bearing already so cluttered an ally might mistake it for a sad attempt at trompe l’oeil on the battlefield? Not that it’ll ever see any use that productive. . .

But setting the change aside, isn’t consciousness of the issue raised merely by the debate? Isn’t it important to do just that?

Sure it is; but it’s not just a matter of debating — it’s a matter of having something to debate. The problem is that no one is disputing the only important point being raised: that the North must be considered and protected. There seems to be agreement on that. The problem is that no one agrees on what that means, and that’s the subject on which public discussion is so sorely needed. And “getting people talking” vaguely on topic doesn’t cut it. The mere fact that people are talking doesn’t mean that they’re saying anything.

Which raises the question: why bother? Either way, why care?

Because doing this is easy and a piss-poor substitute for having real debate or taking a strong stand on Arctic sovereignty; and those proposing it seem to be presenting it as the opposite. As the Chilled Wonk has said before, if you’re going to get all high-and-mighty as an Arctic people, you should pay the land more than lip service.

The Race that Launched a Thousand Ships0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, Strategic Planning (Thursday July 6, 2006 at 4:38 pm)

With the news that the Liberal Party might reach over 150,000 members after the leadership recruiting drive, the idea that 50,000 members will suddenly rise out of Newfoundland seems more farfetched.

Until you read the Globe and Mail’s qualification of the numbers:

Before this campaign, the Liberal Party had about 80,000 members across the country — not counting Newfoundland and New Brunswick, where the party’s lists of lifetime members are massive and wildly inaccurate.

Wildly inaccurate? That’s a fair statement, even if you just go by the numbers (as some Frosty Wonk did earlier this week). But it does raise one question:

If it’s so obvious that old membership lists are “wildly inaccurate” that the Globe and Mail doesn’t fear libel for printing what is surely an unnecessarily harsh accusation, why would the Liberal Party executive approve the use of that list as it has?

There’s an obvious justification: the rights of legitimate past members shouldn’t be compromised because of the party’s poor record-keeping.

But that’s a justification, not a reason, and it’s one that cuts both ways. After all, isn’t the net effect to jeopardize the rights of legitimate current members by opening the system up to massive abuses? There’s no trade-off evident between the two, save the utilitarian argument that there are likely more legitimate members who will be adversely affected than there are who will benefit. Isn’t that a bit insane?

Moreso when you consider how few delegates are up for grabs in Newfoundland. With seven ridings and only a handful of student and other “clubs”, those 50,000 are going to be awfully crowded when it comes time to vote for just over a dozen representatives per riding.

Of course, something else curious is going on. It’s not just Newfoundland that’s got a problem with precision. Apparently, so does New Brunswick. Now, if that doesn’t strike you as significant, it should.

The reason being that it’s the home of leadership candidate Scott Brison. You know Mr. Brison as the MP who crossed the floor to the Liberals in 2003 after running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives. At the time, his move was hailed as a coup, bringing the Liberals a senior Maritimer, the perfect capstone to their increasing stranglehold on that region.

But coups seldom turn out as planned. Liberal popularity in New Brunswick increased from 41 to 44 percent between 2000 and 2004, but the Grits took one seat fewer in the latter election. In 2006, the Liberals returned to six-seat level in the province, but dropped five points in total votes received. What does that mean? Nothing. Which isn’t what you expect from a political catch significant enough to merit a quick boost into Cabinet (where Mr. Brison distinguished himself in certain undistinguished ways).

So why should the state of New Brunswick Liberal record-keeping matter?

No one expects Mr. Brison to win the party leadership — that’s too far out. But if he has a strong showing in the Maritimes (being the only native candidate), there’s a good chance he’ll have a large enough contigent to swing himself a sweet deal by jumping on board with someone else. Whether that comes before or after the convention, one thing’s clear: he’s been making noises about toasted front-runner Michael Ignatieff.

Not sweet nothings, mind you. Just little hints. Brison talks Ignatieff’s talk on a few issues, not least of which is Afghanistan. At the Winnipeg debates, both took flack over their support for the Conservative motion on extending the mission. Brison has no real shot at the top, but he’s certainly hitched his wagon to a moving train before. After all, he swung over to the Liberal side after “conversations” with almost-Prime Minister Martin.

If Brison stays true to form, he may just be the first lower-rung candidate to come to Ignatieff’s side. And if things are wacky enough in the Maritime wing of the party, that might just be what it takes to get Iggy over the hump and into the leader’s office.

How many memberships do you figure that’s worth?

Everything Old is New Again0

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

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

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

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

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

But really, is:

  • A man is known by the company he keeps

all that new a standard?

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

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

Spare the Rod, Spoil the Race0

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

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

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

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

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

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

151. (1) An elector shall, after receiving a ballot,
(a) proceed directly to the voting compartment;
(c) fold the ballot as instructed by the deputy returning officer; and
(d) return the ballot to the deputy returning officer.
Return of ballot
(2) The deputy returning officer shall, on receiving the ballot from the elector,
(a) without unfolding the ballot, verify that it is the same one that was handed to the elector by examining its serial number and the initials on it;
(b) remove and destroy the counterfoil in full view of the elector and all other persons present; and
(c) return the ballot to the elector to deposit in the ballot box or, at the elector’s request, deposit it in the ballot box.
164.
(2) Except as provided by this Act, no elector shall
(a) on entering the polling station and before receiving a ballot, openly declare for whom the elector intends to vote;
(b) show his or her ballot, when marked, so as to allow the name of the candidate for whom the elector has voted to be known; or
(c) before leaving the polling station, openly declare for whom the elector has voted.
167.
(3) No deputy returning officer shall
(b) place on any ballot any writing, number or mark, with intent that the elector to whom the ballot is to be, or has been, given may be identified.

