Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Battle to slay the budget deficit continues to stall

Economist Stephen Gordon: Battle to slay the budget deficit continues to stall
The steep decline in the 12-month moving sum that was produced by the recession finally turned around in early 2010, but the rebound lasted only a few months. The deficit has been stalled in the $35-billion a year range for the past 8-10 months.

The graph also makes it clear that the trend to deficit began in early 2008, several months before the recession began. The federal government’s decision to cut the GST would have produced a deficit even if the economy had remained stable.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Tories set to steer new course on health care funding

Andre Picard: Tories set to steer new course on health care funding
Instead of a long-term deal with all 13 provinces and territories, we can expect a short extension of the current deal – which would fulfill the Conservative campaign promise of maintaining annual increases at 6 per cent – followed by a fundamental revamping of federal transfers.

Bill Tholl, an Ottawa-based consultant who was the long-time secretary-general of the Canadian Medical Association, said instead of an omnibus deal with all provinces and territories, he expects the new majority government to propose signing a series of bilateral agreements.

... in the long term even more significant changes are coming. Mr. Tholl said the Conservatives have been clear that they are going to revamp the federal-provincial fiscal arrangement, and the Canada Health Transfer will be affected in the process.

One of the most talked-about proposals originates with Ken Boessenkool, a long-time Harper adviser and now an executive fellow at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. He has suggested that Ottawa do away with the myriad programs it has for transfers and equalization payments and instead turn over the monies collected from the federal GST to the provinces.
Boessenkool's proposal: press release, PDF.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

On Israel, Harper stands alone at G8 summit

On Israel, Harper stands alone at G8 summit:
Alone among G8 leaders, the Canadian Prime Minister refuses to embrace the U.S. President’s plan to begin peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis on the basis of a return to Israel’s de facto borders as they existed before its 1967 war with neighbouring Arab countries – a precondition, accepted by Arabs and by many previous Israeli leaders and Canadian governments, that would be necessary to get Palestinians back to the table.

Mr. Harper made his opposition to that position clear through a spokesperson shortly after Mr. Obama’s Middle East speech last week in a pre-G8 briefing, making him the lone leader in the G8 not to back the U.S. preconditions.

A unified statement on a negotiated path to a Palestinian state had been a key goal of the Deauville summit, in large part because such a statement might have pre-empted an attempt to pass a United Nations resolution that would declare a Palestinian state against Israel’s will.
Also: On Mideast peace and Arab Spring, Harper stands apart.

I'm not sure what's going on with Harper. Besides the importance of Canada's relationship with the US, Canada's interest is in a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while Netanyahu appears to want to hold onto the land rather than trading it for peace. Jonathan Kay, writing in the National Post: Netanyahu just made it harder to stand up for Israel.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Auditor General retires

Retiring Fraser urges vigilance over watchdog’s independence
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is waiting until the fall to appoint the next Auditor-General, but he will face political pressure to choose a watchdog who will match Ms. Fraser’s ability to hammer home critical findings that force the government into action.

... “Independence of the legislative audit office is absolutely critical to our credibility, so we have to be independent in fact, and in perception as well,” Ms. Fraser told reporters. “We have to always be vigilant that there is no inappropriate interference from government… I think the office has to remain always vigilant to ensure that that independence is protected.”

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Lawrence Martin: Has the fourth estate lost its tenacity?

Lawrence Martin:
Much wonderment has been expressed recently on why stories of abuse of power don’t seem to hurt Stephen Harper’s government. The stories don’t stick, it is said. The reason may well be, to cite Mr. Thomson’s cautionary words, because we in the media don’t stick to them. It’s episodic journalism. We report one story, then move on. We don’t probe deeply. If a Watergate was happening, the public would never know it.

It’s not because journalists don’t sense there is something very serious going on. The conservative Sun chain recently went after the government’s penchant for muzzling critics. The conservative National Post wrote that there is no excuse “for the paranoia, secrecy, rule-bending, shirking of due process and committee bullying that has rightly become the subject of opposition ire in recent years.” That list is quite an indictment. It’s the type of stuff that in the 1970s would have spawned all kinds of Woodwards and Bernsteins. Not today, though.

During the election campaign, there were stories of voter-suppression tactics by the Tories, of barring people from rallies, of pork-barrelling with G8 funds and the like. In the last week of the campaign, there was a seeming attempt by a Conservative operative to present Michael Ignatieff as an Iraq war planner. One can imagine what would happen if this kind of thing, straight out of Nixonland, happened in a U.S. campaign. The media would blow the roof off. Here, the story passed in a day or two without further comment.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Gwyn Morgan: tough decisions needed to update Canada's fiscal house

Op-ed by Gwyn Morgan: Tough decisions needed to update Canada's fiscal house.
Well before the election, the Harper government was working on becoming more efficient through a strategic review process requiring each ministry to reduce costs by a mandatory 5 per cent. This push to greater efficiency needs to be taken further, through more efficient, lower-cost private contractor provision of government services. And Ottawa should follow the private sector’s lead by converting public service pensions from open-ended defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution programs that include significant employee contributions.

