Thursday, 31 March 2011

No more questions

The national media travelling with the Harper campaign are only allowed to ask four questions a day, with no follow-up questions. Mark Kennedy:
After the announcement, Harper holds a news conference. He only provides one news conference per day, and it is specifically designed to ensure that it is not freewheeling. Journalists who are travelling with his campaign are, as a group, only allowed to ask four questions. One more question goes to a local journalist at the news conference.
No more questions about local campaigns will be allowed:
For the second day in a row, the Conservative campaign has lost a volunteer amid controversy.

That frustration led to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's entourage announcing another election policy: for the duration of the campaign, it will no longer be taking questions about the party's 308 local candidates.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Tory candidate lobbied Ottawa for U.S. fighter-jet manufacturer

Tory candidate lobbied Ottawa for U.S. fighter-jet manufacturer
One of the Conservative candidates in the federal election was until last December one of the lobbyists for the maker of the controversial F-35 jet the Harper government picked to be Canada’s next generation of fighter planes, records show.

As senior partner at CFN Consultants, an Ottawa firm specializing in defence issues, Raymond Sturgeon lobbied the government on behalf of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, the U.S. manufacturer of the F-35 Lightning II, the jet whose multi-billion sole-sourced price tag has been heavily criticized.

A month before winning the nomination as Tory candidate for the Ontario riding of Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing in January, Mr. Sturgeon stopped representing Lockheed Martin and a dozen other high-tech, aerospace and weapons firms, according to records with the Federal Registry of Lobbyists.
F-35s cost more than $100M each: U.S. official
New fighter jets Canada plans to buy will be more than $100 million each — at least $25 million more per plane than government estimates — according to a top U.S. budget watchdog.

Conservative government officials have said 65 new joint strike fighters being built to replace Canada's F-18 jets will cost about $75 million each....

... [Mike] Sullivan [of the US GAO] said the estimated cost of the F-35A model that Canada is buying is "in the low 100 millions."

"Probably somewhere between $110-115 million," he said.
The Parliamentary Budget Office thinks the cost will be even higher, because of cost overruns:
The F-35 program in the U.S. has seen huge cost overruns, which Mr. Page says will drive up the price tag from an estimated $75-million (U.S.) to $148-million for each plane.

The department dismisses the figure, but Mr. Page pointed out today the Pentagon’s latest estimate is $151-million – and that Washington does not sell aircraft to allies at a price less than what it pays.

The jet-fighter deal is expected to be a big issue in the expected spring election because the Liberals have promised to cancel it. They say the big-ticket purchase is ill-timed when the country is facing a $40.5-billion deficit.

The Harper government has said the purchase of 65 fighters and 20 years of maintenance support would run taxpayers between $14-billion and $16-billion. Mr. Page questioned those figures, saying they were based on outdated information from the U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Harper denies discussing coalition plan

Harper denies discussing coalition plan
Stephen Harper is rejecting claims by his political rivals that he was keen on forming an opposition coalition in 2004—the very idea he’s railing about in this election.

Bloc Quebecois Gilles Duceppe and NDP Leader Jack Layton say the concept of a coalition was clearly on the table when they met with Harper in August of 2004 to discuss the fate of Paul Martin’s minority Liberal government elected just two months earlier.

But on Monday, Harper accused his two political rivals of rewriting history.

“Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Layton can try all they want to change the 2004 story,” Harper said during a campaign stop here.

“We are in 2011 and in 2011 Mr. Ignatieff’s position is that he can lose this election, go to the Governor General and say that with the NDP’s and Bloc Quebecois support he can form a government even though he lost,” he said.

In fact that’s the very scenario Layton and Duceppe claim that Harper was trying to orchestrate in 2004.

Harper signed a letter in August 2004 with Layton and Duceppe to then-governor general Adrienne Clarkson urging her to consult with them first if Martin requested dissolution of the Commons.

The letter urged Clarkson to consider “all of your options” if Martin had come to her seeking another election.

Speaking Sunday, NDP Leader Jack Layton confirmed the word “coalition” was explicitly mentioned in the discussions held between the three opposition leaders, even if it was never spelled out in the letter.

“That letter was designed to illustrate that such an option is legitimate in Canadian constitutional traditions and there was no question about it,” Layton said.

The NDP leader said it was “crystal clear” in 2004 that Harper was trying to become prime minister “even though he had not received the most seats in the House.”

Ex-advisor says Harper had coalition plan in 2004

Ex-advisor says Harper had coalition plan in 2004:
A key advisor to Stephen Harper during his days as Opposition leader says the “co-opposition” arrangement Mr. Harper negotiated with NDP leader Jack Layton and Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe in September 2004 was seen by Conservatives at the time as a potential avenue to a Harper-led minority government — without seeking Canadians’ approval in an election. ...

[Tom] Flanagan’s comments are significant because they raise further questions about Mr. Harper’s interpretation of the episode and, perhaps, his current election strategy of branding Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff a would-be coalition leader — even if he finishes second behind the Conservatives in the May 2 election — willing to strike a deal with Mr. Layton and Mr. Duceppe to trump a Mr. Harper minority and become prime minister.

Although Mr. Ignatieff explicitly ruled out forming a so-called “coalition of losers” on the first day of the campaign on Saturday, Mr. Harper has continued to make it the central thrust of his message to voters, casting the election as a choice between a “stable,” majority Conservative government or a “reckless,” Ignatieff-led alliance of also-rans — the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc.

