Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Insufferable Mr. Flaherty

Jim Flaherty came to Toronto yesterday and lambasted Ontario for its poor fiscal management:

“Frankly, Ontario’s spending mismanagement is a problem for the entire country,” he said. “They have no one to blame but themselves.”

That really was a bit rich. After all, Mr, Flaherty and Mr. Harper just increased Ontario's spending by downloading the costs of its Omnibus Crime Bill to the province. But the statement was particularly hypocritical, coming as it did,  from the man who left Ontario with a $6 billion dollar deficit.

It's true that Bob Rae left a deficit of $12.4 billion. But Rae faced what was, up to that time, the worst recession since the Great Depression. Flaherty was Ontario's minister of finance during boom times -- when the Clinton and Chretien governments were raking up surpluses -- which Flaherty depleted in 18 months.

Consider the record: After slashing welfare payments, after eliminating an entire year of high school, after closing hospital beds and firing nurses --  Mike Harris said nurses had become as anachronistic as "hoola hoops" -- the best Jim Flaherty could manage was to leave the province $6 billion in the hole.

Jim has a penchant for saying absurd things. After Harris retired, and Flaherty ran for the leadership of his party, he suggested -- in all  seriousness -- that homelessness should be made illegal in Ontario. Which simply proves that someone can emerge with a law degree from Osgoode Hall and still possess a warped sense of justice. Perhaps that accounts for why the Canada Revenue Agency will now police environmental groups for illegal contributions -- and why the rules governing environmental reviews will now be applied retroactively.

Dwight Duncan was right: "Penny wise and pound foolish. That's Jim." In fact, Duncan's comment was probably behind Flaherty's intemperance.

Friday, March 30, 2012

About Those 19,200 Jobs

"Our government," Jim Flaherty announced yesterday, "has chosen prosperity." He then announced that the government would be slashing expenses by $5.2 billion and laying off 19,200 civil servants. In an interview with CTV's Graham Richardson, John Baird heaped scorn on those who had predicted 60,000 job losses.

Baird, like the man he answers to, is a master of the half truth. The 60,000 jobs figure included the cascading effect of cutting almost 20,000 public service positions. Over at The Progressive Economic Forum, Andrew Jackson wrote:

Each $1 billion of cuts to spending represents about 10,000 lost jobs, about evenly divided between direct federal government jobs and private and not-for-profit sector jobs supported by federal government purchases of goods and services. So, the overall negative impact of the Budget on jobs will be about 50,000 when the measures are fully implemented.

President Obama's rescue of GM and Chrysler was motivated by the horrendous job loss the bankruptcy of both companies would have caused. Economics 101 teaches that jobs have a multiplier effect. Creating jobs creates more jobs. Cutting jobs cuts more jobs.

Over on the other side of the political spectrum, Andrew Coyne was also unhappy with the federal job cuts -- but for different reasons:

All that the Tories are proposing to do is to roll back some of the increased spending that they themselves introduced. The public service from which the Tories pledge to trim 19,000 employees is the same one to which they added more than 30,000.

But Coyne went beyond the jobs numbers. The Conservatives, he implied, are phonies:

You fiscal conservatives who hung on all this time, while the Harper Conservatives ran up spending to levels no previous government had ever dreamt of — you who stood by the party through the years of minority government while it discarded every principle it had ever held and every commitment it had ever made — you who swallowed all of this in the belief that, one day, the Conservatives would win their long-sought majority, and all your compromises would prove to have been worthwhile: you, ladies and gentlemen, have been had.

Coyne does conclude, however, that the government is headed in the right direction. It has adopted the European solution. Prosperity, Mr Flaherty says, is just around the corner.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Pitbulls And The Statesman

Since Thomas Mulcair assumed the leadership of the NDP, much has been written about Stephen Harper having met his match. Others have speculated that, between them, Harper and Mulcair are plotting the demise of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Certainly Harper deserves the kind of opposition he will encounter in Mulcair. In many ways, Mulcair is an inverted Stephen Harper. Charles Pascal writes in today's Toronto Star that the two share remarkable similarities:

Harper and Mulcair will seem like two peas in the parliamentary pod. Yes, both have tempers, both behave smarter than others in “the room,” both are stubborn and neither seems comfortable in their own skin. It’s always hard for me to trust anyone who doesn’t know how to smile a natural smile, at least in public. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Leader of the official Opposition seems to have a sense of humour about anything, especially themselves.

All of the speculation is premature.  We will see if Tom Mulcair can laugh, not only at others, but at himself. Which brings us to Bob Rae -- who has no trouble laughing at human foibles, even his own. Pascal writes that the coming battle between Harper and Mulcair presents Rae and the Liberals with a significant opportunity:

Enter stage middle-left, Bob Rae, who will increasingly have his natural statesmanship persona exaggerated by the company he keeps in the House of Commons. Rae’s energy, intelligence, humour, experience and a likeability quotient in Quebec, the West and down east will serve him well if he stands back and lets the other boys try to outrant each other. He needs to let Mulcair and Harper penetrate each other’s skin, content on playing the role of the above-the-fray statesman and mediator offering up ideas that matter, while meticulously exposing the current government’s move away from traditional Canadian values.

No one on the international stage will pay Harper the compliment of being a statesman. And I suspect that  international diplomats have already tagged John Baird as a buffoon. When Baird ordered  that Lester Pearson's name be removed from Ministry of Foreign Affairs letterhead, his action spoke volumes.

One hopes that Rae will remind Canadians -- and those beyond Canada's borders -- of Mike Pearson and what he stood for.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Wizard Of Austerity

Like Dorothy and her companions, Stephen Harper's Conservatives and Dalton McGuinty's Liberals are skipping down that yellow brick road, hoping that the Wizard of Austerity will take them back to the good old days. The Canadian Press reports this morning that Jim Flaherty will take $7 billion dollars out of this year's government spending:

Conservative sources say months of poring through the $80-billion discretionary spending envelope with a fine-tooth comb has led to about 8.5 per cent in savings worth around $7 billion. Discretionary spending is all of the money the government spends apart from transfers to the provinces and individuals for programs such as health care.

