Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

1+1 = Sunny Skies?0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, Brass Tacks (Thursday April 19, 2007 at 3:52 pm)

The problem with simple math is that it’s more complex than you might think. That’s why Jason Cherniak’s recent assertion of impending Liberal success in St. Catherines is as analytically sound as a proof that 1=2.

Here’s the theory:

  • In 2006, the Liberal candidate lost by 246 votes.
  • In 2006, the Green Party candidate received 2,305 votes.
  • Therefore, if a mere 15% of the Green votes switch to Liberal in the absence of a Green candidate, the Liberal candidate wins!

Spotted the fallacy? It’s simple, really. It assumes that the Conservative candidate, now an incumbent, doesn’t gain any votes. Incumbents often do; and absent some sign of real backlash in the area in question or serious nationwide backlash, there’s no reason to suspect that he won’t do as well or better in the next election.

But there’s another one; and this is the point that leads to the serious error of judgment in Jason’s analysis, to wit: the headline:

Dion-May deal pays off in St. Catharines!

It’s wholly within the realm of possibility that 15% of would-be Green voters will trend Liberal. It’s also within the realm of possibility that the Liberals’ effort to court the left end of the spectrum will alienate more centre-right parts of their support. If so, the quasi-coalition could cost more votes than it gains. Not only has he assumed that the Conservatives gain no votes, but he also assumes that neither the Greens nor the Liberals lose any votes.

Assuming that a deal has only positive effects comes down to begging the question, because that’s precisely what you’re trying to prove. It’s as analytically sound as. . .well, thinking it won’t rain because you don’t have your umbrella. Slapping a smile across your face no matter what might help your mood, but it won’t keep you from ending up all wet.

History History History History. . .0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, A House Divided (Tuesday April 17, 2007 at 8:08 pm)

Stephane Dion, the Liberal Party of Canada’s leader, had an excellent opening this week. In response to a suggestion by new Quebec Opposition Leader, Mario Dumont, that negotiations on the constitution are in the offing (of the Atlantic, presumably), Dion put down a foot unused to treading on firm ground. He attacked the Prime Minister’s failure to clearly articulate his own constitutional position:

The thing [Mr. Harper] needs to do to prevent a problem is to speak out and say very clearly which powers, which responsibilities, he wants to transfer from the federal government to the provincial government,” said Mr. Dion in an interview Sunday. “If he continues to be vague and confused, I think it’s not good at all for the country. He owes that to Canadians.

And voiced an opinion strange to Canadians reared on an obsession with constitutional transformation as panacea:

. . .none of these issues that are facing us, including social justice … request a constitutional change to deal with. . .

All of which is good. Very good. Most of Canada is good and sick of debating constitutional issues, which strike them, rightly or wrongly, more as conflict over Quebec’s position in the constitutional order than any necessary transformation of a federal system which doesn’t seem to be falling apart just yet. Where there’s no smoke, there’s no fire, and Dion’s pointing that out both resonates with many Canadians (especially the Maritimers and Ontarians on which the Liberals rely) and gives him a firm, strong, and intelligible stance so sorely lacking in his recent work.

But then this comes along. He’s only just demonstrated an understanding — not of the constitution, as some have suggested — of the population’s attitude towards the constitution: “We like it, now shut up and govern.” How to follow that up? By trying to cast himself as a constitutional defender:

He noted, too, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other cabinet ministers have been conspicuously absent from charter commemoration events.

“I think every Canadian prime minister ought to make a point of publicly celebrating the charter,” he said.

One step forward, one back. What Canadians want, and let’s be clear about this, is not politicians outdoing themselves with displays of symbolic love. Neither is it blustering claims to establish their credentials as constitutional defenders. Paul Martin tried both, giddily claiming that Stephen Harper didn’t love Canada, and then proving his constitutional cred by offering up a clause of it on the altar of its own protection. Neither worked out very well for him.

To show so immediately keen a grasp on the right constitutional tack one day and show just the opposite the next is not a positive sign of much. Canadians are not afraid of losing the Constitution — they want politicians to follow it, not prate on about it.

