Saturday, January 31, 2009

Wrong idol, Mr. Davey

If Ian Davey is looking for a model to emulate when it comes to handling the media and caucus...

OTTAWA — Ian Davey is Michael Ignatieff's principal secretary and he admires Stephen Harper's steely control over the national media and the Conservative caucus.

More than once, Mr. Davey has dismissed a reporter's attempt to get behind the scenes of a Liberal decision, noting the Harper Tories do not allow the media that kind of access.

...I'd suggest Stephen Harper is really not the example he should be choosing to follow. And certainly not the model he should tell the media he's emulating, for pete's sake.

I do absolutely agree with the need for stricter message discipline, and for an end to the leaky chorous of senior anonymous jerkwad leaks that plauged the Dion administration. But rather than Harper, there is a much more suitable, effective, and politically acceptable model to follow that's much closer to home, a petite gars that charmed the media on his own terms and kept his caucus in line with a steel fist inside a velvet glove: Jean Chretien.

Jean knew how to deal with the media, how to keep his caucus on message, and what to do with nervous nellies. He exercised the message control of Harper, and without the dickishness. Maybe it's a subtle distinction, but I think it's an important one.

As for the Newfoundland MPs. as I heard of this story I couldn't help but feel a certain sense of vindication, in that all along I've been saying don't get too close to, or put your trust, in Danny Williams. He's a time-bomb, and he'll only be your friend as long as its in his interests. Which is fine, he's doing his job, just be wary is all.

And he has actually been fairly reasoned so far in his budget rhetoric regarding Ignatieff, and the Newfoundland Liberal MPs. I'm no equalization expert, he may well have a point. And I can respect the position of those MPs elected in large part on this issue who feel they need to vote against this budget.

In a sense because of that I'm fine with letting them vote their conciense but at the same time, I wonder, if Ignatieff lets them go offside here, does it set a precedent for the future? Hopefully the caucus as a whole can discuss it and come to a comprimise agreement. Maybe push the Cons to clarify the equalization situation and correct it in the enabling legislation, while allowing the Newfound MPs to miss the vote. I don't know.

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NATO chief Peter McKay?

Word is Jim Flaherty and Jim Prentice have already chipped-in to buy him a one-way plane ticket, and Lisa Raitt has offered to help him pack.

OTTAWA — Would Defence Minister Peter MacKay drop his political career in Canada for the perks of a top diplomatic post with NATO in Brussels?

Mr. MacKay is being floated as a potential candidate for secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, a high-profile international role, although experts say it's probably a long shot.

Gee, I feel safer already.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Maybe everyone gets a job after all?

It’s hard not to call this damage control in response to the furor over Ujjal and Irwin’s exclusion from the critic line-up last week. Still, rather than being a downer, I’ll just say its good that mistakes are being recognized and corrected. Well, most mistakes.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff announces new roles for caucus
Ujjal Dosanjh, Irwin Cotler and Ken Dryden named as Special Advisors

OTTAWA – Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff today unveiled new roles for members of the Liberal caucus and announced his nominees for House committee chair positions.

The Honourable Ujjal Dosanjh (Vancouver South), former premier of British Columbia, will assume the role of Chair of a new Intergovernmental Liaison Secretariat and will be consulting with provincial premiers and territorial leaders on the best way forward to secure stability and fairness in our federation.

And it an article that’s totally unrelated to the above…Gary Mason made some good points in the Globe & Mail yesterday:
VANCOUVER -- There were likely few federal Liberals lamenting Michael Ignatieff's decision yesterday not to force an election over the budget. A national vote could well have been a disaster for the party, especially west of Ontario.

The West represents ground zero for the Liberals, both organizationally and in terms of the number of MPs they have in the region. The party has only seven of a possible 92 seats. This in the most prosperous and fastest-growing area in the country.

Five of those seven seats are in British Columbia, where the Liberals won half the number of seats they held when Paul Martin was at the helm. The Liberals made some real inroads in the province under Mr. Martin, but all that momentum has been lost.

Mr. Ignatieff has a massive job ahead of him if he is serious about rebuilding the Liberal brand in the West. The Liberals are a national party in name only now, and the Liberal Leader knows that. Remedying the problem will take ages. There are no quick fixes.

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Maher Arar, leaks, anonymous sources and journalism

On Thursday evening I attended a panel discussion organized by the Canadian Journalism Foundation called High-level leaks and undisclosed sources: The case of Maher Arar and lapsed media ethics.

The keynote speaker was Maher Arar, and panelists included human rights activist Kerry Pither, CBC reporter Bruce Gillespie, Carleton professor and former Globe and Mail reporter Jeff Sallot, and the moderator was Globe and Mail columnist Hugh Winsor.

It was a very interesting discussion, focusing on the role that anonymous leaks played in how the Arar case played-out and how media should handle leaks from anonymous sources. Particularly when those sources may end-up being less than truthful, or may have less than noble motives.

Media can do harm

In his presentation, Arar said journalism is essential to the health of the democratic system, but it has the power to be good or bad. And, he added, while there were lessons for the media to have learned from his case, he says how the media played the story when his name was raised last week during the Omar Khadr trial in Guantanamo Bay shows many media still haven't learned anything. But we'll get to that incident in a bit.

Arar said during his case, from his abduction while traveling in the U.S. on a Canadian passport, to his rendition to Syria to face torture, eventual return to Canada, and exoneration by the O'Connor inquiry, the media coverage went through several phases.

When he was first abducted, he said there was very little media interest. He must have done something wrong was the general feeling, as the media accepted the government line and didn't dig any deeper, not wanting to believe the authorities could be wrong. Critical thinking is an important facet of journalism, and Arar said they failed on that here.

In the next stage, as a few isolated journalists began to ask questions and Arar's wife, Monia Mazigh, began to campaign for his return, Arar said the leaks to discredit him began. He pointed in particular to a story by Robert Fife (then with CanWest, now CTV) based on anonymous sources that sought to paint him as a terrorist. While the leaks sought to discredit him, Arar said they also helped in a sense, s they called attention to his plight, and caused the media to start to ask questions. And he noted that, throughout his case, the leaks always seemed to come when there were developments that were positive for him. For example, these leaks came when Liberal PM Jean Chretien announced he would intervene on Arar's behalf to bring him home from Syria.

As the case went on and he was eventually repatriated, Arar said the leaks to discredit him continued. And while some media began to question the motivation of the leaks, he said too few did, having already decided his guilt in his own mind. Even after the O'Connor inquiry, on the day of the Canadian government's apology to Arar, he notes the media printed anonymous comments from a U.S. State Department official insisting they have information that proves Arar's guilt. This shows, said Arar, the media has learned little.

He said the publication of leaks from trusted government officials is hard to recover from. Media should consider how easily anonymous sources used them in his case to slur him to cover their own mistakes. Media should err on the side of protecting the individual, he said, and consider the impact what they write could have on individuals before they print it.

Arar and Khadr

Finally, he touched on the media coverage of the situation that unfolded during the Omar Khadr case last week. During testimony at the trial, under prosecution testimony an FBI agent Robert Fuller, testified that during interrogation, Khad ID'd Arar as having been in Afghanistan. This led to sensational media headlines. The next day, under defense examination Fuller admitted it took some prodding before Khadr could ID Arar, and that, in fact, at the time in question the O'Connor inquiry has established Arar was in the U.S., making clear Khadr had just been telling his interrogators what they wanted to hear, and that the story was false. These revelations, of course, didn't get the same front-page treatment.

The media, said Arar, particularly given the history of his case, should have been more skeptical and questioning of Fuller's testimony, and should have put it in more of a questioning context, looking at Fuller's motivations for making the statement hours before the Gitmo trials were to be shut-down by Barrack Obama. They also should have given the same play to the day two testimony that discredited the accusations as they did to the initial accusations.

The CBC's Gillespie, who was part of the media contingent covering the Khadr trial, defended their coverage. He said rather than run the revelations right away, they decided to wait until they could get clarification on some points from the prosecution and defence, and in his coverage he noted that the information should be taken skeptically, given the nature in which it was obtained is often reliable.