Flaherty will not detail how the cuts will be implemented in the budget, but the sources say most of the reductions will be front-loaded to realize the biggest savings.

It's not surprising that Flaherty will not provide details. The Conservatives never do -- on prisons, on fighter jets, on job cuts. But the job cuts will be significant:

Some have estimated the cuts could result in upwards of 60,000 public service jobs being eliminated, although government ministers say most of the losses will be through attrition.

Don't believe it. Back when Flaherty was Ontario's finance minister, he claimed that government spending reductions would be revenue neutral. That was code for downloading expenses to other levels of government. It is the same strategy being used in the omnibus crime bill.

And Ontario, knowing that it is under the gun, has vowed to take $17.7 billion out of government spending over the next three years. McGuinty plans to generate these savings primarily by freezing public sector wages, not cutting jobs.

The problem with both plans is that they assume that austerity will generate economic growth. That's precisely the same plan the Europeans have implemented. The Greeks, the Irish and the British will tell you how well things are going.

Paul Krugman has argued for years that you can't cut your way to prosperity. Herbert Hoover has risen from his grave and lives in Canada. The March of Folly continues.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Whose Sacred Cow?

Lawrence Martin writes this morning that Canada is about to take a sharp right turn. In the process, several of the country's sacred cows will be sent to the abattoir:

If there’s a theme, it’s market efficiency. If there’s a target, it’s some of the country’s long-standing sacred cows. The transformation, some of which will be outlined in Thursday’s budget, will incense social democrats but find big favour on the right.

From healthcare to immigration, the Harperites intend to send the entire herd to the slaughterhouse:

Start with the health-care system. Mr. Harper and company have outlined plans for funding changes that will allow provinces to spend federal cash as they like, no strings attached. If provinces wish to go the privatization route, they’ll be free to do so.

Consistency of care has gone out the window. Now every province -- like every man and woman -- is on its own.

And the country which used to open its arms to the poor and the needy is going upmarket:

Regarding immigration, on the table is what Jason Kenney calls “transformational change”: a streamlining of the system that’s meant to blast away the backlog and allow provinces to cherry-pick newcomers, with the intent of bringing skilled professionals to the country instead of freeloaders.

The  Conservatives only have one sacred cow. The common thread that ties all of these changes together is that they are all  "market driven."  What's strange is that 2008 provided the world with cascading evidence of what happens when countries worship at that altar. But, like the residents of Jamestown, the prime minister and his party have drunk the Kool-Aide.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Shining A Light On ALEC

Paul Krugman writes that one of the consequences of the Trayvon Martin shooting is that people are beginning to focus on so called Stand Your Ground Laws and the people behind them. What we're discovering is that the people behind these laws have gathered under the acronym  ALEC. And the truth is they are "the usual suspects:"

What is ALEC? Despite claims that it’s nonpartisan, it’s very much a movement-conservative organization, funded by the usual suspects: the Kochs, Exxon Mobil, and so on. Unlike other such groups, however, it doesn’t just influence laws, it literally writes them, supplying fully drafted bills to state legislators. In Virginia, for example, more than 50 ALEC-written bills have been introduced, many almost word for word. And these bills often become law.

Many ALEC-drafted bills pursue standard conservative goals: union-busting, undermining environmental protection, tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy. ALEC seems, however, to have a special interest in privatization — that is, on turning the provision of public services, from schools to prisons, over to for-profit corporations. And some of the most prominent beneficiaries of privatization, such as the online education company K12 Inc. and the prison operator Corrections Corporation of America, are, not surprisingly, very much involved with the organization.

What's truly disturbing is how an oligarchy has stayed under the radar. In a nation which supposedly stands for open government, covert operations  -- military or civilian -- have become a widely practised art.  More than that, writes Krugman, the so called proponents of  "free market capitalism" have actually worked hard to make crony capitalism as American as NASCAR:

What this tells us, in turn, is that ALEC’s claim to stand for limited government and free markets is deeply misleading. To a large extent the organization seeks not limited government but privatized government, in which corporations get their profits from taxpayer dollars, dollars steered their way by friendly politicians. In short, ALEC isn’t so much about promoting free markets as it is about expanding crony capitalism.

The snake oil salesmen are on a roll.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Native Son

Yesterday the NDP chose a native son -- a Quebecer born and bred. In fact, the final choice came down to two native sons. One of the differences between Mulcair and Brian Topp is that Mulcair has a longer political pedigree -- going all the way back to Honore Mercier. But Mulcair is not the NDP's first native son. People forget that Jack Layton also claimed that title -- something which became immediately apparent when Layton switched from English to French and back again.

The choice of a native son used to be a time honoured Liberal strategy. From Wilfred Laurier to Jean Chretien, it served the party well -- until they chose Stephane Dion. Dion was always uncomfortable in English. He had a hard time making a sale in his second language. Chretien's English was not eloquent --. but his syntax in French was as fractured as it was in English. And people knew he said the same thing in both languages.

Dion's real problem was that he carried -- unjustifiably -- the baggage of the Sponsorship Scandal. It was his burden from his first day as leader until his last.

The choice of a native son has worked well for all three parties -- for the Liberals,  for the Conservatives, under Brian Mulroney, and for the NDP, under Layton.  Under Harper, the Conservatives  chose to ditch that model. People also forget that, during Harper's Reform Party days, lawn signs appeared in ridings like my own -- smack dab in the middle of Loyalist country -- which read, "No More Prime Ministers From Quebec."