Along with becoming more efficient, governments need to become smaller. In terms of social programs, this means reducing the number of people receiving government support. The universality paradigm must be replaced to focus dollars on those who actually need help. Why insist on paying benefits for the well-to-do? This logic should be applied to all social programs, but first priority should be health care, where rapidly rising costs are ravaging federal and provincial budgets.

The Canada Health Act should be amended to allow Canadians to purchase health insurance and to seek treatment either through the universal publicly financed system or at user-pay private clinics, the same freedom enjoyed by citizens of every other developed country.

The op-ed doesn't mention tax increases, which is interesting. Usually, if you're trying to close a fiscal gap, you would use both spending cuts and tax increases.

Harper attempted to appoint Morgan to head a new review board for patronage appointments back in 2006, but Morgan was rejected by Parliament. Harper then cancelled the board.

Maclean's profile from 2003, noting Morgan's skepticism on global warming.

Morgan also heads Christy Clark's transition team.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Samara: exit interviews with MPs

A series of reports based on exit interviews with MPs, discussing what MPs do and how Parliament could be made to work better.

The Accidental Citizen?: how do MPs enter politics?

Welcome to Parliament: what they do in Parliament

It's My Party: how the political parties work

Friday, 20 May 2011

Ontario outlaws dirty tricks that surfaced during federal election

Ontario outlaws dirty tricks that surfaced during federal election
The Ontario government is cracking down on the kind of bogus automated phone messages that caused widespread disruptions on voting day in the federal election by misleading people about the location of their polling stations.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Cabinet shuffle

Globe and Mail editorial: A talented, overstuffed cabinet.

I'm curious about how important the cabinet really is, given Harper's reputation as a micro-manager. My impression is that they're basically spokesmen responsible for communicating and defending the government decisions in a particular area, but Harper would be the one making the actual decisions. Tony Clement defended the decision to cancel the mandatory long-form census, for example, but that doesn't mean he made the decision.

Tony Clement is now at Treasury Board (civil service cutbacks), John Baird is at Foreign Affairs. The Industry Minister is now Christian Paradis. For Industry Minister, a steep learning curve.

On the same day, Harper named three defeated Conservative candidates to the Senate. Adam Radwanski: Audacious Senate appointments are Harper's gift to Layton.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

First he routed Liberals – and now Harper hopes to bankrupt them

The Globe and Mail:
Stephen Harper is expected to move quickly to kill the per-vote taxpayer subsidies to political parties in an effort to kill the Liberal Party of Canada, according to a former colleague of the Prime Minister.

“Ever since his days at the [National Citizens Coalition], Stephen talked about eliminating the Liberals as a political force in Canada,” former NCC executive Gerry Nicholls said. “This was both for personal and tactical reasons. He didn’t like Liberals – he always viewed them as biased against Alberta.”

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Parliament resumes June 2

The Globe and Mail
The Conservatives announced Monday that MPs are returning to the Commons June 2 for a whirlwind session that will make headway on passing the 2011 budget before breaking for the summer. This new start date is a month after Mr. Harper secured a majority at the polls.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Harper campaign architect Patrick Muttart worked for Sun Media at the same time

Canadian Press, April 28:
A former senior Harper aide says he worked both sides of the journalism-politics fence this month, providing free corporate advice to Sun Media, while being paid as a political strategist to the Conservative election campaign.

Patrick Muttart, the former deputy chief of staff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told The Canadian Press on Thursday he gave periodic unpaid advice to Sun Media in recent weeks to help it launch its new television news channel. Until this week, he was also on the Tory payroll as a consultant to the party's election war room.

Muttart was a key backroom player in Harper's two previous election victories and served as deputy chief of staff before leaving to join the American public affairs firm, Mercury LLC.

Muttart left Harper's campaign after it turned out he planted a false story with Sun Media about Michael Ignatieff having been in Iraq.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

U.S. pokes fun at Harper's Arctic pledges: WikiLeaks

The United States thinks Prime Minister Stephen Harper's tough talk on Canadian Arctic sovereignty is little more than chest-thumping meant to attract votes, according to a new WikiLeaks cable.

... The cable notes some of Harper's promises have long been forgotten, such as building armed icebreakers and Arctic Ocean sensors.

"Once elected, Harper hit the ground running with frosty rhetoric," the notes says, referring to his 2006 election.

