Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Finding it hard to get excited about Toronto’s mayoralty race

I’ve lived in Toronto for five years now after moving out from British Columbia for a journalism job, and I’m finally starting to feel at home. I still hate the Maple Leafs, but I no longer look away from the CN Tower in an effort to fool myself into thinking I’m not really in Hogtown. I even read the Toronto Star every now and again.

Still, I’m finding it hard to work-up the energy or interest to get excited about our race for mayor or to get engaged by any of the candidates. It’s not that I don’t care about any local issues – transit is my big one – but all the candidates thus far have struck me as either crazy, timid or panderers. It’s hard to be excited about any of them in the mayor’s office, and at this point I still have no idea who I’ll mark an X for in October.

I can safely cross Rob Ford off the list, for reasons so manifold and obvious I shan’t bother to list them. As much as some of his populist pap may strike a chord that is resonating in the polls though, I think his numbers have as much to do with the unimpressive performance of his opponents.

The two obvious choices for me to support based on my political leanings would be George Smitherman and Rocco Rossi. Sadly, I haven’t been much impressed with either of them.

I met Rocco a few times when he was briefly executive director of the federal Liberal Party. He seemed like an accomplished fellow, bursting with energy and ideas. I was pleased when he entered the race, even if he was leaving unfinished business back in Ottawa. But then he started making announcements.

I’ll give Rocco credit for one thing. While Smitherman has been too timid to say muchof substance as the (in his mind) frontrunner, as the scrappy challenger Rossi has been putting plenty of stuff out there. The problem is, I don’t really like any of it. He seemed to hew right so sharply when he launched I found myself wondering if it was really the Liberal Party he was formerly executive directing.

He supports empty populist pap that echoes the Reform Party of old and sounds nice but will do nothing to confront the issues facing Toronto, like cutting the Mayor’s pay or implementing recall legislation. Selling-off Toronto Hydro, besides getting rid of a valuable asset, just temporarily papers-over deeper budget issues. I can get behind putting garbage services to tender. But he loses me on the issue that matters to me most: transit.

First he wanted to freeze Transit City, a plan already funded and in the works that would see LRT lines soon crisscross the city, in favour of studying other options. We need more transit now, this plan is ready to go, and preferring an imperfect plan to more delay I opposed this. Now he wants to take the money from selling Toronto Hydro and put it toward expanding the subway. Subway is better than LRT, but a few problems. First, I don’t support selling off assets to do it. Two, subway is a lot more expensive than LRT, which means less of it, which means many areas will wait much longer for service improvements. Third, he assumes the other levels of government that have committed funding to Transit City will allow it to be ported over to this new plan. That’s a large assumption.

Still, while I don’t agree with most of them, Rossi is at least out there talking policy. Which is more than I can say for Smitherman. As someone who hasn’t followed the race super-close, the impression I have of George is that he seems very reluctant to take firm positions, sometimes gets angry, and went for a long walk down Eglington. So I went to a Web site and, while he offers a little more substance there, traffic wardens and service review don’t exactly set hearts a’flutter. And on transit, he seems to want to do LRT and subway but I don’t see how he’ll pay for it.

Then, there are a handful of other candidates. Apparently someone named Joe Pantalone is running; I know this only because Jack Layton just endorsed him (Jack appears no less than thrice on the front page of his Web site). There’s also a Sarah Thompson who may or may not be slightly conservative and has no political experience. And there was some guy that wanted to build a casino or something but I think he dropped out.

There are our choices for mayor in Canada’s largest city. Any race where people were excited about the prospect of John Tory's potential entry has problems. Maybe I should start averting my gaze from the CN Tower once more. Will any of the candidates step up and impress?

If voters like me are so uninspired we don't bother to vote, that's how Rob Ford wins. But just being the "not crazy alternative" won't cut it either.

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Layton sucks and blows on registry, but with pizazz

Follow the bouncing-ball. Jack Layton had a press conference on the gun registry today where he confirmed he can’t get his rural MPs to support what has long been NDP party policy and support the gun registry.

He doesn’t want to whip his caucus, because it seems likely some of them wouldn’t fall into line if he tried. I know the NDP insists its long-held principle they don’t whip private members bills (PMB), but in fact we all know this is only a Conservative government bill masquerading as a PMB to exploit that fact. As an aside, one wonders just what trickery the Conservatives could push through this loophole if they wanted to.

Still, Jack doesn’t want to be seen as doing nothing while his MPs kill the gun registry. So today he proposed a private member’s bill that would reform the registry. Coincidentally, his reforms are pretty much the same as the reforms proposed by the Liberals in April, reforms the NDP and its surrogates have been spending the last four months attacking as insufficient. The one notable difference is that the Liberals would enact the reforms when in government while voting to keep the registry now, while the NDP would introduce a private members bill as soon as it can this fall. Their hope is the reforms will convince their rural MPs to vote for the registry.

