Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Let's give them something to talk about...

In line with some of my recent posts about setting the agenda, I found Jeffrey Simpson's piece in today's Globe and Mail to be an excellent read. Entitled "Let's have a mature discussion about public finances", the piece discusses the all-too-often tendency of politicians to avoid discussing the hard challenges we are facing.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/jeffrey-simpson/lets-have-a-mature-discussion-about-public-finances/article1851297/

Mr. Simpson correctly points out that restoring some measure of balance to our national finances will require Canadians to consider real, difficult choices. Window dressing cuts, such as those recently announced in Ontario regarding "perks" or those announced in Ottawa this last year regarding public service wages, are not going to accomplish anything meaningful.

However, putting these on the table and suggesting that they are meaningful unfortunately takes our focus away from questions about tax policy, health care spending (a BIG ticket item looming for the federal and provincial governments), and how best to enhance productivity.

In a recent post I noted the following: "Put another way, long-term issues require thoughtful consideration, engagement and ultimately hard decisions - decisions which will inevitably anger as many people as they please. In other words, they are fraught with risk for the politician who knows that he or she may be knocking on doors in 6-8 weeks asking for a vote." This is the problem that the election around the corner creates.

The thing is, in today's world problems - including many of the ones we are facing in Canada - do not wait around patiently for us to get our act together. The government that is formed after the next election will, whether they like it or not, be tasked with moving Canada forward. If that's the case, don't you think it would be better if we started talking about it now?

Thoughts?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Agenda Setting...

It's crystal ball season again. No, not those ones hanging from our Christmas trees. I am talking about those magical orbs which promise a glimpse into the future; some insight into what we can expect in the year ahead.

In terms of politics in Canada, this gazing invariably is focused on the prospects of an election. Five years of minority government will do that to you. However, it actually wasn't too long ago that our look-ahead focused on the issues at hand, on the agenda.

Yes, once upon a time issues and initiatives were discussed and measured on the relative strength of their merits and importance to Canada as a whole. Of course the electoral implications were considered. But this was by no means done to the degree to which it is today. The election prism did not define our politics the way it does heading into 2011.

So, rather than speculate on whether and when we will have an election in 2011, here are some more of my candidates for "the agenda."

First, what is the role of government? Deficits, both federal and provincial, should be forcing a conversation about the role of government. Government spending in Canada rose considerably before the global economy went into downward spiral. During the crisis it increased further, to levels that are not sustainable.

Our political discourse in 2011 should therefore include focus on restoring a measure of balance to our nation's finances. Such a discussion has implications for tax policy, for example. We have already seen the impact of the GST cut on the government's coffers. The outcome of the debate on corporate tax cuts (favoured by the government, opposed by the opposition) will have a significant impact on what government can and cannot afford to do in areas like health care, the economy, education, the environment.

Second, what does the future look like for our democratic institutions? In 2005-2006, the Conservatives ran a campaign based largely on the notion that our politics was broken, that there was a need for someone to "Stand Up For Canada." For about 2 years after their victory, the government was still referring to itself as Canada's "new government" - an attempt to make a sharp break from the past.

Heading into 2011, we should be having a conversation about what the past 5 years has meant in terms of things like accountability, transparency and debate. And more importantly, what we want the next five years to look like.

What do we expect of our MPs? What is the role of Parliament? To my eyes, our institutions are damaged. We too often see either a focus on more trivial issues, or debate on decisions that have been already been made.

So, on my agenda we have "What is the role of government?" and "What is the role of our democratic institutions?" What's on yours? Thoughts?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"So what's going on in Ottawa?" and other holiday dinner conversation topics...

As someone who lives in Ottawa, the holiday season inevitably includes discussions with non-Ottawa family members and friends about politics. The conversation typically starts one of two ways.

The first is based on the perception that, as an Ottawa-resident, you have some special insight on politics. "You live in Ottawa, so tell me why they really scrapped the long-form census?" is indicative of the type of question one might find oneself on the receiving end of during a lull in the Christmas dinner conversation.

The second way these conversations start is premised on the notion that no one in Ottawa actually gets what's happening in the real world. "Out of touch" is one of the more polite phrases that come up in such situations.

While these observations are the usual starting points for a discussion, what follows is often quite interesting. Why? Because what follows is perspective.

These conversations challenge, frustrate, encourage, enliven and inform my view on what's happening in Canada and how our politics is perceived by the people I know. This is a good thing. This is engagement.

The holiday season and early parts of 2011 will serve as a form of reconnaissance for our main political parties, and for current and would-be MPs. The good ones will be paying close attention to these types of conversations and using the individual and cumulative perspective shared with them to inform their views on many of the issues which matter to you and I.

We should take this opportunity and run with it. The period leading up to an election is a chance, however small, to influence the ballot box question. It's a chance to share what's important to you, and in so doing to challenge your current and prospective political leaders to respond.