But Mr. Harper’s strong denunciations of coalition-making in the current political context have led to pointed questions about his own actions in 2004, when the then-Opposition leader co-signed a letter with Mr. Layton and Mr. Duceppe urging Adrienne Clarkson — Canada’s governor general at the time — to “consider all of your options” before allowing Mr. Martin to call another general election.

“We respectfully point out,” read the letter, “that the opposition parties, who together constitute a majority in the House, have been in close consultation. We believe that, should a request for dissolution arise, this should give you cause, as constitutional practice has determined, to consult the opposition leaders and consider all of your options before exercising your constitutional authority.”

At a news conference in September of that year, Mr. Harper sat next to Mr. Layton and Mr. Duceppe as he elaborated on the message sent to Ms. Clarkson.

“There has been some informal chitter-chatter around the Hill that if a prime minister were weakened by his own party or defeated in the House, that he could just automatically call an election,” Mr. Harper said at the time. “That’s not our understanding of how the constitutional system works, particularly in a minority Parliament.”

On the day in October 2004 when Mr. Martin’s government delivered its throne speech, CTV journalist Mike Duffy — later appointed by Mr. Harper as a Conservative senator — reported that some Conservatives saw the Liberals’ troubles as a chance to make Mr. Harper prime minister.

“It is possible that you could change prime minister without having an election,” Mr. Duffy said on CTV on Oct. 5, 2004. “If you could put Stephen Harper — and this is some of the thinking of Conservatives — in 24 Sussex Drive, even for five or six months without an election, it would make the Conservative option much more palatable to Canadians because they’d see that they don’t have horns and a tail.”

Mr. Harper is striking a very different tone during this campaign....

Stephen Harper's curious attack on majority rule

Globe and Mail editorial:
The worst part about Stephen Harper's attack on the Liberal Party for being undemocratic in its alleged plans for a coalition government is not that it is irrelevant, hypocritical or probably false (though it is all that). The worst part is that it comes from a leader whose own legitimacy rests on holding less than half of the seats in the House of Commons.

Yet Mr. Harper cannot seem to speak without mentioning the dreaded word. He uttered it 21 times in a speech on Sunday. He continued using it on Monday. He may not be able to stop himself on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Conservative staffer under RCMP probe working on key electoral campaign

Conservative staffer under RCMP probe working on key electoral campaign
The Canadian Press has learned that a former Conservative staffer under RCMP investigation is working on the federal campaign in a key riding.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

More on Bruce Carson, Harper's former acting chief of staff

Paula Simons, writing in the Edmonton Journal:
Let's start with two questions.

How did Bruce Carson, 66, come to be appointed as the executive director of the Canada School of Energy and Environment, a federally-funded think-tank that links academics from the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary and the University of Lethbridge?

How did Carson come to be named, only this January, to the Alberta government's "expert panel," which is supposed to create a world-class environmental monitoring system for Alberta's oilsands?

Carson, after all, was sentenced to 18 months in jail in the 1980s for theft and fraud in relation to the misappropriation of funds from both his law firm and his clients. (The think-tank website boasts of Carson's two legal degrees, without mentioning that he was disbarred by the Upper Canada Law Society in 1980.) More to the point, perhaps, Carson is a former senior policy adviser to Stephen Harper, and a federal Conservative campaign strategist who has been instrumental in structuring the federal government's pro-oilsands PR strategy, and in serving as an adviser to CAPP, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

He was appointed to the federally created, federally-funded think-tank in 2008 while he was actually working in Harper's office, and he continued to do campaign strategy work and policy consultation for the Conservative party and the Harper government even after he was named the school's executive director. It's a degree of political consanguinity that undermines the credibility and academic integrity of the think-tank, which is supposed to be positioning Alberta as a world leader in "green" energy development.

Then, this January, Rob Renner, Alberta's environment minister, named Carson as one of the 12 experts hand-picked to come up with a way to monitor environmental impacts of the oilsands. How a person convicted of theft and fraud, who was also advising CAPP and the federal government on how to put a positive "spin" on oilsands development, was to add credibility to Alberta's environmental monitoring practices isn't clear.

... Here's the third question. Why did it take the words "escort" and "nude photos" to get people--including me--asking the first two questions?

Carson penned lobbying report, then found loophole
“I really don’t want the lobbying commissioner sort of going crazy over my involvement in this,” Carson told [APTN] in a series of interviews prior to the RCMP being called in. “This would be like one-tenth of 1 per cent of my time, so we’re all right.”

Despite setting up meetings for the firm with Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan’s office and plans to employ Environment Minister Peter Kent in his business plan, the Harper confidant maintained he would be shielded from any lobbying probe under a well-known loophole in the federal laws, according to APTN.

A chink in the Harper government’s flagship accountability armour allows former government officials to flog their services or products on Parliament Hill, despite the five-year ban, for those whose lobbying works out to less than 20 per cent of their total workload.

PM’s ex-adviser Carson has chequered past
Bruce Carson went bankrupt, with thousands of dollars of debt, before becoming one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s closest advisers.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press show Mr. Carson declared bankruptcy in 1993, then was hounded by creditors again in 2002 – shortly before going to work as then-opposition leader Harper’s director of policy and research.

He declared a debt of $103,359 in the 1990s, and $369,000 nine years ago, the records show. No further information is given in the bankruptcy documents. ...

Minutes from a July 16, 1981, meeting of the society's discipline committee shed light on why Carson was disbarred.

“He had forged the signature of the president of a corporation and misappropriated over $15,000 belonging to the corporation for which he acted,” the document says.

“[He] forged the signature of a client from whom he misappropriated over $4,000; and misappropriated $4,900 belonging to another client.”