Sounds great, right? Sure. I liked these reforms when the Liberals proposed them in April, so I still like them now. I’m quite surprised it has taken the NDP this long to try to find a compromise, with an 11th-hour desperation play. While it’d be nice if Jack had said “great ideas Michael, now let’s take them one step further” instead of throwing bricks, I’m a glass half-full kinda guy.

But there’s just one thing: the vote to kill the registry will come well before Layton could possibly see his bill in the house. Layton’s answer to that?
Mr. Layton was pressed by reporters on how he expects this bill to become a reality, when Ms. Hoeppner’s bill is lined up for a vote so soon after Parliament resumes. He suggested that if all parties come onside, they could use the bill as a basis to reach a solution — presumably meaning that Ms. Hoeppner’s bill would either be amended or would die.

“There’s no good reason why we shouldn’t be able to sit down with goodwill and open minds. There’s no good reason why we shouldn’t be able to build solutions that bring us together.”
Now I’m certainly no government spokesperson. I’ll leave that dubious honour to Dimitri Soudas. But if Layton is seriously expecting the Conservatives to agree to kill the Hoeppner bill and get onboard with reforms to the registry they rejected when proposed by the Liberals in April, I expect they won’t find the government’s response to be favourable. They might even tell Layton “it’s our party’s policy not to interfere with private members bills” with a little smile. If the NDP is counting on Conservative help here, they’re dreaming.

Which means the vote to kill the registry will come long before a hypothetical NDP private members bill reforming it could ever see the light of day. And needless to say, if the registry is killed any bill to reform it dies as well.

So, that means NDP MPs will be faced with a choice, the same choice they’ve had all along: do they vote to kill the registry next month, or do they vote to keep it based on the promise of future reforms, either by a private member’s bill or by a new government.

For the Liberal caucus, it’s the latter. The choice has been made. Their leader, Michael Igntieff, has convinced them to support keeping the registry now by promising specific reforms by a future Liberal government.

Now it’s up to Layton to convince his caucus to do the same. He made an interesting comment here:
Mr. Layton was also critical of Mr. Ignatieff, who last April proposed many of the compromises that the NDP is now suggesting. The difference, said Mr. Layton, is that Ignatieff is saying he would make the conciliatory changes to the registry if the Liberals win the next election.

“But Liberal MPs are parliamentarians now,” said Mr. Layton. “Not parliamentarians in waiting. They need to act now.”
Yes Jack, and the vote on killing the registry will come first, and your MPs are parliamentarians now too. And you're not a leader-in-waiting either. So the question still remains: can you convince your MPs to accept a compromise or not? And if you can’t, will you whip them or will you let your MPs kill the registry?

This is a test of leadership Jack and, to paraphrase yourself, you need to act now.

UPDATE: Now with video, where the media openly laugh at Layton's feeble rationalizations. I hope his caucus takes him more seriously.

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You can’t have an urban/rural divide without urban

With the latest vote on the gun registry approaching, and its fate still very much up in the air, I’ve been reading much about the urban/rural divide. Except the punditry seems to think you can have a divide with only one side. They’re nearly uniformly ignoring the urban side of the equation.

A good example of this myopic reporting came the other day from the Globe’s John Ibbitson:
The Conservatives happily exploit that divide, in the North and elsewhere. The Liberals and NDP can only suffer.
Apparently in John’s world, the Conservatives can only benefit, no matter what they do. And if my grandmother had wheels, John, she’d be a wagon.

In fact, killing the registry would very much hurt Conservative chances in urban Canada. And the NDP's, since if the registry dies it will have been with the NDP’s assistance. And since it’s in urban Canada and Quebec where the Conservatives can and must gain seats to keep government or form a majority, there Conservatives could pay a steep price.

Let’s say the Conservative attempt to kill the registry fails. This would actually be the best-case scenario for the Harper government. They can tell their rural base they tried their best and raise a bunch of money off it while keeping their support, and in urban Canada since the registry lives, its status-quo. There might be some blowback for Liberal rural MPs, but by and large those for whom killing the registry is a ballot box issue aren’t voting Liberal anyways and the party's proposed reforms are sensible.

Now, let’s say the Conservatives with NDP assistance succeed in killing the gun registry. Their rural supporters are pleased with them, and will keep on supporting them. It’s hard to see Liberal rural MPs who voted to keep it being hurt because the registry will be gone, with it removed as a ballot issue rural voters will turn to other issues. Status quo in rural Canada.