It doesn't matter if it's the economy or health care, the environment or Afghanistan, funding for the arts or law and order. Those who aspire to lead us need to know what matters to us. And they need to tell us clearly what governing would mean for them. Let's do our part.

Thoughts (and please pass the gravy)?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Great Expectations?

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Actually, it's neither. Welcome to politics in Canada at the end of 2010. As Lawrence Martin noted this week, borrowing from Ralph Goodale, it has been a year where mediocrity has reigned supreme.

In an attempt to get some discussion going on the issues, I asked you - the reader (he said hopefully) - for ideas. The hope is that discussion can lead to engagement, and that engagement can in some small way move us from mediocrity and towards meaningful debate.

Believe it or not, I have received some suggestions. Health care, the role of our banks, and the role of MPs being three great ones. I have also been succinctly reminded that "it's the economy, stupid". Having received such a direct suggestion, I think we should start there. In the end, it will likely be the top of mind issue for a significant number of voters.

Over the past 18 months we have been told that our economy is in strong shape; that Canada fared better than most and that our banking system - a core driver of economic growth - is the envy of the world. While much of this is true, it would be wrong to suggest that all is well.

The global economy is not in a happy place, and given that it is so heavily integrated, Canada is vulnerable. The risk of sovereign defaults and the future of the Euro is casting a long shadow. In Canada we are being warned about growing household and government debt, while in the U.S. we see our major trading partner continuing to struggle.

My view on government is the following: government is not about having all the answers, but it's about asking the right questions. So, in terms of the economy what are the questions? Let's start with the following:

1. What does the future of manufacturing in Canada look like? What do we need to do to prepare? What role can governments play in helping Canadian companies become more productive and competitive, including helping them shift their production offshore?

2. Investment drives economic growth - it can provide capital and drive innovation. What can Canada do to attract investment? Should foreign ownership regulations be relaxed? If so, across the board or only in certain sectors?

3. Economic priorities and social ones are not mutually exclusive - they are interdependent. What investments should Canada be making in social services (education, health, pension reform, aboriginal communities) with an eye towards building a more innovative and productive economy?

4. A trading nation is a more innovative and competitive nation. How can Canada grow as a trading nation? What is the role of government beyond negotiating market access and investment protection?

The answers to these questions and others will impact trade, jobs, personal finances, our pensions and RRSPs. In other words, how all of this plays out will affect Canadian prosperity.

Thoughts?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A big thanks...and a request

First of all, thanks to those of you who took the time this week to take a peek at A Guy Watching Politics. To wake up and see your blog referenced in the media and an entire post included in someone else's blog is quite a feeling for someone who, let's be honest, is not well-known or seen as a must-read.

I have never met Susan Delacourt before, so for her to take that level of interest meant a great deal. Thanks! For those of you who are not following her blog, do so - it is a must read (http://thestar.blogs.com/politics/).

Now for a request to those of you still reading. On what topics would you like to see postings? What issues matter to you? Let's see if we can get more of a dialogue going. Tell me your thoughts, share with me your ideas and let's go from there.

Again, thanks for the interest, the comments and the engagement.

A Guy Watching Politics

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wanted: An Engaged Voter

Parliament is about to begin its winter break, and with that politics watchers out there will be treated to the usual year-end articles, podcasts and news features on "the year that was." As to be expected, these features will focus on the politicians.

Who had a good year, and who has disappointed. Who's up-and-coming Cabinet material, and who is destined for the backbench. We'll reflect on the main issues and the players in Ottawa, in the provinces and in major municipalities.

I would like to propose we add a group to this annual list - the public.

Someone commented to me recently that "democracy isn't a spectator sport. If it's not working then everyone's not working." I could not agree more. I have written on this blog on more than one occasion about the importance of an engaged citizenry; about the need for a public that needs to play a more active and informed role in its democracy.

If the informed chatter is to be believed, we should expect an election in 2011, be it in the spring or the fall. With that in mind, it's an opportune time to consider the voter and ask ourselves what kind of year they - no, we - had. Were we engaged, informed and active participants in our democracy? If we really are heading into an election year, let's consider the voter's state of "preparedness."

My take is that the reviews would be mixed.

Let's first consider how the year started - prorogation. I think on this front, we were all surprised about the degree to which people were engaged. It was quite interesting to see the reaction of many Canadians to the decision to prorogue for no apparent reason other than to avoid some tricky issues in the House. On our engagement meter, prorogation scores high.

I would also score potash as having generated a high degree of engagement, and not just in Saskatchewan. While I would have liked to have seen the public more aware of the pros AND the cons about allowing the sale (the debate became more of a nationalist one, versus the economic merits, implications for trade and market access, etc.), I still think the fact that this issue became a national one reflects well on the public and the media.

