Saturday, 30 April 2011

Oops, we forgot to destroy Layton

Tom Flanagan, Conservative activist and former advisor to Harper:
Conservative advertising attacks on Michael Ignatieff began two years ago, ran steadily on TV for three months before the writ was dropped, and continued during the campaign. Practically all observers, whether they approve of the strategy or not, believe they have been highly effective in undercutting Mr. Ignatieff’s credibility. In Quebec, the Conservatives focused their attacks more on the BQ, accusing the party of ignoring “the regions” in favour of Montreal. All three opposition parties ran extremely negative campaigns against the Conservatives, accusing Mr. Harper of being a liar, a dictator, etc.

Amidst this welter of negativity, the NDP got off relatively unscathed because no opponent focused on them. (The Conservatives did run one anti-Layton ad early in the campaign, but it was only a tiny part of what they did.) The other three parties did a fine job of destroying each other’s credibility, leaving Mr. Layton as the last man standing....

Friday, 29 April 2011

Aiming for a smash-and-grab majority

Will Harper regret strategy of running not to lose?
[Harper] has been convinced – through the bitter experiences of Canada’s right-of-centre parties over the past two decades – that Conservatives must make do with a low ceiling of support. And so he has become a leader unwilling to make a broad appeal to the electorate.

Mr. Harper was convinced as far back as his Reform Party days that it was folly to seek a big swath of voters. Preston Manning wanted to make a populist pitch that would appeal to Canadians, regardless of their political ideology. Mr. Harper always wanted an incremental approach.

... Following [the 2008 election], Mr. Harper started aiming primarily for what pollster Nik Nanos refers to as a “smash and grab” majority.

Rather than trying to usher in a blue wave, even in a key province or two, the Conservatives began trying to cobble together a voting coalition that would give them just enough votes in just enough ridings.

That meant, for instance, targeting certain ethnic minorities that could help them win in the suburbs. It meant solidifying support within the Jewish community, to help win a few urban seats. It meant trying to ensure strong voter turnout among their support base, largely through their law-and-order agenda. And it meant furiously ramping up their ground organization in ridings where they had fallen just short previously.

... [If the 35% Conservative base does prove enough for a majority], Mr. Harper might well have the least popular support of any majority prime minister in our history.

... by some accounts, he would actually prefer a narrow majority, since a larger coalition would be harder to keep together.
The Globe describes Harper's micro-targeting tactics in more detail.
In simpler times, political parties aimed at broad swaths of the population. Tailoring a message for women voters or blue-collar workers was considered the height of sophistication. But the new thinking suggests that’s a waste of time and money. Why examine broad categories when you can narrow your message to the five per cent of people you really need to sway?

What the parties are starting to do instead is called “micro-targeting,” aiming their policies and messages at narrow bands of the population to shift just enough votes to win. The Conservatives are by far the most sophisticated in Canada at this technique, which tries to understand population in new ways. They use market research data on buying habits and combine it with census data, internal polling and focus groups to shape their campaign’s direction and rhetoric.

This tactical shift has contributed to significant Conservative gains in 2006 and 2008. It also explains why their policy announcements have been relatively small-scale and focused.

... The dominant group in Surrey North [a single NDP/Conservative riding in BC], at 43 per cent, is what Environics identifies as fairly well-off, blue collar ,South Asian families, both Canadian-born and immigrant. They’re more likely to have large households and to speak a non-official language at home. Let’s call them Aspirasians.

In the 2008 election, 10 per cent of this group’s votes shifted toward the Conservatives, mostly at the expense of the NDP. That meant a gain of 1,600 votes for the Conservatives, and a loss of 1,300 votes for the NDP. The Conservatives gained a little less than 1,000 votes from two of the next largest groups, Canadian Tirekickers, mostly white exurban families, and Rust Collars, a low-income, mobile, working-class population.

Those swing votes are the difference between winning and losing. ...

What the Conservatives did, starting in the 2006 campaign, was combine their internal polling data with market research to develop profiles of the voters they thought they could reach. How to reach them is another question. Environics research shows the South Asian group’s values tend toward concepts such as “belonging to the global village,” an “ecological lifestyle” and “joy of consumption.” They are less likely than the average Canadian to identify with a Canadian identity or to have a flexible definition of family.

André Turcotte, a professor of communications at Carleton University who has worked in this field, says the Conservatives likely have a group such as the South Asians broken down into several smaller segments. Those from the Indian Punjab would be separated from those from Vietnam, those who have been here 15 years or less separated from the Canadian-born, as well as stats for those with children or grandparents at home.

It’s because they have that kind of data on the ridings they need to win that the Conservatives are employing micro-targeting in their policy platform, Prof. Turcotte said.

Income-splitting for couples with a stay-at-home parent, for example, appeals to young, suburban, traditional families. They tend to live in hotly contested ridings such as those in Surrey and Brampton.

... Jennifer Lees-Marshment, a professor and expert on political marketing, said the idea with micro-targeting is to use party resources more efficiently, but it also means small slices of the electorate become disproportionately significant. “It’s supposed to be a more practical and effective use of resources,” she said, “but democratically it’s problematic because they only bother with a tiny group of voters.”

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Do-nothing federal government

John Duffy:
... What matters here is the attempt by the Liberals to have the government do something positive for individuals and for the country. That’s a very different thing from what Mr. Harper offers, which is a tax cut for its own sake.

Liberals fundamentally disagree with how Mr. Harper governs, namely by shrinking the federal government, its role in the federation, in the economy, in our society. Those who say he is betraying his conservative principles aren't noticing the policy areas – taxes included – where Mr. Harper simply downs traditional federal government tools, often without fanfare. We have no energy policy. We have no climate-change strategy. Can anyone say we have a broadcasting policy? Or a telecommunications policy? A social policy to deal with the erosion of the middle class? An industrial policy to address our productivity slippage? A health-care policy, now that the 2004 accord is about to expire? A national unity approach? An aboriginal strategy? And for all that vacating of important policy fields, the government still spends more than it ever did.

Mr. Harper’s is a kind of laisser-tomber conservatism, quietly letting go of the federal role in key public policy fields. I don’t think this approach serves anyone terribly well, and I think it is uniquely ill-suited to a country like Canada. No one is nostalgic for the Big Ottawa of the Trudeau era; that’s what’s so smart about Mr. Ignatieff’s stripped-down Learning Passport. But I’d welcome an outraged Conservative charge of creeping centralization. At least we’d be getting some real debate, instead of this relentless, silent withdrawal of our national government from Canadian life.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

There's a dirty secret in Tory greenhouse gas plan

Andrew Leach, an environmental economist at the University of Alberta:
There’s a hole in the Conservative platform…a hole so big, you could fit Canada’s oil and gas sector or every single one of our fossil-fuel power plants into it. The hole is projected to get bigger, and will be large enough to fit every single car, truck, SUV, train, bus, and ATV in Canada into it by 2020. These are not figures from David Suzuki. They are taken from speeches by Conservative Environment Minister Peter Kent and reports provided by Environment Canada earlier this year.

The Conservatives do not have the policies in place to meet commitments in their platform. The platform re-iterates Canada’s Copenhagen commitment to reduce GHG emissions from current levels of around 730 million tons (Mt) to 607 Mt, or 17 per cent below our 2005 levels, by 2020. Mr. Kent called the target “ambitious,” and he was not kidding. To get there, even if you ignored the potential for economic growth, it would take the equivalent of shutting down every single coal- and natural-gas-fired power plant in the country.

The story gets worse when you consider the economic growth we expect to see over the next eight years. In his first speech as Environment Minister, Peter Kent admitted that, “there is a great deal to do,” since without any new policies, Canada’s emissions will likely grow to around 800 Mt per year, and we would miss the Conservatives’ pledge by 178 Mt, as you can see in the graph below from Environment Canada. To put that into perspective, you could eliminate the emissions from every single car and truck on the road today, and we would still not get there.

The Conservatives are clearly aware of this hole in their platform, but they have failed to introduce any substantial new programs to close the 178 Mt gap. The only real policy announcement came on March 31, when Stephen Harper announced that the Conservatives would provide a $4.2-billion dollar loan guarantee to the Lower Churchill River hydro project, which is expected to reduce annual GHG emissions by 4.5 Mt. Today’s announcement from SaskPower puts the price tag of their new CCS project at more than $1-billion, to achieve annual emissions reduction of approximately 1Mt. The Conservatives only need to find 38 more projects of this size to reach our 2020 goal. If the cost of these projects remains in the $1-billion per Mt range, it would seem that the NDP isn't the only party with a hole in its green budget.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Changing Canada, one backward step at a time

The late James Travers, writing in June 2010:
Imagine a country where Parliament is padlocked twice in 13 months to frustrate the democratic will of the elected majority. That country is now this country.