The Harperites believe, with Henry Ford, that "history is bunk." Like their cousins, the Bushies of the last decade, they believe that they "make their own reality." In the end, reality came crashing down around the Bushies' ears. We shall see what happens here.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

And The Winner Is . . .

Who knows? Lawrence Martin writes this morning that:

Just a little more than a week ago, Mulcair was riding a wave of endorsements from party members and media pundits. Now though, there is doubt. You can see it on the faces of those in his camp and even on that of the candidate himself.

Mulcair's claim to fame, it seems to me, is that he can maintain the party's beachhead in Quebec. I have never really believed that the beachhead is permanent, because -- well, because Quebec is Quebec. Recent polls indicate that the Bloc Quebecois is making a come back. That comes as no surprise to those of us who grew up in la belle province.

But a recent Nanos poll suggests that half of Canadian voters might support an NDP government -- but that, of course, would require significant support across the country. Nathan Cullen is a very interesting candidate. He sees the obvious problem progressives face, but I'm not sure there is enough support in the party to back his vision.

Today's choice of a leader is crucial for the party. And it's crucial for Stephen Harper. The attack ads are set to go. You can be sure that the phrase "unfit to govern" will be repeated again and again when the convention is over.

Whoever wins will need to take on a prime minister who -- as  robocam proves -- will stop at nothing to win.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Icredible Shrinking Mayor

A cautionary tale is unfolding in the city of Toronto.Yesterday, for the second time in recent memory, Toronto City Council told Mayor Rob Ford to take a walk down to the bottom of John Street and jump in the lake. Ford's story is about more than his obsession with subways. It's about a man who suffers from the delusion that, because he possesses what Teddy Roosevelt called a "bully pulpit," he also has the right to be a political bully.

That delusion is underscored by the fact that the man who vowed to cut taxes with a vengeance was willing to impose a tax increase to get his subways.The irony is as rich as the proclamation of the long dead despot in Shelley's poem: "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

Toronto's library workers have just gone on strike. The city's inside workers are now poised to walk out, too. But Ford is in no mood to compromise, either with council or the city's work force. Like Ozymandias, he expects all to bow before him.

Ford recently -- to great fanfare -- went on a crash diet. At last report his weight loss had stalled. Now,  everything else at city hall is beginning to crash. There are obvious lessons for other politicians here. One is that, when "we the people" get organized, all hell can break loose. It will be interesting to see who is paying attention.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

While We Were Sleeping

Some pretty fundamental -- and frightening -- changes have gone on while we were sleeping. The voter suppression scandal is only the latest in a long list of abuses which have flourished under Stephen Harper. Michael Harris catalogues them:

How quickly and efficiently Canadian democracy has been soundproofed.

By turning the committee system into a backroom show, the Tories have pulled the wings off the average opposition MP. If he doesn’t fly in committee, the backbench MP doesn’t fly at all.

Rival political parties have seen their public funding cancelled in the name of free market principles that give an immediate and maybe irreversible financial advantage to the Conservatives.

Parliament tries to hold the government to account but that is impossible without timely and accurate costing of government programs, which the government, of course, withholds. So instead there is the daily screaming match called Question Period that only paid professionals and near relatives can watch.

Non-governmental agencies have been punished by fiercely partisan government funding decisions.
Cabinet ministers rather than departments now decide which studies get published, a ploy which carries the handy benefit of never having purely ideological government policy embarrassed by the facts.

Scientists have to raise their hands and ask permission of political toads in ministers’ offices before speaking about their work. Remember when you had to do that in Grade Three to get a pee break?

And Canadians have slept through it all, more concerned about their pocket books than democracy. Perhaps, Harris writes, we have reached the point which Lewis Lapham lamented in his book The Wish for Kings:

He opined that the ruling and possessing classes had decided that the practice of democratic government was both a risk and a luxury that they were no longer willing to finance. And he wondered about the value of free expression to people so frightened of the future that they preferred the reassurance of the authoritative lie to the truth. And why insist on the guarantee of so many superfluous civil liberties when everybody was having enough trouble just holding on to a job?

It can all slip away so easily -- while we are sleeping.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Swiftboating His Opponents

The central problem the opposition parties have with Stephen Harper is that he defines the terms of the debate.He does that, first and foremost, by conducting an eternal campaign. His forces are continually on the attack, defining his opponents as weak, and their policies as un-Canadian.

The recently released attack ads against Bob Rae are the most recent example of his game plan. He has used the same plan against the NDP. Tim Harper writes in today's Toronto Star that:

The Conservatives have been road-testing their anti-NDP message in the House of Commons almost since late leader Jack Layton’s electoral breakthrough of May 2011.

Conservative members have risen time and again in the Commons during a time slot for statements — which are not supposed to be used for partisan attacks — to proclaim the NDP is “not fit to govern.’’

They have parodied the New Democrats as the “No Development Party’’ each time an opposition member has raised questions about the Conservatives energy policies.

They were called the “No Defence Party” when New Democrats rose in the House to question the cost and delivery schedule of the Conservatives’ sole-sourced F-35 fighter jet purchase.

There is a term for this strategy. It's called "Swiftboating;" and it takes its name from the attack Republicans waged against John Kerry. It worked with cynical effectiveness, turning a decorated war veteran into a coward. Kerry lost to a man who worked hard to avoid service in Vietnam, while he flew jets around the southern U.S.

Harper, Bob Rae has said, "throws for the head." But, if  the opposition and the press stay on the election fraud story, they'll eventually sink Harper's swiftboat.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Party Of Illusions

Whatever else the Harper Conservatives are, they are good magicians. They are in the business of selling illusions. They claim to be the party of prosperity, when they are, in fact, the party of scarcity. They claim to stand for accountability, as they conduct parliamentary committees behind closed doors. They claim to be the party of limited government, when, under Harper's regime, the state -- in Lawrence Martin's phrase -- "is everywhere."