The municipal elections offer a mixed bag in terms of engagement. We had some very interesting results (Calgary), potentially significant results (Toronto), curious results (London) and not surprising results (Ottawa, at least in terms of the race for Mayor). Levels of engagement on the issues varied greatly, but what struck me was the strong interest in change. In many cases it truly was an "out with the old" mentality - something which could have implications for establishment politicians at the provincial and the federal level.

Beyond these areas, I see a public that can be prone to slumber only to be momentarily woken by an issue. The census is an example where we became engaged - but less on the substance, and more on the impression the decision left in terms of the government and what we thought of their, for want of a better word, behaviour. The G20 spending is another example - we were upset, nothing more. To me that's not really engagement.

I then add the relative lack of engagement on issues like Afghanistan, the environment and the economy. Here I see us failing to hold all elected officials to account for what are truly defining issues for the Canada of today and tomorrow. These are the types of issues around which the next election should be fought. I would also add to this list accountability. It was an issue in 2006, and should be again in 2011.

Whether this proves to be the case will depend on us. Hopefully we're up for it.

Thoughts?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

All I want for Christmas...

Here we are approaching the end of another year. For those of us (sadly) obsessed with Ottawa and its constant performance, I think 2010 will be remembered as a year of several mini-dramas...but not much in terms of substance.

In no particular order, this year has seen the political classes focus their energy on: prorogation; Rahim and Helena; the G20 and its fake lake; the long-form census; Ignatieff’s bus tour; Harper’s concert tour (ok, two performances); potash; by-elections; and construction contracts. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but nor is it a particularly warming one for those of us looking for real debate and dialogue.

That’s not to say that some of these issues (and others not mentioned) are not important or substantive. Potash, prorogation or the census issue clearly are. So is the future of the Afghan mission. However, the discussion and debate is often transitory. Issues emerge and debate occurs, but at some point it becomes clear that the issue does not satisfy a broader political goal (i.e. electoral prospects), and it falls from our collective radar as we move on to “The. Next. Big. Thing.”

Why is this happening? I think there are a few reasons. First, we have a government that knows it can provoke and challenge without any telling reprisal. The opposition does not want an election, so its condemnation of the latest government initiative does not amount to much.

When the government does “back down”, it does in response to polling data. The advocate of this approach to governing would call it strategic and measured. The critic would see it as akin to a child testing to see what they can get away with. The answer is likely somewhere in between.

The opposition’s failure to offer clear alternatives is also a major factor at play. For example, to this day I still do not know what a Liberal government would look like.

In a minority Parliament, this absence of a defined alternative makes no sense to me. As someone told me once, you should always have your cv up-to-date. After more than one year since trying to provoke an election, the Liberals have failed to craft an alternative vision for governing the country. I want the reason I "hire" someone to be based on more than than the fact that they aren't the other guy.

Failing to define a clear alternative results in the focus all opposition parties seem to have with the sensational...on the political theater. The attention paid to the thinner issues on offer does generate short-term gains - hence the small movements in weekly polling numbers.

Up to a point, I can see the logic to this tactic. It’s the “death by a thousand cuts” idea, whereby the opposition tries to use individual issues to develop a broader narrative about the government. The working material is certainly there. But up to this point in time, they have failed to develop this narrative. So the bouncing from issue to issues continues.

Another driver of this state of affairs is the “election around the corner” mentality I have mentioned previously on this blog. The government is probably comfortable with all of the theater and short-term discussion, as long as it does not factor significantly into how voters in those select swing ridings think. The opposition, which seems to be more "spray and pray" is too focused on trying to please everyone, which history will tell you pleases no one.

So, where does that leave us? Well, as the title of this posting suggests, it takes me to my Christmas wish list. What is it I want?

- A government that puts forward its plan for dealing with the challenges of today, and for positioning the Canada of tomorrow.

- An opposition that gives me an alternative; a clear sense as to what a different government would look like.

- A Parliament better focused on dialogue and debate on the government’s plan and the opposition’s position.

- An end to gossip-column politics; the challenges Canada is facing are worth more of Ottawa’s time than much of which has garnered the spotlight.

I also had on my list “a public prepared to hold everyone to account.” In previous posts I have lamented the absence of a more engaged citizenry. However, the stagnant polling numbers for all parties do tell us something about the public and the fact that they have not been seized in any meaningful way by any of this spectacle.

In our own, typically Canadian way, perhaps we are engaged. We have elected a minority government in each of the last three elections. The polling numbers from 2006-2010 have not moved in any significant way. Perhaps this is our way of saying that we are not captivated; that no party (outside of the Bloc in Quebec) has resonated with us. That we expect better.

Thoughts?

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Election Around the Corner (or, how policy discussion is stifled in Canada)

We live in interesting times. Politicians, policy-makers and the public are being confronted with a veritable wealth of issues which warrant debate, dialogue and decisions. How we consider issues related to the economy, health, the environment, security and democracy will have more than an impact on the Canada of today; it will help shape the Canada of tomorrow.

So why aren't we having this dialogue in any meaningful way?