At best, it shows that Dion is intuitively capable of resonating with the public, but incapable of deploying his natural understanding in strategic ways. Hence, a superb response to someone else’s statement, followed by a badly managed statement of his own.

At worst, it shows that what’s come before may come again. And this isn’t the first time that history is repeating itself with M. Dion, either.

Hopes and Dreams1

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, Blue Nose, Warm Heart (Friday April 13, 2007 at 9:35 am)

What Stephane Dion hopes to accomplish by not running a candidate against Green Party Leader Elizabeth May in the next election:

  • Prove his committment to the environment
  • Show that he’s capable of working with others

What Stephane Dion inadvertently says by doing it:

  • The Greens are a better choice than the Liberals if you’re environmentally-minded
  • The Green Party, rather than his own party, tells him what to do

Does no one remember the last time a Liberal leader tried to look multilateral and advertised his party as a second choice? That didn’t work out quite so well.

Nevermind the fact that, in addition to his own team’s inevitable pratfalls during the coming campaign. Dion can now also be hounded for every Green Party gaffe, like Vancouver-Kingsway hopeful, Kevin Potvin, a 9/11 conspiracy theory supporter who declared the World Trade Centre’s descruction fist-pumpingly beautiful in 2002. The National Post has the jump on this by juxtaposing the two stories in today’s ‘News’ section. Naturally, M. Dion won’t be receiving credit for the Greens’ insights.

Of course, the Greens may reciprocate by not running a candidate in Dion’s riding of Saint-Laurent-Cartierville, which may be the second-safest Liberal seat in the country. In 2006, Dion won his seat with more than 50% of the total votes cast and an 18,000-vote margin over his nearest rival. Not having to face the Greens will have about as much electoral impact as sailing an unmarked paper boat down the St. Lawrence, but without any comparable aesthetic merits.

Considering all of which, one question remains:

Is the outside chance of embarrassing Peter MacKay worth any of those downsides?

La Belle Province No More0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Vague Check, Strategic Planning, A House Divided, All Politics (Wednesday April 11, 2007 at 3:41 pm)

Liberal leader Stephane Dion commented yesterday on the recent Quebec election, suggesting that, contrary to many observations, the ADQ’s success in that province poses no threat to the Liberals’ hopes for federal seats.

Per M. Dion:

The votes for (ADQ Leader Mario) Mr. Dumont were in a large part protest votes. . .Mr. Harper [his federal opponent] cannot channel a protest vote because he is the government.”

An argument which could be disputed, to be certain. But that doesn’t undermine Dion’s point. After all, eight of the ten federal seats taken by the Conservatives in Quebec came at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois, not the Liberals. If the Tories continued to snag seats at that stunning pace, the Liberals would lose only one more to them, while possibly gaining a few (Papineau, par example?) back from the BQ.

The ADQ won 37 new seats in Quebec, of which 20 came from the provincial Liberals and 17 from the Parti Quebecois. Those are fairly even numbers, and they mean that, even if the ADQ got some votes from the Liberals as a protest, they could not have achieved their victory without overtaking the PQ — a feat the Liberals had not accomplished in those ridings. If the ADQ poses a worrisome threat, it seems to be more portentous for the separatist parties than for the Liberals.

But if the federal Liberals think they have nothing to fear, they’re wrong. The main reason why they might not recognize the threat is that it didn’t emerge with the recent election, even if the recent election showed some of its symptoms. The real threat is the Liberal Party of Canada’s increasing isolation within Quebec.

Consider this: from 1945 to 1980, in thirteen consecutive elections spanning thirty-five years, the Liberals took fewer than 47 (of 65-75) Quebec seats only twice: once in 1958, when John Diefenbaker swept the country, and again in 1962, when he faced off against an Anglophone Liberal leader, the short-termed Lester Pearson. Over that time, the Liberals took more than 60 seats six times and more than fifty-five nine times. They averaged roughly 53% of the vote in Quebec, hitting a low of 39.2% in 1962 when Pearson first fought Diefenbaker and a high of 68.2% in 1980, when Trudeau returned to champion constitutional repatriation.