Any good magician knows that illusions only work if you can create a successful diversion. And that's what the new attack on Bob Rae is. It's an attempt to take the focus off the party. The problem, the newly released ad says, isn't Stephen Harper. It's Bob Rae.

The party has been in hot water before -- over political party subsidies, over Afghan prisoners and over contempt for Parliament. Each time it successfully created an diversion. In fact, in the first and third cases, the same diversion worked twice: they called it the "separatist coalition." Proroguing parliament got them off the hook in the showdown between Harper and Richard Colvin.

But the Conservatives are now in the tightest spot they have ever faced. As reports of election fraud have spread across the country to over 80 of Canada's 308 ridings, they know their government's legitimacy is at stake. And they will do anything -- anything -- to protect the bunker.

The ad against Rae needs to be seen in that context. This time there will be a response. And there is plenty of material available to the Liberals: the $12 million surplus that disappeared in 18 months; the Great Recession -- which Harper cheerfully predicted wouldn't happen; and the jobs which Canadians lost -- and continue to lose -- during that recession.

But it would be a mistake to simply get into he said/we say mode. This is all about trying to change the channel. The Conservatives want voting fraud to go away. They think they can make it go away by making Bob Rae go away. Neither will disappear.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Healing Divisions

The Toronto Star has endorsed Thomas Mulcair for the leadership of the NDP. So has Gerry Caplan. Ed Broadbent has his strident doubts. What's going on?

Broadbent's outburst was unexpectedly strident. He knows that -- in the end -- politics is about making deals. The question always is, what are the consequences down the road?  Broadbent fears that the NDP will sell out its social democratic principles for power. Caplan feels that, until the NDP wins a majority, the party will not be able to put its principles into practice. Mulcair, he writes, has the "royal jelly" to make that happen:

He sees himself as a leader, feels himself to be a leader, can convince others he’s a real leader. Strangely enough, this is not true of all leadership candidates, but it’s an essential attribute. I find him a natural leader. So do many of his peers, it seems. It can hardly be insignificant that he’s won the endorsements of 43 of his fellow MPs, more than the total of all his opponents combined. 

Broadbent is not nearly as confident as Caplan is about Mulcair's leadership abilities:

Mr. Broadbent also wondered openly about Mr. Mulcair’s abilities as a leader, namely in terms of maintaining cohesion among the large 101-member Official Opposition caucus. His comments echoed a concern among NDP workers and supporters about Mr. Mulcair’s temper, which he has carefully kept in check during the seven-month race. 

I have no idea who will fill Jack Layton's shoes. But whoever wins will need to be a healer. A divided NDP furthers Stephen Harper's agenda.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mitt And The Common Man

Maureen Dowd has a column in this morning's New York Times about the problems Mitt Romney has admitting publicly to the tenets of his faith. I have never been too concerned with Romney's faith. That is between him and his God. But I am troubled by something else Dowd mentions.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Romney has applied for a permit "to replace his single-story 3,000-square-foot beach house in La Jolla, Calif., with a 7,400-square-foot home featuring an additional 3,600 square feet of finished underground space." His New Hampshire home, I read, is also impressive.

Considering that the financial collapse of 2008 was caused by a mortgage crisis -- and considering that millions of Americans have lost their homes or are struggling to stay in them -- Romney's decision, at this point in the campaign, seems remarkably insensitive, to say the least.

It plays into Romney's central problem: People don't believe he is who he says he is. Dowd writes:

There’s a certain pathos to Romney. His manner is so inauthentic, you can’t find him anywhere. Is he the guy he was on Wednesday or the guy he was on Thursday?

He has the same problem that diminished the equally animatronic Al Gore. Gore kept mum on the one thing that made him come alive, the environment, fearing he’d be cast, as W. liked to say, as “a green, green lima bean.”

People  -- including the Nobel Committee -- listened to Gore when he finally stood up for what he believed. Romney's problem is that no one really knows what he believes -- although actions like bulldozing his California house and replacing it with a house that most Americans would find  a tad too opulent is sure to fuel suspicions that Romney is not the man he claims to be. He certainly is not a common man.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

So Let's Talk About Guelph

It was almost comical  yesterday to watch the Conservatives frantically insist that any election fraud was limited to the riding of Guelph -- and that it was purely accidental:

Conservative partisans tried on Friday to tamp down the notion that the problem was bigger than Guelph, releasing records of calls made by an unknown operative who hid behind the alias Pierre Poutine. These records, provided to select journalists Friday, showed that thousands of calls were made to residents of Guelph, and that more than 140 stray calls were dialled to ridings outside the Southern Ontario city – likely in error.

Ignore, for the moment, that this information was "provided to select journalists."  Concentrate on the phrase "in error."  And, while Conservatives claim a few insignificant mistakes, details about how badly the Conservatives wanted to win Geulph -- and how the campaign was managed from the centre -- keep coming out:

From the onset of last year’s federal election, Guelph was a riding to watch. The national Conservative campaign dispatched Mr. Harper to the city west of Toronto, and several prominent Conservative MPs, including Jim Flaherty and Jason Kenney, visited to lend their support.

Rookie Tory candidate Marty Burke’s prospects of winning appeared strong, with early polling suggesting the airline pilot was within 900 to 1,200 votes of knocking off popular Liberal incumbent Frank Valeriote, a source familiar with the campaign said. But centralized control over messaging frustrated the Guelph team, former campaign workers noted. Mr. Burke, known as a blunt talker, was told to stick to the party’s script.

“The Marty Burke campaign was a stressed-out campaign,” a source said. “It was a campaign that was micromanaged in Ottawa.”

Even as the Conservatives try to argue that there was a rogue lose in Guelph, it becomes increasingly clear that the rogue was loose in Ottawa.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Harper's War On Government

Stephen Harper has invited comparisons with Richard Nixon ever since he came to Ottawa. Lawrence Martin has admitted that the genesis of his latest book, Harperland, came from Rick Pearlstein's seminal study of the late president, Nixonland. Bob Rae, who used to deliver newspapers to Nixon, has also drawn the comparison.