The human rights activist, Pither, even went as far as to say the media should not have reported the accusations until the next day, after the defense cross-examination. I utterly reject that, as did Gillespie. It's not the media's job to censor and decide what information the public has a right to know, or not.

And this wasn't a case of anonymous sources whose motivations we don't know. It was testimony in open court, on the record by an FBI agent. What he said was absolutely news and had to be reported, as long as it is put in the proper context of how the information was obtained and the history of the Arar case, including the O'Connor findings and the history of vandicative leaks by government security officials. Then, the public can decide for themselves what credibility to give Fuller's accusations.

Don't protect liars

That's my broader problem with anonymous sources. Media use them too often because they want the scoop, they want the headline, but by granting anonymity they dont' give us the information we need to consider their motivations and therefore consider their credibility. Anonymity gives them a shield to pursue their own agendas, and the media are complicit because they want a story. Anonymous sources have their place, but in the Arar case these weren't whistle-blowers by any stretch.

And what about when a source lies to you. Does that negate the promise of anonymity, or are you still obligated by your promise to protect that person? I'd argue no, if you've been lying to me and deliberately misleading me, then the deal is off. I was disappointed neither Sallot or Gillespie agreed. Sallot, at least, did say that, while it can't be done retroactively, journalists should make clear in the future that, when negotiating anonymity with sources, if they lie you won't protect their identity.

Anyway, a very interesting discussion that, while I'm not sure if it solved anything, was certainly an illuminating exploration of the issues. There's no easy answers to many of these questions but I think that, at the least, media have an obligation to be more questioning of anonymous sources and their motivations, be more circumspect about granting anonymity and using anonymous sources, and willing to hold them to account, publicly, if they're deliberately misled or lied to. And when you get it wrong, own up and take responsibility.

Here's some of the media coverage of the event:

Toronto Star: Arar shocked and depressed by testimony tying him to Khadr
Metro Canada: Arar in ‘deep depression’ over Khadr allegations
CBC News: 'Enough of this', Arar says of name coming up at Khadr hearing
Canadian Press: Arar 'shocked' name came up at Khadr hearing

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Define, or be defined. Where are our ads?

I'm not overly concerned or impressed with the NDP's anti-Ignatieff ads (apparently in development while we were still BFFs, but watev). Then again, I didn't pay much heed to the anti-Dion Not a Leader ads for awhile either, so I'm clearly no ad expert.

Anyway, irregardless of the effectivness or not of the NDP strategy, it does raise one important question for me, as a Liberal. Where are our ads?

I don't mean attack ads. Not sure just where we'd fire our guns at the moment anyway. No, I mean ads introducing Michael Ignatieff to Canada. The NDP move today should, if nothing else, serve as a wake-up call for LPC and OLO: it's time to start defining Michael, or the NDP (and soon the Conservatives, worry you not) will define him for us.

It's time to get some ads out there. We can find the money (and build a little fundraising campaign around getting them aired), and it's money we can't afford not to spend. Michael (and Dominic) both agreed at the LPCO townhall that not responding to the Not A Leader ads was a major mistake they won't repeat. So let's not.

It needn't be a huge buy. Target it to key demos. And earned media will amplify it. But let's get some radio spots out quick. Pull some video from Ignatieff's town halls talking about the Liberal vision from Canada, slap a logo on it, and get it out. What does Kinsella call it, the Hell Of A Guy (HOAG) effect? That's what we need to do with these adds. Ignatieff likes beer and curling, just like you, etc.

We can't afford to wait on this. We need to get these ads out now. Let's not make the same mistakes again.

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Deficit Watch 2009: What happened to truth in budgeting?

It’s only the first day of Deficit Watch and already its not looking good for the Conservatives, with leading economists and the International Monetary Fund casting doubt on Jim Flaherty’s overly optimistic projections of future economic growth. In short, it will take the Conservatives longer to retire these deficits than they’re admitting.

A day after Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tabled a budget projecting that the global and Canadian economies will rebound moderately next year, the International Monetary Fund has thrown a spanner into the assumptions that underpin the government's numbers.

The latest global outlook is in line with Canadian economic expectations in Flaherty's budget for this year -- a 1.2 per cent gross domestic product retreat -- but the two part company over the expectations for next year.

The IMF says Canada's economy will begin to grow at a tepid 1.6 per cent pace, while Flaherty is counting on a 2.4 per cent advance followed by even stronger momentum, to make good his prediction that the government will balance its books four years from now.

Remember the days of Liberal governments regularly running healthy surpluses, a practice Deficit Jim thought was just horrible, but most saw as sound financial planning (particularly in hindsight)? That wasn’t by mistake.

When the Liberals took office from the Mulroney Conservatives (and inherited a big deficit by the by), it had been common government practice for a much larger than forecast deficit to be revealed when the books were closed at the end of the fiscal year. That was because they'd made a habit of basing their budget projections on the most wildly optimistic projections of future growth and revenue. The best-case scenario. It made the bottom-line look better on budget day but it was artificial, a mirage. They wanted to hide the true situation until less people were watching.

When the Liberals and Paul Martin moved into the finance portfolio he changed this practice, adopting a policy of basing his budget projections on an averaging of the more conservative forecasts of both public and private sector economists, essentially erring on the side of underestimating potential growth rather than overestimating.

This policy, along with the contingency reserve (also abandoned by the Conservatives), allowed for a budget cushion should growth be hampered. As a result, each year the Liberal government was able to do a little better fiscally than anticipated, allowing leftover funds to bring down the inherited deficit faster, and then be targeted to a combination of debt repayment and priority program spending. And when the September 11 attacks put severe fiscal demands on the government overnight, we were able to bear them without deficit.

While this all seemed like sound financial planning to me, the Conservatives disagreed. They thought all this fiscal prudence was a totally bad idea. Overtaxation, they'd cry. (ed: So do they consider a deficit undertaxation then?) They killed the contingency reserve. And ironically, given this Flaherty budget, which uses overly rosy revenue projections to downplay and hide the true size and length of this deficit, they also ran in 2005/06 on Truth in Budgeting, and bringing transparency back to the budget process.

Yet another Harper broken promise, as Deficit Jim fiddles with the numbers to cover-up the true size of his deficit. (He knows what he's doing there) I hope the finance committee will put Flaherty on the hot seat over his attempts to cover-up the true scope of the deficit. Kevin Page would be a good witness too.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Video: Bob Rae on the budget, coalition, and Liberal response

Bob Rae talks about the budget, the coalition, and the Liberal budget response with Don Newman on CBC's Politics this afternoon.

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Video: Tom Flanagan's budget reaction

(Former?) senior Conservative strategist, University of Calgary political science professor, and Stephen Harper mentor, Tom Flanagan, discusses the budget and the reaction of the opposition parties. He makes some interesting observations and has some strong words, and very good advice, for NDP leader Jack Layton. Advice I'm confident (and happy) Jack will probably ignore.

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Video: Michael Ignatieff's budget response press conference

Video of interim Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff's statement and press conference this morning, outlining the Liberal response to the Conservative budget.

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Conservatives rave: It's the feel bad, creepy budget of the year!

CP has been talking to Conservatives about the budget, and the base is stoked.

Gushes Tom Flanagan, Harper's political mentor:

"I perfectly understand the imperatives of political survival and the need to make compromises and to adjust, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But ... it's got a creepy feel to it."

Raves former Harper minister, Monte Solberg:
"The Conservatives have easily escaped to fight another day, but what are they fighting for?"

Two thumbs WAY up from The Fraser Institute's Niels Veldhuis:
...(this budget) reminds him of Paul Martin's 2005 Liberal budget, "which was his attempt to try to satisfy everybody, and eventually it satisfied nobody. So I draw similarities between that and this budget - except, of course, for the huge deficit."

Oh, snap!

Blogging Tory honcho Stephen Taylor says if you see just one budget this year, make it this one:
"This budget is not a failure of the Conservative party, it is a failure of the conservative movement...a political party, in practice, is not much more than a marketing machine to sell ideas to an electorate looking to buy them."

I take it back. The free market does work.