Imagine a country that slyly relaxes environmental regulations even as its neighbour reels from a catastrophic oil leak blamed on slack controls. That country is now this country.

Imagine a country that boasts about prudent financial management while blowing through a $13-billion surplus on the way to a $47-billion deficit. That country is now this country....

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Margaret Atwood: "I can't tell you that"

Margaret Atwood: Election 2011, a dark fiction
I am a fiction writer. So here’s a fiction.

A vacuum cleaner salesman comes to your door. “You must buy this vacuum cleaner,” he says. “Why?” you say. “Because I know what’s good for you,” he says. “I know things you don’t know.” “What are they?” you say. “I can’t tell you,” he says, “because they’re secret. You are required to trust me. The vacuum cleaner will create jobs.”

“Where is the vacuum cleaner made?” you say. “In another country,” he says. “So the jobs will be created in another country? Not here?” you say. You believe it’s your right to query: It’s your money and, come to think of it, you pay this guy’s salary.

“Stop bickering,” he says. “I am competent. That’s my story and I’m sticking it to you.” “I’m not bickering,” you say. “I’m asking relevant questions. How much will the vacuum cleaner cost me?” “I can’t tell you that,” he says. “Why not? Because it’s more than you claimed at first?” you say. “Or because you don’t really know the cost?” “I can’t tell you that, either,” he says. “But you have to pay.”

“Just a minute!” you say. “You want me to commit to an unknown, very large sum? That’s not fair! And it’s not competent, either.” “More bickering!” he says. “We need stability!” “But I might have to go on paying huge sums for decades!” you say. “We’re already up to our necks in debt! I’ll have to give up other things – I won’t be able to pay for the doctor, or support for special needs, or drinking water, or care for the elderly, or the kids’ education, or … and what happens if there’s a pandemic, or a natural catastrophe such as an earthquake, and you’ve already spent the money that could have helped in a disaster?”

“You are a very negative person,” he says. “You are not welcome here.” ...

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Elections agency probes harassing calls

Elections agency probes harassing calls
Elections Canada has launched a formal investigation into complaints by various Liberal candidates in Ontario that someone is making repeated phone calls to voters, purporting to be Liberal supporters — often at odd hours, including the middle of the night.

The Liberal Party is blaming rival operatives for setting up the harassing, late-night phone calls that ask residents to vote Liberal. The calls seem to be targetting ridings expecting close races.

A CBC News investigation has been chasing down numerous complaints from local Liberal campaign offices across Ontario, including Oakville, St. Catharines, Haldimand-Norfolk, Simcoe Grey, Guelph, Eglinton-Lawrence, St. Paul's and Mississauga East-Cooksville. The calls have also happened in Egmont, P.E.I., and St. Boniface, Man.

... Conservative spokesman Alykhan Velshi said the party isn't involved, "period."

"The only party with access to the Liberal Party member list is the Liberal Party. Are you certain they aren't making the calls to their members?" he said.

The call targets are not limited to Liberal Party members, however. CBC News' Dave Seglins has spoken to NDP and Conservative supporters who also got bombarded with calls.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Conservative headquarters tells candidates not to go to local debate

All-candidate debates, without all the candidates
A teacher who organized an all-candidates debate for two Toronto-area ridings says the Conservative Party's national campaign headquarters told its local candidates not to show up.

James Blair said he spoke to the campaign manager for Corneliu Chisu, the Conservative candidate for Pickering-Scarborough East, and was told officials in the national campaign war room instructed Chisu not to attend.

Chisu and a neighbouring Conservative candidate, Chris Alexander, did not attend the event at Dunbarton High School in Pickering on Monday.

Corneliu Chisu is the Conservative Party's candidate in the Ontario riding of Pickering-Scarborough East. "The general sense was [the candidates] were very interested in attending but it was pretty well given to them that no, that's not the case," said Blair, a politics and physical education teacher who has organized candidates debates at the high school for the past three elections.

Blair said the directive "was not coming from their campaign but from on high from some place."

In an email, Conservative spokesman Chisholm Pothier said Blair is incorrect, and that Tory war room staff did not stop Chisu from participating.

"The [Chisu] campaign consulted with us and we supported their decision that his time could also be better used by campaigning directly with voters in his riding in this instance," Pothier wrote.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Ministers intervened after Harper spokesman lobbied Montreal Port Authority

Ministers intervened after Harper spokesman lobbied Montreal Port Authority
Stephen Harper’s top two ministers in Quebec intervened on behalf of the Montreal Port Authority after they were told the Prime Minister’s spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, was interfering with the board’s efforts to appoint a new president, The Globe and Mail has learned.

Michael Fortier, the minister of public works and the Conservative lieutenant for Montreal at the time, said his office contacted port officials in 2007 and urged them to disregard any political pressure, after learning that Mr. Soudas was lobbying the board to appoint a Montreal engineer, Robert Abdallah, as head of the port.

While the federal government directly appoints the presidents of many agencies, the Canada Marine Act clearly states the port’s board has sole responsibility for the appointment of its president.

... Mr. Fortier’s comments, obtained as part of a joint investigation by The Globe and Radio-Canada, amount to an unusual rebuke by a former cabinet minister who felt actions by Mr. Harper’s staff did not reflect positions staked out by the Prime Minister.

Bernard Côté, a former staffer in Mr. Fortier’s office, said Mr. Soudas called him afterward and told him to back off.

“The tone was aggressive and there were no pleasantries exchanged,” Mr. Côté said. “He asked me why I was getting involved in the Prime Minister’s nominations.”

... The arm-twisting continued. After the restaurant meeting, Mr. Bruneau said he was warned by a Conservative ministerial staffer, whom he felt was relaying a message from a superior, that his position was at stake if he refused to jump on the bandwagon.

“I was told directly they’d think twice before renewing my nomination,” said Mr. Bruneau, who only received a one-year extension to his mandate in 2008 instead of a three-year renewal.
This sounds like more than lobbying. Lobbying doesn't usually involve threats, does it?

Soudas's response:
Mr. Soudas insisted Tuesday he did nothing wrong, and that the federal government merely indicated its preference for Mr. Abdallah. The board ultimately chose a different candidate, Patrice Pelletier, who was president of L-3 Communications SPAR Aerospace Ltd..

“There was no interference whatsoever,” he said. “We expressed a preference and made it crystal clear that the decision was ultimately for the Board of Directors of the Port of Montreal to take.”

However, in sworn testimony before the Commons Operations Committee in 2008, Mr. Soudas said that he “did not remember” contacting board members on the matter of Mr. Abdallah’s candidacy, and denied even meeting board members on the issue.
If he lied in sworn testimony, what happens next?

Why would Soudas--or Harper, presumably, since Soudas wouldn't have any power over board appointments on his own--have such a strong interest in this in the first place?
The port presidency is a powerful role, overseeing an operation that generates $2-billion in annual economic activity. At the time of the executive search, the port was also planning to spend $2.5-billion as part of a massive expansion plan dubbed Vision 2020. Several Montreal business groups at the time were seeking to purchase port land for private development.
Harper certainly doesn't have any scruples about using the levers of government to benefit the Conservative Party, and then lying about it (for example). But we don't have all the pieces of this particular puzzle yet.

The Globe and Mail article notes:
Mr. Soudas was not the only one who wanted Mr. Abdallah, a one-time Director General of the City of Montreal, appointed president of the port. Controversial construction industry boss Antonio Accurso was also supportive of Mr. Abdallah’s candidacy. Mr. Accurso’s construction firms recently pleaded guilty to tax evasion, and he has generated headlines for his close ties to a number of union and political officials in Quebec, several of whom vacationed on his luxury yacht.

Among these was Montreal councillor Frank Zampino, who also pushed for Mr. Abdallah to head the port. Mr. Zampino was criticized for going on Mr. Accurso’s yacht amid a controversy surrounding the city’s ballooning water-metering contract – a contract that was ultimately awarded to a group including Mr. Accurso.