In a recent op-ed in the Winnipeg Free Press, Frances Russell again brings up the similarities between the two men. To underscore her argument, she refers to an article in The Guardian by Trent University historian Dimitry Anastakis and journalist Jeet Heer:

In an article published in the British newspaper The Guardian in April, 2008, Anastakis and Heer wrote that, like Nixon, Harper displays "utter contempt" for public institutions. "In fact, it's not a stretch to say that Harper sees many Canadian institutions -- Elections Canada being simply his latest target -- as illegitimate... Canadians have never had a prime minister who has literally made his career attacking and undermining the legitimacy of Canadian institutions."

Anastakis and Heer note Pulitzer prize-winning U.S. historian Garry Wills once observed Nixon wanted to be president "not to govern the nation but to undermine the government. The Nixon presidency was one long counterinsurgency against key American institutions."

Wills' insights into Nixon have always rung true. He was brilliant and paranoid. He saw enemies everywhere and devoted all his effort to destroying those he felt had slighted him. Times were different then. The Republican Party had not gone off the deep end. They cooperated with legal and congressional investigations into Watergate. In the end, it was Senator Barry Goldwater who led a group of senators to the White House to tell Nixon that his lease on the place was up.

Stephen Harper will test this country's institutions -- if he doesn't destroy them first.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Price Of Loyalty

The Conservatives have thrown Michael Sona under the bus, despite his protests that he had nothing to do with the voter calling scandal. He was an easy scapegoat. His behaviour at a University of Guelph polling station made him what Claude Rains called a "usual suspect." But Sona has refused to take the fall for what happened in Guelph.

Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher report that:

Anonymous Conservatives have repeatedly directed blame at Michael Sona, 23, singling out him alone among a group of workers on the campaign of Guelph, Ont., candidate Marty Burke.

As recently as Monday night, Conservative sources were pointing to Sona in connection to the Guelph robocalls. A CTV News report cited unnamed Conservatives saying he had owned up to the calls amid reports that the investigation had traced an IP address used by “Poutine” to a home in Guelph.

Sona has told co-workers on Parliament Hill he was stunned to learn he’d been named in connection with fraudulent calls in the Ontario riding by unknown senior figures in the party.

And Elections Canada does not appear to believe that

a 23-year-old, acting alone, would have been able to pull off the complicated “Pierre Poutine” scam — recording a bilingual, legitimate-sounding message purportedly from Elections Canada, setting up a screen of two false identities using a prepaid cellphone and credit card, and expertly covering his electronic tracks.

Sona's story has a familiar ring. Conservatives are not just focused on destroying their enemies.  When the going gets tough, they eat their own progeny. There was Chuck Cadman -- who Harper replaced as the party candidate in Surrey North. However, Cadman won the riding and refused to vote with Harper to bring down the Martin government. .And there were those rumours about Cadman being offered a quid pro quo for his vote.

Then there was Garth Turner, whose blog violated the Conservatives dogma on message control. When Turner refused to shut down the blog, Harper threw him out of the party.

And, finally, there was Helena Geurgis. Her behaviour did not serve her or the party well. But Harper insinuated that she had been involved in illegal activities and showed her the door. The RCMP could find no evidence of illegal behaviour.

The Conservatives do not just tar their enemies -- they tar their own, while they insist on absolute loyalty to le chef. Sona's story is yet another indication of what that loyalty buys.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The New Solitudes

Gerry Nicholls writes that there are two Canadas. Not the two solitudes Hugh Maclennan described seventy years ago -- although reaction in Quebec to the recently passed omnibus crime bill suggests that we may revisit history. The New Solitudes -- according to Nicholls -- are best described as Political Junkie Land and Regular Canadian Land. The latter category sounds suspiciously like what Sarah Palin calls "Real Americans:"

Political Junkie Land, for instance, is populated with party partisans, political hacks, journalists, activists, and politicians.

It's a land where politics is the national sport. Political Junkie Landers love to discuss and debate policy and political process; they are fascinated with the "politics of politics;" for fun they read political opinion polls and watch public affairs programs. And they love to passionately debate each other over the minutest of political issues.

Regular Canadian Land, on the other hand, is a nation that's composed of average non-ideological, non-partisan Canadians. And they care about stuff that affects their daily lives.

They worry about paying for their kids' education; they are concerned about keeping their jobs and paying for their mortgages. They are not concerned with the inner workings of public policy and politics. They care more about NHL standings than they do about standings of political opinion polls.

Yet Political Junkie Landers erroneously believe that what matters to them must also matter to the residents of Regular Canadian Land.

Sheer political sophistry -- something that Mr. Nicholls and Stephen Harper have practised throughout their careers. In the end, Nicholls writes, roboscam will amount to nothing. We shall see.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What's In a Name

When Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay agreed to their marriage of convenience nine years ago, they dropped the word "Progressive" from the party brand. It was a momentous omission and a harbinger of things to come -- particularly the roboscam scandal. It signalled that everyone outside the party's narrowly defined limits was prey -- either to be destroyed, neutralized or captured.

Linda McQuaig writes that it is hard to imagine the old Progressive Conservative Party engaging in the nasty, take no prisoners politics that the Harperites practice -- not just because the technology required was unavailable, but because of who led the old party:

Deliberate voter suppression would have seemed inconceivable in a Conservative party headed by Joe Clark or Robert Stanfield. But the gloves-off Harper partisans have shown such a taste for American-style electoral hardball — by, for example, misrepresenting Liberal Irwin Cotler in a phone-call campaign deemed “reprehensible” by the (Conservative) Speaker of the House — that voter suppression perhaps seemed to them like just one tiny step further over the foul line.