Peter Woolstencroft, a self-described "Robert Taft conservative" and political scientist at the University of Waterloo, says make room on the mantle for an Oscar:
"I could not see any over-arching vision or purpose. If this is the kind of budget that Conservative government produces ... why bother voting for these people?"

I can't wait to see the movie poster...

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If this is probation, maybe we really are soft on crime

If you read my last post and compare it to what the Michael Ignatieff and the Liberals announced this morning as the party's plan of response to the budget, needless to say I'm not overly pleased. It's not an entirely bad strategy, but it almost strikes me as too clever by half.

Yesterday I posed some budget judging questions. Let me answer a few of them now. We don't want an election, and I don't think this budget was bad enough that the public would accept our triggering one. Nor was it bad enough that we could make a salable argument to go the coalition route. Is it the budget we'd write? Clearly no. But we're not the government. The public don't want political games, they want cooperation. And the delay in stimulus action that a coalition or election would mean isn't worth the price.

So, we were going to let this budget pass one way or another. The question was only how. Given that the Conservatives don't want an election either – that's evidenced by a budget that tosses money at every group under the sun – I thought we had some room to negotiate, to move a few meaningful amendments that wouldn't break the bank but would make this a much more effective budget, and would show Canadians that, just like the coalition threat that made Harper budge in the first place, the Liberals are continuing to work seriously to get real results for Canadians. I'm disappointed we didn't take action in that regard. I think we could have gotten meaningful action.

I do like this whole reporting and probation thing. It's compelling strategy. Don't buy Jay Hill's “we were totally going to do this anyway” shtick. This is embarrassing for the Conservatives. It calls them out on their lack of accountability, a concept they campaigned on and abandoned in government. Frankly, like Jack Layton, I don't trust Harper either. But, rather than force an election or a coalition Canadians don't want, a move I believe would backfire, this shows Canadians we're giving Harper a chance and if he blows it (and I wouldn't be surprised if he does), if he doesn't follow through on his commitments, we're in a better position to take him down. And if he does follow through and do what we wanted, then that's good too.

It also forces him to own this budget, and to take responsibility for it. This may also be the strategy behind not moving any substantive amendments. Doing so would give us more ownership of the budget. By not doing so, we can say Canadians don't want an election, and since he did listen to many of our concerns we'll let an imperfect budget pass, but if he doesn't keep his promises, and we'll make him report on them regularly, he's gone.

While I can see the politics of it, and admire it on a level, I'm still disappointed. I'm disappointed because I believe we could have gotten some key amendments that would really have helped Canadians. Like EI changes. Like not requiring the cities to match infrastructure funds.

In a sense, it's almost like we're setting the Conservatives up to fail here, and it makes BCer the citizen a little sad. Of course the infrastructure funds will be underused, the many cities will be unable to match, and tap the funds. So they'll report that in a few months and we'll say ha! See, you guys suck, we knew you wouldn't keep your promises!

Nice politics, sure, if rather cynical. But you know what would be both good politics, and good for the economy? Forcing changes to make sure cities CAN actually spend that money. Then we can take credit for changes that actually made the thing work, rather than just predicting its failure. And we'd get a few shovels in the ground at the same time too.

So, I see the strategy, but I disagree with the call. We're making an ammendment, but not the amendments I wanted. We'll see how it plays out.

As to the predictable reaction of the NDP and the BQ, frankly, I'm not concerned. Frankly, they're misreading the mood of Canadians. The Conservatives come out of the budget having alienated their base, and on a Liberal leash of sorts. The Liberals look better for having listened to Canadians and acting responsibly, while setting-up election triggers down the road on better terms. And the NDP and the BQ, frankly, they look a little childish in my view. And power hungry. I agree with Wells here. Not the statesmanship Canadians are looking for in these times.

The coalition was right for the place and time that it was proposed. But a long has changed. Like ships in the night, we've sailed on. Strategically, I think it's better at this point for the Liberals to be charting our own course. And so we will.

So the NDP and BQ will try a reprise of the Liberal, Tory, same old story refrain they used against Stephane Dion. As much as I love Stepane though, Michael ain't Stephane. Also, we're in an economic crisis, and we just had an election a few months ago. So that dog just won't hunt. It's leashed too, so we can tune-out the annoying yippiness.

At some point, though, that leash may begin to fray.

But for now, let's take one day at a time.

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Can we support this budget as is? No

I’ve a busy day in store at the day job so I don’t have time for too in-depth of an analysis (although I do tend to ramble), but I did want to get my thoughts on the record before Michael Ignatieff announces the Liberal game-plan late this morning.

In short, I don’t think we can support this budget without several amendments. These will be reasonable amendments the Conservatives should have little trouble supporting, but important amendments that will ensure this budget does what it needs to: provides effective stimulus. If the government unwisely refuses to accept reasonable amendments, then we should vote the budget down and go from there. But I don’t think they’ll refuse reasonable amendments.

There are some good things in this budget: spending on infrastructure, measures to loosen credit (which is the oft overlooked major issue facing the economy), investments in housing and First Nations. For the industry I cover, the accelerated write off of computer hardware and software purchase by business is interesting.

On the other side, I think the tax cuts are poorly focused and eat-up too much money for too little impact. Instead of across the board, they should have been focused on lower-income earners more likely to spend them. There’s nothing on green innovation. And this budget suffers from an extreme lack of focus. They’re tossing money at everything, which means less bang for the buck than targeted spending would have achieved.

And frankly, given the ire this budget has raised on Blogging Tory land and with fiscal-cons like Andrew Coyne, given how far away from his supposed ideological roots Harper has gone in an attempt to please every interest-group imaginable, its kind of surprising really that he’s done a pretty poor job of it.

Now, we can’t we-write this budget into the budget that the Liberals, or the coalition, would have written. That’s an unreasonable proposition, we need to settle and compromise in some areas. And I think there are a few key areas where this budget can be amended to make it much more effective, and should be supportable by the government.

One, the infrastructure spending. Yes, usually these programs operate on a municipal/province/feds matching-share basis. Normally I’m fine with that. It’s more bang for the buck. And I don’t think asking the provinces to match the funds here is unreasonable. Ontario and BC have already signaled they’re open to that. But in this climate, and with the need for shovels in the ground now, I don’t think asking municipalities to have to find the money or lose-out is appropriate. Their ability to carry debt is much less than the feds and provinces, and their only other option – raising property taxes – would be counterproductive. We should move an amendment to remove the requirement for municipal matching funds.

Secondly, employment insurance. The Conservatives did not go far enough on EI. Want to really stimulate the economy? Improve EI. You know the newly unemployed will be spending that money. We should move amendments to liberalize EI including, at least on a temporary basis, removing the two-week waiting period for collecting benefits. This will make a real difference for laid-off employees.

These are two key areas I think our amendments should focus on. As I said, we can’t re-write this into a Liberal budget, but we can make it more effective. If there could be tweaking around the tax provisions I’d be interested in that, but I’m not sure how that could go.

The other issue I’m hearing from the opposition is pay equity. Here’s the section on that from the budget, on page 211 of the document:

The existing complaint-based pay equity regime is a lengthy, costly and adversarial process that does not serve employees or employers well. Legislation to modernize the pay equity regime for federal public sector employees will be introduced. The new regime reflects the Government’s commitment to pay equity. It will ensure that the employer and bargaining agents are jointly responsible and accountable for negotiating salaries that are fair and equitable to all employees.

As I read that, this isn’t a poison-pill, because they plan to introduce separate legislation on pay equity. That means we can see what they propose, attempt to amend it to our liking, and if that fails, vote it down. If the Conservatives really chose at that point to fall on gutting pay equity, then so be it, we’ll bring them down. It would be a weird sword to fall on. But that’s down the road.

So, in short, I say we should bring in targeted and focused amendments designed to improve the effectiveness if this budget and address some of the worst deficiencies of this budget. If we’re reasonable, the government should support them. And if they’re not, then they’ve made their own bed, and I think we can show Canadians we’re acting in their interests.

There’s no need for it to come to that though. Canadians don’t want an election, and they want action now. I don’t think they’d be accepting of the delay getting a coalition going would mean. But if there’s one thing this budget shows, it’s that Harper doesn’t want an election. Some important tweaks and improvements to the budget and he needn’t worry about one. He’ll be open to negotiation.