In an interview, Mr. Accurso denied any involvement in the lobbying effort at the port. After his failed bid for the president’s job, Mr. Abdallah went on to work for Gastier Inc., a company that is part of Mr. Accurso’s business empire.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Harper and the subtle erosion of medicare

Thomas Walkom:
As the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported last month, at least five provinces (including Ontario) are turning a blind eye to private clinics that break the law.

Some defy the federal Canada Health Act by charging patients for medically necessary services. Others ignore provincial laws aimed at maintaining the integrity of medicare — such as those that prevent physicians from operating both inside and outside the public system.

Harper’s federal government has been even more remiss.

Medicare exists as a national program for only two reasons. The first is money. As long as Ottawa gives cash to the provinces, it can require each recipient to operate a provincial medicare program that adheres to the Canada Health Act.

The second is enforcement. The Canada Health Act permits (and in one case requires) Ottawa to withhold money from provinces that break the rules.

Most of the time, Ottawa prefers not to confront recalcitrant provinces. Still, between 1984 and 2006, the federal government levied penalties averaging about $400,000 a year.

Since Harper came to power, however, federal medicare penalties have shrunk to about $84,000 annually.

This, presumably, is what Harper was referring to when, in last week’s televised English-language debate, he talked of giving the provinces free rein in medicare.

... medicare requires a federal government willing to enforce the Canada Health Act. If, in the name of allowing provincial experimentation, it chooses not to do so, the system simply atrophies.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Tory minister's office hired niece of Carson’s girlfriend in 2008

Tory minister's office hired niece of Carson’s girlfriend in 2008
In 2008, the office of Conservative cabinet minister Gary Lunn hired a relative of Bruce Carson’s then-girlfriend, a former prostitute who was convicted in the United States of money laundering, The Globe and Mail has learned.

Though she had no particular relevant experience or Conservative Party background, Sarifa Khan worked from March to September of 2008 as a ministerial staffer in Mr. Lunn’s office, a job usually coveted by young staffers to Tory MPs.

... After pleading guilty to money laundering and being deported to Canada, Barbara Lynn Khan started dating Mr. Carson in 2006, when he was an adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and purchased a condominium with him after he left the PMO in 2009.

Barbara Lynn’s niece, Sarifa Khan, was in her early 20s when she was hired by Mr. Lunn, then the Natural Resources Minister, for a job with the title of special assistant, parliamentary affairs and a salary of at least $53,700.

As the Prime Minister’s point man on the environment and energy, Mr. Carson frequently worked with Mr. Lunn during his time as Natural Resources Minister, and the two men had a friendly relationship. But Louise Girouard, Mr. Lunn’s chief of staff at the time, said that neither she nor Mr. Lunn spoke to Mr. Carson about hiring his girlfriend’s niece and that Mr. Carson wasn’t involved.

Canada's F-35s: Engines not included

Canada's F-35s: Engines not included
The multi-million dollar F-35 stealth fighter that the Conservatives want to purchase comes with all the accoutrements of a high-tech aircraft — everything, that is, except an engine.

The government will be required to provide engines for the 65 planes to be delivered by U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin, according to newly released Defence Department documents.
This recalls another issue with the F-35: it lacks a second engine.
Canada’s next fleet of fighters will be packed with high-tech gizmos but lack one comforting feature: a second engine.

For pilots who will fly patrols over Canada’s vast expanses of territory in the Far North, it means no back-up.

So what happens if the sole engine in the new F-35 Lightning fails?

... Canada chose its current fleet of CF-18s precisely because they had dual engines. As the Cold Lake Air Force Museum’s website notes, Ottawa selected the Hornets “mostly because of twin-engine reliability” in case one failed during flights between Canada and Europe or sucked in a bird during low-level operations.

Vancouver's safe injection site cuts overdose deaths

Vancouver's safe injection site cuts overdose deaths
The number of drug-overdose deaths on Vancouver’s notorious downtown Eastside fell sharply after the opening of a safe injection site, new research shows.

... the federal government has argued that the evidence of benefit is unclear and tried to shut down Insite.

This has led to a protracted legal battle – one that has become an important jurisdictional struggle between the provincial and federal governments. Both the B.C. Liberals and New Democrats support Insite and the program has the strong backing of the provincial health officer.
Patrick Brethour notes that the issue demonstrates the Conservatives' "unnerving propensity to bend facts to their opinions."

Whistleblower watchdog not releasing report

Whistleblower watchdog not releasing report
The federal whistleblower watchdog is refusing to publicly release a report that shows how many cases it bungled in its 3½ years in office, suggesting it was inappropriate to do so during a federal election campaign.

To help clear its image, the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner hired an independent firm, Deloitte, to review 221 complaints of wrongdoing it received and to determine how many were closed without cause and how many now require further investigation.

Interim commissioner Mario Dion hired the firm after Auditor-General Sheila Fraser slammed its former commissioner, Christiane Ouimet, for failing to investigate the overwhelming majority of cases that landed on her desk. Only seven of 228 cases were probed during Ouimet's tenure, which began in April 2007. Ouimet abruptly resigned in October--just before Fraser tabled her report--and received a $400,000 severance package from the Conservative government.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Harper defends pay raises for political staff at time of budget belt-tightening

Harper defends pay raises for political staff at time of budget belt-tightening
Mr. Harper was asked Saturday about new rules which could result in a financial win-win for Tory aides in ministerial offices regardless of whether the Conservatives win or lose the May 2nd election.

The guidelines quietly went into effect on April 1, boosting the maximum salary political staffers can be paid. They also hike by 50 per cent the maximum separation pay they can receive should they find themselves suddenly out of work.

Those changes come into effect as Harper's Conservatives are vowing to cut $4-billion a year from the federal budget.

Mr. Harper suggested the pay boost is strictly due to the fact that political staffers' salaries are tied to those in the civil service, which are in line for an increase. He didn't mention that it was the rule changes earlier this month that tied the two together.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Liberal and Conservative narratives

A digression from my usual anti-Harper focus, to talk about the Liberals:

Someone on MetaFilter asked: why should people vote for a Liberal government, rather than against a Conservative one?

Politics is about ideas as well as interests. The Liberals are pushing two ideas, one negative, one positive. Similarly, the Conservatives are pushing two ideas as well.

1. The negative Liberal narrative, of course, is that Harper is "out of touch and out of control"--that his priorities (fighter jets, jails, corporate tax cuts) are all wrong, and that he's willing to destroy anyone who stands in his way. That's why we're having the election: Harper's too contemptuous of everyone else to be able to work with any of the other parties. You can't trust him with a majority, especially when it comes to health care.

The positive narrative is the set of policies proposed in the Liberal platform during the first week of the campaign, the so-called Family Pack, which I'd summarize as "helping families who feel squeezed": by the cost of post-secondary education (hence the Learning Passport), by the cost of child care (hence the Early Childhood Learning fund to create more child care spaces), by the need to look after elderly relatives, by inadequate savings for retirement. As the Liberals have done since 1993, they've included cost estimates in their platform, showing where the money is going to come from (primarily from cancelling the most recent corporate tax cuts), to make their promises more credible.

The underlying idea is that Liberals have a different set of priorities from the Conservatives: they think families are more important than corporate tax cuts. Bruce Anderson describes it as the "chicken in every pot" tradition: the idea that government should ensure that prosperity is broadly shared. It's not difficult to have a society where the rich live in extravagant luxury; see any ancient empire or modern Third World country. It's far more difficult to make prosperity--employment, housing, education, health care--available to nearly everyone.

The Liberal platform got a fair amount of media coverage during the first week of the campaign, but it seems like people hadn't really tuned in yet. I'm not sure you can fault the Liberals for this, though. I'm pretty sure Ignatieff's been talking about the Family Pack at every Liberal rally and event since then, but of course it's no longer new, and therefore no longer news.

At this point we're in the "ground war", where candidates and volunteers from every party are knocking on doors and talking to people, and of course undecided voters are talking to their friends and family. (And these days, people are passing around information through Facebook and other social media--like this blog.) So people are still hearing about the Liberal platform, but it's below the media's radar. At the media level, the last two weeks of the campaign are going to be about damage control.

2. The negative Conservative narrative: the opposition parties are a threat to Canada's political stability, bringing down the government and attacking the Conservatives only to further their own ambitions. You can't trust Michael Ignatieff and his coalition. If Harper doesn't get a majority, there'll be chaos. "King or Chaos!"

