Throne Speech and Fall Election

The Parliamentary break is effectively over as Ottawa Hillites are speculating about the future of the government, of Stephane Dion’s career and, of course, about a future election which would significantly affect both.

The traffic levels at Blogging Tories shook off the relatively low summer numbers on the night of the Quebec by-elections and traffic patterns are back up to normal as they were prior to the break. While Parliament has not yet resumed, everyone is hungry for politics.

Everyone, that is, except for the Canadian electorate. Just as I laughed when the Liberals said it back when they had a minority government, the other day I had to chuckle when a heard a Conservative tell a reporter on TV that “Canadians don’t want an election right now”. For people that watch politics, an election is like the Olympics; an election only happens every two years and it’s what the political junkie lives for, and what their “heroes” train for. Politicians and reporters can easily find themselves out of touch with the Canadian reality as they try and match Wellington st. with Main st. Do Canadians want an election right now? It’s pure speculation.

However, we can be sure about a few things concerning this fall in politics. First, the Liberal leader Stephane Dion and the Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe came from quite a beating in those Quebec by-elections a couple of weeks ago. Despite this, Duceppe has released his demands for the throne speech including some particularly difficult requests for the government to meet including the withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan and the cessation of federal spending powers in Quebec. Some say that Duceppe is staking his priorities against Harper to show that the Bloc is the real champion of Quebec’s interests when the Prime Minister inevitably turns him down.

As for Stephane Dion, it is pretty much assured that the professor doesn’t want to fight the Prime Minister at the moment. The Liberal party lacks momentum, especially in Quebec, a traditional stronghold. Dion has also made some lofty demands of the Prime Minister including a similar demand for withdrawal from Afghanistan after February 2009, and a promise to keep the Liberals’ controversial private members bill on Kyoto alive. If the Prime Minister balks at a clear position on both, the Liberals for their sake will at least have two wedge issues to run a campaign on.

Despite this, Dion must not be particularly excited about his prospects. If anyone around him is telling him privately that they are excited about an imminent election, he should fire them now. Dion still has a lot of building (and recovering) to do if he is to even crack Harper’s incumbent seat total, not to mention score a weak minority. As opposition leader, Dion will not vote for the throne speech, but it will be difficult to abstain from it as well as such a move plays towards the “not a leader” narrative and the Conservatives will capitalize on this. Likely, the plan for Dion is to show up, make a symbolic vote against the government but ensure enough of his MPs “have the flu” as would be needed to allow the renewed mandate of the government to pass, but allow him to save face with Canadians. However, if we see too many Liberals show up to defeat the government’s throne speech, it may be a sign of Ignatieff and Rae supporters showing up to eject Dion via election. Pundits will say that Dion couldn’t count that day, however, it may be indicative of some Liberals ready to push Dion on their own sword.

We haven’t been hearing too much from the NDP regarding their demands for the throne speech and I think that this is indicative of their intent to support the government. Layton may have realized that with newly acquired momentum from Outremont, there’s more wedging to be done with the Conservatives to gut the ambiguous Liberal middle both left and right.

Decoding Harper’s Political Strategy on Afghanistan

This article by Campbell Clark of the Globe and Mail describing Defense Minister Peter MacKay’s comments on Afghanistan on CTV’s Question Period this past Sunday, left me a bit unsettled and confused.

OTTAWA — Canada has made it clear to its NATO allies that they cannot count on our troops to fight on the deadly battlefields of southern Afghanistan after February of 2009, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said yesterday.

“The signal that has been sent already is that our current configuration will end in February, 2009,” Mr. MacKay said in an interview on the CTV television program Question Period.

“Obviously the aid work and the diplomatic effort and presence will extend well beyond that. The Afghan compact itself goes until 2011,” he said. “But the way the mission is currently configured, with respect to our presence in Kandahar, there is an expiration date that has been set.”

This is a clear step forward from the Prime Minister’s earlier assertion that a consensus in Parliament would be needed to extend the mission – in it’s current state – past February 2009.