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A quick, on my way out the door observation...

...since when is a budget with massive, scatter shot, un-targeted spending and big spending increases rightly called a liberal budget? If recent experience on either side of the border has taught us anything, it's that that sounds a lot more like a conservative budget. Maybe it's time for the pundit class to put aside the classical political labels they learned in their university poly-sci lectures and instead actually examine how closely the realworld action of so-called conservative parties has actually matched their supposed ideological leanings in recent years, and which side of the spectrum has had parties that have actually behaved fiscally responsibly.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Questions to ponder when casting budget judgement

Some things I'll be considering as I try to come to a verdict on this budget and, more importantly, what I think the Liberal response should be:

* While it's not the budget we'd bring in, how bad is it really? And can it be fixed?

* What do non-partisan Canadians think about the budget?

* Since the GG turning to the coalition is far from a guarantee, are we prepared to risk an election, and fight one, on this budget?

* Will public opinion support pulling the coalition trigger based on this budget?

* Imperfect as this budget is, would the delay in seeing some sort of at least semi-meaningful stimulus that would be triggered by either a) toppling the government, installing a coalition government, writing another better budget, and passing it (I'd say a month or so), or b) triggering an election, then recalling parliament, forming a government, throne speech and another budget (two months easy) really be the best course of action for the economy?

*Purely selfishly, but this is politics after all, is it in our strategic interests at this time to elevate the NDP?

*And finally, would we pay a political price with the public if we held our noses on this thing, with the resulting predictable attacks from the NDP, reprising the storyline of the last parliament?

I'm comfortable at this point at saying I have some significant issues with this budget. I think it fails in a number of areas. How badly? Can they be addressed by amendment, and would the Conservatives be open to such amendments? Those questions, and the above, are among the things I'm pondering this evening.

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Budget videos: Ignatieff's scrum, plus Coyne & Hebert

I've skimmed my way through a day's worth of television news and next I plan to skim the budget itself, so my wide thoughts on the budget will need to wait a little. I'm like the Senate with the sober second thought and my not really living in the area I'm supposed to represent.

In the mean time though, here's video of Michael Ignatieff scrumming with reporters this evening, following the budget speech:

And here's a few clips of Macleans' Andrew Coyne and the Toronto Star's Chantal Hebert reacting to the budget.

Coyne's body language just screams pissed-off, and so do his words. "The end of any kind of Conservative era in Canadian politics," says Coyne. "The end of an era....Thomas Mulcair could have written this budget." Ah, Andrew. I feel your pain, but I also think it's cute that, three years-in, you can still manage to be disappointed by Stephen Harper's ideological failings. Don't you ever change.

And Chantal, whom I don't always agree with, makes a great point on the "wack-a-mole" nature of this Conservative budget. "The government," said Hebert, "faced with a number of buttons to try to achieve something, push every single button and see what happens."

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Pre-budget videos

Michael Ignatieff made his question period debut as interim Liberal leader and opposition leader this afternoon. In the opening questions, his subject is (naturally) the economy as he rightly calls-out Stephen Harper for his slowness to admit there was an economic problem needing action. I find it amusing Harper says his government took action on "this crisis" a year ago, when during the election he was saying "no crisis" and in the economic update spectacularly failed to act and laughable predicted a surplus.

This clip is rather amusing. A seating-chart for a photo-op? The PMO is taking the stage-managing to a new level. One wonders if they also scripted the forced joviality and banter between the ministers, and focused-grouped the idea as well: suit jackets on, or no? Sleeves up, or down. Personally, I think Stock's coffee cup is too small. Almost looks like an espresso mug. That won't play in Portage La Prairie!

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Economic development is good now

Remember when the Conservatives were totally ideologically opposed to federal economic development agencies like Western Economic Diversification and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency? Oh the time, they are a changin'. From the budget speech:

While continuing our support for Northern and Eastern Ontario, we will provide $1 billion over the next five years to establish a new Southern Ontario Development Agency.

And we will invest $50 million over the next five years to establish a new regional economic development agency for Canada’s North.

Not saying it's a bad idea. Jut interesting, because they used to really hate these things. And Ontario, for that matter. And now they're creating two new agencies, and the federal bureaucracies that go with them. So, quite interesting.

Anyway, must get back to work. More later.

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This must be live-blogged

If only I could be in Ottawa tomorrow. From tomorrow's press conference schedule:

OTTAWA _ The neorhino party of Canada holds news conference to present the project of separating Quebec from Canada and unite it to Cuba to form a new country named CUBEC. (4 p.m. at Room 130-S, Centre Block, Parliament Hill)

Surely some member of the press gallery can tear themselves away from the utterly predictable budget analysis and confidence vote will they/won't they stories tomorrow long enough to venture down to the Charles Lynch Room to cover this VIP (very important presser). O'Malley, I'm looking at you. Wells, maybe they'll announce high-speed rail to link the Cu to the Bec.

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Let's see the focus group results we paid for

So CP has a story about how Stephen Harper spent a wack of taxpayer cash on a pre-election cross-country tour:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent nearly $20,000 on hotels and hospitality during 23 trips across Canada in the lead-up to last year's election, his expense accounts show.

Harper spent $16,440 on hotels and another $3,247 on hospitality, while his staff spent nearly $5,000 on ``refreshments and snacks,'' during the cross-country blitz.

The final trip ended Aug. 28 in Dawson City, Yukon, where Harper announced a new Arctic sovereignty policy a week before calling the October election.

More than $200,000 for advance-planning trips by aides is not included in the final costs of the pre-election travels.

According to the rules of blogging and political hackdom, I’m required to decry this shameful waste of taxpayer dollars for partisan political purposes, yada yada. A Conservative hack is then required to respond the Liberals did it too and Paul Martin totally spent more. Then I’m required to respond Harper campaigned explicitly against doing this kind of thing, whereas we’ve never pretended to be angels. To which Conservative hack is required to reply SPONSORSHIP!!, and toss in a mention of the HRDC boondoggle.

That required business out of the way, here’s what I’d really like to focus on:
Brooke Pigott, described in the expense reports as Harper's manager of ``market research,'' took four trips to attend focus groups from St. John's to Vancouver, the final one in Toronto on Aug. 26 to 28, shortly before the election call.

A little goggling shows that Ms. Pigott works in the strategic planning office of the PMO, and therefore is paid by the taxpayers. (She also seems to have a Facebook profile, which I thought was verboten for Con staffers) So, as a taxpayer who pays her salary, and the expenses for her cross-country, pre-election focus grouping, I believe I’m entitled to see the results of that focus grouping.

I seem to recall something about the government being required to release all publicly-funded public opinion polling. Would this not apply to focus-grouping as well? And besides, since I’m sure this was all totally above-board and not at all a case of gathering pre-election political information with taxpayer dollars, the government should have nothing to hide and should have no problem with releasing the results of Ms. Pigott’s work.


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A radioactive situation

With the Harper government's firing last year of nuclear regulatory boss Linda Keen for daring to put safety first and raise questions about the operation of the Chalk River nuclear reactor, it seems that economy and the production of medical isoptoes has won out over basic questions of nuclear safety.

Reading this article about a recent radioactive spill at Chalk River, which is operating at double its normal output to produce isotopes with a plant in Holland offline, I've lost track of just how many scary and concerning revelations are contained in this piece. But I'll try to list the major ones.

* A RADIOACTIVE SPILL HAS OCCURRED at the aging Chalk River nuclear reactor west of the capital after the facility was recently cranked up to double its normal output of medical isotopes, used in diagnosing and treating cancer, Sun Media has learned.

* Nonetheless, after a brief shutdown, the reactor has operate at full power, even though Chalk River officials admit they don't know what caused the leak, and say it could happen again.

* Documents indicate officials at Atomic Energy took four days to report the spill to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

* Even then, the spill proved to be five times larger than what the officials initially reported.

* They didn't go out of their way to inform the public, either. A news release about the brief shutdown of the reactor in December made no mention of a spill, only "unanticipated technical challenges."