The positive Conservative narrative: that the Conservative record shows they've provided sound economic management. Canada was the last into recession and the first out. On unemployment, we're doing a lot better than the US. There's a deficit now because of the recession, but if you give them a majority, the Conservatives will cut it faster than anyone else. Once they've balanced the budget, they'll put more money in your pocket, through income-splitting and TFSA expansion.

(The actual record is that when Harper took over in 2006, the Liberals had run surpluses for 10 years: they left a $13 billion surplus. Harper quickly dug us a new hole, a $10-20 billion structural deficit, before the recession even hit. Today, of course, we have a $50 billion deficit.)

3. One advantage Harper has is that by taking over the Progressive Conservatives, he no longer has to worry about vote-splitting on the right, whereas--outside Quebec--his opposition will be split between the Liberals, NDP, and Green Party.

The Liberal platform appears to be aiming for the centre-left, rather than the centre-right. For the Liberals, that has a couple advantages: they want to solidify the anti-Conservative vote behind them, and if they end up with a minority relying on NDP support, it'll be easier for the NDP to do so on a centre-left platform.

The Liberals and NDP have a common interest in opposing the Conservatives. They also have conflicting interests because there's a number of Liberal-NDP ridings, but for the most part they appear to be directing their fire at the Conservatives rather than each other; they know they may well end up working with each other.

After getting burned in 2008 with the carbon tax shift, the Liberals haven't tried to appeal to the Green vote by promising action on climate change. Their platform does include a commitment to cap-and-trade, but the Conservatives had already committed to cap-and-trade themselves. (That hasn't stopped the Conservatives from attacking it as "dangerous" and "un-Canadian".)

Friday, 15 April 2011

Conservative Party asks Election Canada to nullify votes cast at the University of Guelph

Okay, now I'm really outraged.

Voter participation has been declining for decades, especially among young people. Only 37% of people between 18 and 24 voted in the most recent election.

Wednesday, Elections Canada ran a successful polling station at the University of Guelph.
... a steady queue of students lined up to vote at a special ballot set up in University Centre by Elections Canada. The strong turnout came in the thick of final exam time. Their ballots will be counted on election day May 2, Anne Budra, returning officer for Elections Canada said.

Budra said the special ballot was exceptionally well attended. It was set up, she explained, because many U of G students won’t be in Guelph for advanced polls on April 22, 23 and 25, or on election day. Students registered to vote on Monday and Tuesday of this week.

However, there appeared to be a contravention of election rules outside of University Centre, where some individuals passed out party literature to students in an effort to persuade voters. It is against election rules to engage in such practices in the vicinity of a voting station, Budra explained. Once made aware of it, election officials curtailed the activity throughout campus during the special ballot.

“It’s really important to get people interested in voting,” said [Alastair] Summerlee, when asked why he consented to turn blue. [Summerlee, the university president, had agreed to be painted blue if 1500 students would pledge to vote.] “The team here has done an amazing job at actually getting people aware of the election and making sure that they get out and vote. Anything I can do to help with that is great.”
The following day: Conservatives ask Elections Canada to nullify votes cast at U of G Wednesday
No votes cast Wednesday in a special ballot at the University of Guelph should stand, according to the Conservative Party of Canada.

The party wrote Elections Canada on Thursday to request that none of the votes collected during the U of G session be included in the final tally of votes in the Guelph riding. The letter was sent by lawyer Arthur Hamilton, of Toronto-based law firm, Cassels Brock.

In his letter, Hamilton alleges the polling station was illegal and also that partisan election material was present at it, which is a violation of the Canada Elections Act.

The polling station in question was located on the main floor of University Centre, where approximately 700 students cast sealed ballots.

Elections Canada media advisor James Hale said this was the third election during which the University of Guelph held a special ballot on campus. And this is the first time it’s ever been challenged, Hale said.

“Part of our mandate is making the vote as accessible as possible. So, we look at outreach programs,” Hale said.

Hale said special ballot polling stations are often held for groups of people who consistently display less-than-average voter turnouts, such as students, First Nations, seniors and the disabled.

“It’s never been challenged, not to my knowledge,” Hale said.
If there was partisan election material present, the appropriate action would be to sanction the parties providing the partisan material--not to discard 700 votes.

Here's the letter from the Conservative Party to Elections Canada, demanding that the votes not be counted.

The article also notes that a Conservative scrutineer attempted to grab one of the ballot boxes.
Several University of Guelph students claim Michael Sona, the communications director for Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke, attempted to put a stop to voting at the special ballot held Wednesday.

The students say Sona approached the Elections Canada balloting site claiming that the process unfolding at the location was illegal and at one point reached for but never took possession of a container with ballots.

“He tried to grab for the ballot box. I’m not sure he got his hand on the box, but he definitely grabbed for it,” said Brenna Anstett, a student, who at the time of the reported incident was sealing her second of two envelopes containing her vote.

Student Claire Whalen was just about to receive her ballot just before 5 p.m. when the episode unfolded.

“That’s when a guy came up and said it was an illegal polling station and that he was confiscating the ballots. And then he tried to take (the ballot box),” Whalen said.

Whalen also identified the man as Sona.
What's so outrageous about this is that we depend on Elections Canada, an independent and non-partisan agency, to ensure that the vote is fair. The Conservatives have already tried to claim that Elections Canada was targeting them unfairly in the in-and-out scandal, in which the Conservatives violated election funding rules. The courts disagreed: four of their top fundraisers are now facing criminal charges.

And now the Conservatives are demanding that Elections Canada do what they want, namely discard the entire poll. Their scrutineer blatantly violated the rules against interfering with ballots (there's no word on whether he's going to face any sanctions or charges).

Our electoral system (and the legitimacy of our political system) depend on a fair vote, which in turn depends both on an independent agency to conduct the vote according to agreed-upon rules, and political parties which are willing to follow the rules. But it seems that the Harper campaign, in its zeal to win a majority, is not willing to follow the rules.

They're trying to steal a majority. Time to throw the bastards out.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Contempt

Following on from yesterday's post about Conservative policies and priorities, what's going on with all these stories about the Conservatives showing contempt for Parliament, the media, and voters, by breaking whatever rules they can get away with?

With the Bloc dominating Quebec, it's difficult for either the Liberals or Conservatives to get a majority. (Harper may manage it this time, but just barely. He's hoping to get 155-160 seats out of 308; in contrast, Mulroney got 211 seats in 1984.) This means that most of the time, we can expect to have minority governments. With a minority government, the governing party will need to cooperate with at least one other party.

The problem is that Harper's hostility to the other parties makes it extremely difficult for him to cooperate with any of them. Ideologically, he'd be closest to the Liberals, but according to Lawrence Martin and other journalists, his long-term aim is to destroy the Liberal party. He could try reviving the Mulroney alliance between the West and Quebec, but he appears to have burned his bridges there as well.

Since Harper can't form a stable minority government, he's focused on winning a majority by any means necessary. The end justifies any means, in particular any attack on his enemies. In Harperland, nominated for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize, Lawrence Martin (a vocal critic of Jean Chretien) quotes Shakespeare's Richard III: "Conscience is but a word that cowards use." Martin provides a footnote with a very long list of examples, half of which I haven't even heard of:
The march of audacities: It included the following: The in-and-out money shuffle. The David Emerson appointment. The unprecedented vetting system. Naming an unelected senator to cabinet. The Tushingham censorship. The elimination of the Access to Information database. The scrapping of the appointments commission. The Cadman affair. The nixing of the Court Challenges Program. NAFTA-gate. The misinformation campaign on Afghan detainees. Reversals on half of the promised accountability measures. The secret handbook on how to obstruct committees. The launching of personal attack ads between elections. The smearing of opponents for being anti-Israeli and not supporting the troops. The attempt to censor publication of a book by Tom Flanagan.

In addition: Attacking Elections Canada. Attacking Dalton McGuinty as the small man of Confederation. Declaring Ontario the last place to invest. Ordering police to remove journalists from a hotel lobby to prevent coverage of a Tory caucus meeting. Labelling Louise Arbour a national disgrace. Attempting to discipline an academic for criticizing the government. Making a bid to vet even the press releases of the auditor general. Scripting supporters' calls to radio talk jocks. Blocking information on cabinet ministers' use of government jets. Hiding justice department studies on crime.