So, what is going on here? Is this what it seems? Is this surrender by the Conservative government on a key conservative principle?

The more I thought about it, the more I started to think about this announcement in a strategic way.

So, here’s my prediction:

Afghanistan is going to be the wedge issue during the next election to take place when the government puts the mission to a vote in Parliament. The vote will fail, the opposition will indicate its majority intention to withdrawal from Kandahar and the government will fall, because Harper will make it a confidence vote.

Why? Numbers.

As it stands, 50% of Canadians support the current mission in Afghanistan while 50% of Canadians do not. Harper needs about 40% of the vote to get a majority government.

MacKay’s announcement on Sunday does a few things. First of all, it indicates an utmost respect for Parliament as the mission and extension will still go to a vote (as indicated in Clark’s article). Secondly, it makes the opposition put down their guns on the Afghanistan issue for a while (continuous shelling of the mission puts it in a weak position in the forum of Canadian opinion). The opposition looks foolish when continuing to whine about the issue when the government has indicated that the mission (in the current parliamentary climate) cannot continue past February 2009. Third, it allows the government to prepare behind the scenes to sell the mission. The governing party has an advantage over the opposition parties in that it has two forums to spread its message, the House and outside of it. By indicating that the government recognizes that it is unlikely to win the Afghanistan mission vote, this disarms the opposition from consistently bringing it up in the House. Meanwhile, the government (the Conservatives) aim to sell it as an issue campaign across the country.

While the government recognizes it is unlikely to win an extension in Afghanistan, the Conservative Party will still maintain the position that an extension is in Canada’s interests and will advance that position up to the vote. There is a bit of a dichotomy here: Minister MacKay concedes the realities of the government’s minority position on the policy, while the politics of Conservatives will continue to lobby for an extension. By playing government minister, MacKay disarms the House (because the House checks the government, not the Conservative Party).

The Afghanistan extension is a perfect wedge issue for Harper. Only the Conservatives and the NDP have a clear position on the issue and only one can form government. The Liberals are bitterly divided on the issue. Ignatieff supports the mission in Afghanistan and Rae has indicated a tough on terror position in the past. Dion’s position is weak, somewhat against but certainly not for the mission. In fact, he has flip-flopped so many times in the past on the issue of Afghanistan. Of course, this plays into the Conservative narrative of weak leadership regarding Dion. Both Ignatieff and Rae are looking to topple Dion after an election, but concerning an extension as far away as 2009, this might be a wide enough window for both Rae and Ignatieff to act sooner rather than later. Harper’s strategy is to both create both a stronger NDP and a Liberal Party bitterly divided.

What other issue creates these winning conditions?

Afghanistan is a perfect issue to rally the conservative base, a reluctant group that has become angry over income trusts and only came out to vote in their champions in the wake of the biggest corruption scandal in Canadian history.

Regarding Quebec, I’m starting to think that the media’s read on Quebec voting intention regarding Afghanistan are overblown. I think that more Quebeckers would get out to vote for the mission than get out and vote against it come election day. Quebec remains a puzzle though despite Harper’s continuous attention to that province.

Speaking of which, Harper has also taken hits among the base for increased spending. Where, however, has this government spent? Childcare cheques, the military and transfer payments (fiscal imbalance) have been the shifted spending priorities of Canada’s New Government. The latter of which should help buffer some of that anti-military sentiment that the Toronto press believes that exists so pervasively in la belle province.

Back to leadership, this issue favours Harper in an electoral footing. Because he has a better control of the timing of an election, he will obviously define a ballot issue that favours his government and personal leadership. Afghanistan is a red meat issue while the environment is assorted mixed greens. Defining the election on Afghanistan favours Harper’s strong grizzle-laden leadership style, while the weaker Dion will be left sitting in vinaigrette. Harper is not going to willingly contrast himself in an election on any other issue. The only thing green that the Conservative Prime Minister hopes to talk about during the election is Dion’s leadership and that Dion “doesn’t have what it takes”, “isn’t a leader” etc.