Mr. Carson reinvented himself as a constitutional expert and became a political insider, working under Progressive Conservative prime ministers Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, as well as Ontario Premier Mike Harris, before going to work for Harper when he became leader of the opposition.

Mr. Carson remained with Harper after the Conservatives won the 2006 election. Around political Ottawa, he was known as “the Mechanic” for his ability to fix tricky situations.

Senate Majority Leader Marjory LeBreton underscored Mr. Carson's worth to Mr. Harper's office during a November, 2006 Senate debate, calling him “a valued employee of the Prime Minister's Office.”

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Shooting the messenger: the Nuclear Safety Commission

PM inflamed isotope crisis, says document
Prime Minister Stephen Harper inflamed the Chalk River isotope crisis by calling Canada's nuclear safety watchdog a "Liberal-appointee," says a government document.

Harper's remarks turned a few days of bad press into a full-blown saga akin to the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, says a briefing note prepared for Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt.

"It is clear that what might have been a relatively low-profile, or at least short-lived, medical isotope supply story became much more than that by political events, specifically, the prime minister's characterization of Linda Keen as a `Liberal-appointee,' and the subsequent demotion of Ms. Keen," it says.

... The 52-year-old reactor was closed for a few days in November 2007 for routine maintenance. During that time, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission discovered emergency backup power wasn't connected to two pumps which prevent a meltdown.

The shutdown lasted nearly a month until Parliament voted to bypass the regulator's order.

The prime minister insisted there was no risk of a nuclear accident.

"The government has independent advice indicating there is no safety concern with the reactor," Harper told the Commons in December 2007.

"On the contrary, what we do know is that the continuing actions of the Liberal-appointed Nuclear Safety Commission will jeopardize the health and safety and lives of tens of thousands of Canadians."

Atomic Energy's then-chairman, Michael Burns, resigned after the fiasco, and the Conservative government later fired commission head Keen for her refusal to authorize the restart.

Keen later sued the federal government over her dismissal.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Harper found in contempt

From last week: Committee finds Tories in contempt for stonewalling on crime-bill costs.
An opposition-dominated Commons committee has voted to find Stephen Harper’s government in contempt of Parliament – a historic first as parties gird for a possible election call later this week.

The move paves the way for MPs in the House of Commons to find the Harper government in contempt for stonewalling on the full costs of its tough-on-crime agenda including big prison expansions.

Such a Commons-wide vote could take place as early as Wednesday evening but the Conservatives are expected to try and stall this because it would be embarrassing and feed the opposition narrative that the Tories have abused their power.

The Commons procedure and House affairs committee voted that “the government’s failure to produce documents constitute a contempt of Parliament” and that “this failure impedes the House in the performance of its functions.”

After the Speaker's ruling, it's not a big surprise. Globe and Mail editorial: A government in contempt, no doubt.

Apparently Harper was talking to Jack Layton about getting the NDP to support this week's budget, but with the contempt finding, the NDP base would likely have revolted against such a deal. The net result: the Opposition will bring a motion of non-confidence on Friday, and there'll be an election in early May.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Personality vs. competence

An interesting survey conducted for the Walter Gordon Symposium on Public Policy finds that the Conservative base emphasizes personality over competence.

Canadians' divisions sharpest on values, religion and education
Canadians divide on the traits they want in their national leaders. Supporters of centre-left parties (63 per cent of Liberal supporters, for example) and the university educated (62 per cent) prefer leaders who show knowledge and understanding. Seniors, men, Conservative Party supporters, frequent church attendees and those who ideologically identify with the “right” prefer decency, morality, decisiveness and certainty.

Presumably this is why Harper and the Conservatives have focused so much on preserving Harper's image as a decent guy and a good leader (through staged photos, tightly controlled events, praise at every opportunity for Harper's outstanding leadership), and on blackening Ignatieff's image. A fake magazine cover put together by the Conservatives:
The problem with trying to judge politicians by their personality is that it's easy to manipulate. Harper's succeeded in projecting the image of a decent and competent leader, when in fact he's squandered the surpluses built up by the Liberals between 1995 and 2006, and he's borrowing more money to pay for tax cuts, prisons, and fighter jets. What's decent and moral about that?

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Poll: little support for new fighter jets

Canadians don’t share Harper’s zest for fighter jets, debt reduction, poll shows
Sixty-eight per cent of Canadians agreed that “now is not a good time” to proceed with the $16-billion purchase of the F-35 fighter aircraft to replace the aging fleet of CF-18 fighters, four of which were in action over Libya on Monday as part of a United Nations-sanctioned effort to contain strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

Even a majority (56 per cent) of voters who identified themselves as Conservative supporters oppose the acquisition. And three out of four undecided voters are opposed.

Only 27 per cent of those surveyed thought the federal government should “purchase now to prepare for the future.”
Note that the Parliamentary Budget Office puts the cost at $30 billion, not $16 billion.

In a 2003 post, Bruce Rolston suggested that the air force should focus on transport rather than fighter jets.
Buying the F-35, in most estimates, would be the ONLY major CF procurement program for a decade if it went through, under the current budget. Everything else would have to wait. The question Canadians have to ask is which gives them more influence in the circles they want to be in... a couple squadrons of attack jets, or a couple battalions of peacekeepers. Because the choice is really coming down to an either/or at this point... modern aircraft just cost too much. I think it's clear I think the latter gives our political leaders more flexibility for changing circumstances than the former. But not everyone agrees, obviously.