Certainly the use of call centres in political campaigns has been imported from the United States. The Conservatives have made use of such American firms as Front Porch Strategies to help them reach voters. But, the problem is, Andrew Coyne writes in today's National Postthat call centres treat voters as prey:

The party calling knows who you are, which party you support, and what sorts of issues people like you are concerned about, and in the intimacy of that phone call, can tell you exactly what you want to hear, without concern for how the same message might resonate with other voters. What the mass media of the 20th century largely took away from the parties — the ability to say one thing to one group of voters and another, sometimes contradictory thing to another — the micro-media of the 21st century has restored.

It's standard operating procedure at all call centres. And, therefore, they should be banned from the political process:

I get why the parties think this way. What I don’t get is why the rest of us should: why we should consent to being treated in this condescending, manipulative way — still less why we should help the parties do it. Yet the reality is that this sort of campaigning could not be conducted without the collusion of the state, of the government that belongs to us. It is time it stopped.

The parties could not conduct these massive phone campaigns, for starters, if Elections Canada did not make available to them its list of registered voters. It did not always do so. It should stop.

They could not do so, likewise, had they not arranged to exempt themselves from the “do not call” lists to which private telemarketers are subject. Neither could the parties maintain quite such sophisticated voter databases had they not also exempted themselves from the relevant privacy laws. Both of these privileges should be withdrawn.

The immediate problem is to find out who is responsible and to apply Canada's election laws as written. That means someone should go to jail. After all, the government says that its new crime bill -- which passed yesterday -- is all about protecting the public. Unfortunately, despite the rhetoric, the Conservatives have no intention of protecting the public, least of all from them. It's in the name.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Grecian Formula

Almost a year ago, Stephen Harper travelled to Greece to encourage Greek prime minister George Papandreou to screw his courage to the sticking point and go further down Austerity Road. Papandreou has since departed in disgrace and -- if Michael Den Tandt's reporting is correct -- Harper is about to apply his own version of Grecian formula to the Canadian economy.

Harper is not in the habit of listening to expert opinion. But he should lend an eye to Paul Krugman's column in today's New York Times. Krugman writes that Greece illustrates how profligate spending in good times can get you into trouble. However,

trying to eliminate deficits once you’re already in trouble is a recipe for depression.

These days, austerity-induced depressions are visible all around Europe’s periphery. Greece is the worst case, with unemployment soaring to 20 percent even as public services, including health care, collapse. But Ireland, which has done everything the austerity crowd wanted, is in terrible shape too, with unemployment near 15 percent and real G.D.P. down by double digits. Portugal and Spain are in similarly dire straits.

And austerity in a slump doesn’t just inflict vast suffering. There is growing evidence that it is self-defeating even in purely fiscal terms, as the combination of falling revenues due to a depressed economy and worsened long-term prospects actually reduces market confidence and makes the future debt burden harder to handle. You have to wonder how countries that are systematically denying a future to their young people — youth unemployment in Ireland, which used to be lower than in the United States, is now almost 30 percent, while it’s near 50 percent in Greece — are supposed to achieve enough growth to service their debt. 

Harper claims that he is reforming OAS to save the young from an impossible financial burden. But youth unemployment is at record highs -- and the Canadian economy has lost jobs for the last six months. Harper proposes to do what Greece did -- at his urging.

Repeating the same policy and expecting a different result, Einstein said, is insanity. Stephen Harper is no Einstein.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

There Are None So Blind

The Manning Centre came to Ottawa this weekend to celebrate Conservatism Triumphant. And it demonstrated, yet again, the party's fatal flaw -- its garrison mentality. Richard Ciano, head of Campaign Research, told his audience that the barbarians were at the gate:

Any deliberate attempt to frustrate a voter’s desire to cast a ballot with fraud or misdirection is completely deplorable,” he said. “But I also observe that the Liberal and NDP’s systematic undermining of confidence in Canada’s electoral process, and fear mongering about virtually all forms of live or automated telephone calls to voters, is equally cynical and self-serving.”

Ciano says opposition parties are manipulating Canadians into believing they received phoney calls because they’ve realized they are not as good as the Conservatives at reaching the electorate. “Rather than pull up their sleeves and get to work to eliminate our advantage they want to take the typical socialist/big government approach to their problem,” he said. “Create a public crisis of confidence in telephone contact so that they can ban it at the next possible opportunity.”

It was classic Conservative boiler plate. You can't trust "the others."

Andrew Coyne had the temerity to suggest that the party had internal problems and had lost its way:

That party was for a robust Parliament, with more powerful MPs, free of the party whip. Needless to say you are not that party. That party was for a balanced federation of equal provinces. But you are now the party of asymmetric federalism and nations within nations.

That party was against breaking election promises. That party was against patronage and pork-barreling. And that party was against corruption and political dirty tricks. I don’t know whether you are still that party.

And Preston Manning opined that party campaign workers needed "ethical training."

But no one dared suggest that the party's big guns were ethically challenged. Therefore, no one should be surprised if Vic Toews continues to harrumph that his opponents lack moral rectitude. Nor should they be surprised when Tony Clement insists that the question all civil servants should ask themselves is, "How can I do my job in an excellent way at less cost to taxpayers?" And, of course, no one will bat an eye when Stephen Harper complains that he and his party are victims of a "smear campaign."

Analysis -- particularly self-analysis -- was never the Conservatives' strong suit. Swift and Rabelais would milk this cast of characters for all they are worth. They knew that there was no better subject for comedy than the wilfully blind.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

By Whatever Means Necessary

Consider what has happened in the last three elections: In 2006, the Harper Conservatives -- in their quest for a majority -- broke Canada's campaign finance laws. In 2008, they broke their own fixed date election law. In 2012, by suppressing key voters in key ridings, they flipped an election.