Conservatives will also ask, “If Dion is a weak leader with an ambiguous stance on Afghanistan, is he ready to be Prime Minister?”

I believe that Conservative strategists are counting on a majority coming from NDP gains (hoping to catch that unambiguous 50% against the mission) and the bottom falling out on the Liberal party on Afghanistan and Dion’s leadership.

New Cabinet

The cabinet has been shuffled.

Solberg is at Rideau Hall to accompany his good friend Chuck Strahl. Monte will not be getting a new portfolio. He will remain in HRSDC.

Monte’s pal Strahl goes to Indian Affairs. A good upgrade especially as a BC minister.

MacKay goes to defense and keeps ACOA. The higher visibility should help the Tories regain some ground in Atlantic Canada.

O’Connor to revenue. As the most obvious prediction of a portfolio change, some thought O’Connor would go to Veterens Affairs. The former defense minister now goes to a largely administrative portfolio.

Oda to international cooperation. Oda replaces Josee Verner in this portfolio. Some say she was a poor communicator in Heritage, lacking the ability to speak French, she now takes over the CIDA portfolio.

Jim Prentice goes to Industry taking over for Maxime Bernier. Prentice is said to be the hardest working minister in Harper’s cabinet and will bring his work ethic to this new portfolio.

Maxime Bernier is tapped for foreign affairs. Such a move will have both the effect of raising Bernier’s portfolio and gives Quebec a minister in a more elite department. Further, as Quebec’s Van Doos soldiers are in Afghanistan, having a good communicator in this portfolio from the province.

Josee Verner to Canadian Heritage/Women/Languages. An Oda/Vernier swap. Vernier gets promoted and Oda demoted. Verner will be well positioned to celebrate Quebec City’s 400th anniversary.

Gerry Ritz to Agriculture/Wheat Board. A promotion for the Saskatchewan MP was pretty much assured when fellow Saskatchewan MP Skelton announced her retirement. Skelton being that province’s sole representation in cabinet, her resignation created an opening for a Saskatchewan MP. I’ve heard that Ritz will press forward on market choice and fight against the Wheat Board.

And, Diane Ablonczy finally gets her due as Secretary of State for Small Business and Tourism…

…which puts a wee blotch on my cabinet prediction! I predicted that no backbencher would be promoted to cabinet. Perhaps this was an 11th hour decision?

But, as I predicted, nobody lost their job and it was a significant shuffle. Cabinet did not grow in size. Also, as predicted, Day and Baird stay in their portfolios.

Further, Bernier was shuffled, but not to defense nor finance as some predicted.

So, is this Canada’s New New Government? What are your thoughts? Does this put a new face on the Conservative government? Cheers, Jeers? Did Harper make a good shuffle today? The Globe reported that Harper would be decreasing the size of cabinet in order to prepare for an election. However, the usual knowledge is that cabinet in fact grows prior to an election to promote seats and as many faces as possible.

The Prime Minister is likely to prorogue Parliament and go ahead with a throne speech this fall. This shuffle is also timed to give ministers enough time to process their MCs and move forward before the fall. The PM will also draw thoughts from his new ministers for the expected throne speech.

ABC News: Suicide bombers being sent to Canada

ABC News is reporting that a “graduation ceremony” for suicide bombers was held along the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan on June 9th. Some of the bombers are intended for striking within Canada.

Large teams of newly trained suicide bombers are being sent to the United States and Europe, according to evidence contained on a new videotape obtained by the Blotter on ABCNews.com.

Teams assigned to carry out attacks in the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Germany were introduced at an al Qaeda/Taliban training camp graduation ceremony held June 9.

A Pakistani journalist was invited to attend and take pictures as some 300 recruits, including boys as young as 12, were supposedly sent off on their suicide missions.

abc_canadian_070618_ssh.jpg
ABCNews.com photo caption: “These recruits stand ready to target Canada.”