* Meanwhile, another part of the reactor has sprung a water leak from a six centimetre crack in a weld. That leak has still not been repaired since it was first reported more than six weeks ago.

* Atomic energy spokesman Dale Coffin says the crack in the seam could require up to a month of work to repair, "but right now our schedule doesn't allow us to do that."
When it comes to nuclear reactors, isn't it sensible to err on the side of safety? All I can say is, I wouldn't want to live near Chalk River.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

On coalitions, budgets and deficits

Note that I write this without having read or listened to any coverage of the throne speech, or the throne speech itself. That will come tonight. Going into the throne speech though, as I continue catching-up on my blogging here are a few thoughts on the next few days, and the way forward.

* The phrase Coalition if necessary, but not necessarily coalition has come to make more sense during the weeks since perogy madness. The fact is, things have changed a great deal since then.

Last year, based on the economic update, bringing down the government and replacing it with an opposition coalition was absolutely a justifiable play, and the right thing to do. The Conservatives had shown themselves unwilling to be reasonable and to address the real economic concerns of Canadians. They escaped that judgment by the skin of their teeth, and bought themselves time.

Now with the budget we’ll have an entirely different set of circumstances to judge than we did last time, and just because a toppling/coalition was right then doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right now. And we need to frame the question correctly. Do I think a coalition government would be better for Canada that the Conservatives? Sure. But that doesn’t mean we should go ahead and topple Harper, budget be dammed. Canadians won’t accept such a move.

Only if Harper comes in with a budget that, like the economic update, fails to rise to a level of action and seriousness needed can we contemplate bringing them down. And even if the budget doesn’t do everything we want can't just bring it down. It won’t be a Liberal budget. But if it moves far enough in the direction we want then we need to let is pass, considering the coalition threat a success and continuing to hold Harper to account in the future. And yes, over time, the coalition becomes less of an option, so going forward we need to demonstrate our readiness, and willingness, to force an election if necessary, particularly if Harper decides to play the confidence game again.

I’ll say it again though, Canadians will not accept a coalition that's a mere power grab. It needs to be justified on policy grounds based on Harper’s action, or inaction. This isn’t our chance to simply do what we couldn’t in an election. That dog just won’t hunt.

* A few points on deficits. First of all, yes, the opposition has been advocating spending increases that will necessitate a deficit, and most observers have accepted the need for a period of deficit spending until we’re out of this economy. The fact is, though, the $64 billion deficit over two years figures that the Conservatives pre-leaked is higher than it need be because of Conservative financial incompetence, their inability to see this storm coming until a month or so ago, and their complete squandering of the substantial surplus the previous Liberal government left them.

The Conservatives squandered the surplus on high spending that doesn’t seem to have bought us much (I can’t honestly say where it went, but went it did), and hugely expensive cuts to the GST that took many billions of dollars out of government coffers. And they eliminated the Liberal tradition of a $2 billion contingency reserve to cushion unexpected difficulties.

A deficit at this point would still have been largely inevitable, but it need not have been near as big. Conservative mismanagement, and their ideologically-driven crusade to strangle the federal government’s fiscal capacity, has left them with very little room to maneuver now that times are tough, and an even bigger hole to climb out of than would have been necessary.

* Finally, the budget. It certainly seems like the spending will be there. The question, though, is where will it go. I’ve already outlined at length my preferred methods of fiscal stimulus, and the problems inherent in the broad-based, and permanent, middle class tax cuts Harper has been signaling he favours.

In addition to the method of stimulus, I’m going to be looking for a plan and roadmap to get back out of deficit, and permanent tax cuts would make that doubly difficult. Infrastructure projects are a one-time expense. But tax cuts, besides being ineffective stimulus, are permanently lost revenue that can’t only be made-up by tax increases (politically unsaleable) or why cuts to program spending.

And that’s my fear with this budget. It’s no secret Harper wants to strangle the federal government’s fiscal capacity, rendering it permanently unable to play a strong national role. I’m fearful they will use the guise of this economic crisis to push through large permanent tax cuts that, while ineffective as stimulus, will neuter the federal government and force massive cuts to program spending down the road.

Such a move, while more wily than the political gamesmanship of the economic update (voting against tax cuts is much harder than voting against ending pay equity), would be just as dangerous to Canada, and would have to give the opposition serious pause.

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Critiquing the new Liberal critic line-up

Busyness with other pursuits, as well as the day job, has slowed my blogging of late but with the Parliamentary circus now back under the big top I do want to try to do a little catching-up, beginning with the new Liberal critic lineup, Michael Ignatieff edition that was unveiled last week.

On the positive side, good to see Bob Rae and Dominic LeBlanc in the roles they wanted; clearly the silly rumours that the two leadership rivals would be sidelined were merely a figment of someone’s overactive imagination. Looking at the other choices, John McCallum is the most knowledgeable choice for finance, if not overly charismatic. Marc Garneau is interesting in Industry, Science & Technology and I like David McGuinty on the environmental file.

I also liked the idea of a leaner, meaner line-up. I wasn’t a fan of Stephane Dion’s give a job to everyone in caucus approach, although I fully understand the motivation and necessity behind it. But while a leaner line-up by necessity means leaving some people out, I do question both some of the people left out, and some of those left in.

Starting with the latter, Joe Volpe? Really? With all the talent, veteran and fresh, in the GTA he gets a spot? Why not Bonnie Crombie, Rob Oliphant or Navdeep Bains?

And like a bad penny, Denis Coderre is back as defence critic. I’m not at all happy about that, for reasons articulated previously. If Michael feels the need to reward loyalty, fine, I can respect that. But Coderre has been an embarrassment in defence; give him any other portfolio. Perhaps this was his price for deigning to serve his party as Quebec lieutenant.

Then there are those who have been left out, such as Ujjal Dosanjh, Irwin Cottler, Justin Trudeau and, most glaringly, Stephane Dion. All I can say is I sincerely hope their exclusion was by their choice, and that they were offered positions. Because all of them should have been in there. Perhaps they don’t plan to run again, as has been speculated, with the exception, of course of Trudeau, who perhaps wants to begin his career with a little less profile. I’d still have pushed Dosanjh, Cottler and Dion to serve, however.

And looking at BC, if I was picking two MPs from the province for critic spots, one of them would have gone to Joyce Murray.

So, mixed thoughts, but we’ll get a chance starting tomorrow to see how the new line-up performs. How long we’ll get to watch them, well, that remains to be seen.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Stopping for a moment in history

This week I'm in Orlando reporting on an IBM conference, so I haven't been able to follow today's inauguration festivities as closely as I'd like. But I have gotten a taste, and I do have an experience to share.

As I came out of the meal hall after an early lunch, I found in the hallway a few hundred people crowded tightly around a television screen that would normally be showing commercials extolling the virtues of Lotus Notes. But instead, today the television was on CNN, and people had gathered to watch President Barrack Omaba's inaugural address.

So, I stopped and joined them, and as time went on, more and more people stopped to watch as well. Conference attendees from across America, and from around the world, putting their seminars and their networking on hold to bear witness to a moment in history. Loud and spontaneous applause throughout the speech, and a strong ovation at the end. People taking pictures of the crowd and the TV to record the moment.

It was a fun experience, and an amazing speech. While the challenges ahead will be great, clearly today President Obama has a lot of unity behind him.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Rossi supports one member, one vote

I can't find an online version, but in an article by John Geddes in the dead-tree edition of Maclean's, incoming Liberal national director Rocco Rossi indicates support for a one-member, one vote method of leadership selection:

"The most important part," he told Maclean's, "is to give meaning to party membership." For instance, he'd like to see the party eventually drop its old delegated convention system for picking leaders in favour of one member, one vote -- the method adopted in recent years by the Tories and NDP. That Rocco is willing to speak-out on such a contentious issue when there's no formal move afoot to change the party's leadership selection rules, and before more Liberals have even learned his name, is revealing.

An encouraging signal for those Liberals, such as myself, that favour OMOV and and end to a delageted convention system that weakens the grassroots voice.

I'll sound one note of caution though, as I always do when discussing OMOV. Pure OMOV would be a negative as Toronto ridings with large memberships would swamp rural ridings with small memberships. Weighted OMOV, where a point system is employed to ensure each riding is weighted equally, is the way to go.