In addition: Belittling gala-goers. Releasing an online attack ad featuring a bird defecating on the opposition leader's head. Plagiarizing the Australian prime minister's speech. Hiding a firearms report to prevent embarrassment on the gun registry. Downgrading Diane Ablonczy for her support of gay pride week. Smearing the bank executive Ed Clark as a Liberal hack for his statement on the deficit. The Rights and Democracy fiasco. Attempting to strip political parties of public funding. Alleging that the opposition leader has no right to form a government. Declaring Brian Mulroney persona non grata. Slashing the budget of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

In addition: Putting Tory logos on government cheques for stimulus funding. Withholding details of stimulus funding. Granting stimulus funding disproportionately to Tory ridings. Firing the nuclear agency head Linda Keen. Halting Peter Tinsley's probe on Afghan detainees. Ousting Paul Kennedy from the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP. Smearing Richard Colvin. Defying Parliament's right to documents. Padlocking Parliament. Snuffing out democratic challenge to MP Rob Anders. Barring cabinet staffers from testifying before committees. The record-breaking omnibus budget bill. The move on Statistics Canada.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Conservative policies

Bruce Anderson summarizes:
The Conservative platform, even if not documented in a special booklet, is clearly articulated, and highly consistent with the themes expounded by Stephen Harper for years. While some Conservative voters may have experienced discomfort with a drift to deficits, or efforts to appease Quebec nationalists, in this election the Conservatives are dancing with the political ideas they have long favoured: lower taxes, stronger military, more law and order.

Beyond the spending they deem vital on the military and for prisons, almost all roads lead otherwise to lower taxes. For businesses, for families, for piano lessons, for fitness. A tax cut for every occasion. Voters who crave tax cuts can’t possibly be confused about who to vote for.
The Conservative platform.

1. Tax cuts

To me, cutting taxes seems unwise (no matter how much income-splitting would benefit me personally), for two reasons. First, we currently have a structural deficit of $10-$20 billion, due to past tax cuts; and even if we're able to balance the budget at some point in the future, we'll still have a mountain of debt to pay off. The priority should be debt reduction, not tax cuts.

Second, as the Canadian population ages and health costs increase, we're going to need to be spending more, and therefore paying more taxes rather than less.

Why not cut taxes now and raise them again later? Because it's much, much harder to raise taxes than to cut them, just as pushing a boulder uphill is much harder than letting it roll downhill. If you try to raise taxes, you'll face a tremendous amount of resistance.

(A current example: according to economist Stephen Gordon, there's not much evidence that corporate tax rates affect employment--the argument for lowering corporate tax rates is that it will increase output and wages, not employment. That hasn't stopped the Conservatives from claiming in their platform that increasing the federal corporate tax rate from 16.5% to 18%--i.e. the same rate as last year--will kill 200,000 jobs.)

More:

The federal deficit and the GST

Waiting for a budgetary surplus to implement a costly new program is a recipe for fiscal disaster

'Tax break' conceals low benefit

How TFSA expansion will hit future tax revenues

2. Crime

The Conservative "tough-on-crime" plan doesn't make much sense, either. Crime rates have been declining for several years now. Criminologists note that longer sentences have minimal effect on crime rates. The US has much higher incarceration rates--the US population is about 10 times the size of Canada's, but the US has about 50 times as many inmates as Canada--and its crime rates are much higher than Canada's.

Keeping more people in jail will cost a tremendous amount of money, of course. It's unclear how much: the Conservative government refused to release their cost estimates, saying that they were secret! This is what triggered the contempt ruling and the current election.

More:

Why would a government that claims to be fiscally conservative spend billions of dollars on projects that have no demonstrable influence on our rates of crime, or the safety of our communities?

3. F-35 procurement

Then there's the Conservative decision to buy F-35 jets from Lockheed Martin, without considering alternatives such as the Boeing Super Hornet. The Parliamentary Budget Office estimates that the cost will be $30 billion, about 70% more than the government says. (The full report is worth reading.)

David McDonough:
First, despite the alarmism that is often generated by Russian nuclear-armed bombers, this threat is only actualized in the event that Russia threatens a significant nuclear attack on North America. And the primary means of dealing with this possibility is not by robust air defence systems, in which the more advanced F-35s would offer definite advantage, but rather by early detection and warning - this helps to ensure a survivable American nuclear arsenal capable of retaliating, and thereby deterring, such aggression.

Second, while Russia might still violate and infringe upon Canadian airspace, one should not overlook the crucial role played by our superpower ally. Russia would be forced to deal not only with the Canadian air force, but also the much more sizable American fleet. Simply put, it would matter little to the Russians whether Canada was armed with Super Hornets or the F-35. It is also unlikely to matter much to the Americans either. Indeed, US North Command is now advocating for slower and lighter fighters - a telling sign that the Americans themselves are not necessarily convinced on the threat posed by advanced Russian aircraft.
The larger question is whether Canada needs to preserve its overseas aerial combat capability--considering the tremendous expense involved--or whether we would get more benefit from improving our ability to deploy naval and ground forces. Bruce Rolston.

More:

Canada needs to start over on fighter jets

4. Alternatives

So if the Conservative platform doesn't make any sense, what are the Liberals and NDP offering? Judge for yourself:

Liberal platform

NDP platform

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Tories misinformed Parliament on G8 fund, may have broken law: auditor general

Canadian Press:
The Harper government misinformed Parliament to win approval for a $50-million G8 fund that lavished money on dubious projects in a Conservative riding, the auditor general has concluded.

And she suggests the process by which the funding was approved may have been illegal.

The findings are contained in the draft of a confidential report Sheila Fraser was to have tabled in Parliament on April 5. The report analyzed the $1-billion cost of staging last June's G8 summit in Ontario cottage country and a subsequent gathering of G20 leaders in downtown Toronto.

... The draft reveals that a local "G8 summit liaison and implementation team" — Industry Minister Tony Clement, the mayor of Huntsville, and the general manager of Deerhurst Resort which hosted the summit — chose the 32 projects that received funding. It says there was no apparent regard for the needs of the summit or the conditions laid down by the government.

Among the questionable projects funded were:

— $274,000 on public toilets 20 km from the summit site.

— $100,000 on a gazebo an hour's drive away.

— $1.1 million for sidewalk and tree upgrades 100 km away.

— $194,000 for a park 100 km away.

— $745,000 on downtown improvements for three towns nearly 70 km away.

The report provides campaign fodder for opposition critics who've long maintained the legacy fund was a thinly disguised slush fund for Clement to dole out federal largesse in his riding.

... The draft report says that in November 2009, the government tabled supplementary spending estimates which requested $83 million for a Border Infrastructure Fund aimed at reducing congestion at border crossings. But the government did not reveal that it intended to devote $50 million of that money to a G8 legacy fund, even though Huntsville is nowhere near the Canada-U.S. border.

... In the draft chapter on the legacy fund, Fraser notes the Appropriations Act stipulates that funding is supposed to be allocated based on the items presented in the estimates.

"This ensures that public funds are spent as authorized by Parliament for the purposes intended by Parliament," she writes.

"We found that money expended for the G8 infrastructure projects under the Border Infrastructure Fund were approved by Parliament without any indication that $50 million of the appropriations for border congestion reduction would be spent on G8 legacy projects.

"Therefore, in our opinion, Parliament was misinformed."

The report says the government disagrees with the auditor general's finding. Treasury Board officials maintain it's "normal practice" to aggregate expenditure information in the supplementary estimates and say it was done in this case "to avoid any delays that might occur if a new funding mechanism was created for the one-time (G8) event."

But Fraser says lumping the legacy fund into the border fund "created a lack of transparency about the purpose of the request for funding and, in our view, Parliament was not provided with a clear explanation of the nature of the approval being sought."

She adds that "this matter raises broader legal questions related to the use of appropriated funds by government. Parliament may wish to examine these competing interpretations to ensure that vote wording reflects Parliament's intentions."

The legacy fund was intended to help Parry Sound-Muskoka, the host riding represented by Clement, "enhance local infrastructure and showcase its natural beauty and support a safe, secure and successful hosting of the G8 summit."

The report notes that similar legacy funds have been set up in the past but the amounts allocated were much smaller. For instance, Quebec City got $4.5 million to host the Summit of the Americas in 2001. And Alberta's Kananaskis region got $5 million to host the G8 in 2001.

In an attempt to find out why $50 million was deemed necessary for Parry Sound-Muskoka, Fraser's auditors interviewed senior officials at Infrastructure Canada, Industry Canada, Foreign Affairs, the RCMP and the office responsible for co-ordinating security for the summit.