Of course, this may simply be a propaganda campaign by al Queda and the Taliban. It is not certain if the Taliban has the means to strike within Canada and individual suicide bombing has not been common in North America (I cannot think of one incident). Further, a suicide bomb strike within Canada would only strengthen the relatively shaky resolve that Canadians have in the Kandahar mission, an outcome that wouldn’t seem to be consistent with Taliban objectives. Of course, this quote from a Taliban commander indicates that their objective may simply be revenge:

“These Americans, Canadians, British and Germans come here to Afghanistan from faraway places,” Dadullah says on the tape. “Why shouldn’t we go after them?”

Harper continues to embrace Afghan mission

Pollsters and media analysts alike have been warning the Conservative government that as we head into the spring and summer of this year, Afghanistan will become the Prime Minister’s true Achilles heal as more fatalities are likely to occur during the NATO mission in that country.

As bad news mounts alongside the good, it is the bad that becomes entrenched within the Canadian mindset as details emerge about alleged claims of torture from Afghan-detained detainees, the setback faced whenever one of our heroes falls, and the parallels that some dishonestly draw with the American conflict in Iraq.

However, Canadians have a history of shouldering the heavy burden of the responsibilities met in the hills and on the shores of foreign lands. Indeed, as Canadians we have always supported the fight for what is right and the common thread of this struggle has always been the establishment of the rule of law, peace abroad – which begets security at home – and the liberation of those who could not speak for themselves.

Today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a visit to Kabul to emphasize the reconstruction and humanitarian efforts that currently underway in Afghanistan. Just over one year ago he made a similar yet different trip to visit soldiers that country’s southern tumultuous province of Kandahar. The Prime Minister has gone to underscore the part of the mission that can only succeed with the success of the other; Harper is promoting humanitarian efforts which can only come from the efforts of establishing civil order.

Canadians are understandably wary of seeing ramp ceremonies televised on our national news networks but it appears that enough of us appreciate (if we can never fully comprehend) the results that come from sacrifices made.

Support for the mission usually hovers at about 50% (granted, that means that 50% are either opposed or ambivalent), and Harper generally polls at about 42% while the party (and Harper) sit at about 30-35% (depending on the poll). Generally this means that Afghanistan is not a liability for the PM and that if the NATO mission starts to define this Prime Minister’s tenure, then he actually has a deficit to make up between his own numbers and that of the mission.

Thus from a communications standpoint, the Prime Minister should never act ashamed or himself wary of the mission if Afghanistan; at the end of the day, Canada is doing the right thing and the majority of Canadians understands this. Everytime the NDP captilizes on the doubtful among us, Harper is able to take a firm and rationed stance while leaving Liberals to flop around on the issue to the point where Canadians won’t trust them on any position. When Jack Layton talks about the ‘confusion’ over the Afghanistan issue, Harper can clearly enunciate humanitarian benchmarks reached. When Layton asks about the human rights of Taliban detainees, the Prime Minister can announce that the aggregate sum of rights in that central Asian country has increased x-thousand percent.

In fact, the Prime Minister has taken some of Layton’s more rational concerns and has focused them through his own lens. Take today’s trip to refine the Conservative government’s messaging on Afghanistan. The end goal of the mission has always been to help that country stand on its own with the base ideals that Canada can reflect in an emerging democracy. While security must be realized before reconstruction can be successful, if Harper is to message on all fronts and to embrace the good that has always been the Canadian mission there, he can assuage doubters of the mission while focusing some of the broader spectrum of Canada’s ideals along his own message.

Lofty predictions, 5 cents apiece…

I’ve been passing this one around for awhile amongst friends so I really ought to write it down.

I think that Jack Layton will have to prove himself as a leader within the next year. The Green Party is eating Jack’s porridge, especially on the environment and big labour is knocking down his attempts at carving out any discernible green platform. Labour, itself, has always been a fickle ally of the New Democrats and Layton hasn’t been able to depend on them. Further, union members have been drawn in by Harper’s targeted family-friendly tax-cuts in the past and may continue to trend in that direction. Identifying the NDP’s base, is at present, as much of a challenge as it has ever been.