In urban Canada, though, it would be a very different story. Right now, the registry hasn’t been a ballot issue in urban Canada because it’s the status quo, it’s in place and Harper wasn’t making a lot of noise about killing it. So urban voters, particularly women, allowed themselves to be wooed by sweater-vest Steve and targeted moderate policies, such as EI reforms around maternal and parental leaves. Combined with a very effective ethnic outreach program, a number of urban seats swung Conservative in the last election and many more were competitive.

Kill the registry though, and all of a sudden it becomes a ballot box issue in urban Canada. It becomes about gun control and crime, and suddenly the Conservatives find themselves on the wrong side of a soft on crime wedge. And it won’t take that many votes to swing a number of Conservative urban ridings. Not only that, they can say good-bye to adding the seats they need to grow. (Particularly as they abandon their ethnic outreach strategy in favour of more pandering to their base.)

As for the NDP, while their urban MPs will have voted to keep the registry, with their party having allowed it to be killed they will also be hit with the anger over its death. This will mean pressure for people like Paul Dewar in Ottawa, for their Vancouver area MPs, and even for Jack and Olivia in Toronto. And it may well be death for Thomas Mulcair in Outremont.

We’re reading much from the media about the pressure rural Liberal and NDP MPs are under. What has been completely absent is the same scrutiny of Conservative MPs that represent urban and Quebec ridings. Can Alice Wong really claim she’s voting freely the wishes of the people of Richmond? Can James Moore in Port Coquitlam? Andrew Saxton in North Vancouver? How about Peter Kent in Thornhill, or John Baird and Pierre Poilievre in Ottawa? How about Keith Ashfield in Fredericton?

And those are just a few.

In fact, there are nearly 30 Conservative-held ridings that are suburban or urban-enough (or in Quebec enough) that you’d have to ponder if their constituents really support the government’s supposedly free but surprisingly uniform opposition to the registry.

It would be interesting to hear the answers, if John Ibbitson and his colleagues could be bothered to ask.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Canadian views are hardening on gun control, & away from the Conservative line

Angus Reid released survey data today with a lot of questions on gun control and gun registry-related issues. I’m sure you’ll hear many of the usual c/Conservative suspects grab a few of the figures to support their talking-points. Indeed, they already are. But looking more closely at the numbers, and more importantly at the trend lines, show some interesting findings they’ll chose to ignore.

They don’t provide the trendlines directly, but if you pull-up the last gun study Angus Reid did in 2009 and compare the findings (the bulk of the questions are identical) some very interesting trends emerge showing the views of Canadians are trending toward greater measures on gun control. You also see some of the funny inherent contradictions that come with public opinion measurement.

For example, Canadians by and large agree gun violence is becoming less of a serious problem. Just 28 per cent called it serious, down by six points, while 42 per cent called it moderately serious, down by four points. Some 23 per cent said it was not too serious, a rise of eight points.

You’d think with that trend, people wouldn’t favour stricter gun control measures. But they do. When asked if they’d favour a complete ban on handguns in Canada, nearly half, 49 per cent, said yes it would be justified, while 39 per cent said it would not be justified. Again, besides the near majority, the interesting thing here is the trends: support for a ban was up three points, and more strikingly opposition to a handgun ban was down by seven points.

Which brings us to the infamous gun registry. One question you’re seeing be latched-onto is if the registry has been successful or not fighting crime. Just 13 per cent said it was (up two) while 43 per cent said it wasn’t (down four) and 20 per cent said it had no effect (down three). Those are interesting results, particularly when compared to the complete ban results. Do they mean many want the government to go further because the registry hasn’t been effective enough, or scrap it all together because it’s ineffective? Probably both, but it’s impossible to say with the available data.

On support/oppose scrapping the long gun registry, the figure you’ll hear most is that 44 per cent support scrapping it, while 35 per cent oppose it. That those numbers aren’t more wide given the opinion on its effectiveness shows that some simply want a more effective registry. And again, here, the trend is telling. Support for scrapping the registry has dropped by seven points since last November, while opposition is up by one point. Which means some former registry opponents are on the fence, and support for scrapping the registry is on the decline.

Finally, going further than just a handgun ban, Angus Reid also asked if it should be legal or illegal for ordinary Canadians to own firearms all together. In a reversal from last year, a plurality of Canadian (45 per cent) said it should be illegal, and 40 per cent said it should stay legal. Illegal was up by six points, while keep it legal declined by seven.

So, look at the numbers and the trends in totality and what can we take away? Canadians are increasingly favouring stricter gun control, not looser. Support for scrapping the registry is declining, and support shouldn’t be taken as a condemnation of gun control.