"Senior officials were not able to provide us with an explanation as they explained that their input was not sought as part of the process," the report says.

That proved to be a pattern as Fraser's team attempted to find out how projects were chosen and what possible support they might have provided to the summit.

Clement's local liaison team was responsible for identifying and proposing projects worthy of funding. To win approval, the team was supposed to work with Foreign Affairs' summit management office to ensure the proposed projects supported the needs of the summit.

"We asked the Summit Management Office to provide us with any documentation showing how they were involved in the review of projects but were informed that they were not involved," Fraser says.

Fraser's auditors also asked Infrastructure Canada, which provided the funds, for documentation demonstrating how the projects were chosen and how they fit with the purpose of the fund.

"The department was not able to provide us with any documentation as they were not part of the selection process and informed us they were not provided with supporting documentation when given the recommended list of projects to be funded."

Indeed, the report notes that Clement announced several projects would receive funding before the government actually spelled out the conditions for funding.

"We are concerned by the lack of documentation around the selection of projects for funding," Fraser says, adding that documentation is vital to "demonstrate transparency, accountability and value for money" in the expenditure of public money.

Fraser's team also examined the list of 32 projects that received funding but "(we) were not able to determine how they supported the needs of the summit or met the conditions set out by government."

For instance, the report notes the government devoted $26 million to create a Huntsville G8 Centre, which was supposed to be the command centre for co-ordinating logistics for the summit.

"We were informed that at the time of the announcement for this project, (Foreign Affairs) had already determined the centre would not be suitable as it was not expected to be completed on time," Fraser says.

In the end, other facilities were rented for the command centre.

The report is likely to turn up the heat on Clement, who's already been accused of funnelling disproportionate amounts of federal cash into his riding.

The Liberal party has calculated that Clement's riding has received about $92 million in federal infrastructure funding, including the legacy fund and other economic stimulus programs — more than four times the average $15 million to $20 million most ridings in the country received.
The Globe and Mail: millions mismanaged, Parliament misled
Two buildings that cost $27-million in the lead-up to last year’s G8 meeting in Muskoka have become symbols of a new political headache for the Conservatives as they fight an election campaign in which they are accused of failure to be accountable and transparent with Parliament.

... some of the “legacy” items are largely unused. The University of Waterloo’s environmental research centre, completed 11 months ago, remains deserted and without signage. The echoing hallways of a summit centre are largely bare save for pieces of community art, while a brand-new seniors centre, banquet hall and drop-in daycare were empty on Monday afternoon.

Why promising tax cuts after balancing the budget is a recipe for fiscal disaster

Mr. Harper, if you can't pay for it now, you can't pay for it later. From the Globe and Mail's Economy Lab.
On the surface, waiting for a surplus to implement a costly new program may seem like a prudent way to control government spending. However, since these programs are not one-time costs, but rather ongoing spending, it is in fact a recipe for fiscal disaster.

Government revenues move in tandem with the business cycle even without any government intervention to stimulate the economy. In a recession, consumers spend less, so less sales tax is collected. Companies make less money, driving corporate tax revenue down. People lose their jobs, driving both income taxes collected down and EI payments up. All of these act to increase the deficit. As the economy improves the effect reverses itself as tax revenue from consumers, workers and companies increases and the deficit shrinks and (hopefully) the government is pushed into a surplus.

The Canadian government is projected to go into a surplus position around 2014-15, as the Canadian economy is expected to be near the peak of the business cycle. Assuming the politicians will keep their promises, these policies will be enacted, reducing that surplus.

At some point, however, there will be another recession, reducing government revenues significantly and these programs will cause the subsequent deficit to be much larger than it otherwise would have been. If we cannot afford these programs in the aftermath of the last recession, why should we believe that we could afford them during the next recession?

Asking ‘can we afford this program right now?’ is the wrong question. Rather we need to ask ‘can we afford this program over the entire business cycle?’ If we can afford the program over the entire business cycle, then there is no reason to wait for a surplus. If we cannot, then the program should not be implemented at all, rather than implemented later.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Flashback: the November 2008 economic update

What are Flaherty and Co. thinking?
By Friday afternoon, they'd had a full day to absorb it, but economists were still trying to find the logic in this week's bizarre economic policy statement by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

At a time when countries around the world are working to fight a global recession by stimulating economic activity through increased government spending, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Tory government actually plans to put the squeeze on Canada's economy.

In its all-out effort to avoid running a deficit, Flaherty has promised that federal spending will be slashed by $5 billion in the fiscal year that begins next April, when economic conditions will likely be at their worst. Another $1 billion in windfall income will be banked, not recycled into economic stimulus, for a total squeeze of $6 billion.

"That's precisely the thing not to do," said Carlos Leitao, chief economist at Laurentian Bank Securities.

Rather than a balanced budget, he believes, what we need right now is new spending of $15 billion or more to do things like bail out provincial budgets and boost benefits to the unemployed. This would translate into a deficit of about the same size, but it would prevent economic damage worth far more.

"I think a lot of us were a bit flabbergasted by the government's priorities," said Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO Capital Markets. "Who exactly are they trying to impress" with the deficit-fighting rhetoric? he asked, since Canadians know very well that temporary deficits are far preferable to a deepening recession.

"This policy will not do anything to moderate the recession and it may worsen it," said McGill University economist Jagdish Handa.

The principle that government should sustain economic activity and employment by running deficits during a slump, far from being controversial, is "at the core of current economic thinking," he noted.

So what's going on here? The notion of avoiding deficits at all cost has been discredited since the 1930s, when politicians like R. B. Bennett and Herbert Hoover helped turn a financial slump into the Great Depression by clinging to such well-worn economic orthodoxy.

It's now considered a no-brainer that governments must lean against the wind, using every possible form of stimulus, from lowered interest rates to increased spending, when a severe recession threatens, as it does today. To do otherwise is to ensure a deeper downturn, higher unemployment and more bankrupt businesses.

It's hard to believe that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is more economically literate than most, fails to get this point. Indeed, Harper said last week that he's ready to run a deficit in order to provide Canada with the boost it will need in order to keep our recession from becoming serious.

Flaherty's contradictory message hints at disarray in a hitherto disciplined government. Worse, it sends exactly the wrong message to Canadians at a time when consumer confidence has already plummeted to the lowest level in 26 years.

And to cap it all, a couple of cynical, gratuitously partisan swipes at unions and opposition parties in Flaherty's message promise to snarl this government in bitter conflicts -- and maybe even an election -- at a time when Canada needs focus and co-operation more than ever.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Harper says Canada exempt from rising F-35 costs

Harper says Canada exempt from rising F-35 costs
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he has it in writing that Canada will be exempted from the staggering development cost increases associated with the F-35 stealth fighter.
Canada's not responsible for additional R&D costs, which are borne by the US; but Canada does not have a guaranteed price for each F-35.

See the report from the Parliamentary Budget Office for a detailed discussion of the acquisition cost. The price is expected to be highest at first, and to come down as volume increases, with economies of scale.

U.S. budget watchdog issues new warning about F-35 design and cost

U.S. budget watchdog issues new warning about F-35 design and cost
A U.S. budget watchdog is worried the manufacturer of the F-35 stealth fighter keeps making too many late design changes and that Lockheed Martin seems unable to control skyrocketing costs.

The Government Accountability Office released a new assessment Thursday, a follow-up to a report issued last month which showed the purchase price for the ultra high-tech fighter-bomber would be substantially more than the Harper government has estimated.

Most of the public debate in Canada has focused on the eye-popping cost and completely overshadowed the more basic question of whether the highly automated aircraft can fly and live up to its billing.

"After more than nine years in development and four in production, the program has not fully demonstrated that the aircraft design is stable, manufacturing processes are mature, and the system is reliable," said the report.

... The report warns that as many as 10,000 more design changes are expected between now and 2016, the year Canada expects to sign a contract for the 65 aircraft it wants to buy.

The accountability office said the number of changes is alarming because it will take years for those individual modifications to make their way into the manufacturing progress and aircraft already on the flight line will have to refitted.

It said the risk to the program is significant. The numerous design changes indicate a "lack of understanding about the design" and could lead to parts shortages and a messed-up supply chain.

"Some level of design change is expected during the production cycle of any new and highly technical product, but excessive changes raises questions about the (fighter's) design maturity and its readiness for high rates of production," said the report.