"Harper (who was still only Prime Minister-designate) used his first post-election press conference to respond to the United States Ambassador's restatement the prior day of the longstanding U.S. position on the Northwest passage."

The note says Harper once again brought out the Arctic issue for the 2008 campaign, but failed to bring it up even once during a January 2010 hours-long meeting with U.S. Ambassador Jacobson.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Tories back off campaign pledge to show a surplus by 2014-15

Globe and Mail:
With the election results barely a week old, Conservatives are muddying the waters around a central – and surprising – campaign pledge.

The revised 2011 budget that the government will present next month will not show a surplus by 2014-15 as promised in black and white in the Conservative campaign platform, even though the government insists it still intends to deliver on the election promise.

... The Conservative election platform states that: “Through accelerated reductions in government spending, a re-elected Stephen Harper government will eliminate the deficit by 2014-15.”

Friday, 6 May 2011

Rebuilding a viable opposition

If the Conservatives have a monopoly on power, that's not going to be healthy for anyone. Even if you agree with Conservative policies and priorities, they need a viable opposition, or they'll get as complacent and arrogant as the Liberals did when the right was divided.

Voters are often fed up with the continuous arguing and bickering of politicians, but our political system is inherently adversarial, just like our justice system: when we conduct a trial, we expect the lawyers on both sides to make their strongest possible arguments. Politicians can be faulted for making weak or irrelevant arguments, but not for arguing in the first place--that's their job.

Given the limits of strategic voting under the first-past-the-post system, what options do the NDP and the Liberals have to prevent Conservative dominance?

1. Continue fighting a three-way battle, with the NDP on the left, the Liberals in the middle, and the Conservatives on the right.

2. Unite the left. We end up with a two-party system, with the left party's base in Quebec, and the Conservative base in Alberta and Ontario.

3. The Liberals compete with the Conservatives for the centre-right vote, particularly in Ontario.

Option 2 doesn't look that promising to me: my guess is that the Conservatives would still be able to defeat a united centre-left party.

Option 3 looks most intriguing. The Liberal pitch would be for fiscally responsible government: surpluses and debt reduction would take priority over either tax cuts or new spending. (The federal debt is projected to be $650 billion in 2015-2016, up from $480 billion in 2005-2006, and we can expect increased health-care costs for Canada's aging expectation.)

John Duffy comments that in Ontario, the Liberals appear to have lost about half of their 2004 voters, with two-thirds going to the Conservatives and one-third to the NDP.

Calgary Grit on rebuilding the Liberal Party.

Of course, "moving to the centre-right" is very crude, and easier said than done. A Conservative blogger named "hosertohoosier" has a much more subtle analysis: Historical narrative. Social classes.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The limits of strategic voting

By taking over the Progressive Conservatives, Harper was able to end vote-splitting on the right. This gave the Conservatives a major advantage over the Liberals and NDP.

In theory, the Liberals and NDP could have compensated for this weakness through strategic voting, coordinated through websites such as www.projectdemocracy.ca: anti-Harper voters would have voted for the NDP in NDP-Conservative ridings, and for Liberals in Liberal-Conservative ridings.

In practice, though, strategic voting is just too complicated for people who don't follow politics closely. Frankly, politics can be extremely boring. So-called "low-information voters" take their cues from the media, which focuses on the leaders; they often don't know which riding they're in, or who their local candidates are.

It'd be great if everyone paid close attention to politics, but that's unrealistic.

Consider Vancouver South (where I was volunteering yesterday). In 2008, Ujjal Dosanjh (the former BC premier) won the riding over the Conservative candidate by 20 votes, with the NDP a distant third. If there's any riding where strategic voting against the Conservative candidate would be the obvious choice, Vancouver South would be it. Judging by lawn signs, the NDP certainly wasn't campaigning hard in the riding. Yet the NDP vote in Vancouver South increased from 2008 to 2011.

The vote-splitting problem for the NDP and the Liberals is likely to be aggravated further by
the Green Party.

In addition, the strategic voting sites aren't that reliable. In particular, they didn't do a great job of identifying close races. A post-mortem from James McKinney.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The new landscape: Conservatives vs. NDP

Harper's long-term goal is to make federal politics look like provincial politics in BC. There's a dominant conservative party (Social Credit and then the BC Liberals in BC) facing off against an NDP opposition. It's very polarized: you get wide swings in policy whenever government changes hands.

We'll see if Harper succeeds in keeping the Liberals out of the game. He's promised to eliminate the $2-per-vote subsidy, which will affect the Conservatives less than the other parties--they get a tremendous amount of money in direct donations from their base. I'd also expect more attack ads against both Layton and the new Liberal leader. (Why wait until the next election?)