I blame an odd, made-in-Ottawa creation. A creature that is difficult to pin down, almost impossible to see, but incredibly influential. It's called "the election around the corner" and beware...it's killing the public policy discourse in this country.

Readers of this blog (yes, I still cling to the hope that we have actual readers) will recall that the absence of debate in Canada is a sore point with me. Too often, we see debate taking a backseat to the drive to create a wedge.

In the case of the government, this has meant using issues to ignite the base, support fund-raising and paint the opposition into corners. In the case of the opposition, it has meant looking for opportunities to embarrass the government or score quick political points without actually taking the time and effort to define themselves as a real alternative.

Why? Because everyone is fixated on the polls and the fact that the types of issues which we should be working together to address are not the types of issues that can be dealt with easily or quickly.

Put another way, long-term issues require thoughtful consideration, engagement and ultimately hard decisions - decisions which will inevitably anger as many people as they please. In other words, they are fraught with risk for the politician who knows that he or she may be knocking on doors in 6-8 weeks asking for a vote.

The focus on the election around the corner has resulted in more and more emphasis being placed on issues management and communications. Policy development, by comparison, has taken a backseat unless it can be demonstrated that it will either put the opposition in an awkward position (if you are government), or if it will be seen to be contrary to the latest controversial position taken by the government (if you are in opposition).

So instead of substantive debate we get, "Did you know that the Liberal-NDP-Separatist coalition favours putting people in jail if they don't fill out a census form?" Or, "Did you know that a Cabinet Minister may quit and work at a law firm - does that sound right to you?" Climate change versus Jaffer-Guergis; health care versus renovations on the Hill; the economy of the 21st century versus the gun registry. Sadly, were the winners ever in doubt?

Now some people will say, "Welcome to politics. What did you expect?" I appreciate this view, but only to a point. There are far too many important issues at play these days for us to simply accept that this is what politics should be about. This is where the electorate comes into play.

An engaged and informed citizenry is fundamental to an effective and functioning democracy. If we want to change the tone on the Hill or shift the focus towards those issues which truly will shape the Canada of tomorrow, we need to be engaged and we need to set a different level of expectation for our politicians. Are we prepared to do this? I hope so.

Interestingly, the polls have not moved in any meaningful way since 2006. Think about that for a moment. In five years public opinion has not shifted significantly in one direction or another. The focus on the election around the corner has more or less...kept everyone where they are. Perhaps there's a message in there...

This public policy message was brought to you by A Guy Watching Politics. On a Friday night. Sad, I know.

Thoughts?

Monday, October 11, 2010

So Mr. Flaherty, where do we go from here?

On Tuesday the Minister of Finance, Jim Flaherty, will release the government's fall economic and fiscal update. We're being told to expect something straightforward and containing no mini-policy announcements, say like the one that nearly lost the government the confidence of the House in 2008. So far, so good.

What we can expect to hear is that the government's finances are poor and that the deficit has grown. However, the Minister will reaffirm the government's commitment to balancing the books by around 2015. The question to ask Mr. Flaherty is "how?"

The government's strategy has rested on three things: the rollback of stimulus; stronger tax revenue through growth in the economy; and cuts in government spending. Let's consider this a moment.

Stimulus spending will end, likely before the next budget - though the Minister has a left a small window open that this timetable may change depending on how soft the global recovery turns out to be. However, the end of stimulus will not restore the nation's financial health, it will mainly stem the bleeding from the state coffers.

Ok, so how about the projected growth in government revenue as the economy begins to expand? The challenge here is that the government's projections assume a recovery and pace of economic growth similar to that which occurred after previous recessions. Unfortunately, this does not seem likely.

Our major trading partner is continuing to falter and in fact could fall back into recession. Other OECD countries (Germany is an exception) are faring poorly, and the spectre of sovereign defaults in the European Union continues to loom. While their growth and resilience is impressive, emerging markets like China and India cannot compensate for this loss of economic output in the West (never mind the fact that the West has been the biggest consumer of emerging market exports).

So, if the end of stimulus is akin to us no longer digging a hole, and the prospects for "normal" growth must be tempered, where does that leave us? Spending, that's where.

The government will need to look at spending if it is serious about balancing the books. Let's not forget that the Conservatives spent heavily before the recession (defence, Quebec) and they have cut taxes - corporate, personal and consumption in the form of the GST. These steps have seriously limited their maneuverability - and that of any other party aspiring to power.

We will not hear much tomorrow about "the plan." However, we can now count on entering a period of trial balloons and ground softening to prepare us for an austerity budget.

Thoughts?

Friday, October 1, 2010

So what's the question?

The phrase "framing the ballot box question" is one you will have read here and heard in the media. It refers to the one thing an average voter boils all of the electoral noise down to as they prepare to cast a ballot.

My money is on Canada having an election in the late winter/early spring of 2011 (I don't see this Fall happening). If so, we are now entering the period when parties begin to more deliberately frame the question.