The comparator in this case to my mind is New Zealand, who realized a few years ago that, situated as we are, far from the action, replacing their fleet of obsolescent Skyhawks, and the distortion that purchase would make to the rest of their defence budget, was simply not cost-effective. The RNZAF now has no combat aircraft at all. They realized, as even defenders of the CF-18 must concede, that they can never comprise much more than a few extra airframes and trained pilots for some other, larger air effort by a superpower, relying on others for basing, weapons loadouts, fighter and early warning cover, reconnaissance, etc. etc., and even collectively capable of little more damage by themselves than a single B-1 bomber. In any conceivable circumstance, Canada's fighters can only be something of a flag-waving exercise. In 5-10 years, our CF-18s will be as obsolete as those Skyhawks were, so maybe it's time to close this chapter of our history.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Borrowing money to pay for tax cuts

In the 1993 election, the federal deficit--then $42 billion, or more than $10,000 per person--was a major issue. I remember voting for the Conservatives, thinking that they were more likely to make the deficit a high priority. In fact, Jean Chretien and the Liberals won the election, and by keeping spending flat, while revenues rose, Chretien and his finance minister, Paul Martin, were able to run surpluses from 1998 onward. Stephen Gordon provides a summary of the history. When the Liberals were defeated by Stephen Harper and the Conservatives in 2006, there was a $13.2 billion surplus.

Today, we have a $55.6 billion deficit.

Of course, the current deficit is partly due to the global financial crisis, but according to Kevin Page of the Parliamentary Budget Office (an independent watchdog appointed by Harper), there's a structural deficit of about 1-2% of GDP: that is, after the recession is over, the government will still be running a deficit of about $14 billion.

Stephen Gordon concludes that the structural deficit is due to Harper's GST cut. Economists strongly opposed the idea at the time; of course, Harper paid no attention.
How big is the hole that has to be filled? Unlike, say, corporate income taxes, the effect of the GST on the budget balance is fairly easy to calculate. Since the behavioural responses to changes in the GST rate are small (this property is why they are such a favourite with economists), the numbers in this earlier post - around 0.75% of GDP or $12b - won't be a bad guess. The PBO's estimate is $14b - and again, their estimate also corresponds to the size of their estimate of the effect of the GST cut on the budget balance.

The story of the GST cut just keeps getting worse. It wasn't a good idea at the time, and it blew a $12b hole in the federal balance that will have to be filled somehow.
I don't understand how Harper can call himself a fiscal conservative. Cutting taxes doesn't make you a fiscal conservative, not when we still have a mountain of public debt (about $500 billion) to pay off; now that we're running a deficit, continuing with boutique tax cuts (like the rumoured tax credit for children's art classes in the next budget) is basically borrowing money to buy off middle-class voters.

Yes, we have a major recession going on. I'd give Harper credit for the "Economic Action Plan", i.e. the stimulus spending; in a recession, it makes sense to temporarily borrow and spend money (e.g. on infrastructure) to make up for the loss of private demand. But a permanent tax cut--like the GST cut, or like the current corporate income tax cuts--is just as foolish as an increase in program spending (like Harper's plan to spend billions to keep more people in prison). In both cases, it means an increase in the long-term structural deficit, borrowing money which we're eventually going to have to pay back.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Stockwell Day, Chuck Strahl retiring

Not a scandal, just some surprising news:

Resignations leave Tories scrambling ahead of election
An announcement Saturday that two prominent B.C. cabinet ministers and an MP are set to quit politics significantly diminishes Stephen Harper’s bench strength in the province heading into a likely spring election.

Treasury Board president Stockwell Day (Okanagan-Coquihalla), Transport Minister Chuck Strahl (Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon) and MP John Cummins (Delta-Richmond East), all veteran MPs with strong national profiles, said they won’t be running again.

The news, which came as a surprise, was doubtless coordinated by the prime minister’s office and scheduled for a weekend to lessen its impact.
The Edmonton Journal looks back at Day's career.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Shutting down Harper's tax boutique

Shutting down Harper's tax boutique.
Beginning with his first budget in 2006, Mr. Harper has been an enthusiastic creator of “boutique tax cuts.” These are narrowly focused non-refundable tax credits aimed at the middle class in hopes of currying political favour for the Conservatives come election time. They include the children’s fitness tax credit, public transit credit, tradespersons’ tool deduction, textbook amount for university students, and the home renovation tax credit.

A closer look at one example reveals the inherent flaws, and substantial scope for savings, at play with boutique tax credits. The children’s fitness tax credit allows parents to claim as much as $500 for their child’s participation in such things as hockey, dance or kung fu. While such a program might properly be aimed at lower income families struggling to pay the fees, two-thirds of all claimants have incomes above $50,000. The actual dollar value of this credit is even more skewed, since non-refundable tax credits provide a bigger benefit to higher income tax filers. More than 70 per cent of the dollar value of this credit accrues to taxpayers earning above $50,000 a year. Keep in mind, only a quarter of all individual tax filers report income over $50,000.

This story gets worse. According to a University of Alberta survey of 1,000 parents, the tax credit plays a negligible role in encouraging participation in youth sport. For low-income families, it’s entirely ineffective. The only reason the children’s fitness tax credit exists is to woo middle-class families to the Conservative banner. ...

Figuring out the gain to government coffers from eliminating boutique tax credits is complicated by the progressivity of the tax system and interplay between different credits and benefits. Our calculations show that removing the fitness tax credit would provide $67-million in savings. Cutting the public transit credit, another politically motivated tax expenditure with no apparent practical impact, could add another $100-million. A comprehensive review of all federal tax expenditures holds the promise of even more substantial savings.
Apparently the upcoming budget is going to include a tax credit for children's art programs.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Harper asks RCMP to investigate former top advisor

Harper asks RCMP to investigate his former top adviser
Stephen Harper has asked the RCMP to investigate the activities of one of his former aides who allegedly used his position to offer access to the Prime Minister and his staff.