Jeffrey Simpson:
Mr. Harper got what he wanted almost as much as an overwhelming victory: an overwhelming Liberal defeat. Not just the defeat but the destruction of the Liberal Party was Mr. Harper’s political objective, because he believed the Liberals’ disappearance would pave the way to a long period of Conservative dominance.

Mr. Harper believes that Canada is fundamentally not a social democratic country but a conservative one. To put matters another way, in a straight-up fight between conservative and left-wing forces, conservatives will win most of the time. The big, sprawling Liberal Party got in the way of this right-left showdown (and a left-wing surge, until this campaign). The Liberals’ demise spells long-term good news for the Conservatives.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Harper wins a majority

Looks like I'll be continuing this blog!

The Conservatives have taken 166 seats, with 39% of the vote; the NDP have 108 seats (including 60 in Quebec). The Liberals are down to 33. The Bloc only has four seats, so they no longer have official party status.

Harper to move fast to use his new authority
Mr. Harper’s long game, as he’s discussed in years past, is to shift Canada rightward politically so that the Conservatives replace the Liberals as the “natural governing party” in the eyes of voters. That’s not going to occur overnight and it’s not going to happen by spooking voters with radical changes from a party the Tory Leader has acknowledged is more conservative than the Canadian public.

The Conservative Leader will likely seek to change Canada more incrementally.

As pledged, the Tories will move rapidly on a far-reaching rewrite of Canada’s crime laws. They’re planning to bundle 11 pieces of law-and-order legislation they’d failed to enact as a minority government into one omnibus bill that will be passed within 100 days of taking power.

Measures would include an end to house arrest for serious and violent criminals, tougher sentences and mandatory jail time for sexual offences against children and a crackdown on the handling of violent and repeat young offenders.

Say goodbye to the long-gun registry and $2-per-vote subsidies for political parties now that Stephen Harper has full control over the levers of power in Ottawa.

And get ready for term limits on senators and greater foreign ownership of companies that offer telecom services such as cellphones.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Vote Monday May 2

If you're voting for Anyone But Harper, see the Project Democracy website. Enter your postal code and it'll tell you who the best candidate is in your riding to beat the Conservative candidate. Here's Edmonton-Strathcona, for example.

If you're voting for the first time, see the Elections Canada website for information on how, where, and when you can vote.

The election results will be online here.

If you want to make a final donation to a party or a local riding association: Donate to the Liberals. Donate to the NDP.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Anyone but Harper: a dissenting endorsement

Anyone but Harper: a dissenting endorsement
In tough times, we need an honest, trustworthy and transparent government. Mr. Harper and the Conservatives have consistently fallen short on this count, making honesty an expendable virtue more than a few times in the past several years.

Conservatives often speak of having respect for law and order, an issue that resonates with all Canadians and crosses party lines. Why, then, did Mr. Harper choose to ignore the police report on the long-gun registry, which clearly describes the registry as a crucial weapon in fighting crime and gang violence?

When the Tories promised to spend billions building new prisons, Stockwell Day was asked about the value of such an investment, given that crime rates are declining. He answered by describing a phantom crime wave - one that had not been documented anywhere but, he insisted, did indeed exist.

On the census, Maxime Bernier suggested his office had received thousands of complaints about the purported invasiveness of the mandatory long-form survey; but when asked to produce evidence of such complaints, he couldn’t deliver the goods.

More recently, and most disturbingly, Bev Oda thought it perfectly acceptable to alter the intended meaning of a legal document by 180 degrees after it had been signed. Most Canadians know that if they did such a thing while on the job, they would be out of one. Mr. Harper stood by her, effectively condoning such an act.

This dishonesty transcends the kind of white lies that people expect of politicians; it suggests hostility toward the truth. Indeed, in some of the government’s stranger moments, the Conservatives appear to have lost touch with reality altogether, blinded by ideology while caught in their own spin cycle. Witness their response to being the first government in Canadian history to be found in contempt of Parliament. To the Tories, this was a mere difference of opinion. The Globe endorsement made no mention of that.

To me, this election goes beyond ideology: it’s about trust. The very fact that Mr. Harper and his entourage could behave in such a dishonest manner and still get The Globe’s endorsement is an indication of how cynical we've become about our political process under this government.

The Globe’s endorsement correctly pointed out that Canada will face serious challenges in the years ahead. Like many Canadians, I’m convinced that Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party are not up to the job. My alternative endorsement echoes the now-famous one by Newfoundland and Labrador's former premier, Danny Williams, during the last election: Anything But Conservative. Both Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton have given us far more reason to believe they are trustworthy, honest leaders who have a grip on the reality Canadians face.