Why? Was it simply a pathological drive for power? Naomi Klein suggested in The Shock Doctrine that advocates of disaster capitalism around the world have recognized that democracy is an obstacle to the implementation of their program. It's hard to get the public to vote against its self interest. The solution is to rig the vote.

Michael Den Tandt reports that the budget Jim Flaherty will present at the end of the month will be built on the principles of disaster capitalism:

What's interesting about the government's intentions now, heading into the budget, is how determined the Conservatives are to press ahead with a full suite of significant reform, controversies be damned — and how far the plan extends beyond the OAS system. The change envisioned is huge.

For starters, the age of eligibility for OAS will indeed rise from the current 65 to 67 (though in grandfathered fashion, so that only those younger than 50 or so now will be affected), sources confirm. Beyond that, immigration, resource development, research and innovation and trade are also being overhauled, all while the government moves more aggressively than previously signalled to balance the books. (The Finance department has said budget cuts will be in a range between $4 billion and $8 billion. As I reported here last week, the overwhelming majority of Tory ministers and MPs are pushing hard for cuts at the very upper end of that range, because they want to campaign in 2015 on a balanced budget.)

Their majority gives the Conservatives a chance to set a radically different course for Canada. Den Tendt writes that they hope the debate on the budget will blow the robocall scandal off the radar screen.

If the opposition parties are wise, they will link the budget to the robocalls. After all, one wouldn't be possible without the other. The Harper government is dedicated to Milton Friedman's revolution. And they are prepared to implement it by whatever means are necessary.

Friday, March 09, 2012

What Did He Know, And When Did He Know It?

That was the question Senator Howard Baker asked as the United States Congress moved toward its decision to impeach Richard Nixon. And that is the question Lawrence Martin asks this morning. At present, we have no definitive answer:

Thus far, the evidence as to the incidence of the dirty work in the last election is mixed. No one should start jumping to any conclusions. It’s very unlikely that Stephen Harper was an architect of any widespread vote suppression campaign. Even if he were, it’s unlikely we’d ever know about it. Failproof deniability scenarios would surely have been put in place.

The real question, Martin writes, is whether Harper turned a blind eye. A review of the record would leave any unbiased observer suspicious:

It need be recalled that respect for democratic practises has never been high on the list of this prime minister and his coterie. If getting their way required running roughshod over the system, they were prepared to do it. There are dozens of examples, not the least which were Harper’s being found in contempt of parliament, his proroguing of parliament for crassly political ends, his use of closure and time limits to cut off debate, his putting in place a vetting and censorship second to none. Given all this, it would hardly be shocking to imagine voter suppression tactics being employed.

Against that record, Harper and Guy Giorno have offered categorical denials that their party was involved in any voter suppression scheme:

Harper and Guy Giorno, his former chief of staff, have both strongly denied any involvement by the Conservatives in the robocall scam. Those denials were so categorical that they should be accorded a good deal of weight. At the same time, a lot of denials on a lot of charges have been made by this government over the years and the record shows that many of them have not withstood the test of scrutiny. In matters relating to the Afghan detainees affair or the “in and out” scam, or the G-8 spending boondoggle to name just a few, the track record for truth telling is hardly impressive.

Canadians should not be prepared to take either man at his word. But they need an answer to Senator Baker's question.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Hepburn On Harper

Yesterday, Bob Hepburn publicly apologized to Brian Mulroney. He explained that Mulroney used to have no equal:

Several years ago, I wrote that Mulroney, more than any politician in modern history, is responsible for the current level of disdain and lack of interest that Canadians have for politicians and politics in general.

I based that claim on the fact that during his winning 1984 election Mulroney pledged to wipe out corruption and political patronage and bring new openness to government, but he ultimately failed voters badly.

Under his leadership, corruption, patronage, secrecy and government arrogance actually grew. The result was that, unlike any time before, Canadians in droves gave up on politicians of all parties, writing them off as simply “more of the same.”

But now, writes Hepburn, Mulroney has met his match -- and Stephen Harper has left him in the dust.  As proof, he offers the anecdotal evidence of a minister and formal NDP candidate:

I came to that realization while attending a funeral earlier this week in Leamington, a town as far away from Parliament Hill as you can get in southern Ontario.

After the service, I talked with a United Church minister who once ran, unsuccessfully, in Saskatchewan for the NDP. We started to talk about the NDP leadership race, but he quickly admitted he no longer follows politics closely. Politics today, he said, is more about sleaze, personal attacks, dirty tricks, cheating, and rarely about issues that affect the lives of people like those in Leamington.

And he pointed a finger specifically at the robocall affair, which he said reinforces the view that politics as practised today is dirty and corrupt.

The disillusioned minister gets to the core of the problem. When the investigation is over -- either from Elections Canada or a full public inquiry -- Canadians will be presented with a manual on how to steal an election in the 21st century.

Then the question becomes, "What are we prepared to do about it?"

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Drums Are Getting Louder

The beat goes on. And it gets louder. Mitt Romney claims that President Obama is a weakling:

“If Barack Obama is re-elected,” Romney robotically swaggered in Georgia, “Iran will have a nuclear weapon and the world will change if that’s the case.”

Maureen Dowd doubts that Romney understands international affairs -- and Israel in particular. But he blusters on:

I will station multiple aircraft carriers and warships at Iran’s door,” he said as if he were playing Risk. Not afraid to employ “military might” (or alarming alliteration), Romney wrote a blank check to Bibi Netanyahu, who governs a nation roiling with reactionary strains, ultra-Orthodox attacks on women and girls and attempts at gender segregation, and increasing global intolerance of the 45-year Palestinian occupation.

Then there is Liz Cheney. She carries her father's torch --and assumes that the old man knew what he was talking about:

At Aipac, Liz Cheney urged that we put ourselves in Israeli hands because “America’s track record on predicting when nations reach nuclear capability is abysmal.” She’s right about that, given her father’s wildly erroneous assertions about W.M.D.s in Iraq.

