So, we’re conservatives and we didn’t like the budget. What are we going to do about it?

“Well, what the hell else do you expect us to do with a gun to our head” remarked one ministerial staffer at Hy’s last night when I delivered the verdict of conservative ideologues to a budget which increased special project spending, established an ugly deficit, and indicated that hopes of small government would be shelved, at least for the foreseeable future.

A minority government is like a constant job interview, and the employer right now is a glutton. Pass the antacid and bring more pork; 62% of Canadians voted for those without a predisposition to sound economic sense, while the rest voted for those that know better.

If they know better, something else holds them back. “You have no idea how much I bled for this budget… this made me sick” another staffer told me. It was certainly a policy delivered in the context of a deficit pushing $1 trillion in the US, where every other government in the industrialized world is running deficits and whereas Canada is a rare exception in that we’re one of those jurisdictions that is receiving permanent tax relief. But for ideologues who moonlight as paid partisans in government, this budget policy is as much dyspeptic for their stomachs as it read dyslexic to their instincts.

A political party’s first and last job is to get elected. If you thought that the Conservative Party should have held its ground, flipped off the opposition, delivered $30 billion in tax cuts and went out in a blaze of glory then you have the benefit of layering fantasy on a wholly incongruent political landscape where the pragmatists thrive. A political party, in practice, is not much more than a marketing machine to sell ideas to an electorate looking to buy them. However, elections span a meager 36 days and unless a voter is conditioned to think conservatively, they won’t vote Conservative. If a Conservative party does form government — especially a minority government — the long term goal is the same: keep the upper hand, survive when strategically beneficial, and win elections.

Let’s be clear. A majority Conservative government would implement a conservative agenda that would satiate the conservative base. In such fortunate circumstances, government action would unreservedly reflect conservative principles because this government would act comfortably without violating objective #1 — re-election from a plurality of conservative-minded voters. The underlying ideology would fortuitously overlap with winnable conditions.

How is a sustainable conservative majority-government-electing voter base in Canada achieved? While the party is focused on doing their job to win elections and form policies that are within Canada’s (ie. its electorate’s) interests, those of us who aren’t pre-occupied by such distractions must look at change as a long-term goal rather than a short-term fix. If the Conservative party is the election-winning machine, the conservative movement must be the one to give it a meaningful mandate.

By all means, we need a strong Conservative party because it is our vehicle. Do not punish the party for doing its job. However, we must also have a strong conservative movement. It is foolish to depend on an organization to change the ideological culture of Canada when its current success is inextricably bound to it as it presently exists. The political party that wins the election will always reflect the plurality of Canadian voter intent. Whether the blue team or red team wins, success is simply a jersey switched by the same central swing voters. In every election, the ideological and purist cynic bemoans the pragmatic and victory-focused party strategist that moves to capture the centre. Leave the party to appeal to the most voters and win elections, it is the job of the conservative movement to move the centre to the right.

We can lament the budget delivered by our Conservative Party and complain that it goes against our instincts as conservatives. But yesterday, the Conservative government did its job, it presented a survivable budget in the current political climate. However, the conservative movement failed because it was unsuccessful in creating the conditions of ideological survivability for what should have been a sincerely conservative budget.

So what are we going to do about it?

UPDATE: Some are reading this as a condemnation of the conservative movement. It is rather a call to action. The Conservative party is what we make of it; our model is bottom-up, not top-down. Let’s get to work at making more Canadians conservative.

Name the budget!

The annual federal budget in previous years has had bland, generic corp- gov-speak titles applied to their card stock-bound covers. In 2006, scoring another shot at Paul Martin post-election and seeking to underscore their main election theme (those 5 priorities), the Conservatives named the budget (drumroll) “Focusing on Priorities” and in 2007 the budget plan was titled “A stronger, safer, better Canada“, which the Liberals promptly paraphrased in their messaging by labeling their campaign “a richer, fairer, greener Canada.” In 2008, the budget was called “Responsible Leadership“.

