Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

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?

Golden Hacks0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul’s Farewell0

Posted by JJ in Hats Off, Gentlemen (Monday February 26, 2007 at 8:49 pm)

The former Prime Minister, Paul Martin, Jr., has declared that he will not seek re-election.

In nearly two decades representing the securely Liberal Montreal riding of Lasalle-Emard, the son of a three-time nominee for the Liberal Party’s leadership won a strong record as Finance Minister before a brief stint as Prime Minister of Canada.

The decade-long leadup to his leadership set the letdown of his tenure as Prime Minister in perspective. Compared to the accomplishment of his time as Finance Minister, the elimination of a $42 Billion deficit, there were no great advances or laudable achievements during his Premiership. Martin seemed, in the end, unsure of what to do with the position he had sought so long. If being Prime Minister served any purpose but the surrogate satisfaction of his father’s unrealized ambition, he did nothing to demonstrate it.

Save, perhaps, his efforts in producing the Kelowna Accord. In April of 2004, secure in an inherited majority government, Martin convened a roundtable discussion with Aboriginal leaders. This lead to a series of topical meetings, culminating in a First Ministers’ conference in November of 2005. There, on the eve of a possible federal election, targets were jointly negotiated for a 10-year partnership in which governments would work with the five main representative groups for Aboriginals in Canada to “close the gap” between the social and political condition of aboriginals and other Canadians.

Small doubt that the end product was rushed. The documents for the First Ministers were prepared within a month and the federal government’s announcement of the Accord (and the unbudgeted spending it would require) came a mere three days before the vote of non-confidence which felled the government.

Indeed, in light of the comprehensive efforts of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), the purpose and cost of the discussions were called into question. Why not work from a template which had been quoted wholesale with approval by the very groups with which the new meetings would be held? Why not hold the meetings as a mechanism for the implementation of the RCAP’s recommendations, rather than beginning with policy retreats which would inevitably involve far fewer stakeholders than the RCAP’s hearings?

That’s easy. Implementing someone else’s work is never as impressive as doing things yourself. There are far more political points to be made from appropriating the entirety of the policy, from leading preliminary negotiations to concluding a final agreement.

A metaphor is hardly necessary for something as fleeting as the Martin government; but if there need be one, the Kelowna process is ideal. It spanned nearly the entirety of Martin’s tenure, and epitomized his style as Prime Minister. A grab bag of good intentions, redundant tumult in the name of publicity, and ultimate failure, despite effete, last minute pledges.

The fact remains that Canada’s First Nations deserve better. Hence Paul Martin’s decision to devote his post-Parliamentary life to working for Aboriginal causes. In that, perhaps, he can salvage his time as Prime Minister by connecting his later efforts to the Kelowna process he championed.

An outcome far less important, true, than the success of his cause; but sometimes, for a politician and son, that is what matters most.

Reborn on a Sunday0

Posted by JJ in Brass Tacks (Sunday February 25, 2007 at 8:04 pm)

If you’ve ever wondered why some people get so hot and bothered over the “folly” of religion, it’s quite easily explained.

If modern worship is associated with this:

Tomb of Jesus Found

Rather than this:

In God’s Image

It should surprise no one that religion is denigrated as fruitless and wasteful superstition.

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.

John Q. Public III0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, Hats Off, Gentlemen (Tuesday February 20, 2007 at 6:36 pm)

It’s not every day that private citizens (oxymoronic, true) are asked to comment on their political impact. On any given evening, Ministers and Parliamentarians collectively attend scores of public events, hoping to glean a few added grains of support from their association with the cause.

What is far more interesting about this incident isn’t the celebrity of the private citizen involved. It’s that the citizen is in the same position as the politician.

William Henry Gates III (called “Bill” most of the time) was, by 1998, the “world’s richest man“, but had a bit of an image problem. Resentment of wealth played a factor, certainly, but to suggest that that was the cause would ignore much. As the frontman for Microsoft, the company’s business tactics of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, or, in clearer terms, misdirection, were soon being attached to him personally in popular culture (caution: may contain other languages).

A problem faced by many celebrities, to be sure. But then, people like O.J. Simpson and Britney Spears sell themselves, not products, so there’s a far more compelling reason for them to be concerned about their images. Hatred of Microsoft, while widespread, hasn’t affected their bottom line, so it’s hard to justify a makeover for Chairman Gates by the need to preserve the company’s reputation.

Mr. Gates’s makeover began in earnest with the 2000 founding of his eponymous charity. Why name a charity after yourself? Why not? Consider the Rockefeller foundations, both named for their wealthy benefactors (though neither carries their full names and those of their wives). But both of those groups have far lower profiles, and their websites aren’t strewn with images of their namesakes.

No, the primay objective of Mr. Gates’ close collaboration with his charity is to improve his reputation with the public by associating himself with better causes than those which built that reputation. Which is the irony in the media’s questioning:

Mr. Gates was asked Tuesday if he was worried that the timing of today’s press conference, arriving as it did in the middle of a flurry of election speculation, left him playing both political and charitable roles.

And the double-edged truth behind his response:

I am glad to hear that putting research money into AIDS makes people politically more popular.

Shoulder-to-shoulder, the two men on the podium become hard to tell apart.

New Model Needed0

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

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

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

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

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.

Starwatch: Worst Yet0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press (Saturday February 3, 2007 at 11:15 am)

It’s one thing to publish a story whose premise is contradicted by quoted sources within the article.

It’s quite another to publish a story and contradict yourself:

Faced with the most overwhelming proof yet that the world faces a severe threat from greenhouse gas emissions, the Conservative government says it won’t change course on climate change.

And. . .

Now, four years later, and under significant pressure at home and internationally to act on environmental issues, Harper is singing a different tune.

“We do need to work internationally, and we are working through the Kyoto process to try and get international action, to try and get action that will involve all the world’s major emitters,” he said yesterday. “These are efforts that are important and that we will continue to work on.”

And yet, they’re accredited journalists.

It’s 1993 All Over Again — Again0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Gaia (Friday February 2, 2007 at 9:09 pm)

With Stephan Dion, Liberal Leader, crying “environment, environment, environment”, you might have been wondering whether Tory Stephen Harper would soon play the Kim Campbell to Dion’s Jean Chretien. Unless you’re a Liberal, in which case you’re either convinced that he already is or praying nightly for him to be.

Faced with Chretien’s campaign pledge of “Jobs, jobs, jobs”, Campbell denied that unemployment or the deficit could be properly remedied much before the end of the 1990s. She was eventually proven right. The deficit wasn’t reined in until 1998, and employment took off around the same time. None of that was of much consolation to a Conservative party which had come close to oblivion in that campaign.

And now, faced with a similar message from Dion, Harper has decided to state the obvious: that there is no quick fix for climate change and global warming. Few would disagree; but that’s not what matters.

The real question is: will his candour be as disastrous for his fortunes as it was for his predecessor’s?

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?

Unintended Consequences0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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