Couple these troubles with low polling numbers, a desire to keep the Conservatives in power due to these low polling numbers and a dwindling and growing angry base upset about this capitulation and we may see developing conditions for a crisis within the New Democratic Party.

Jack may as well be in trouble unless he figures out what it is that defines the NDP. It’s certainly not the environment. Unfortunately, it will probably be Afghanistan. But, this may not last for long as the Liberals are finding an opportunistic voice against the mission.

I believe that Dion will continue to abandon the centre to go to the left as he goes to meet the aggregate challenge to his leadership that is forming around Bob Rae. Given this, Layton and the NDP are about to be squeezed hard on the left and the casualty may be Jack’s leadership.

If that’s the case, I’ll make the lofty prediction that we may see David Miller take a shot at the job within the next year following a grassroots leadership challenge rooted within the rank-and-file of the party. Given the failing fortunes of Canada’s social democratic party, we may not see many other “top-tier” candidates go for the job. We may even see Layton run in the same leadership race in such a scenario.

Or, given the shallow pockets of the Liberals, and the thinning platform of the NDP, we may see a merger of necessity on the left. If Elizabeth May’s end-game is to sell-out the Green Party movement to the Liberals, we may see this unfold sooner.

CBC misuses images of Canadian soldiers

The following story was aired during The National last night on CBC. The story describes U.S. President George W. Bush’s veto of Democrat legislation limiting funding for the Iraq war.

Here is the story (video contains full report):

As I’ve pointed out in the video, CBC uses video footage of a Canadian soldier (with flag patch on his gear) and what looks like Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan (the clip after the one I point out). While the “file pictures” do initially show American marines in Iraq, the ambiguous use of the images of Canadians in the same report does raise concern.

Some observers have noted that some Canadians do not discern the difference between the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Consider the NDP, a party which would lump the conflicts together and set its communications strategy to speak to these particular Canadians:

“Mr. Speaker, Canadians recognize that this government is too close to George Bush, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Incredibly, the U.S. Congress is passing a law that will give the President the power to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva conventions.

Documents show that this government is fully aware of the fact that prisoners we hand over to the Afghans can be given to U.S. authorities.

What assurances is this government seeking that prisoners handed over to Afghan authorities are not sent on to Guantanamo Bay or to secret U.S. prisons?”Dawn Black, NDP Defense Critic

“Mr. Speaker, my question is for the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

One week ago his colleague, the Minister of National Defence, said, with respect to the prisoners taken in Afghanistan, “They have every right, though, for a tribunal to determine whether in fact they have status as a prisoner of war or have status as an unlawful combatant. Canada stands by that determination process in accordance with international law”.

One week later the United States has still not set in place any tribunals. I want to ask the minister, will Canada refuse to turn over any prisoners to the Americans until they have given us an assurance that these tribunals will be established? Or will we show total contempt for the law under the Geneva conventions and simply let George Bush run Canadian foreign and defence policy?”Svend Robinson, former NDP MP

and consider the role of the CBC in reflecting a difficult, troubling and complicated world to Canadians:

“Canadians are increasingly uncomfortable with Canada’s role in Afghanistan. On the nightly news we see growing destabilization, growing counter-insurgency on our part, insurgency on the part of the Afghans, more civilian deaths and increasingly more Canadian deaths.”Peggy Nash, NDP MP

Canada and its allies are experiencing successes in Afghanistan. The NATO mission in Afghanistan is different from the American war in Iraq. To lump the two together and deem collective failure is irresponsible and misleads Canadians.

As for the CBC, the ambiguity in the report doesn’t help.

Only one vote so far…

A whip, in a legislature, is the member of a party who is responsible for ensuring member attendance at votes, for handing out offices, standing committee assignments and seat location in the House. Whips are also famously known for enforcing party discipline.