“There is no president,” she outrageously averred, “who has done more to delegitimize and undermine the state of Israel in recent history than President Obama.” 

My father -- a veteran who spent the Second World War behind anti-aircraft guns in the Pacific-- was of the opinion that those most willing to fight wars are those who never will.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Jackasses Out Of Control?

"The jackasses at Elections Canada are out of control," Stephen Harper wrote when he was president of the National Citizens Coalition. Harper has hated Elections Canada for a long time. In 2001, he took the electoral watchdog to court over what had been law in this country since 1938:  Real time election results from Eastern Canada could only be released in western Canada after polls had closed in the west.

Harper waxed poetic about freedom of information:

“Iron-fisted bully tactics have no place in a free and democratic society,” Mr. Harper wrote   .  . .  . “Information is power. The less control the government has over the flow of information, the less control it can exert over its citizens. We cannot allow the government to dictate what information we can and cannot publish.”

As is so evident ten years later, there is no connection between what Mr. Harper says and what he does. That was obvious again yesterday when the Conservatives insisted that the Liberals open their phone bank database, while refusing to do the same. Dean Del Maestro claimed there was no need for reciprocity because, "obviously our party is not behind the calls."

And, after having seen Vic Toews' internet security bill, Canadians have the right to ask, "Are these guys for real?" Unfortunately, they are all too real -- and all too unaccountable.

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Rise Of The Uninterested

Susan Delacourt puts the robocall scandal into wider perspective. It has everything to do with "undecided" voters. The trouble is, Delacourt writes, "undecided" has become a synonym --an inaccurate synonym -- for "uninterested:"

In a 1971 interview with the Canadian Press, pollster Martin Goldfarb said that his art -- still new to this country then -- was useful only for appealing to the 10 per cent of the electorate who had the power to move the fortunes of the parties either way.

“I think our research could be enough in a close election to win or lose. If it’s tight, we make that much difference,” said Goldfarb, who went on to become the Liberals’ official party pollster for the next two decades.

Nowadays,  the political dynamics are far more volatile. The people who describe themselves as undecided, all the way up to voting day,  has hovered as high as  30 or even 40 per cent  during many of our recent elections. If [Harper adviser Patrick] Muttart is correct, these people may be not so much undecided as simply uninterested -- making it all the more difficult to motivate them toward the ballot box.

And of course, the corollary is that it’s all the easier to keep them away from the voting booths, too. The slightest inconvenience -- a changed polling location -- may be enough to  suppress the vote.

It does not take a great deal of effort to convince these folks not to vote -- and modern technology leverages even that small effort. But there is more to it than that. Delacourt writes that choosing one's leaders has become like shopping. And modern marketers know that self-induced simpletons prefer simple messages:

Voting has become more like shopping in modern Canada with each decade since the Second World War.  And robo-calls are the hard sell  in a political marketplace where it’s difficult to get people buying anything -- or even to enter the store, to continue the metaphor. 

The Conservatives, writes Delacourt, are the people who best understand -- and who best appeal to -- the uninterested. Other parties aren't far behind. That does not bode well for the future. If choosing a prime minister hinges on using the same techniques one uses to choose a breakfast cereal, the choice will be between Captain Crunch and Tony the Tiger.

Friday, March 02, 2012

The Man Behind The Curtain

It didn't have to come to this. Riding out what is becoming known as the "Robocon Scandal" was not the only option open to Stephen Harper. He could have vowed to get to the bottom of it. He could have decided that discretion was the better part of valor. But, when you wave a red flag in front of Stephen Harper -- particularly a Liberal red flag -- he becomes a bull in a china shop and goes on a rampage.

Harper chose the path of sound and fury. And all the hot air simply fanned the flames. But it did more than that. When Charlie Angus rose in the House yesterday to announce that the Conservatives were confused about the names of two North Dakota call centres -- Prime Contact Group and Prime Contact Inc.-- he was simply continuing the process of pulling back the curtain on the prime minister and his party. Getting their facts straight has never been the Conservatives' strength, even though Harper insists that the opposition get theirs right.

Harper's challenge to the opposition parties to "Prove It!" has encouraged them to do just that. And, as time goes on, they keep pulling back the curtain. Canadians are beginning to see that The Wizard  -- so good at generating smoke and thunder -- is really a small, mean spirited man who lacks both discretion and valor.

Just a quick note. My wife and I will be away for the weekend. But I'll be back at our keyboard on Monday.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Listen For The Rhymes

"History doesn't repeat itself," Mark Twain wrote, "but it does rhyme." Stephen Harper's complaint that opposition charges of voter suppression are merely a "smear campaign" by sore losers, sounds remarkably like Spiro Agnew's claim that critics of the Nixon administration were "nattering nabobs of negativism." People forget that Agnew resigned his vice presidency after being charged with  -- and eventually convicted of -- corruption.

People also forget that Nixon's crime was not ordering a "third rate burglary." It was his attempt to cover it up. And they forget that, before he left office, several of his enablers resigned in disgrace and spent time in prison. The refrain from a popular song of the day listed the main culprits -- "Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell and Dean."

Everyone remembers Nixon's steadfast assertion the he was "not a crook." But they forget his much more significant -- and chilling -- assertion: "When the president does it, it's legal."  Peter Van Loan's assertion that his party's "reprehensible" phone behaviour in Irwin Cotler's riding was really just an exercise in free speech sounds eerily like Nixon.

And, yesterday, Andrew Coyne echoed Deep Throat's advice to Woodward and Bernstein:

So the question then becomes: who paid his expenses? And, broadening out, who footed the bill for similar operations, live or automated, in other ridings? As in any such investigation, “follow the money” and you cannot go far wrong.

Richard Nixon insisted that the Watergate break in was merely a rogue operation. He was eventually driven from office because the courts and the press did not let him off the hook.

Listen carefully and you can hear the rhymes.