Under such a system, each riding would be given, let's say, 100 leadership votes. Those votes would be broken down based on the vote of their members. So if 75 per cent of riding members vote for candidate A and 25 per cent for Candidate B, that riding would cast 75 votes for A and 25 for B. In that way, Scarborough-Centre and Skeena-Bulkley Valley would have an equal say.

With pure OMOV, the danger is rural ridings become powerless given their small membership numbers, and leadership candidates spend all their time campaigning and speaking to the issues of the large urban ridings in Toronto and Montreal.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Has Kory Teneycke ever been to a Tim Hortons?

The Conservative spin-machine is trying to use the dinner at yesterday's First Ministers meeting to highlight just how gosh-darn fiscally responsible they are. Sure, Stephen Harper is pushing broad-based tax cuts that will do nothing to simulate the economy and will only drive up the deficit further than necessary. But hey, they drank $22 bottles of wine!

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was making a point about the global economic crisis when he provided a buffet dinner for the visiting premiers and aboriginal leaders Thursday night at Ottawa's Old City Hall. The PMO also put out a news release announcing that the cost per politician per plate was $25.95. The wine - Jackson Triggs 2008 - cost $22 a bottle. Kory Teneycke, the Prime Minister's director of communications, joked it was bottled Tuesday.

As for the food: vegetarian lasagna, Alberta sirloin or beef, roasted potatoes, seasonal vegetables, cheese, tea and coffee and some cake and fruit for dessert. "We are Main Street to the end," Mr. Teneycke said. "Tim Hortons and macaroni salad all the way."

You know, I'm not a stranger to Tim Horton's. But I have yet to visit a Tim Hortons where they serve Alberta sirloin, or wine. And for macaroni salad you've got to go to KFC. Has Kory ever even been to a Tim Hortons? Because I know his boss prefers Starbucks.

But you know, if Steve and Kory really wanted to impress us with their fiscal prudence, maybe they shouldn't do stuff like this:

The Conservative government has decided that U. S. aerospace giant Sikorsky will not have to pay $36-million in late penalties even though the maritime helicopter it is building for the Canadian Forces is being delivered two years late.

Wowee, that's a lot of double-doubles.

To burnish their fiscal prudence creds they could also avoid doing things like this:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's enlarged cabinet could cost taxpayers an additional $3.9 million in salaries alone for extra ministers and staff.

The total cost of staffing ministerial offices, roughly $24.2 million in salaries, has grown by 19 per cent with last week's shuffle and has jumped 42 per cent since the Tories presented their first cabinet in 2006.
By my math, that's 1,959,798 coffee and muffin combos at Timmy's. I'm partial to the fruit explosion myself, although I do also enjoy the blueberry.

But I'll tell you what, Steve and Kory. Stop wasting millions like that and when you have a First Ministers meeting, you can have Hy's cater it for all I care. Champagne and caviar all around. Save me the phony symbolism and try ACTUALLY BEING fiscally prudent rather than just trying to look like it.

Besides, only the uber wealthy will pay more than $15 for a bottle of wine...

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Do the thing or get off the pot, Steve

As the Stephen Harper Conservatives do their worst to hang onto government, while they do have power they remain determined not to do anything constructive with it:

The federal government made international headlines last year when it added bisphenol A to the country's toxic substances list, but it has quietly stopped issuing new reviews of hazardous chemicals under the program that highlighted the dangers of the plastic-making compound.


Ottawa hasn't issued evaluations of any of them, stoking worries among public-health and environmental advocates that the government is cooling toward the plan, which the Conservatives touted as showing their green credentials when Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced it with great fanfare in 2006.


There is speculation that Environment Minister Jim Prentice is holding up the process while Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq is ready to proceed, although officials from both departments declined to comment on the delay.

Are we beginning to see a pattern here?

The Harper government has not yet named the leader of a promised probe into the listeriosis outbreak that killed 20 people — a lag critics say discredits an already suspect process.


An independent report was to be finished by March 15.

With less than three months to go, a senior government source confirmed there's still no lead investigator.

The delay raises fresh concerns among food-safety watchers, who doubt Conservative commitment to overhaul what they say is a chronically short-staffed inspection system.

Canada's Conservatives: Flashy announcements. Bold promises. No follow-through.

If they don't want to govern anymore, I know some folks that are willing to give it a shot. How does the saying go, Steve? Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

But back to the first story. It seems Conservative wunderkind Jim Prentice is losing the Conservatives some of the very few supporters their environmental platform has:

The delays are baffling supporters of the plan, including the Canadian Cancer Society, which is on a group Ottawa set up to advise it on the review.

"We don't know why the delays are continuing, and that's a concern," said Dan Demers, director of national public issues for the society.

He said the holdup affects "some chemicals we're very concerned about," including hexane, butane, and sulphuric acid.

Although environmentalists have pilloried the Conservatives over claims they aren't acting quickly enough on global warming, the government has won praise for its approach on toxic chemicals. Now, one prominent group that backed the government is reconsidering its position.

"If the government is now winging it when it comes to this supposedly clear procedure then we will be reassessing our support for this program," said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence.

I thought Prentice was the one that knew what he was doing?

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Video: Michael Ignatieff speaks to Vancouver Young Liberals

Video of Liberal interim leader Michael Ignatieff speaking at a Young Liberal pub event in Vancouver last night. He drinks beer, calls for civil disagreement on Gaza, encourages young people to get active in politics, talks about his own journey from watching events as a journalist to wanting to get involved and shape events as a politician, references Pierre Trudeau and defends the Charter of Rights and stands up for Canada.

Good speech.

(h/t Aaron)

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Meditations on Mac and Cheese

The other night I ventured downtown to meet some colleagues to plot worldwide (web) domination over drinks at Piper’s Gastropub in the bowels of the Royal York, and as I sipped my cabarnet I browsed the menu for some nourishment to take the edge of my withdrawal symptoms, for alas we had a chosen a location without BlackBerry access (picked up the Curve before Christmas, loving it).

As I scanned the menu, my eyes were quickly drawn to this item:

Macaroni and Cheese

Oka and Gouda Cheese Sauce Baked with Macaroni, Smoked Chicken and Canadian Peameal Bacon $16.00

Delicious. I immediately knew what I wanted. As I placed the order, the reaction from my friends was split.

“Well played,” one immediately replied.

“You're going to have $16 macaroni and cheese? I can make that at home for 50 cents,” replied another, incredulous.

Clearly, the former is a wise, learned and cultured soul while the latter sadly knows nothing about the exciting and diverse world of gourmet Mac and Cheese.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good cheap box of Mac & Cheese. While Kraft Dinner has long been the gold standard, lately I’ve been partial to a store brand from Price Choppers: Compliments Extra Creamy Macaroni and Cheese. It takes a little – a lot, actually – of extra milk, but it really is exceedingly creamy.

I rarely stick with just the mac and cheese, though. Hot dogs, of course, are an obvious addition, and chopped and added to the boiling water with the noodles are an easy compliment. When I have more time though, I prefer to chop-up some and cook some hot Italian sausage (with a little hot sauce for zing), and add that to my mac and cheese. Quite tasty.

Gourmet Mac and Cheese though, that’s a whole other world. Sometimes I’ll make it from scratch at home and bake it in the oven. I haven’t perfected it yet and it’s a lot of work, but it’s a whole new level of deliciousness.

And the menu offering at Piper’s did indeed sound gourmet. Oka AND gouda cheese? Smoked chicken? Peameal bacon? You can’t make that at home for 50 cents mon ami.

And when it arrived, it did indeed look and taste delicious. Golden melted cheese on top. Saucy. The right ratio of chicken and bacon to noodle: complementary, generous but not overpowering. It tasted quite good.

One MAJOR problem though: it wasn’t mac and cheese.

That’s right. The noodles were not macaroni noodles. They were rigatoni noodles. I felt cheated. As delicious as the meal was, it was an entirely different culinary experience than it would have been with macaroni.