Finally, a few things are often overlooked by the pundits and the media around this issue. They paint it as a rural/urban thing, which is fair enough. But while they spend much time on how this could impact rural voting, they ignore how it could impact urban voting. We have the registry now, and I’d argue this issue has largely been factored into rural voting patterns. Urban, though, is a different story. How many swing urban soccer mom votes who have gone Conservative during Harper’s sweater vest era (and moved seats) would flip if he succeeds in killing the registry and is seen as soft on gun control? Those are swing seats at risk, while the votes they’d gain are in rural ridings they probably already hold.

Also, look at the regionals and you’ll see opinions in Quebec are quite staunchly anti-gun. Some 76 per cent of Quebecers view gun violence as very or moderately serious, 54 per cent support a handgun ban, 54 per cent would make gun ownership illegal, and 51 per cent oppose scrapping the gun registry.

A: Urban Canada. Quebec.

Q: What are two places the Conservatives can’t afford to lose support if they’re going to ever get a majority?

Were I an NDPer representing a riding like Outremont I’d be a little concerned here too.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Maurizio Bevilacqua expected to resign today

My sources in the city formerly known as the city above Toronto tell me that Liberal Maurizio Bevilacqua is expected to step-down today as the Member of Parliament for Vaughan, in advance of one of the worst-kept secrets of local municipal politics: his intention to run for Mayor of Vaughan.

While Bevilacqua may declare for mayor immediately, it's expected he'll wait until next week to formally launch his campaign.

This has been in the works for some time, but his hand may have been tipped by a Toronto Star story yesterday that reported on what has been common knowledge in Vaughan for some time: Bevilacqua has been using his MP office budget to paper the riding with mailings about his achievements (and, during the world cup, his love of soccer) in advance of his mayoral bid. Interestingly, the Star story seems to have been pulled, although the link is still active.

Anyway, while Bevilacqua is expected to be a favourite in the mayoral race against embattled incumbent Linda Jackson, his departure also sets-up some interesting scenarios on the federal level.

For one, will there be a fierce race for the Liberal nomination in this attractive riding, or will the leader take the opportunity for an appointment?

For two, what will Bevilacqua's departure do for the math around the upcoming gun registry vote in a few weeks?

And for three, when will Stephen Harper call the by-election? He's expected to call a number of others shortly, with the statutory clock ticking. Will he throw Vaughan in too, or will he hold off calling it to keep the Liberals potentially down a seat for a longer period?

Time will tell.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Appealing to our demons, not our better angels

Why do I subscribe to Maclean's? Well, for $1.50/month on my Rogers cable bill they've finally hit a price level I'm comfortable with. And it's also because every issue there's always at least a few examples of great journalism. And this week's issue has at least two (haven't dived-in too deeply yet).

...economic success is as much about character and determination as anything else—the kind of determination that would move a person to sit in a darkened hold eating spiders for four months, just for a chance to better their lot. If that’s queue-jumping, fine: these are the sort of people we want.
There are, by one count, 23 mosques in Manhattan. Four are south of Canal Street, in Lower Manhattan. According to the New York Times, the two closest to the site of the former World Trade Center have become snug fits for their worshippers in recent years as Manhattan’s Muslim community grows. People who want to pray are routinely turned away.

So if we were talking about, say, sporting-goods stores, the case for a new one would be pretty clear. Such things are not unheard of in the neighbourhood. There is a demand for more of them. So make some more.
You should read both pieces, but I wanted to draw-out, emphasize and expand on one passage in particular from Wells' column:
Deep fear that resists easy answers is, of course, catnip for politicians. People like to hear they’re right to worry. There will always be politicians willing to tell them that. But if any of them feel like showing a little responsibility, they should spare some thoughts about consequences.
This is exactly right, and it speaks to a much wider phenomenon then mosques or immigration. It's a worrying trend in America, in Europe, and yes, even in Canada.

We're all imperfect people. We always will be. We can say we're as enlightened or as tolerant as can be, but within us, on a sub-conscious level, we all have prejudices, we all have fears, we all have worries.

We all have demons, and we all have better angels. And they're constantly at war within us, whether we're conscious of it or not. And that can be exploited.

It's hard to appeal to our better angels. Particularly in difficult times, when the economy is choppy, when jobs are scarce, when we have trouble ourselves. It's easier to be compassionate when you're affluent.

It's far easier to appeal to our demons. To our baser instincts. And it can be politically advantageous too. It can win votes. It's far easier to scare than to inspire. To find an outlet for our anger, for our demons, somewhere to focus that anger and position yourself as the ones with the answers.