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

  • No one can know how a given person voted.

Which is really nothing more than the following rule:

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

Which really means:

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

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

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

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

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

Well, if you think so: prove it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Deploremus Union3

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Vague Check, Crossroads of Culture (Sunday May 28, 2006 at 12:37 pm)

The Frosty Wonk won’t get into the more serious issues at stake here (many others will). The real questions are:

1. Why are unions taking action on non-labour related foreign affairs questions?
2. Can we trust them to?

The answers:

1. Umm. . .they’ve got nothing better to do?
2. No.

While the first is far from certain, the latter is clear at once.

Having decided to support a boycott of Israel until it recognizes the Palestinian right to self-determination (which it has already done, actually, if you read this), CUPE Ontario “will develop an education campaign about the issue”.

Any problems? Well, yes:

1. CUPE seems to be confused about the history in question:

As noted above, the right to self-determination has been recognized. That’s what the Palestinian elections have been about. What CUPE really seems to be talking about is the right of return:

. . .the right of refugees to return to their homes and properties.

Which is controversial not only because it involves potential compensation issues, but because it involves the counter-claim for Jews evicted or forced from their own homes in the West Bank and other neighbouring countries in 1948.

2. CUPE seems to be a bit confused about the geography in question:

In Ontario, the liquor control board carried more than 30 Israeli wines, many produced in the occupied Golan Heights, CUPE said.

Quite so. But the occupied Golan Heights were not part of British mandate Palestine as divided by the UN in 1947 — they were part of Syria. Were Palestinians evicted by Israelis from a part of Syria twenty years before Israeli forces entered the area? However nicely you ask Israel to grant Palestinians access to the Golan Heights, they can’t let people back into homes they never had.

However you slice it, CUPE clearly doesn’t know what it’s talking about, yet wants to produce an educational pamphlet on the subject.

And that’s why unions might not be the best candidates to conduct foreign relations. Just in case you were wondering.

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?

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 . . .

Bad Judgment0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, Golden Tacks (Tuesday February 28, 2006 at 11:43 pm)

Those who were paying attention during the recent Canadian election campaign might recall a certain warning from its dying days. A Conservative government was expected to use its newfound power to stack the Supreme Court with judges chosen to support its own agenda.

By appointing a judge drawn from the former government’s own shortlist, the new Prime Minister has managed to reveal that warning for what it was: desperate hyperbole. But that’s not to say he’s done well.

The choice is fine. There’s no end of warm endorsements of the man. The problem lies in the process.

As has been widely discussed, Justice Rothstein is now the first supreme court nominee to have faced a committee of Parliamentarians before his appointment. Some (including the Chief Justice) have complained that the process will move Canadians towards a more politicized judiciary (which raises the question of why the Liberals participated), but the hearing itself didn’t really point that way.

For the most part, it added little to the process of appointment, with most questions falling neatly in a range too dull and superficial for legal minds and too dry (why doesn’t the Court give reasons when denying leave?) for most others. In short, innocent. And really, how many interesting stories have been written about undisputed cases of innocence?

No, the problem is precisely that it was innocent. If the addition of hearings is to be worthwhile, it needs to contribute something — and that means better questions. It’s a hard thing to find questions which are neither overly political nor utterly pointless. That’s real work, and it’s work that takes time.

In the U.S., senators have the advantage of large payrolls. They have the manpower to go through past judgments, articles, speeches and other work to figure our what details might be worth looking into.

In Canada, MPs rarely have more than four assistants, of which no more than three will be working in Ottawa. With other work to be done, it’s unlikely that very much time can be devoted to preparing to grill (or lightly toast) potential justices.

Given which, the fact that the committee had less than a week to prepare for the hearing meant that, barring obvious and undesirably political questions, there was little chance of a serious or useful exploration of real issues emerging from the process. Even if a hearing could be a good thing, Harper pulled the gun too quickly to have a useful hearing.

Why? At least one source suggests that Chief Justice McLachlin wanted the Court to be back to full strength in time for its April 10th sittings.

But if, in satisfying that request, the process added little, Harper has hardly managed to make a case (forgive the pun) for future hearings; and there won’t be a chance to try again until 2014.

Are hearings a good idea? Probably. Was this one a case of bad judgment? Definitely

Short Stack0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Vague Check (Saturday January 21, 2006 at 1:31 pm)

Scary stuff this: according to Liberal leader Paul Martin, Steven Harper has a secret plan to stack the court with judges favorable to “the most socially conservative agenda that has ever been this close to forming a government”.

First things first, is this even plausible? No.

While there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court at the moment (since the retirement of Justice Major in December), no more openings are expected before 2013 and 2014, well after a Conservative mandate in the 2006 election would end. If Paul Martin believes what he’s saying, it can mean only one of two things:

  • The appointment of a single judge can suddenly overwhelm the judgement of eight others
  • Paul Martin knows that several justices will die well before their 75th birthdays

The former is merely laughable, the latter absurd.

But the Liberal leader’s seeming ignorance in easily-researched matters such as the age of sitting judges falls right into line with the remainder of his claim: that the Conservative party presently represents the most right-wing agenda in the history of the country.

Surely this doesn’t include Liberal governments which prohibited immigration from China between 1927 and 1948, upheld prohibition, or the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War?

Certainly not. After all, when you’re ignorant, no one can fault you for preposterous claims. The question remains: will anyone hold you to account for them?

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. . .

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?

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.

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.

Wintergreen0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Vague Check (Friday December 9, 2005 at 8:04 pm)

There are times of the year when the far north blooms with vibrant colour. Now, though, is winter.

The Green Party has some difficulties in establishing a truly national presence. It appears those troubles are continuing.

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