Now consider this: from 1984 to 2006, in seven consecutive elections spanning twenty-two years, the Liberals took 36 (of 75) Quebec seats in their best showing — 2000, against Joe Clark (who never did well in Quebec), Preston Manning (who barely spoke French), and Gilles Duceppe (who was scorned for weak campaigning). In four of those campaigns, they failed to win as many as 20 seats, and broke 25 only twice. They averaged roughly 33.5% over that span, hitting a high of 44.2% in the 2000 campaign and a low of 20.7% in 2006 (the second post-sponsorship scandal campaign).

Which shows a significant dip in Liberal fortunes between 1980 and 1984. No points to those who can guess why.

But that’s not all — there’s another interesting point to consider: 21 seats in Quebec are in Montreal. In all but two of the thirteen elections before 1984, the Liberals took a majority of the seats outside of Montreal. In no election since has that happened. In 2000, the Liberals’ best showing since 1980, they managed merely 16 of the 54 seats outside of that City. In five of those seven elections, they did no better than six such seats. The Liberal Party has clearly maintained its former grip on the City of Montreal, but it has lost its strength beyond.

What the numbers show is a far more dangerous threat to the Liberals than anything posed by the ADQ. If the 1997 and 2000 election victories had as much to do with the Bloc Quebecois’s poor campaigning as it did the Liberals’ own performance, then their two positive showings had more to do with the lack of a third option than it did with any efforts of their own.

The Liberals’ best seat total in the latter elections — 36 in 2000 — was eleven seats more than their worst performance in the former — 25 in 1958; but it was achieved with virtually the same percentage of the vote (44.2% vs. 45.6%). Their worst share of the vote in the former elections — 39.2% in 1962 — was only 5% behind their 2000 peak, and better than any other performance between 1984 and 2006.

What this suggests is that the Liberals are a different party in Quebec now than they were before 1984. Before 1984, they could count on taking 50% or so of the Quebec vote and built a majority starting from the roughly 50 seats they expected there. Since then, their expectations should be for roughly 35% of the vote and far too few seats to rest easy before hearing the Ontario numbers.

Since 1984, the Liberals have had to rely on Ontario for their bedrock, and with that under serious attack since the disappearance of the Progressive Conservatives in 2004, there are no signs that this is a sustainable long-term strategy. The West of Canada still looks unwelcoming to what overtures Liberals have made; and the Maritimes hold too few seats for even dominance on the scale of 1997 to make a stand there.

Which means that the Liberals are faced with a serious problem in Quebec — they have lost their long-term stronghold without finding an alternative. If they cannot break out of Montreal in the face of what now seems a second viable alternative to the separatists, they will have to find a new and unfamiliar way to build majorities. And that strange future brings a promise of minority status at best and certain weakness for some time to come.

Misdirected Strategy0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Thursday April 5, 2007 at 2:57 pm)

The genius of Liberal strategy rolls on.

Jason Cherniak covers a rally in Toronto yesterday for Liberal Leader Stephane Dion. Bragging in particular about the good response to Dion’s speech — at a rally.

So what’s the problem?

Liberals are still trying to attack the budget
That ship has sailed. Polling suggests that the budget was very well received, and it’s unlikely in that case that there are many votes to be swayed. Those who had a negative impression of the budget amounted to no more than 21%, suggesting that only hardcore partisans were angered.

Let’s be clear: the budget was well-targetted at a group that has been long ignored: the middle class family. There isn’t a lot of political advantage to be taken from attacking the budget as the Liberals have been for weeks without moving the polls. What’s worse, the critiques: “overspending” and “GST cut is a worse choice than income tax cut” don’t really fit with the strong prongs of their campaign message: fairness, environmentalism, and “richness”. Stop talking about the budget and focus on important issues.