But it's dangerous, and it's destructive. Because hate begets hate, it fuels on itself, and once unleashed our demons tend to run free. It may start small. It always does. It may seem reasonable in isolation. It always does. But it doesn't stop there. It never does. And that road will take us to somewhere we won't like. But by the time we're there, it will be too late.

And as bad as those who shamelessly exploit our base instincts and appeal to our demons are, they're not the worst. They often don't know better, or believe the ends justify the means. No, worse are those who know that this is wrong, but they don't speak out.

They don't speak out because, as hard as appealing to our better angels is, countering an appeal to our demons can be as difficult. It's hard to counter emotion with fact, and fear with compassion. Too often, afraid of being labeled soft, afraid of being on the wrong side of a wedge issue, those who know better will do nothing. They'll stay on the sidelines, afraid to speak-up.

And it is this timidity, this weakness, that allows hate to flourish, and our demons to overwhelm our better angels. It can't happen without us.

Is what we're seeing passing flare-ups, or emerging trends? I don't know. You don't usually know until you're on the other side. But I'm worried. And I'm worried too that I don't see the battle being waged, and the challenge being met.

I hope our better angels haven't left us. They're still needed.

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Brought to you by Canadians for dredging up old political scandals

It seems in their desperation, as the Liberal attacks hit home pointing-out Conservative meddling and suppression of accountability and oversight (remember when they ran on an accountability agenda?) the Conservatives are getting so desperate they're reduced to sputtering "but...but...but...sponsorship!"

Taber calls it the "sponsorship cudgel." I debated hitting-back with the tunagate tomahawk, or the Coates/Stripper scythe. But then I decided this is no time for fooling around. This is a time for the heavy artillery: The Pacific Scandal pistol:

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Is the immigration insanity set to come north of the border?

It has been troubling for me to watch the news coverage and commentary around the arrival of a boatload of potential Tamil refugees in Canada this week, and it has left me wondering if I lived in the Canada I thought I lived in after all. Certainly, it seems that a re-examination of what has typically been seen as our values and attitudes is in order.

My concern isn’t necessarily about policy but more about tone, since the government doesn't seem to be doing anything substantive (yet) to back-up their ranting. I’m uneasy about boats arriving on our shores, I believe human smuggling is a heinous crime, and I don’t want terrorists released in our midst. But I also believe we should welcome legitimate refugees, no matter how they get here.

There are short-term and long-term issues here. Short-term, I believe we should process these people through the refugee process; those who meet the criteria (legitimate fear for their safety, persecution, etc.) can stay; those who do not should go. That is happening. The crew should be prosecuted for human smuggling, the ship seized, an investigation to find their sponsors launched, and those people pursued through international legal channels.

Longer-term, I think there needs to be policy changes, both domestic and international.

Complaints that many refugee claimants abuse the system by staying after being ruled ineligible, and that claims take too long to process, are legitimate. This isn’t an issue unique to these Tamils however; it’s a deeper issue with our immigration and refugee system that should be addressed by the government as part of its wider systemic reforms. And if we are being targeted by abusers for the laxness of our system, the answer is simple: fix the system so we're less attractive to those that would abuse it while still welcoming legitimate claimants.

Internationally, we need concrete efforts to deter and prosecute human smuggling. But we also need to look at other initiatives, and examine the root causes of such incidents. For example, working with the UN to improve the situation on the ground in places like Sri Lanka, and setting-up regional refugee processing centres overseas so that claims can be processed and legitimate refugees can come to Canada and other countries legally, without resorting to paying human smugglers for illegal passage.

There are very real issues that can be debated here, from policy reforms to more philosophical questions around what our refugee policy should be. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be having that debate. Instead, it seems as though the worst tactics of the U.S. Mexican immigration debate are coming to Canada.

We see Vic Toews and Stephen Harper stoking security fears and using the story to try to change the channel from issues that have been hurting them. We see Sun Media going all Rambo, seemingly implying we should sink the next boat that approaches our shores, or shoot them all or something, and warning you they’re stealing our tax dollars and our health care services. And in Toronto, we see mayoral candidate Rob Ford seemingly promising to wall-off Toronto to any further immigration (well, some immigration, to be sure). And he could actually win. And such attitudes and opinions aren’t exactly isolated.

It seems astounding though to be seeing this in a nation of immigrants. Wasn’t it not long ago that this government was apologizing for the Komagata Maru incident, when in 1914 a ship of Indian immigrants was prevented from docking in Canada over laws designed to prevent Asian emigration? Have we forgotten that our laws that prevent us from blocking ships of immigrants from landing were enacted following the shame of the Holocaust and World War Two, when Canada and many other countries barred our doors to Jewish refugees trying to flee the spread of Nazism?