Bruce Carson, who is listed as the executive director of the Canada School of Energy and Environment and the vice-chair of the Energy Policy Institute of Canada, was once one of Mr. Harper’s closest advisers.

The Prime Minister’s Office asked the Mounties to look into allegations of influence-peddling this week as the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) was preparing an investigative report about Mr. Carson.

... The APTN has been looking into the activities of Mr. Carson and planned to air a segment revealing what it had learned on March 25 on a show called APTN Investigates. The date of the broadcast has not been changed despite the fact that the police are now involved. The network says it has obtained correspondence to show that Mr. Carson lobbied Indian Affairs and Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan’s office on behalf of an Ottawa-based water company. The water company was apparently attempting to land contracts to sell water-filtration systems to native reserves with severe water-quality problems.
The Ottawa Citizen:
A former top adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper was lobbying the Indian Affairs Department earlier this year for a water filtration company involved in a multi-million dollar deal in which his fiancée, a former upscale call girl from Ottawa, stood to gain a lucrative commission.

... Indian Affairs officials confirmed Thursday that Carson, who is not registered as a lobbyist, met with John Duncan’s ministerial staff on Jan. 11. He had left the PMO in February 2009.
Paul Wells describes Carson as one of Harper's most trusted and well-liked advisors, and links to a 2008 profile of Carson.
Officially Harper's legislative assistant, his true stature is better reflected by the fact that he fills in as chief of staff when Ian Brodie is away from Ottawa. (At the time this article was being written, with Brodie on vacation, Carson was running the shop.) "He's Harper's grey-haired sage," according to one veteran Conservative strategist. "The PM trusts him implicitly." Other insiders confirm that Carson's long experience and extensive personal contacts with old-school Tories are regarded as invaluable. But it's not his institutional memory or seasoned perspective that have most enhanced Carson's reputation--it's his ability to take on tough files that demand concentrated work. "Bruce is our mechanic," says a Harper confidant. "He can fix anything."

Well, maybe not anything. Back in 2006, Carson was loaned to then environment minister Ron Ambrose when her handling of the government's high-profile climate change strategy was spinning out of control. The intervention wasn't enough to save Ambrose, who was later shuffled out of Environment to sink from sight as intergovernmental affairs minister. But Carson wasn't blamed. Established on the file, he stuck with it to play a key behind-the-scenes role as an architect of Environment Minister John Baird's bid last spring to succeed where Ambrose had stumbled in crafting a plausible global warming strategy.

In that role, Carson appeared on the radar screens of powerful industry lobbyists, particularly in the oil and gas sector, who are worried about how any emissions regulations could hit their bottom lines. An Ottawa consultant with Tory credentials sees Carson brokering among cabinet ministers who represent sometimes conflicting interests on the climate change issue. "In virtually all of the negotiations among [Industry Minister] Jim Prentice, [Natural Resources Minister] Gary Lunn, and Baird," said the consultant, "Bruce has been at the table."

Carson's close working relationship with Prentice, the influential chairman of the cabinet's operations committee, is crucial. When Prentice was Indian affairs minister prior to last summer's cabinet shuffle, Carson became the key behind-the-scenes architect of a new system for settling what are called "specific" native land claims. While Indian Affairs has never cracked the top echelon of Harper priorities, the portfolio is seen as strategically key. Having taken the controversial step of scrapping Liberal prime minister Paul Martin's multi-billion-dollar Kelowna accord, the Conservatives decided they needed at least one significant accomplishment in their relationship with native leaders to hang in the window. Carson delivered it.

Remarkably, Carson has played his mechanic's role on files like climate change and land claims without giving up day-to-day prominence in Harper's Parliament Hill operation. Along with Keith Beardsley, in charge of "issues management" in the PMO, Carson runs question period preparation. Not bad for a guy who not long ago looked like a relic from a previous Tory era.
He's the chair of the Federal-Provincial-Oil and Gas Industry Working Group on Climate Change.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Tories finally give up "secret" information on prison costs

Bowing to Parliament, Tories hand over files on crime agenda's cost
On Wednesday, the Tories grudgingly handed over more detailed cost estimates for their law-and-order agenda to comply with a historic rebuke by the Speaker of the Commons last week that said they may be in breach of Parliament’s right to demand information.
The Conservatives had previously claimed that the cost estimates were a secret. It's unclear whether their complying at the last minute will prevent the Opposition from finding them in contempt of Parliament.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Letter to the Globe and Mail, March 12

Re Push To Ban Head Hits On The Ice Heats Up (March 11): For a guy who seems to have no clue how much his new jets or new prisons will really cost, has four of his top fundraisers facing possible fines or even jail time over alleged election financing irregularities, and who needs to prepare for possible contempt of Parliament charges, I thought it was damned decent of Stephen Harper to take time out of his day to tell the NHL’s Gary Bettman to get his house in order.

Bruce Mason, Etobicoke, Ont.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

RCMP investigation into obstruction of access-to-information

Tories call in Mounties to probe access to information interference
The RCMP have been called in to probe a Harper government aide’s meddling with an access-to-information request.

The Mounties are now conducting a preliminary inquiry to determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant a full investigation into the actions of Sebastian Togneri, a former Tory staffer.

The development, on the cusp of a possible election, is bad timing for the Conservatives. It gives the opposition more fodder for accusations the government is obstructionist and controlling – even though it also allows the Tories to decline comment on the topic, saying the matter is in the hands of the Mounties.