Liberals are still attacking politics
Remember when Paul Martin attacked Stephen Harper for putting political ambition ahead of the national interest? Canadians don’t. Why not? Because it’s hypocritical and transparent.

Politicians have packaging and headline-grabbing on the brain, and Canadians know it. Trying to demonize your opponents for playing politics insults the public’s intelligence. Liberals are also devoted to short-term flash at the expense of long-term pain: that’s why the Kyoto Protocol was quickly signed but never properly implemented.

Complaining that Harper is more of a politician than you are is childish, whiny and shrill, and the only votes it gets you are ones you already have. Stop it and think of some real reason to complain — the public won’t do that for you.

Liberals are now attacking themselves
Why take aim at the Clean Air Act when your own party has effectively redrafted it in committee? Do you really want to give the Tories more ammo?

But perhaps the most telling volley from this maginot line of press coverage is the following:

Dion brought up farmers and the wheat board to great applause - in Toronto.

Which leads to one dazzlingly stupid conclusion: Liberals think that Toronto is where they need to win votes.

Iran Ahoy!0

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

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

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

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

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

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

So clearly, they were misdirected at some point.

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

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

Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leaves only one question: why pre-announce?

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

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

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

Federal Budget, Part One0

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

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

Middle Class Incentives

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

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

So how does all this stack up?

Political Value
Very high

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

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

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

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

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

Business Incentives

A number of entries are aimed at improving business prospects:

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

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

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

Investment Value

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

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

Debt = Taxes

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

Political Value

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

Investment Value
Very Low

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

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

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

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

The West-East Connection0

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

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

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

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

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

High-Water Mark0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Hope0

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

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

Dion Says He’d Cut Income Taxes

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

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

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

Think Globally, Screw Up Locally0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driving to Distraction0

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

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

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

Which is a fantastic idea for several reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting for the Other Side0

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

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

But it’s closest to that last one.

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

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

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

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

Why No ‘No’?0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Friday February 23, 2007 at 10:12 pm)

Stephen Harper’s assertion that the Liberal line on terror provisions is self-serving is, to begin with, nonsense. It’s fair to say that no party in Canada has taken a policy stand purely to benefit a single member’s interests. The problem is in the Liberal response.

No, not demanding an apology — that’s good.

It’s not saying ‘no’.

Thursday night’s “As It Happens” featured a lengthy clip of Liberal Leader Stephane Dion in its “For the Record” segment. Dion was responding to a reporter who asked whether the allegation was true.

At length, Dion discussed how inappropriate the question was (it was), but utterly failed to utter the simple word ‘no’. Instead, the Liberals returned to the house to allege that:

This is a Prime Minister who apparently will say anything to get elected and will possibly do anything to hold power.

You see, saying that is bound to make Harper less popular because choosing power over scruples is something the public thinks politicians don’t normally do. Of course, in the real world, it might be suggested that merely by answering Harper’s question, Dion would validate it.

Nonsense. Answering it doesn’t make it any inappropriate, childish, or unimpressively over-the-top. Acknowledging that with strength doesn’t cost anything. Who knows — it might make you look strong.

Most importantly, it lets you say something clear and direct for a change.

Starring: Someone’s Fuddleduddling Son0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Trained Ears Only0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Strategic Planning, Gaia (Wednesday February 14, 2007 at 11:50 am)

There was a time, before the creation of nationwide media, when party leaders needed help. The difficulty of reaching people nationwide meant that local champions would carry the message in their regions, and local candidates in their ridings. The advent of mass, nationwide media has made the party leader directly accessible. By radio, television, daily newspapers, and internet, the leader can bring her message, at one stroke, to millions of homes.

This change affects the messengers — local campaigns are less significant when the everpresent central campaign reaches more voters more often than even the most committed campaigners. The change also affects the message — repeated exposure offers a chance to hammer home key points. While it might be tempting to use the many days of campaigning to dish up an endless series of promises, variety is more likely to confuse than convince; and with every message available nationwide, announcements are harder to tailor to individual regions or ridings. All of which helps to explain the growing significance of party leadership over the past century.