This wasn’t a mac and cheese dish, it was a pasta dish. As much as I enjoy a good pasta dish, which this was, I was expecting mac and cheese. If I'd wanted a pasta dish, I'd have ordered one. I consider mac and cheese to be a different category from regular pasta dishes. And the type of pasta does make a difference.

With rigatoni I would eat it one or two noodles at a time. Macaroni; a spoonful. Entirely different texture and feeling on the pallet. The ratio of pasta to ingredients in the mouth, and the size and texture, makes a difference.

My point being, if you’re going to put mac and cheese on the menu, which is a somewhat bold choice but one I fully applaud, then actually serve it with macaroni noodles. Don’t puss-out and substitute a more conventional pasta.

You can’t have mac and cheese without the mac!

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Video: Ignatieff on Mercer

Michael Ignatieff (and briefly Bob Rae) was on the Rick Mercer Report last night. Very funny:

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Monday, January 12, 2009

The long gun registry should be scrapped

I don't know if he'll take flack in his own party, but given that the NDP certainly has other MPs that represent rural constituencies, I'm pretty sure he's not the only one in his party or his caucus to hold this view. And it's a view I share, as do many Liberal from rural ridings, including, I'm sure, inside caucus. Hand-gun registry absolutely, but the long-gun registry makes no sense and should be scrapped:

A New Democrat member of Parliament is taking aim at Canada's long-gun registration program.

Northwestern Ontario MP John Rafferty wants the program scrapped.

He says he intends to introduce a private member's bill to that end when the House of Commons resumes sitting.

Rafferty says the money that goes to the program now would be better spent on police enforcement initiatives.

He admits many in his own party have different views, but says he is following the wishes of his constituents in his predominantly rural riding of Thunder Bay-River River.

Other MPs have introduced similar bills in the past, only to see them go nowhere.

I strongly support gun control. But long guns, aka rifles, are another kettle of fish. This really is an urban/rural thing. And for the Liberal Party, it's kind of a chicken or the egg thing. We have trouble electing rural MPs because of our policies on issues like this. And we get our policies on issues like this wrong because we don't have the perspective of rural MPs at the caucus table. A tough circle to square.

I went into greater depth on the issue a few years ago.

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Decoding Harper Speak: Youth Crime Edition

This may well become an ongoing series, as there's certainly plenty of material. Today's edition of Stephen Harper Speak, Your Guide to Decoding Canada's Once New Government, we focus on youth crime.

In Harper Speak, Unmitigated Failure actually means Clear Success. For example, when Harper says Canada's revamped young offender laws have been an unmitigated failure, what he's actually saying is that they've been doing a fantastic job.

Canada's revamped young offender laws - described by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as an ``unmitigated failure'' -have in fact been a clear success in keeping adolescents out of court and custody without increasing youth crime, concludes a new academic analysis.

The three authors warn against the Harper government pursuing a promise to toughen the Youth Criminal Justice Act, arguing it won't enhance public safety, but it will cost provincial governments significantly more money to punish young people by incarcerating them.

``Despite the rhetorical support of the new Conservative minority government for `toughening' the act, the government and Parliament may still realize that sending more youth into custody would increase the cost of the youth justice services without increasing public safety,'' said the analysis.

I wouldn't hold my breath on that realization, analysis authors. Because for all their numbers and reasoning and facts, they've failed to analyze the undeniable truthiness of Harper's views on youth crime. He don't need no facts that show the Liberal legislation is a success, because he knows in his gut that its an unmitigated failure.

Or make what he's feeling in his gut is just Laureen's taco casserole surprise.

One or the other.

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An interview with the new LPC national director, Rocco Rossi

As part of the Liberal leadership transition, Rocco Rossi was recently announced as the incoming national director of the Liberal Party. Perhaps the biggest thing that stands out on his CV is his experience as a fundraiser, leading Ontario's Heart and Stroke Foundation, with fundraising sure to be a major preoccupation for Rossi and the party going forward.

I asked Rossi to share some of his background and experience and his plans to reinvigorate the Liberal Party, and he graciously agreed. He's not officially on the job yet -- he's still wrapping things up at the Heart and Stroke Foundation -- so he wasn't able to get too deep into specifics obviously, but here's what he had to say.

BCer: Could you talk a little about your background and experience in Liberal politics?

Rossi: I first became involved in politics in elementary school in Toronto when I helped one of my teachers, Andrew Meles, run as a Liberal provincially against Dennis Timbrell in Don Mills (lambs to the slaughter in those days;-), but certainly gave me the bug.

I later became Youth Chair in the Federal riding of York East where David Collenette was our member. I was involved there for many years in different capacities and remain a friend of David and Penny to this day.

David introduced me to Senator Keith Davey who then became a friend and mentor. He then asked me to help Dennis Mills in 1988 when I was co-manager and policy chair for his campaign in Broadview-Greenwood that unseated an NDP incumbent. I subsequently became riding President.

I have knocked on doors, dropped flyers, pounded in signs for lots of other federal and provincial candidates over the years from Charles Caccia to Maurizio Bevilacqua to Ben Chin and Michael Ignatieff.

In terms of other political experience, I was campaign manager for John Tory in his run for Mayor of Toronto in 2003 and helped lead a tremendous team of Liberals (Warren Kinsella, Bob Richardson, Ferd Longo, Larry Archer, Premier David Peterson, Hershell Ezrin to name a few) and Tories that grew his support from 4% to 38% and came close to winning, but finished second in a strong field.

BCer: How do you feel your experience with the Heart and Stroke Foundation will help you in this new role?

Rossi: I left the private sector several years ago so that I could devote the balance of my life to making a real difference through public service.(I wrote a piece in the Globe several years ago that goes into greater depth on my thought process. You can read it at:

The last four years at the Heart and Stroke Foundation have been hugely rewarding in terms of the impact we have been able to make.

BCer: Why are you deciding to take on this challenge now?

Rossi: The decision to accept the position of National Director of the Liberal Party is driven by the belief that this is a way for me to have an even bigger impact. The country is in an unprecedented economic crisis and the electorate have not been thrilled with what any of the parties, including us, have been presenting over the last few elections. A strong Liberal Party is critical and I would like to help in whatever way I can.

I am honoured that Michael and the party have given me this opportunity and I look forward to working with all interested and committed Liberals to build the strongest party possible, and help provide all Canadians with a political party that will reignite the imagination and passion and plain good sense that our political process has been lacking from their perspective for some time now. No one person can accomplish that. It will take a revitalized party with a growing and passionate membership that truly feels membership matters.

BCer: In terms of more specifics around his thoughts on fundraising and building the party in general, Rossi pointed me to an interview he recently did with CP's Joan Bryden. Here's an excerpt from the resulting article:

The party's dire financial straits don't seem to daunt Rossi, a lifelong Liberal.

"I certainly enjoy big challenges," he cheerfully told The Canadian Press.

Rossi said the key to turning around the party's dismal fundraising effort will be re-engaging and re-energizing its dwindling membership base.

"The only way you build a large fundraising pool of smaller donations is to have people who have a stake in (an organization) whether it's a charity or a political party," he said.

"That means re-energizing and building out a membership base, not just for nomination battles and not just for elections, but year-round and on a continuous basis, making membership mean something."

Among other things, Rossi said Liberal members have to be made to feel that their participation is valued, their contribution celebrated.

Rossi said it's too soon to say precisely how he intends to go about expanding the membership and raising money. But his experience at the Heart and Stroke Foundation suggests the party's financial situation can be turned around relatively quickly.

During Rossi's four years at the helm, the foundation more than doubled its volunteer base to about 40,000. And it raked in record revenues of over $120 million last year, up from $92 million when Rossi started the job.

The foundation's success may partly be due to Rossi's willingness to volunteer his own time - to "walk the talk," as he put it - and his ability to dream up fresh, fun ways to raise money. But it's also a matter of attitude, Rossi said.

"I don't look at it as asking for money. I look at it as giving people an opportunity to participate in something bigger than themselves. I am doing them the favour, they're not doing me the favour and that gives you a much different mindset," he said.

"People want to be part of something bigger than themselves, they want to be part of making a difference."

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Video: Michael Ignatieff's town hall in Halifax

Live video of Michael Ignatieff's speech to a packed town hall meeting in Halifax last week, where his major focus was on the economic challenges facing Canada and the way forward:

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Diagnos? Check. Cure? Umm...