For the government, this means getting out quickly and defining an opposition that has thus far failed to define itself. Hence Mr. Flaherty's highly partisan (and highly uncharacteristic) speech last week.

For the opposition, the trick is more difficult. Opposition parties like the NDP and the Liberals need to differentiate themselves from the government. However, they also need to make distinctions between one another. For the NDP, its gets a bit more complicated when you factor in the Greens. For the Bloc it's, well, nevermind. They're the Bloc. It's all good.

So what are we seeing in terms of the party's preferences for "the question?" To start, we have a government focused on making the economy the issue (rightly so), but taking an important issue and wrapping it in the very charged "coalition" blanket. The question will be "Do you trust us or the coalition?" This may (ok, will) be misleading, but it can extremely powerful in making distinctions for voters, generating financial support and putting opponents on the back foot.

For the Liberals, the plan seems to be about defining a broader, more inclusive Canada. Mr. Ignatieff's comments about family and household issues not being seen as "touchy-feely" gives you a sense as to where they are going. It will be a have your cake and eat it too message - Canada can be progressive, inclusive, prosperous and financially sound. However, without the details voters will struggle. The Liberals will also look to convince voters that they, and not the NDP, offer the best chance of stoping the Conservatives from getting their majority and offering credible opposition.

The NDP is fighting the government, the Liberals and the Greens. A tall order for a party that took a credibility hit during the gun registry vote. They will appeal to the voter who is looking for the House to keep the government honest; the voter who knows it will be a minority and therefore sees the need for a third party in the House that can be effective and has experience. Theirs will become a riding-specific fight as they look to hold back the Greens.

As for the Bloc? Nevermind.

Thoughts?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ready to Oppose?

With all of the recent commentary on the Liberal's caucus retreat, recent poll numbers and the generally positive media coverage of the Liberal Express, I have found myself wondering what the Official Opposition has learned in the past year.

The party line is that things have improved, the ship has been righted, the caucus is on side and they are ready to be a true Official Opposition. In truth, the recent signs are encouraging.

Now, as they enter the fall session in the House my thinking is that the party needs to more deliberately frame its message to the voter; to frame the infamous ballot box question. Already there are signs that this is a priority, with the "Big Red Tent" messaging.

Here are some suggestions on how to build on their summer momentum:

1. Play the arrogance card. Often. Canadians draw a fine line between respecting strength and loathing arrogance, and for many the Harper government has on more than one occasion come very close to that line. The Liberals need to make this a core part of their message.

2. Play the bully card. Often. Memorize the list of public servants who have been marginalized by the governemnt for making their views known and weave it into your messaging.

3. Do not forget the economy. Points 1 and 2 are great, but at the end of the day given a choice between worrying about their jobs or the census, voters will focus on their jobs. The Liberals need a clear message on their vision for the economy, and a credible plan as to how they will achieve it. At the end of the day, voters will ask "how much will this Big Red Tent cost?"

The improving Liberal fortunes we have heard about are, to some degree, a result of them no longer making the types of mistakes that were occurring in 2009-2010. However, their fortunes have also improved as their opponents have suffered missteps. They cannot count on this type of political generosity forever.

Now is the time to start to stake their claim to be a true government-in-waiting. This means being ready to oppose and presenting a clear option. Are they ready?

Thoughts?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Divided, but not yet conquered...

In the past few weeks, a number of polls have been published and they all tell us the same thing - an election would not likely change much. In some, the Conservatives are falling; in others, they are holding a small lead.

No one is gaining or losing ground in any significant way. Why?

There have been some good pieces on this topic recently (Jeffrey Simpson's from the August 10 Globe and Mail being one that stands out for me). For this blogger, one point that would be worth exploring is the extent to which the Conservatives have not been better able to capitalize on a divided opposition.

Why is this on my mind? Perhaps the combination of the recent news about former PM Chr├ętien's health and the whole coalition chatter that followed the UK elections has me looking back at when - and why - we last had a majority government in Canada.

For many, the Liberal's success can be attributed to the fact that they faced divided opposition. Agreed - this played a big part. However, don't we have a similar situation today?

Let's consider this a moment.

From 1993-2003 we had 3 successive Liberal majority governments. Some key characteristics of their time in office included:

- a weakened opposition, with a lot of vote splitting on the right;
- the Bloc owned Quebec;
- a strong Minister of Finance who had to bring in fiscal restraint and then was able to be more expansive when the national finance's improved;
- a number of provinces were run by the Conservatives; and
- a national challenge in the form of the referendum.

From 2006-2010, the Conservatives have won 2 minority governments. Some key characteristics of their time in office include:

- a divided opposition, with the Liberals weakly-led and increasingly occupying the left with the NDP;
- the Bloc still own Quebec;
- a strong Minister of Finance who now has to bring in fiscal restraint, following a period in which he was able to be more expansive because the national finance's were strong;
- a number of provinces are run by the Liberals (or Danny Williams); and
- a national challenge in the form of the severe global economic contraction.