But centralization of this kind is a risky proposition. When responsibility is consolidated in a single man, there is no fallback or redundancy. His failure will be the party’s, and there is little or nothing the party can do to protect itself from the consequences. Consider the impact of Stockwell Day’s leadership on his party’s fortunes in the 2000 election and thereafter.

The crucial point to take from this for the moment, is that leaders must now stand alone, for better or for worse. Jason Cherniak has recently stood up for Liberal Leader Stephan Dion’s decision to make the environment his message. In doing so, though, he’s revealed a fundamental problem with Dion’s approach.

It’s not the preposterous assertion that Dion’s victory in the Liberal leadership was owed to his focus on the environment, rather than the arcane mechanics of leadership contests. It’s that he feels the need to explain what Dion means:

Dion’s platform [during the leadership contest] was to give the environment equal prominence with social justice and economic growth. That is where the idea of a “third pillar” comes from. This means that when you talk about spending on social programs and growing the economy, you also talk about environmental sustainability. This is not because the environment is taking prominence - it is because the environment is being treated equally.

Of course, to our untrained ears this sounds like Dion talks only about the environment. That is not really true. The truth is that he talks always about the environment. No social justice or economic initiative will ever pass into a Dion Liberal platform without consideration for its environmental impact. Again, Dion was elected because of his equal treatment of the environmental pillar, not in spite of it.

Super! But, if true, then why isn’t Dion saying it? Isn’t speaking of the environment a confusing way to speak of other things? It’s what you might call bad messaging.

Besides which, as effective as Cherniak’s gracious interpretation may be, it’s up to Dion to make the message. If the leader’s message can only be grasped with “trained ears”, it’s not good enough. Relying on a swarm of priestlike interpreters to get the “real” message across makes as much sense as sending out flyers written in code.

But that’s the problem with any group of initiates. The fact that they understand lets them explain the great secret to others; but it’s not worth many people’s time to seek out their help. When the leader speaks without mediation, there’s no opportunity for the priests to jump in. Or to put it another way. . .spin doctors are really helpful when you mess up. If you need them on your main message, you’re in real trouble.

But that’s the other problem with a circle of initiates: they tend to keep the faith, no matter what.


Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Tuesday February 6, 2007 at 4:18 pm)

Financing elections continues to be the source of serious concerns. Election ad spending alone was estimated at $1.6 Billion in the United States in 2004. Canadian elections have cost less, historically; but the most common concern isn’t the size of the spending — it’s the source.

Elections can’t cost, collectively, more than the relevant societies can afford. What is more dangerous than the size of spending is the possibility that spending can produce abuses. Leaving bribery aside, those who spend to support campaigns may make the recipients more open to their proposals. It can’t hurt to make yourself known to those who will be choosing suppliers, contractors, and other beneficiaries of government selection.

This danger, a mild form of influence but insidious abuse of public authority, is the target of most reforms. The primary aim of Canada’s recent electoral reforms was to make it harder for corporations to influence politicians in that way (although some have found loopholes). Now, two professors at Yale Law School have a new proposal.

The essence of the proposal is anonymity. By preventing politicians from knowing who funded their campaigns, influence will be significantly curtailed. This means establishing a neutral clearinghouse which accepts donations on behalf of parties and forwards them anonymously.

But politicians know, in general, who their supporters are — they’re the ones who come out to parties; the ones who they solicit for those donations; and the ones who call them regularly. In short, when donations are spaced out, and you know who’s contributing, you have a fairly keen notion of who gave what.

That’s why there’s another part of the proposal — a sort of masking provision. Every voter will be able to direct $50 in contributions, paid for by the clearinghouse organization, to a candidate of their choice. Larger individual donations will then be lost in a much larger collective tide of anonymous funding.

Sounds great? Not really. Let’s assume that the system does what it’s expected to and does it perfectly. What follows? One crucial question:

How do individuals faced with this $50 donation decide whom to support?