... Defence experts expressed frustration last winter that Lockheed Martin was way behind in software development for the highly automated plane. Only four million lines of code out of a anticipated eight million lines have been written.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Cone of silence tightens on Tories

Cone of silence tightens on Tories
Some Conservative candidates across Canada are emulating Stephen Harper’s tightly scripted election campaign by refusing to attend all-candidates debates or appear before the media. ...

The phenomenon appears most pronounced in Alberta, where Conservatives hold every riding but one.

In Calgary East, Tory incumbent Deepak Obhrai has come under fire for being the only candidate not to respond to an invitation for an all-candidates debate on Tuesday.

“In the interest of the democratic process, your attendance as the incumbent MP is an absolute must,” campaign worker Aman Hayer wrote on behalf of Liberal candidate Josipa Petrunic. “ You owe it to your constituents.”

Calgary-Nose Hill Tory incumbent Diane Ablonczy has also indicated she may boycott any all-candidate forum.

But this shyness is hardly an Alberta-only phenomenon. Julian Fantino, who snatched the Toronto-area riding of Vaughan away from the Liberals in a by-election last November, refused to attend all-candidates debates in that campaign and has indicated he’s unlikely to do so now.

In the northern Ontario riding of Sault Ste. Marie, some residents have complained that their efforts to follow Tory challenger Bryan Hayes on Twitter have been blocked.

Incumbent Conservative Ed Holder has refused to participate in an all-candidates meeting on health care in his London West riding, saying it is his policy not to attend single-issue debates.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Star Tory candidate says it's "normal" for Tory ridings to get more cash

‘It’s normal’ for Tory ridings to get more federal cash, Larry Smith says
Federal money naturally flows to ridings represented by the governing party, according to the star Conservative candidate in the western suburbs of Montreal.

... The Globe and Mail examined a high-profile stimulus program in 2009 and found Tory ridings in Ontario received 38 per cent more cash than ridings held by opposition MPs. Other news organizations found similar results in their own examinations of other regions of the country.

RCMP helped oust student from rally

RCMP helped oust student from rally
The RCMP conceded Wednesday that some of its officers were involved in a campaign incident in which a university student was thrown out of a Conservative rally in London, Ont. The admission came as Stephen Harper's spokesman moved to make amends to the 19-year-old woman.

"The RCMP assisted the party organizers in restricting access to persons not registered for the private event," said Sgt. Greg Cox. "This was not in accordance with the RCMP's mandate, and RCMP members have been reminded of our responsibilities."

Strangely, a followup statement from the force was more neutral about its involvement.

Media relations officer Sgt. Julie Gagnon said in an e-mail: "The RCMP is responsible for the security of the party leaders. This mandate does not include managing the access of persons attending private events."

Video of Dimitri Soudas, Harper's spokesman, trying to sidestep reporters' questions:
Reporter: Do you have staff who are combing through people's Facebook sites to look for suspicious connections? Are you going into people's Facebook sites?

Dimitri Soudas: Bottom line here is that for every campaign event like I said earlier, we have a tremendous turnout and we always have to make sure that we're planning to have rooms big enough to ensure all the people turning up are able to attend and participate in the rally.

Reporter: But what is your screening mechanism?

Dimitri Soudas: Local campaigns make sure everybody in the region and everybody who are from the surrounding ridings attend our events.

Reporter: The question was what is your screening mechanism? You answer some other question that wasn't asked. How exactly is it that your staff are combing through people's Facebook pages looking for signs of disloyalty?

Dimitri Soudas: I'm not aware of such combing. I'm not aware of such things.

Reporter: But it happened. This woman in London says that she was told as she was removed from the rally the person removing her told her they had seen her Facebook site and seen a picture of Michael Ignatieff there.

Dimitri Soudas: Yes and as I stated, for this young student, I said we apologized.

Reporter: What are you apologizing for?

Dimitri Soudas: For the inconvenience it caused her.

Reporter: So you acknowledge your campaign did this?

Dimitri Soudas: No -- it obviously caused this young student an inconvenience. We have apologized for that.
A similar interview with Conservative spokesman Ryan Sparrow, who suggested in 2008 that the father of a dead soldier was a Liberal.

Bruce Carson was Harper's top adviser on Afghanistan

Carson was ‘Harper’s guy’ on Afghan file
Bruce Carson was the Prime Minister’s point man on Canada’s mission in Afghanistan and was provided sensitive information about the military mission despite his criminal record, the Star has learned.

Stephen Harper now says he never would have hired Carson had he known all the details of his criminal past.

But starting in 2007, Carson was a regular participant in daily telephone briefings on Afghanistan involving senior officials from departments such as foreign affairs, defence, RCMP, justice and corrections.

“It was evident to all the departments that he was the main player, Harper’s point man on the file,” said one source familiar with the briefings.

“He was given the most sensitive file to work on ... it’s not like he was working in the mailroom.”

While Harper has a national security adviser, it was left to Carson, chief policy analyst, to stickhandle the Afghan file on a daily basis. His focus was usually on how the mission was being communicated here in Canada rather than on developments in the field, the source said.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Harper's appeal to Canadian patriotism is an imitation of a Republican ad

A true WTF moment: bizarre Hollywood-style Harper ad appealing to Canadian patriotism turns out to be an imitation of a Republican ad.

Why are they using a Republican ad agency in the first place? From the ad agency's point of view, it seems amazingly cynical to produce an ad describing Canada as "the greatest country in the world" ... shortly after producing an ad describing the United States as the "greatest country in the world."

See for yourself: Republican ad followed by Harper ad.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Ottawa’s fighter-jet estimate ‘all hogwash,’ U.S. watchdog warns

Ottawa’s fighter-jet estimate ‘all hogwash,’ U.S. watchdog warns
The plan to buy F-35 Joint Strike Fighters will cost billions more than the $29-billion estimated by Canada’s budget watchdog, a U.S. defence spending analyst says.

“It’s going to be significantly more. It’s not going to be $1-billion more, it’s going to be significantly more,” said Winslow Wheeler, a defence-spending watchdog with the Washington-based Center for Defense Information.

The $29-billion estimate from Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page put a startling price tag on the cost of a fleet of 65 stealth jets, though the government insists they will cost about half that amount.

But Mr. Wheeler, a former staffer with the U.S. Government Accounting Office and with both Republican and Democratic senators, said even Mr. Page’s estimate – though reasonable now – doesn’t take into account key elements that will make the costs rise: problems with the complex planes that will be inevitably be discovered during testing and the slashing of the number of planes to be produced by the United States and its allies.
Harper is still insisting that the cost of the F-35s will be $15 billion.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Harper: I'm not responsible

A couple headlines:

Ejections at campaign rallies a ‘staff’ issue, Harper says

Harper blames security clearance for hiring of PMO adviser

Ignatieff: Harper screens his rallies, but not the PMO

CBC:
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is accusing Conservative Leader Stephen Harper of performing more rigorous background checks on people showing up at his campaign events than advisers he hires in the Prime Minister's Office.

Ignatieff's verbal jab at Harper comes after reports the Conservatives threw two university students out of a Conservative rally in London, Ont., on the weekend.

Harper on ex-PMO adviser’s rap sheet: ‘I wouldn’t have hired him’

Ex-Harper adviser disclosed entire criminal record to PMO: lawyer
Bruce Carson was convicted on five counts of fraud, three more than previously known, and received court-ordered psychiatric treatment before becoming one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's closest advisers.

And his lawyer told The Canadian Press that Mr. Carson disclosed his entire criminal record during a security check that was required to become a senior staffer in the Prime Minister's Office.

The latest revelations raise new questions about Mr. Harper's judgment in hiring Mr. Carson as his chief policy analyst and troubleshooter – roles Mr. Carson played until leaving the PMO in 2008. ...

During Mr. Carson's stint at the PMO, it was publicly known that he had been jailed and disbarred by the Law Society of Upper Canada in the early 1980s for two counts of defrauding clients.

But court documents uncovered by The Canadian Press show he had another run-in with the law in 1990, while he was working as a researcher for the Library of Parliament.

He was charged with defrauding a Budget Car and Truck Rental of a 1989 Toyota vehicle. He was also charged with defrauding the Bank of Montreal and the Toronto-Dominion Bank of sums exceeding $1,000 each.

In June 1990, Mr. Carson pleaded guilty to all three counts and received a suspended sentence and 24 months probation on condition that he “continue treatment at the R.O.H. (Royal Ottawa Hospital)” and make restitution of $4,000 within 23 months to the car rental company. ...