There are some important differences for sure.

First, the opposition the Liberals faced included the upstart Reform and the separatist Bloc. Today, the opposition are all established parties with relatively strong brands. Second, vote splitting among the right was more prevalent in 1993-2003period, particularly in vote-rich Ontario.

For me, while these differences are significant they don't fully explain the challenge the Conservatives have faced in reaching that electoral promised land. Are there other explanations worth discussing?

I think the events over the past 6-8 months start to answer this question.

In 2003, when Paul Martin was held to minority, you could argue that there was still public apprehension about Stephen Harper and what a "reform-conservative" government would look like. Perhaps the same thing occurred in 2006, when Harper won his first minority.

Today, what may be holding them back is not the public's fear of the unknown, but rather their concern with what they do know and have seen.

The proroguing of Parliament twice in 12 months to avoid the accountability of the House. The lack of respect for the same transparency campaigned upon. The disregard for almost unified advice on the census. The excessive expenditures on aircraft and summits during a time of apparent restraint.

Maybe the public is taking notice. And maybe this is why the Liberals hang on, the NDP remains a player, and the Bloc own Quebec.

You and I? We get more of the same.

Thoughts?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Stand up and be counted..or not, it's now your call

Here we are in the last days of July, a time when politics would normally take a back seat to BBQ's and holidays. So raise your hand and let me know if you are surprised that the debate on the long-form census has become such a big story.

As you raise your hand, please be sure to also indicate:

- your sex
- age
- mother tongue
- household income
- level of education
- how many pets you have
- what side of the bed you sleep on

What's that? You don't have to answer these intrusive questions anymore? You say you've been saved from this Big Brother-esque invasion of your privacy? Let's talk about this for a moment.

The issue that has unfolded over the past 2 weeks has been well-documented, so I won't rehash it all here. Briefly, numerous groups have criticized the decision made by the government, arguing that without the information provided through the long-form census the public policy process will be undermined; that decisions would be made absent key statistical evidence.

The government's decision was apparently made despite the advice provided by Statistics Canada, and subsequent government spin has resulted in the Chief Statistician resigning - an extremely rare course of action for a career public servant to take.

Given the furore, one has to ask why the government would move in this direction. The answer apparently lies in ideology, and a belief that the state should not compel people to reveal personal information.

Interestingly, privacy concerns such as these have not been raised in any significant way to the Privacy Commissioner. This simply was not an issue that seized the vast majority of Canadians.

However, while that might not appear to be an issue to the average Canadian it seems to be an issue for a Prime Minister who in certain areas takes a more traditional libertarian view on the role of the state. For the PM, there should be limits on what the government can compel of its citizens.

Now, I doubt anyone would disagree with this - of course there should be, and in fact are, limits. However, to deprive all levels of government and a host of other important organizations of the very information needed to make sound social and economic policy all in the name of ideology is, from my perspective, a bad idea.

So what next? Well, to start the House Industry Committee will hear from Minister Clement, who is responsible for the census. The Committee has also called Dr. Sheikh to appear, so that he can provide more information on the advice the agency gave. All to say, the story isn't going away just yet.

And that leads me to this final thought. Does the government want it to go away entirely, or is this another example of a decision intended to rally a base in advance of an election? Recent media articles have raised this as a distinct possibility.

Let's hope this isn't the case. A bad decision taken for partisan reasons is never a happy mix. Now, can I have my summer back?

Thoughts?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Back by popular demand...

Finally, at long last...the return. After what seemed an interminable period of time, a re-emergence sure to delight the faithful. Yes, back by popular demand...!

No, not the return of me and this blog. That would be a tad arrogant and presumptuous. Plus, I am still struggling to determine if there are faithful followers.

I am referring, of course, to the return of the Conservatives. The recent Speech from the Throne and Budget mark the government's return to its roots. Kind of like the Beatles "Get Back" sessions, but with less bickering and caught on-tape sniping.

You see, the past few years have seen the governing Tories focus their attention on growing the size of government. Federal spending grew, Quebec was wooed and the result was...another minority government.

In fact, save for those months in the not-so-distant past when Mr. Ignatieff tried to prompt an election and Liberal support plummeted, the government has never really been that close to its sought after majority.

Cue the financial crisis and the opening of the government taps. The purse strings were loosened and the government got into the business of, well, business. The measures themselves appear to have worked well, but then the bill came in.

Now, 12 months on from that "free for all-cash for all" budget, and the government has just delivered a new budget that starts to take them back to where they once belonged.

The stimulus will end, which was to be expected. And Canadians are being advised to prepare for some real belt-tightening. Again, to be expected.

But what I find interesting is the fact that the crisis and ensuing tab may actually position the government to do the things it has long favoured doing.