Doesn’t the quest for the money that can legally be spent on the election imply a previous competition for that money? Won’t the democratization of financing mean mass competition for those finances? Isn’t that just an election before the election? Who pays for that election?

Having to compete for what amount to “financing votes” isn’t very different from running in a primary election. That means that money and name recognition will be real advantages, two factors which undermine the democratic drive behind elections and electoral reform.

Even in a best case scenario, this proposal to overcome an insidious problem will only give wings to other problems. If anyone can find a way around the new restrictions (a likely outcome), the entire proposal becomes nothing more than a complicated way to add new problems to an already-belaboured process.

Ad Boosters0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Strategic Planning (Monday February 5, 2007 at 11:25 am)

It’s a wonder that with so much material devoted to discussion of the Conservative ads attacking Stephan Dion, there’s no parallel talk of the CRFA ads. The series of ads by the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association has been airing for weeks now, and each one prominently refers to Prime Minister Harper’s pledge to raise the ethanol content of Canadian gasoline.

Sure enough, there was some discussion of these ads weeks ago, mostly about the arcane regulations the Television Bureau of Canada sought to impose on them; but the fact that these are designed, in part, to hold Mr. Harper to his pledge, misses one important point: if you actually watch the ads, they look like pro-Tory material.

Why? They don’t explicitly suggest that Harper hasn’t upheld what was an election promise; neither do they make it as clear as they could that it was an election promise. A casual observer would likely conclude that it is part of the new “green agenda” the Conservatives have adopted. That’s free advertising; and great advertising, to boot.

Which is why it’s so important to consider those ads together with the attack ads. Let any discussion of timing attacks and their efficacy aside, and you’re left with the simple fact that both sets of ads are running at the same time. Under those circumstances, it doesn’t look like the Conservatives are entirely negative, even though they’re not responsible for one of the campaigns.

And that helps to explain why the ads attacking Dion might just boost their fortunes without much downside.

High Stakes Over the Rockies0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, Gaia, Rocky Waters (Thursday February 1, 2007 at 10:10 am)

Do you know why approving $30 Million in spending in an opposition riding is a sacrifice? Of course you do. Spending usually belongs in government ridings.

What makes this particular spending worth thinking about isn’t that it’s one step in securing NDP support for the government. It’s that it increases the government’s profile in a riding which they have a shot of winning.

Consider that in 2006, the NDP took nearly 2.6 Million votes nationwide, the highest total count for them since 1988 (note: there were 30% more potential voters in 2006 than in 1988). Their candidate’s, Nathan Cullen’s, victory in this riding — Skeena-Bulkley Valley — in 2006 was by a greatly increased margin (nearly 300% larger at roughly 5,800 votes). Over whom, you may ask? That’s the important part — it’s the Tories.

It’s not just that the Conservatives are the NDP’s principal challengers in that riding. Their predecessor party — Reform — had held all three predecessor ridings (Skeena, Prince-George-Bulkley Valley, and Cariboo-Chilcotin) since 1993. Granted that the reorganization has made NDP support in the new riding stronger than it was in any of the old ones; but the 2004 margin of victory — 1,300 votes — isn’t insurmountable for a dedicated electioneer with the right candidate.

Cullen’s performance in 2006 outpaced the NDP’s nationwide upsurge in votes; but that’s not to say he’ll be perfectly safe. Remember, too, that BC voters had the last say in 2006, and were able to see the results shaping up in the Maritimes and Quebec before their polls closed. Could a chunk of Cullen’s lead have been a reaction to the Conservative’s performance elsewhere? BC was the only province where the Tories underperformed, losing five seats. The connection is worth considering.

Don’t doubt for a moment that the Tories have. A quick cash injection can be a real boost to your chances in a particular riding. That’s why the story here is about far more than pending NDP support for the Tory budget. The Conservatives and NDP are playing a very high-stakes game. The NDP may lose support in BC if the Tories look more affable; and Nathan Cullen may do better in his riding if he can bring home the political bacon.

The question in Skeena-Bulkey Valley is: who’s going to win?

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