Since turning over the lobbying allegations to the RCMP, the PMO has severed all ties with Carson, who had been serving as head of the federally-funded Canada School of Energy and the Environment in Calgary since leaving the PMO. He has taken a leave of absence from that job.

Privately, Mr. Carson's friends are upset that Mr. Harper has ostracized his long-time adviser, without waiting for the results of the police investigation, and has refused to frankly discuss what he knew about Mr. Carson's past and why he felt Mr. Carson deserved a second chance. ...

In 1993, documents show Mr. Carson declared bankruptcy, with a debt of $103,000. As recently as 2002 — just before he went to work as then-opposition leader Harper's director of policy and research — he was in debt to the tune of $369,000 and was being hounded by creditors. In the latter case, Mr. Carson has told The Canadian Press that he arranged to pay back his creditors over a period of time. ...

Mr. Carson's financial woes were well known among his former colleagues at the Library of Parliament's research branch. Five former colleagues, who spoke separately to The Canadian Press on condition of anonymity, said he sought to borrow money repeatedly.

In one instance recalled by several former co-workers, Mr. Carson told a colleague he wanted to take his kids on a trip but was having financial difficulties due to his divorce. The colleague was persuaded to allow Mr. Carson to use his credit card number as surety for renting a car.

Mr. Carson ran up several thousand worth of charges on the number, maxing out his colleague's card.
Harper on ex-PMO adviser’s rap sheet: ‘I wouldn’t have hired him’
Stephen Harper says he wouldn’t have installed former adviser Bruce Carson in his Prime Minister’s Office if he had been aware of his past.

The Conservative Leader says he was never told of Mr. Carson’s full criminal record.

... The Privy Council Office said it cannot discuss what Mr. Carson revealed when he applied for the job, insisting the Privacy Act prevents such disclosure.

PCO said it is the RCMP that conducts the checks, but a spokesman for the RCMP, Sergeant Julie Gagnon, said that while the RCMP does the checks, it’s the PCO that manages the process, and referred all questions back there.

I'm a bit mystified about this Canada School for the Energy and the Environment that Carson runs (Carson is now on a leave of absence, he hasn't been fired). It appears to be a federally-funded institution that defends Canada's lack of a climate-change strategy, which fits in with Carson's earlier responsibilities.

Students thrown out of Harper rally

Toronto Sun: Tories sorry after student turfed from rally
A spokesperson for Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an apology Monday to a local teen who claims she was turfed from a Tory rally here over her Facebook picture with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.

Awish Aslam, a 19-year-old University of Western Ontario student, said she wept after getting the boot.

"I've never voted in a federal election before," she said. "We just repeated we were only there to listen."

Aslam and a friend registered online to attend Harper's Sunday rally - part of the restrictions the Conservatives place on such events.

About 30 minutes after arriving and signing in, the two girls were asked by a man to follow him out of the rally, Aslam said. Though confused, they complied.

In a back room, Aslam said he ripped off their name tags, tore them up and ordered them out.

"We were confused. He said, 'We know you guys have ties to the Liberal party through Facebook'. He said ... 'You are no longer welcome here.'"
CBC:
The university student said she has clicked "Like" on the Facebook pages of each of the three party leaders, so she said she can't figure out why she was excluded.

"First, I was really discouraged. People are always talking about how they want youth to vote and we are disengaged but when we want to go and get informed, this happens," Aslam said.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The rich get richer

Jay Bryan, 'Tax break' conceals low benefit:
The most interesting thing about the first major campaign announcement of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party is what it conceals, not what it reveals.

This proposal, entitled the Family Tax Cut in the Conservative Party press release, would cost a whopping $2.5 billion a year, and is pitched as a way of lightening the burden on hard-pressed families raising children.

But what’s not said is that most such families would receive little or nothing from this costly measure. And that’s on purpose.

If you’re a single parent raising a child, you get nothing. The tax break is solely for families with two parents.

This even though single-parent families have a much higher poverty rate: about two and a half times as high as the poverty rate for working-age couples with children, notes Katherine Scott, director of research at the Vanier Institute for the Family.

If you’re in a family where both parents work and receive similar paycheques, you get little or nothing. The tax break, which allows a higher-income spouse to split income with a lower-income one, is only helpful where there’s a big difference in salaries.

... The Tories attempted to spin this as a tax break for ordinary Canadians by stressing the tax break it would represent for a family in which one spouse earns $70,000 and the other stays home. They’d save about $2,000 in taxes by being taxed on the equivalent of two $35,000 incomes because tax rates are lower at lower salaries.

That’s a pretty good saving, and it’s true that a family in this situation would have reason to be pleased. But are they representative? Not at all.

The Library of Parliament research service studied the impact of a proposal like this in 2007 and found 61 per cent of the tax savings would go to families with incomes of more than $90,000.

A stunning 92 per cent would go to families with above-average incomes of $60,000 or more (those income figures would be higher now). Families with lower-than-average incomes would get just eight per cent of the tax benefit.

... There would have been a simpler way to help families with the cost of child-rearing, said Finn Poschmann, director of research at the C.D. Howe Institute: simply increase the existing child tax benefit. That route would have targeted the families in greatest need, since this benefit is tapered off as incomes rise, and it wouldn’t have left out the majority of families with children.

“While this seems on the face of it to be about equity, it really does advantage a group of families with higher incomes,” Scott said. She also notes the equity argument is weaker when you consider spouses who stay home to care for children do get excellent one-on-one child care in return. That has very considerable value.

Of course this stay-at-home vs. childcare argument is an old and bitter one, and a mere business columnist can’t say who’s right. But I can say one thing: this government has taken sides and chosen to punish the losing side.
I should disclose my personal interests here. I'm a high-income taxpayer, and my wife is a stay-at-home mother. This tax break would give us $6000/year. So why don't I support it?

For one thing, it's vaporware. The estimated cost is $2.5 billion per year (plus an additional $1 billion in provincial revenue). I'm puzzled about where this money is supposed to come from. I know that Harper says he won't introduce it until the budget is balanced (which the Conservatives don't have a credible plan for), but that's not really an answer. If there's a temporary surplus, the tax cut is enacted, and then the budget falls into deficit again, we've now added $2.5 billion to the permanent structural deficit (already at $14 billion, according to the independent Parliamentary Budget Office). It's really easy to increase spending and cut taxes (which is what Harper's been doing for the last five years), really painful to cut spending and raise taxes: you're taking money away from people. Having gone through this in the 1990s, I'm not looking forward to a repeat.

And even after we go through the pain and balance the budget (how?), we'll still have a mountain of debt to pay off. Cutting taxes instead of paying off debts isn't fiscal conservatism.

The reason Harper's promising this (apparently it's a long-standing Reform Party plank) is that a sizable number of people regard the current system as unfair: a two-income household, with each person making $50,000, doesn't have to pay as much tax as a single-income household making $100,000.

The counter-argument is that our current tax system is based on individual incomes, not household income. For the most part, Revenue Canada doesn't care whether you're married or not, or whether you have children or not; and it shouldn't.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Tories face fresh accusations of patronage involving ex-premier's niece

Tories face fresh accusations of patronage involving ex-premier's niece
The Harper government is set to appoint the niece of a former Conservative premier to the board of Rights and Democracy — an arms-length agency struggling to restore an image battered by accusations of patronage and partisanship.

The revelation that Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon has selected lawyer Katrine Giroux for the job follows a series of accusations over Conservative patronage appointments.

Ex-New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord, who was attending a campaign event with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Friday, acknowledged to The Canadian Press that he recommended Giroux, his niece through marriage. ...

Giroux is described on her Moncton law firm's website as having graduated from law school in 2006 and being called to the bar in Nova Scotia in 2007. She was appointed to the CPP and OAS review panel in 2008.

She is listed as an expert in civil litigation and property law. Her resume does not include any mention of international experience, other than an undergraduate exchange to France a decade ago. ...

The board of Rights and Democracy was criticized for repudiating small grants to Middle East rights groups it did not like, and firing several managers. The board and management responded that there were grave internal problems that needed to be fixed.

The House of Commons foreign affairs committee began investigating the organization in March 2010, following the sudden death by heart attack of former agency president Remy Beauregard after a testy January board meeting.

Beauregard's widow testified her husband was hounded to his death by new, government-appointed board members motivated by ideological differences with the agency's direction.