I think we should reform our immigration system to increase capacity, process claims more quickly and ensure denied claimants are sent home quickly. And we should crack down on human smugglers, not human victims.

But let’s not lose sight of our history, our values, and that everyone here is from somewhere else.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Debate on political financing methods spreading

It was good last week to see more debate in broader circles around the ways we should be funding the political system in Canada, and possible reforms. Things got kicked-off by a column in the Globe and Mail from Jeffrey Simpson, where he largely echoed an argument I made earlier in favour of ending the per-vote subsidy but raising individual contribution limits:

If we want parties to be healthy, they need money to do their work. And if we don’t want public dollars to help them, then individuals should be encouraged to give what they can to fill in the public subsidy – which will mean raising the individual limit above $1,000.

That’s the fair tradeoff: End the public subsidy, all right, but raise the individual contribution limit.
Alice Funke of The Pundit's Guide also weighed-in with her usual detailed statistical analysis, examining the dependency of each party on the subsidy and noting that rumours of the BQ's likely death without the subsidy are largely exaggerated:
The Bloc raises enough at the riding and candidate level each year alone to run fully funded campaigns after the candidate rebates, and yet it is able to win fully two-thirds of the province’s seats spending on average less than two-thirds of the limit in each constituency. Combining the riding-level surplus with its central fundraising would still allow that party to adequately finance its central campaign, after the central rebate is taken into account. We also know it costs significantly less to run a campaign across a single province in a single language than it does to run a national and bilingual one.
It's good to see more detailed, substantive debate happening on an issue that, in the past, has largely been confined to the Conservatives threatening to pull the subsidy and then everyone speculating if the opposition will risk an election over it or not, instead of an examination of the merits of different funding regimes.

You can read my original post on the topic here, but in a nutshell my argument is quite similar to Simpson's: end the per vote subsidy but raise the individual donation limits while keeping the union and corporate bans in place. Dan Arnold has also weighed-in on the topic.

I should clarify my original argument a little, as it was seen by some as a partisan argument for a system designed to best advantage my party and disadvantage it's opponents. Obviously that's true in a sense; I'm a partisan, guilty as charged. But that wasn't the main point of my argument; it was more about strategy.

I was trying to say that if the Conservatives keep trying to push ending the subsidy as a wedge-issue we should outflank them by counter-proposing ending the subsidy but only with raising individual limits. To those who say we shouldn't be funding political parties with tax dollars, this is a perfectly reasonable counter-proposal that can't be dismissed out of hand.

The Conservatives would either a) back away because such a scheme would likely see the Liberals recover their fundraising levels (which they don't want), ending the move to kill the subsidy and maintaining the status quo b) accept the proposal, increasing the fundraising capacity for all parties (but strongly benefiting the Liberals, who have relied on larger donations), or c) reject the counter-proposal and carry on trying to end the subsidy with no other changes to increase capacity, which would expose their strategy as having nothing to do with principle and everything to do with partisanship, which won't play well with John Q Public.

That's what I was trying to argue with my initial post: a political strategy the Liberals could employ to neuter one of the big wedge issues the Conservatives have continually been threatening to employ, and indeed have in the past (see the fiscal update/prorogation drama.) It's also one that would resonate with the libertarians amongst the CPC.

Putting aside the politics, I have nothing against the per vote subsidy and would be fine seeing it continue. However, if it is ended I believe it is only fair to increase the fundraising capacity of all parties by raising the individual donor limit. And even if the per vote system remains, I do not believe their is a reasonable argument to be made for capping individual donation limits at $1100. I think they should be closer to the older $5000 level.

I accept the argument for banning union and corporate donations. But I say if a private individual has more than $1100 and wants to use it to support a political party or parties, they should be free to do so and you need a pretty strong argument to restrict them.

I don't accept the argument that someone donating between $1101 and $5000 would be gaining undue and improper influence with a government or politician. Frankly, if someone can be bought for so little, we have much bigger problems to deal with. And with all donation information being posted online, and with other tools such as the lobbyist registry, there is plenty of transparency to see who is donating what and if it is leading to anything improper. I'd rather have strict controls to identify and punish abusers than punitively restrict everyone. And $5000 should be a low-enough limit to keep such fears at bay.

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Bob Rae visits Vancouver Island North

The weekend before last Bob Rae swung-by my old stomping-grounds of Courtenay in support of our Liberal candidate for Vancouver Island North, Mike Holland. Below is some video of Bob and Mike's remarks to the local faithful.

In the next election, Mike will be going up against Conservative John Duncan (newly-minted Indian and Northern Affairs minister) and former NDP MP Catherine Bell. Tough competition to be sure, but Mike is also no stranger locally.