For the Conservative Party, that title (and the responsibility that goes with it) lies in the hands of Jay Hill, an MP elected under the Reform banner back in 1993. Hill has been the whip for the Conservative Party, the PC-DRC, the Canadian Alliance and Reform Party which likely makes him the only person to be a whip in four parties in any country with a parliamentary system of government.

I’ve chatted with Hill on a number of occasions and he once told me that the only vote outcome which the Conservative government didn’t know before hand was that of the Afghanistan mission extension. Every other vote result (not totals per se, but ultimate outcome) was known by the government before the MPs voted. Quite an interesting fact from this 39th session of Parliament, I thought. (Of course, since this was communicated to me in private I contacted Hill’s office to get the “OK” before writing it here.)

The Afghanistan mission extension vote passed by a narrow margin last May (149-145).

Misfire on O’Connor

Lately, in the House of Commons, Defense Minister Gordon O’Connor has found himself facing attack from the opposition benches for something he assumed was true regarding reporting of the treatment of Afghan detainees by the Afghan government.

Minister O’Connor erroneously stated that the Canadian government would be updated as to the status of detainees by an overseeing body (the International Committee of the Red Cross) after transfer to the Afghani government.

The Minister has publicly corrected the record:

OTTAWA – I would like to respond to the article in the Globe & Mail of March 8 entitled “Red Cross contradicts Ottawa on detainees”

At the outset, I would like to clarify one point. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has indeed carried out several visits to detainees in temporary Canadian custody in Kandahar. This is consistent with Canada’s commitment to cooperate with the ICRC in fulfilling its mandated responsibilities under international humanitarian law to monitor conditions of detention.

On December 18, 2005, the previous Liberal government signed an arrangement with the Government of Afghanistan regarding the transfer of detainees from the Canadian Forces to the Afghan authorities. As per this arrangement, we continue to transfer all persons detained by the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan to Afghan authorities, and to notify the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The article makes reference to comments that I made in the House of Commons last May. It was my understanding that the ICRC could share information concerning detainee treatment with Canada. I have recently learned that they would in fact provide this information to the detaining nation, in this case Afghanistan. …

It appears that the Minister received some bad information.

The Liberals have seized upon the mistake in a press release issued on their website:

…Earlier this month Mr. O’Connor was forced to admit his assertions that the International Committee of the Red Cross would notify Canada of any mistreatment of prisoners in Afghan custody were false. The Red Cross is not required to notify Canada concerning the treatment of detainees transferred to Afghan prisons, and unlike Britain and the Netherlands, Canada has not retained the right to verify that transferred detainees receive proper treatment. …

The Liberals are piling on O’Connor for his mistaken impression. The Liberals, if they had been in power would not have made the same mistake, would they? Perhaps they would have ignored the assertions of departmental officials and bureaucrats regarding the ICRC and Afghan detainees.

Consider a National Defence Joint Doctrine Manual on the topic of how to handle detainees in international operations. On page 133, in a section titled “The Transfer of Prisoners of War”, section 2c states:

Even after PW (prisoner of war) captured by Canada have been transferred to the custody of another nation, there is still a residual responsibility placed on Canada regarding their treatment. If the Government of Canada is notified by the Protecting Power, usually the ICRC, that the Detaining Power to whom the PW have been transferred is not complying with the provisions of the GCs (Geneva Conventions), Canada has a duty to correct the problem, or to take the PW back into Canadian custody.

It appears that the Minister may have received bad advice from the department officials and one should conclude that the error is not reflective of the competence of Minister O’Connor.

How long has this incorrect, official government document been floating through the system?

Since August 1st, 2004. This is long before O’Connor took over as Minister of Defense. In fact, a Liberal Defense Minister (Bill Graham) was operating under an erroneous policy since the time this document was drafted (perhaps earlier).

It would seem that the fault on this issue lies with department bureaucrats rather than our Conservative and Liberal Defense Ministers.

UPDATE: In case you may be wondering, the Joint Doctrine Manual cited above is, to this date, the CF authority on PW and detainee handling. Of course, it is now known to contain false information which may lead current and future Defense Ministers down the wrong path.