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.

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