A former Courtenay city councilor, he's best known for leading the fight against the BC NDP government when it tried to seize the assets of charities such as Glacier View Lodge (a complex care facility), and later against the BC Liberal government when it reneged on its promise to build long-term care beds for the province's seniors.

Learn more about Mike on his campaign web site, mikeholland.liberal.ca, and his Facebook group.

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Saturday, August 07, 2010

Overlooked in cabinet shuffle: Strahl to transport, and where are the women?

Now that I’ve vented about the national media, I should probably comment on what they were at Rideau Hall to cover yesterday: a minor cabinet shuffle by the Harper government. And while the media coverage seems to be focused on John Baird’s move to House leader, I’m more interested in having Chuck Strahl replace him in Transport.

Actually, the media focus on Baird is unsurprising, and telling. Besides being a more provocative personality, focusing on Baird’s move to House leader allows the media to engage in their favourite past-time (while the rest of the country tunes-out): ponder what this means for the likelihood of an election.

Frankly, I think Baird’s appointment could go either way. He’s apparently a very collegial guy behind the scenes. He turns on the bombast for political effect at times in public; it’s just part of the game. House leader is often more of a behind-the-scenes role (how high-profile was Jay Hill?), and Baird’s bombast is just for the cameras. So, what tone will Baird take? It remains to be seen, but quite simply he’ll take whatever tone Stephen Harper wants him to take.

Then there’s John Duncan to Indian and Northern Affairs. Duncan is the MP for my riding in BC, so I’ve been familiar with John since he was first elected as a Reformer back in 1993. I’ll have more on him in a future post, as there are some interesting things that haven’t made it into the coverage yet.

What I found to be the real news out of this shuffle though was moving Strahl to Transport. This is the portfolio, of course, that has responsibility for the stimulus program. Obviously, the Conservatives are winding-down the program and are (supposedly) shifting to austerity mode. But the shoe has yet to drop on this file because soon, the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the Auditor General will be crawling all over the stimulus program with magnifying glasses and calculators. And given the sheer amount of dollars involved, it’s inevitable there is going to be some shenanigans of some sort discovered.

Certainly, this will be a portfolio that will soon be generating a lot of heat, and will be requiring its minister to be running a lot of aggressive defence, both within the House and in the media. Frankly, were I in central casting, I’d have picked Strahl, by all reports a good guy and competent minister, to run the program and then brought in pit-bull Baird to run defence. Harper is doing the opposite, and I’m not sure Strahl is the right guy for that role at all. If nothing else, it will be unfortunate to see him having to answer for the mistakes of Baird’s tenure, but that’s how the system works.

With a fall election highly unlikely (no matter what our media friends like to say), the stimulus fall-out and how Strahl handles the file is what I’ll be watching for going forward.

Finally, there's one other major angle to this minor shuffle that the press pack missed. Before the shuffle, they were all speculating on Shelly Glover's likely elevation to the cabinet. Why? Because in dumping Helena Guergis, Harper was low on female representation and it seemed clear Glover was being groomed for bigger things. Of course, Glover didn't get into cabinet yesterday, and neither did any other women. That's worth noting.

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Friday, August 06, 2010

Media obsess over stupid shit, Canadians tune out, Harper smiles

If in 50 years, a Canadian political science professor is lecturing his or her freshmen about the decline of political journalism in Canada, this morning’s spectacle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa would provide an interesting case study.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper had a rare press availability this morning, on the occasion of a minor cabinet shuffle. This was a notable for a number of reasons. One, Steve doesn’t talk to the media that much. He knows the risks of over-exposure, so he always leaves them wanting more. He also hasn’t been seen for some time while a number of controversial issues have swirled, such as more G-20 fallout, the census brouhaha, air attacks from the Soviet Union, an alarming rise in unreported crime, and some minor drama that 15 people will see in Toronto.

I was working so, sadly, I couldn’t watch the drama live. Thankfully, Twitter was on duty, and my hack/flack/journo column in Tweetdeck went wild with more cat-fighting than the last time Paris and Lindsay ended-up crossing paths at the same club in Hollywood.

The Globe’s Steven Chase does the synopsis well enough. But first, some helpful background. Our media long-ago caved to the Harper PMO’s desire for media control by agreeing to put their names on a list at press conferences, which allows the PMO to pick which journos to let ask a question. OK, go read Chase and come back.

First of all, let me say I think both David Akin and Craig Oliver’s questions were both pretty dumb. I prefer the two the pack came up with, although not by much. I have no problem though with letting them ask whatever the heck they want to, and I’m not upset at all they wanted to stray from the pack. I encourage it. I just wish they’d stray with questions that have a little more relevance to things Canadians actually care about.