... Canada’s access-to-information law governs a system that allows the public to request government records for a nominal fee but also makes it illegal for anyone to obstruct this. Those convicted of concealing or altering information – or anyone found directing them to do so – can face a fine of up to $10,000 or as long as two years in jail.

Mr. Togneri resigned from the Harper government last September. The former aide to then-Public-Works minister Christian Paradis intervened in the release of information on that department’s real estate portfolio by ordering bureaucrats to recall a package of material being mailed to a journalist.

“Well un-release it,” Mr. Togneri said in a July 27, 2009, e-mail to a senior official in Public Work’s access-to-information division. “What's the point of asking for my opinion if you're just going to release it!”

The department had initially consented to releasing the requested information in its entirety but following Mr. Togneri’s intervention Public Works heavily censored the documents and made only a small portion available.

Ms. Legault, the Information Commissioner, plans to include her findings on the Togneri case in a special report to Parliament March 21 on the topic of interference in access-to-information requests.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Harper doesn't listen to his ministers, either

Prime Minister's Office wins tug of war over VIP aircraft

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been locked in a lengthy tug of war with his defence minister over the future of the military's VIP Airbus, newly disclosed documents show.

Peter MacKay has repeatedly rejected requests from the prime minister's staff to have the Airbus painted a civilian white and red instead of its current military grey.

MacKay and senior officers argue that the white colour scheme would be too visible whenever the passenger jet is sent on troop and cargo missions to risky locales, as happens now when the aircraft is not needed by the prime minister or the Governor General.

Senior government officials say no final decision has been made. But internal emails indicate the Privy Council Office — Harper's own department — in fact ordered the military last September to arrange for the new paint job at the next scheduled maintenance.

... "PCO has received direction to proceed with the painting of Airbus 001 in its white configuration," a senior military officer reported to air force brass on Sept. 13.

The decision "to have an Airbus permanently configured for VIP use in a colour other than the standard grey would have an impact both financially and on operations as essentially it would leave you with one less air resource," another officer wrote about the plan.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

The truth about attack ads: they work

The truth about attack ads: They work

“Change the Channel on Attack Ads,” pleads the Green Party of Canada in its own ads. “It doesn’t have to be like this.” The Greens are right in theory, wrong in practice.

Actually, it does have to be this way, because attack ads work. And as long as they work, parties will use them – the only difference today being that the Conservatives deploy more of them than any party in Canadian history.

... They’ve launched extremely personal attacks against Liberal leaders between elections, courtesy of the fundraising machine that the Harper party has built. And they’ve used more of these sorts of negative ads than Canadians have seen before.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Ex-integrity commissioner shows up, denies everything

Auditor’s report full of flaws, ex-integrity czar says
Christiane Ouimet says she always tried to do what is fair and right when she headed the office that champions federal whistleblowers, and a damning report by the Auditor-General that found otherwise was riddled with “flaws and erroneous facts.”

Ms. Ouimet, the former public-sector integrity commissioner who retired abruptly last fall as the audit was about to be released, appeared before the Commons public accounts committee on Thursday after three months of requests and summons. She was grateful, she said, for the opportunity to set the record straight.

... [The Auditor-General's] office has said it stands behind its report. The committee has agreed to call both the auditor and Ms. Ouimet to the next meeting to deal with the issues face to face.

Ms. Ouimet, who became the first-ever integrity commissioner in 2007, received a severance package worth $534,000 in addition to her normal pension benefits when she abruptly retired last fall.
Apparently Ms. Ouimet didn't explain why it took her three months to show up.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Tories forced to defend F-35 purchase amid damning report

Tories forced to defend F-35 purchase amid damning report
Canadians are being warned that the Harper government is underestimating the lifetime costs of new F-35 fighter jets by more than $12-billion – a third blow to a government already under fire for stonewalling in the Commons.

A new report from Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, whose post was established by the Conservatives to ensure “truth in budgeting,” says the total price tag for the jets is close to $30-billion – nearly 70 per cent more than government estimates.

... The budget officer’s report was peer-reviewed by non-partisan experts at the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Queen’s University.

The Conservatives said on Thursday they are not budging from their earlier estimates.
Bruce Rolston, a military blogger, provides a useful discussion of spending priorities in A Model for Foreign Deployment Flexibility (2003).

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Globe and Mail, March 9

From the Globe and Mail.

Ex-integrity office staffers bristle at Ouimet's 'Cadillac package'

Ex-integrity office staffers bristle at Ouimet's 'Cadillac package'
Former employees of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner's office, who took pension hits for quitting a caustic workplace, are outraged the federal government handed their disgraced boss a generous severance package to walk away quietly.

Christiane Ouimet received a separation allowance of $354,000, another $53,100 in lieu of foregone benefits, and an additional 28 weeks of severance pay worth about $137,000.

The departure agreement was signed just 10 days before it became public knowledge that Auditor General Sheila Fraser was conducting an audit of Ouimet’s turmoil-ridden office.

"This is unacceptable," said Normand Desjardins, former chief investigator with the commission. He says he quit after being screamed at by Ouimet in 2008.

"I retired before age 60. So I was penalized by roughly one-fifth on my pension," the 59-year-old said in an interview, branding Ouimet's recently disclosed payout a "golden retirement gift."

"It is very ironic. I get penalized and she got a half a million dollars to resign because she couldn't do her job."

... In her report, Fraser said staff complaints about Ouimet's behaviour were well founded. Employees had complained that Ouimet "yelled, swore and also berated, marginalized and intimidated certain PSIC employees and that she engaged in reprisal actions."

Between August 2007 and July 2009, average turnover at the office was over 50 per cent a year.