You see, if the government is not going to raise taxes (and don't for a minute underestimate the impact the GST cut has had on the federal purse) then something has to give. Most economists agree that Canada cannot grow out of this hole. So, if you don't raise more revenue or receive it through a growing economy, then the only option is to cut spending.

And by cutting spending, this does not mean freezing MP salaries or cutting down on government appointments. These are symbolic areas which may resonate with some quarters of the public, but which account for little in terms of overall government spending.

What will therefore be needed in order to reach the government's deficit reduction objectives are real cuts to spending. The kind of cuts favoured by many members of the government while in opposition or working for groups like the Taxpayer's Federation or the National Citizen's Coalition.

Maybe, just maybe, the crisis presented the government with an opportunity. An opportunity to get back to its core values and roots. A real chance to enact a change in the role of government.

If so, then shouldn't this be the area on which the Opposition focuses their questions? With all due respect, I think it's a far more important topic than the trials and tribulations of Mr. Jaffer and Ms. Guergis.

Thoughts?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

New name, same deal

Apparently, someone out there has a registered trademark on the term "Politics Watch". No, I don't think they are posting anything these days, but that I gather doesn't matter. For some reason they are concerned my sporadic posts could cause their name and by extension themselves material damage. Sigh.

All to say, welcome "A Guy Watching Politics". Yes, that was the best I could come up with on short notice and a strongly worded email breathing down my neck.

New guy, same deal. Stay tuned...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cabinet Shuffled. So what? Now what?

Well, there you go. We're 2+ days and change removed from the shuffle and there are really only two questions for me:

First question: so what? There were no major changes as the big guys all stayed put (though McKay lost some Atlantic clout). In addition, the Raitt move was expected. Day moving to TBS was somewhat of a surprise (more on that in the now what), but not earth-shattering.

However, for the reasons laid out in a previous post, it all amounts to little. Yes, it's great that Ambrose has shown hard work and a head-down attitude can lead to redemption, but ultimately decisions and communications are run so forcefully from PMO that it really doesn't make a difference who has moved where. The boss is the boss is the boss.

Second question: now what? Media has been all over the Day move, characterizing it as an important message from Harper about the move to austerity and fiscal restraint.

As this blog and others have noted, the Harper government had tax cut/spent themselves into deficit before the economic crisis took hold. In fact, public spending under Harper increased more than it did during the Chretien-Martin years. Stimulus compounded the problem (albeit it exponentially) - it didn't create it.

OK, but the spinners remind me that Day was the man who presided over fiscally conservative Alberta. Again, as others have pointed out that this doesn't quite ring true. Dinning tightened spending, Day spent. A lot. Oil prices were rising so as Treasurer he could afford to. Yes, he did introduce a flat-tax. Don't get me started on flat-taxes..

It is also timely to remember that some form of expenditure review has been underway at TBS for some time. John McCallum - yes that one - was tasked with finding $12 billion in savings. Not sure how far he got.

The problem is, once you rule out tax increases or cuts in social spending and defence, there's not much left. Sure, there are niche program cuts. But in the grand scheme of things, these are akin to what's behind the cushions and the occasional $20 bill you find in your winter coat in November.

Where is the dialogue on the upcoming discussion with the provinces on health care spending? Demographics will loom large in any discussion on health care and other benefit programs. Can you manage the budget deficit if these are off the table and there are no tax increases?

Important questions, but few answers.

We have a budget in about 5 weeks. What will be the focus? Will there be a longer-term vision, with clear year-over-year targets? I can tell you that if the focus of a deficit reduction plan is the "return to growth and therefore a return to tax revenue" story, I will be upset. Mind you, not surprised. Just upset.

Now is the time for serious thinking about what Canada needs in order to succeed and compete in the 21st century. The question touches at social and economic policy, and increasingly they need to considered in tandem.

Is this government prepared to do so? Is this opposition?

You tell me.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Coming Soon to a Blog Near You: Cabinet Shuffle

So, speculation abound that tomorrow will bring a Cabinet shuffle. I say speculation because as of right now (9:50 pm EST) we have no official confirmation that anything is planned. Sure, we have the usual "informed sources" and the like, but nothing official from the boys in blue.

What we know is that Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson stepped down on the weekend, thereby creating a vacancy. We also know that a shuffle of some sort was under consideration for some time - perhaps this is what re-calibration does to a PM.

So, what's the chatter?
  • Vic Toews is rumoured to be heading out of Treasury Board;
  • Lisa Raitt could be moved out of Natural Resources;
  • Maxime Bernier could be back. No word yet on who he would bring to a swearing in ceremony or what they would be wearing...

Safe money is on the big players staying put. Flaherty can't be touched with a budget around the corner. As well, for all of the debate on the Afghan detainee issue I don't see the PM moving McKay. It's tantamount to an admission of a problem, and this guy doesn't make such admissions.

Really though, what we know is that we don't know anything. Speculation like this is like oxygen to pundits, bloggers and the twitter community.

The bigger question for me is not so much "who goes where", but "does it make any difference?" So much about this government is controlled from the centre.