Because I find this entire situation sadly laughable, and think everyone comes off looking pretty ridiculous.

First of all, there’s too much of a pack mentality in the Parliamentary Press Gallery as it is, and huddling to decide on your questions doesn’t help. And then getting huffy when Harper strays from the protocol he has put in place to control you by taking it one step further? I laughed. The problem isn’t that Harper strayed from the list; the problem is that you agreed to the dammed list in the first place! You’ve already surrendered, and now you’re complaining about the quality of the gruel in the prison camp? See the forest for the trees guys, really.

That’s what is at the root of this: Harper’s continual beating down of the national media, and the media’s unwavering willingness to stand there and take it. If the media just once said no, we’re not going to cover your photo-op, if they said if you insist on a list, and will only take four questions, then we’re not coming; he’d cave. Instead, too afraid in the 24-hour news cycle of losing one story, one “scoop” no matter how minor, they’ve given in.

I don’t blame Harper or the PMO one little bit. While as a democrat I bemoan the strategy, the fact is it’s working for them so why on Earth would they change anything? By limiting the opportunity and the questions, they limit the risk, and rather than lashing-out the media have tamely complied, rarely asking tough questions even when they get the opportunity. He’s playing them like a fiddle. Sure, they’ll grumble on Twitter. But then they’ll file the stories he was hoping for.

And don’t tell me the opposition leaders haven’t been watching this phenomenon carefully. Now obviously, opposition leaders need more media exposure, so they need to put themselves out there. Still, put yourself out there and take every question and you’ll either step on your crank or let the media finally hit on a negative story or one that you don’t want; it’s inevitable. Limit it, and they’re forced to parrot your message.

It’s rewarding bad behaviour and like a dog, with repeated reinforcement even a politician will learn eventually. By buying into Harper’s system, the media are perpetuating the behaviour they claim to dislike. Let’s say the Liberals win an election at some point (stick with me here), why would they do anything different than Harper on this? It clearly hasn’t hurt Harper at all.

The other problem is, when they do get a political leader in front of them, the questions the media ask usually have no relevance to what Canadians (their supposed audience) actually care about. This is true any time I see Harper, Ignatieff or Jack Layton taking questions. They inevitably ask about polls. Election speculation. Gamesmanship and the horserace. And their audience tunes-out, because outside the Ottawa bubble we could care less about that nonesense.

I’ve written about this before, but it’s instructive to look at what Canadians ask when they get a chance to question the leaders directly. Health care, foreign affairs, democratic institutions, drug policy, climate change, child care, post-secondary education. These are the sorts of things Canadians actually care about, yet they’re the things our media, supposedly our proxy to our political leadership, never ask about.

There are many challenges for the mainstream media at large to face in today’s media climate. But for our political media specifically, the solutions are clear: reconnect with what your audience actually cares about and act as their proxy, like you’re supposed to. And find where you left your stones.

After that, the rest will take care of itself.

P.S. Actually, there is one more thing the media needs to do. Not be afraid to call bullshit. And I don't mean this as a partisan thing, because all sides of the political spectrum put lots of bullshit out there. And, sadly, media see balance as letting each side have their say, no matter how full of bullshit they are. What they need to do instead is say no, actually the sky isn't blue and Canada isn't being invaded by unreported Communist unicorns.

Anyway, whenever I get too upset about any of this stuff, I'm comforted by reminding myself that hardly anyone is watching this crap anyway. Were I in the gallery though, I'd find that less comforting.

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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Stock and I make census of crime reporting

Stockwell Day says we can't rely on statistics showing a declining crime rate because those figures only measure reported crime. And Stock apparently has unreported figures that show unreported crime is rising (or maybe not):

Treasury Board President Stockwell Day says statistics showing crime in Canada is declining may not be accurate.

Day says the crime rate per 1,000 people has dropped, but adds that more people are not reporting crimes.

He says surveys suggest many people don't bother calling the police on some crimes.
The numbers are alarming, he says, although he did not elaborate.

Day says this is why the government plans to hike spending for new prisons.
What Stock failed to mention is that the reason we can't necessarily take those crime statistics at face value is because crime reporting is voluntary, which leads to an array of challenges that can skew the numbers. With the reporting pool self-selecting, some groups may be more likely to report criminal events: the middle-class, for example, or the the family of a murder victim. And those who live in high-crime neighbourhoods, or who are the victim of a minor crime such as j-walking, might not bother to report.

That's why tomorrow I'm told Stock will announce the Conservative Party's new "Get Tough on Unreported Crime" initiative, which will make crime reporting mandatory and threaten stiff fines and/or jail terms for failure to report crime.*

That's why they're really building all those prisons.

*No, not really.

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