I seem to be on a medical theme today. But The Star's James Travers does a fine job of diagnosing the illness in his column today on the media's failure to look past the fluff and ask critical policy questions during the last election:

Where we in the media were missing, though, was in the fall federal election. Preoccupied first with an imploding Stephane Dion and then with Stephen Harper's insensitive, decidedly dicey stock market advice, the national press let the major parties promise surplus heaven with the country teetering on the threshold of deficit hell. Even after the September financial meltdown, leaders clung to badly dated summer statistics to make campaign commitments that, in ranging from Liberal ludicrous to Conservative careful, clearly couldn't be kept.

I like Travers so I don't want to give him too hard a time, and he's certainly going further than the bulk of his colleagues by even considering these questions. And I think he's making an effort here. But I believe I misspoke when I said he has diagnosed the illness. In actuality, by focusing merely on the economy, he has actually only succeeded in identifying one of the symptoms, not the illness itself.

He's correct, the media by and large failed to ask critical questions of the party's economic platforms during the campaign. They also helped create a environment where politicians who didn't “play the game” were in trouble: remember the furious backtracking St├ęphane Dion had to do during the campaign when he admitted a deficit may be possible due to the economy. The Conservatives went after him hard and the media both mocked him and played it up, and Dion was forced to quickly back down and tow the line: deficit? No way, you crazy, sunshine and sprinkles.

But this was merely a symptom of the larger illness, for the media's lack of desire to provide critical analysis of important policy areas also manifested itself in other areas. The obvious example? The Liberal Green Shift. We didn't get any critical analysis of the merits of the policy during the campaign. There was no examination of its effectiveness of ineffectiveness, or attempt by the media to examine it in the context of the proposals of the NDP and the Conservatives. Not until after the campaign, when we got a raft of analysis/eulogies saying what a shame it was such a great, effective policy wasn't embraced. Heck, even big oil is now pushing similar policy (h/t Wherry).

That's all after the campaign though. After the campaign the media are eager to revisit the merits of a carbon shift, or critically analyze the party's economic policy proposals. During the campaign, however, the bulk of coverage was exceedingly superficial, and was focused on the politics before, and in exclusion of, the policy. New poll numbers, puffin poop, how will this trivial event effect the horse race, interview outtakes and bloopers.

This isn't a new phenomenon, and it certainly didn't begin in this campaign. Critical reporting is becoming less and less common in today's media, whether there's an election on or not. There's less and less room for investigative reporting and even the analysis piece. While you'd think the 24-hour news cycle would give more room for real journalism, instead it seems to encourage a focus on the superficial and the trivial.

And in the end, while he has only identified one of the symptoms, Travers is right in that its the citizens that suffer, for we are less informed and educated as a result, which can only hurt our democracy. But it goes beyond the media. Responsibility must be born by a political culture that feeds into this mentality. And we, as citizens, bust bear responsibility as well, for both rewarding the media and politicians that play into this cynical game, and not standing behind the increasingly rare politicians that attempts to go against the grain and give us the “politics done differently” we always haughtily claim we want.

Sadly it's a mistake few politicians, even if they have a chance, will make twice.

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Can jerkiness really be cured?

The Natty Post's John Ivison says Stephen Harper has looked inside his soul and, having stared death in the face, has seen the light and mended his jerky ways.

The headline?

Near death cures Tories

I'll be filing away that headline, and some of these highlights, for future reference:
*When asked whether the justice bills will be deemed to be confidence measures, the Prime Minister's Office seemed to suggest that only money bills will be deemed confidence. "The government is focused on the economy, at this time, other issues as secondary," said Kory Teneyecke, director of communications.

*Conservatives say that the Prime Minister is "reaching out" during the budget process, after being chastened by his near-political death experience before Christmas. The hope is that Mr. Harper will be more focused on the deteriorating economy than on inflicting political ill-health and penury on his opponents.

*The expectation is that this understanding will spread to committee rooms, where MPs will belatedly reach the conclusion that their endless subordination of important long-term issues to political trivia is a luxury the country can no longer afford.

Has Harper's jerkiness really been cured, or is he just in temporary remission? Time will tell, but I know where I'm placing my bets.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

On Michael and tax cuts, and politics too

Michael Ignatieff had a well-attended town hall meeting in Halifax yesterday, an event which seems to have generated a whole heckuva lotta coverage on the CP Wire. I'll deal with a few of them in separate posts, beginning with the economy.

If you've been reading this corner lately you'll know I've been interested in the upcoming budget and the forms of stimulus under consideration. I'm strongly supportive of a comprehensive package of infrastructure funding and feel its our best and most effective stimulus option.

Therefore, I was pleased to see Michael say a Liberal-led government would get the infrastructure money flowing more quickly so we can get shovels in the ground:

He said he would get a team together to call municipal leaders across the country to find out what infrastructure projects they need and how fast they can get started. That got the attention of Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly, who was sitting near the back of the auditorium.

"I’d phone you and say, ‘What do you need?’ " the Liberal leader said to Mr. Kelly.
"I’ve got a list," the mayor hollered back. "$1.2 billion."

Mr. Ignatieff said Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has been "astoundingly slow" in getting infrastructure money out the door, something he said has to change.

"We’re in a crisis. We’re in a serious crisis," he told reporters. "And I would rather err by doing it fast and making the occasional mistake — which then you, the voters, punish us for later — than sitting there saying, ‘Have we got all the boxes ticked?’ "

I have also been making the point that in my view, and in the view of many economists (with the exception of the alleged economist occupying the corner office in the Langevin Block) that tax cuts are extremely ineffective as stimulus. They will, by and large, be pocketed and not spent, defeating the purpose.

That's why I was disappointed to hear this from Michael:
"I think it’s going to be important to get stimulus into the Canadian economy fast, so we may be looking at tax cuts very quickly, tax cuts targeted at medium and low income, to boost their purchasing power fast," Mr. Ignatieff told the crowd of 200 at Neptune Theatre.

When asked later what form those tax cuts might come in, Mr. Ignatieff told reporters he’s in favour of the kind that are permanent, rather than a one-time break.

I'm disappointed to see Michael buying into the tax cuts as stimulus argument, but I can't say I'm surprised. It's politics.

*Why is Obama pitching large tax cuts as part of his stimulus package in the US? Politics, he needs to win over congressional Republicans for his larger stimulus package.

*Why do I fear Harper pushing large tax cuts masquerading as stimulus? Politics, he would want to both a) force the opposition to either support bad policy or vote against tax cuts so he can run an election on it, or b) further reduce government revenues in support of his ideological mission of dramatically shrinking the size, scope and power of the federal government.

*And so why is Michael speaking our for tax cuts as stimulus? Politics.You might not win an election running on tax cuts, but you sure won't win one running against them. So while I'm disappointed in one sense, in another a little political judgment every now and again isn't a wholly bad thing.

The litmus test for me, however, will be in what size and kind of tax cuts the Liberals propose. I do take some solace in the fact Michael was talking about “tax cuts targeted at medium and low income (earners).” I think the lower down the income scale you go, the more likely it is any tax cut will be spent rather than saved, increasing the likelihood of some stimulus resulting. So any tax relief, and I have said some minor relief as a sweetner wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, must be targeted.

The majority of stimulus spending however must go to temporary infrastructure spending. Besides being more effective, the key word there is temporary. Remember, we're going into deficit to finance this, and we'll need to come out of deficit soon. (And if history is any indicator, it will be a Liberal government called on to balance the books). Infrastructure spending is a temporary expense. Permanent tax cuts (temporary would not be politically salable) would mean a permanent drain on government revenues, meaning the foregone revenue would need to either be recouped through a) tax cuts, or b) cuts to program spending. If history has taught us anything, it's that tax cuts won't pay for themselves.

While I recognize the need to position us in a politically salable position around tax cuts ahead of the budget, I hope we bear in mind the need to balance good politics with good policy, as well as Harper's true conservative motive in pitching tax cuts: making the federal government small enough to drown in the bath tub.

Tax cuts if necessary, but not, scratch that...

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