The PM remains THE spokesperson on most issues of substance. PMO pens more scripts than Hollywood for its MPs. Who the Minister is seems to mean less and less these days. The phrase "there's no I in TEAM, but there's an M and an E" may have been uttered by the PM at a recent Cabinet meeting - we are looking into it.

All to say, stay tuned for tomorrow and try not to get too dizzy from the spin.

Thoughts? Comments?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Parliament in session...situation unstable....

OK, so the Prime Minister has suggested that when Parliament returns "the games begin." He went on to say that once the House is back in session the government could be subject to confidence votes, intimating that this is not the stable environment one needs to craft good policy. The market does not like "instability."

Right. Gotcha.

But, the funny thing is that for the past few years a number of these destabilizing confidence votes were actually deemed as such by the Prime Minister. That was back in what is fondly remembered as the "I dare you to defeat me, Mr. Dion" era. Faced with a weak opposition, the Prime Minister made several votes "votes of confidence", knowing that at least one party would support (usually the Liberals).

All to say, we are entering Day 15 of Prorogation. Perhaps tomorrow will bring a rationale that sticks.

Comments? Thoughts?

Monday, January 11, 2010

When the going gets tough, the tough...prorogue?

Shame on me. There, I said it. Taking time off from real work, focusing not on my job and blogging, and instead using the time for whatever I wanted. I should be ashamed of myself. Who do I think I am, the Prime Minister. Oh wait...

Well, this appears to be the world I am in these days. It's a world where so many of us have tended to sit and let politics and the creature that is Ottawa play out to an indifferent audience, yet for some reason are (depending on who you listen to) now being seized by what is essentially an execution of well-established Parliamentary procedure. Why?

Let me offer some views:

1. Yes, prorogation is standard procedure. However, the way it has been executed by this government is not. Prorogation was never intended to be an exit strategy. A population that is already cynical about politics will see this for what it is - duck and run.

2. The justification (a) is not clear and (b) keeps changing. Depending on who you speak with and when, prorogation is needed because: the government needs the time to recalibrate, the government is avoiding a Parliamentary Committee investigating the Afghan detainee issue, the government wants to stack the Senate, the Olympics is too much of a distraction. Should anyone out there in cyberspace be reading this, do me a favour. Speak to your boss and offer any one of these types of justifications for taking time off. Let me know how it goes.

3. Related to the point above, no justifications save for the avoidance ones make sense. As Andrew Coyne noted last week, you should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. The Minister of Finance said as much today when he said prorogation or not, pre-budget consultations would occur. There goes the re-calibrate argument.

4. The arrogance thing. We don't seem to like it in Canada. Ultimately, it's why our celebrities go south and our politicians are eventually sent home. We're funny that way here.

5. Over time, even the disengaged sense a pattern. None of this is new for the government. It is part of a pattern which has seen the government criticize whistleblowers, despite the fact that they celebrated them while in opposition. It is a pattern of secrecy from a government which campaigned on transparency. Ultimately, it's a pattern which says you are with us or against us. So much for making things work.

6. The "you criticize us, therefore you are against Canadian soldiers" line of rhetoric is insulting - to Canadians and to Parliament.

Scathing stuff? Perhaps. Whether any of this makes a difference in polling numbers or in an eventual election is debatable. That's where the Liberals come in.

What will they do in this environment? To start, they have embarked on a policy-based tour and have committed to return to Ottawa at the originally appointed hour. This goodwill and openness to engage in discourse is complemented by a series of attack ads which criticize the government for "shutting down Parliament."

Will any of it work? I am not sure. This blog has noted on several occasions that the Liberals need to do a better job of defining who they are and what a Liberal government will stand for. Yes, it's true that historically governments are more likely to be "defeated" than oppositions are "elected", but that only works when you have at least some sense as to what the alternative stands for and how they will govern.

Right now, Canadians know they what they like and dislike about the government. Yes, there may be suspicions which are preventing a majority, but by and large they "get" the Conservatives.

Can we say the same about the Liberals? I would say no, but the potential is still there. Canadians want an alternative, so give it to them. That doesn't mean they want a change in government, it just means they want the next election to offer a credible and clearly understood choice. Give us one.

In the meantime, I will be watching with interest to see if this anti-prorogation "movement" grows, or whether it loses momentum when the Olympic flame is lit. We'll see...

Comments? Thoughts?

Raise your hand if you've been a bad blogger...

OK, show of hands. Who's been a bad blogger, failing to post regularly? C'mon, raise those hands. OK, so it's me. Mea culpa and all that.

Life, from time to time, prevails and blogging takes a backseat. However, my personal prorogation is over.

I feel recalibrated and ready to go!!! My self-imposed break has thwarted my enemies and opponents, distracted public attention and left me well-positioned for success. No, wait, that can't be right. Must be from someone else's blog...

Stay tuned.

Politics Watcher
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