... The integrity commissioner's office was set up in 2007 to protect public servants who blow the whistle on wrongdoing within the federal government.

Fraser found that 228 allegations of public service wrongdoing or reprisals against whistleblowers were brought to the integrity commissioner’s office during Ouimet’s three-year tenure. Only seven investigations were launched and no findings of wrongdoing were issued.

... In one instance, Fraser said Ouimet retaliated against a former employee whom she believed had filed a complaint with the auditor general about her behaviour. In fact, the man, who'd resigned months earlier, had not yet filed a complaint and only did so later as a result of Ouimet's reprisals.

Fraser found Ouimet compiled 375 pages of information on the former employee in four binders; circulated at least 50 emails about him; disclosed personal information about him to his previous employer, senior government officials and a private security consultant; and tried to access his personnel file from his previous employer in a bid to launch a security investigation that targeted the man and three other former commission employees.

Speaker rules against Tories

John Ivision: Two black eyes for Tories, courtesy of democracy.
In the case surrounding Ms. Oda, Mr. Milliken said a prima facie breach of privilege exists and the whole affair merits further consideration by the committee to "clear the air."

In doing so, he did not accept the government's suggestion that Ms. Oda had given "clear, accurate and honest answers" when she appeared before another committee last December and was questioned about who had inserted the word "Not" on a decision to de-fund the charity Kairos.

In the dispute over the financial information, the Speaker resolved that the government had not provided all the cost details called for by the Finance committee and said he found it "unsettling" that there was no explanation given for the omissions.

The Conservatives had said they were unable to provide the Finance committee with the cost of a number of its justice bills, including a bill ending the practice of giving criminals double credit for time served before sentencing, because of Cabinet confidences. The government eventually released some figures but the Speaker agreed with the Liberals that this information was insufficient and he reiterated the unlimited power of committees to request papers and records.

... The House of Commons was being asked to wave through spending when it had no real idea about what the money was being spent on. The opposition demanded more information and one hopes all MPs will now have some idea of the cost of the legislation they're voting upon. Similarly, the opposition felt Ms. Oda was less than forthright during her committee appearance and will now have the chance to censure her.

The real unravelling taking place is the Conservative party's strategy of running the country out of the Prime Minister's Office--a black hole at the centre of government that absorbs power and emits very little information that might prove inconvenient. The fingerprints on both files inevitably lead back to the PMO.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

It's hard to keep up

On the road to the Harper government's tipping point. Lawrence Martin, in yesterday's Globe and Mail, lists recent scandals. He mentions one I'd never heard of:
Just recently, the PM appointed Tom Pentefountas as vice-chairman of the CRTC. Mr. Pentefountas comes equipped with two qualifications: his close friendship with the PM’s director of communications, and zero experience in telecommunications.
Conservatives deny CRTC takeover:
In the House of Commons, opposition parties said Tom Pentefountas, the recently appointed CRTC vice-chairman, lacked the necessary credentials for the job and is only there because of his political connection to the Conservative government.

A Montreal lawyer, Pentefountas is the former president of the Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ), a political party with strong ties to the federal Tories. Moreover, said opposition critics, he is a friend of Dimitri Soudas, the prime minister's director of communications.

... In recent days, the Conservative government has been at loggerheads with the CRTC, the nation's telecom and broadcasting watchdog. When the regulator released a decision that effectively would have killed unlimited Internet-pricing packages, the government said it would reverse the move unless the CRTC backed down first.

That followed a similar move in 2009, when the government overruled the CRTC and approved the launch of wireless services by Globalive. A court quashed that move last week, saying the government overstepped its bounds.

In the Commons Monday, Heritage Minister James Moore denied accusations from the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois that the government is trying to take control of the CRTC.
One more dispute that the article doesn't mention: the Sun TV broadcast license. An earlier Lawrence Martin column, Is Stephen Harper set to move against the CRTC?
It’s not every day that a prime minister sees his one-time spokesperson [Kory Teneycke] taking control of a giant media chain’s coverage of his government. What, one wonders, will our journalism schools be telling their students about that?

As remarkable as it was, it received scant attention because the focus was on the TV bid. That bid hit a roadblock last month when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission declared that the top-category type of broadcasting licence being sought by Quebecor would not be available – if at all – until Oct. 1, 2011, at the earliest.

Observers of Mr. Harper have long noted that he doesn’t take kindly to commissions or agencies or anyone else who tends to get in the way of his wishes. It’s only necessary to look at what happened at, among others, Rights and Democracy, Elections Canada, the Nuclear Safety Commission and Parliament.

So the question naturally arises: Do the CRTC board members actually think they can get away with delaying or denying Mr. Harper’s wishes on Fox News North? Do they really believe they have some kind of independent power?

The CRTC chair is Konrad von Finckenstein, and his term doesn’t end until 2012. But insiders report that Mr. Harper now wants him out well before that date and replaced by a rubber stamper. The independently minded Mr. von Finckenstein, who did not respond to queries on the matter, is reportedly being offered judgeships and ambassadorships, one post being Chile. So far, he’s not biting. But the bait might get bigger.

In addition, CRTC vice-chair Michel Arpin is being ushered out the door. His term expires at the end of the month; he’d like to stay on, but his request is not being granted.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Harper government pushes ahead with U.S.-style justice system

Canada warned not to follow U.S. tough-on-crime ‘mistakes’
The man who headed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency under U.S. president George W. Bush says Canada should avoid the mistakes that caused incarceration rates to soar in his country.

Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who represented Arkansas in the U.S. Congress and a former prosecutor who advocated a tough approach to crime, has joined other high-profile members of his party in advocating a revision of harsh American justice policies.

... The Conservative government in Canada has introduced a slate of justice bills – some of which have been passed into law – that will put more people in jail for longer periods of time. According to the Correctional Service of Canada, the federal prison population will increase by 30 per cent in coming years.

... Because of tough criminal justice policies in the United States, one in every 100 American adults is behind bars – up from one in 400 in the 1970s.

“The United States has five per cent of the world’s population but 23 per cent of the world’s recorded prisoners,” said Mr. Hutchinson. “The incarceration costs are staggering, [running from] $18,000 to $50,000 per prisoner per year, depending upon the state and the level of security. And that cost is very challenging for many states.”
The Conservatives are pursuing their "tough-on-crime" policies despite the fact that crime rates have been declining in recent years, and prisons are already overstretched (Prisons plagued by overcrowding, poor conditions, ombudsman reports; Why Canada's prisons can't cope with flood of mentally ill inmates).

Only 24% of voters want more money spent on the justice system. The Harper government has refused to say how much the resulting prison expansion will cost, saying it's a secret:
The federal Liberals have been complaining bitterly that the Harper government won't reveal cost projections for tough-on-crime legislation that would drastically increase the number of citizens in Canada's prisons, and cost billions in prison construction and expansion.

The Tories have responded that such information falls under "cabinet confidence" and is a non-releasable state secret.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Former Tory MPs speak out against ‘in-and-out’ campaign financing

 Former Tory MPs speak out against ‘in-and-out’ campaign financing
[Debby] Sorochynski [former campaign manager for MP Inky Mark] said she remembers the issue because it sounded similar to a case involving Conservative cabinet minister Vic Toews, who pleaded guilty and was convicted of electoral overspending in a Manitoba provincial election.

Three other candidates in that election were also convicted of the breach of electoral laws.

The provincial Progressive Conservative party had asked candidates shortly before the 1999 election to sign an authorization to absorb $7,500 each in central campaign expenses, according to the Winnipeg Free Press account of court testimony. Ms. Toews's lawyer said at the time that Mr. Toews initially did not want to participate in the plan.

“That was a well-known, documented story in Manitoba, so when the national office offered an opportunity to get involved in something that sounded similar to that, we just said No,” Ms. Sorochynski said.
More details from the CBC:
Four high-ranking Conservatives, including two Senators, are charged under the Elections Act with moving more than a million dollars through local ridings to help fund the national campaign.

Conservative MP Steven Blaney says he and all the other candidates who participated were following the rules.

Court documents show Blaney's 2006 election campaign was one of those that received money from the national party, transferred it immediately back, and then claimed the money as part of its election expenses.

A comparison of Elections Canada documents and the ones filed in court reveals Blaney's campaign received $18,000 more in reimbursements than it was entitled to. Blaney says his campaign did nothing wrong.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

What does it take to get fired?

The Bev Oda affair and the Tories’ scandal-management strategy
Oda told a House committee she didn’t know who inserted the “not,” only to admit later that she had ordered the doctoring of the document. “Any reasonable person confronted with what appears to have transpired would necessarily be extremely concerned, if not shocked,” House Speaker Peter Milliken said after reviewing the facts.
Jason Kenney's reaction:
[Immigration Minister Jason] Kenney was asked by a reporter with The Canadian Press whether it was acceptable for a cabinet minister to lie and change a document — referring to the controversy surrounding International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda. Kenney responded: "Radio-Canada, they lie all the time. Which media are you with?"

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Evil Overlord List #24

From the Evil Overlord List:
24. I will maintain a realistic assessment of my strengths and weaknesses. Even though this takes some of the fun out of the job, at least I will never utter the line "No, this cannot be! I AM INVINCIBLE!!!"

Disgraced bureaucrat getting $400,000 in severance

Disgraced bureaucrat getting $400,000 in severance
The federal government is paying $400,000 in severance to Christiane Ouimet, the disgraced former public-sector integrity commissioner who resigned in haste last fall, Postmedia News has learned. ...

[Auditor-General Sheila] Fraser's disparaging report slammed Ouimet for failing to properly do her job and found the office — which has an $11-million budget — investigated only five of 228 complaints filed during Ouimet's three-and-a-half-year tenure.

Ouimet also berated, intimidated and yelled and swore at her staff, the report said.

Following the criticism and backlash the report caused, the public accounts committee asked Ouimet to testify and to explain her actions.

Letter-writing, phoning and knocking on doors went unanswered for months before a lawyer for Ouimet, Ivan Whitehall, contacted the chair of the committee....

About the Harper Government

Stephen Harper is the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, and the current Prime Minister.

Lately it seems that Harper believes he can operate with impunity, that the other parties (Liberals, NDP, and Bloc Quebecois) are too weak to oppose him. Last year, the Conservatives received $17.7 million in donations, while the Liberals received $6.6 million. This gives Harper enough money to bury the Liberal leader (previously Stephane Dion, now Michael Ignatieff) under a blizzard of attack ads, before an election even starts.

I decided to start writing this blog after reading the latest story:
Public servants from four different departments have confirmed to The Canadian Press that they received a directive late last year that the words "Government of Canada" in federal communications be replaced with "Harper Government."
Stockwell Day's response:
"If you think you're on to something that is going to ignite people from coast to coast in a fury of rage, maybe we'll look at it. But this is the first I've heard of it, so good luck with it."
If you feel like strengthening Harper's opposition, I'd suggest sending some money their way:

Donate to the Liberals.

Donate to the NDP.

If you see a story that you think should be posted here, email me at