With President Obama plunging the US deficit into the range of a trillion dollars, and Canada being dragged along the same path by the elephant projecting a 64 billion deficit over two years, what should we name this budget? Here are a few proposals:

– Yes We Can (Too)
– Welcome to the economic Obamalypse
– For God’s sake, give us a majority already
– Canada’s doomed, we couldn’t even cut $1.95
– Turning the corner… into your livingroom
– Stimulate this
– If you think this is budget’s bad, imagine a Liberal-NDP one

Post yours in the comments.

New worldclass laboratory to be included in the federal budget?

In 2008, I had the opportunity to tour the level 4 laboratory in Winnipeg Manitoba with my boss Preston Manning.  In my day job, I am the science policy and communications adviser for the Manning Centre for Building Democracy and part of our mandate at the Centre is to track policy initiatives that move Canada forward on the science, technology and innovation front.

During our visit, we were briefed on the national integrated network of research facilities and the technology which innervates it all to rapidly respond to biological hotspots as they emerge in Canada and around the world.  For example, rapid genotyping of pathogens to trace origin and spread is but one function of tracking function of the national lab in Winnipeg.  Communication is critical to rapid assessment and control of biological threats and we were treated to a glimpse of where outbreaks are monitored in the state-of-the-art “war-room” of the facility complete with banks of LCD televisions, situation desks and and digital maps with epidemiological data overlays.  While the facility serves to track and address global infectious disease, the research of level four biosafety pathogens such as the Marburg and Ebola viruses are at the foundation of the facility’s work.

Recently, I learned that the International Centre for Infectious Diseases and the University of Manitoba among others have forwarded an ambitious proposal for the upcoming federal budget which is getting a lot of buzz in the corridors of power in Ottawa.  A level 5 laboratory (L5L) has been proposed for the Winnipeg facility and such an infrastructure development would make it the facility the only one of its kind in the world.  The facility would continue to study biosafety level 4 pathogens but would do so in a sophisticated and unparalleled environment which would include a realistic hospital-like training facility, simulation facilities and a containment hospital ward replete with multiple airlocks.

Of course, Marburg and Ebola are of periodic global concern.  From a Canadian public policy perspective, the greatest sustained value of the facility would be tracking, research and containment of hospital acquired infections such as C. difficile, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and Vancomycin-resistant enterococcus.  Hospital patients that acquire surgical infections find their survivability halved.

The proponents of the new facility project a 20% reduction in cases of hospital acquired infections by 2019.  They suggest that over 30 years of innovation and subsequent intervention accomplished through work at the facility, over $40 billion (healthcare costs and would-be lost wages) would be saved.

I know that this proposal has been presented to the ministers of industry, health, transport (infrastructure) and the minister of state for science and technology.  It has been well-received by many of them and I know that the proposal is being seriously considered.  If the budget this month is to include significant infrastructure development, such a world-class project would solidify Canada’s position as a leader in the research and treatment of infectious disease.  The $300 million facility would create highly skilled jobs, retain high value workers in Canada, export skills training to the US and overseas, provide testing facilities for commericial research and products and provide extensive support for the health services sector.

Rally for Canada budget consultation survey results

On Friday, I sent out an email to the tens of thousands on the Rally for Canada email list asking them to participate in a small survey concerning the upcoming federal budget.  I asked people four questions concerning the government spending and their public policy priorities.  Over three thousand people responded on Friday and over the weekend.  I will be passing on the results to the office of the Minister of Finance as promised.

Q: On the question of Canada’s upcoming federal budget to get us through the economic crisis, which balance within the following options do you think is best for the government to implement? (n=3003)

Q: Which issues are most important to you from a government policy point of view? (n=3051)

Here is the same graph sorted in descending order (n=3051):

Q: What should be done with the Senate? (n=3007)

Q: What should be done with funding for the CBC? (n=2998)

Some notes: “n” is the number of respondents to each question.  Data was gathered from 8am Friday through midnight Sunday night.  Sample data is gathered from a population set that registered on the anti-coalition website RallyforCanada.ca between December 4th 2008 and January 9th 2009.  Answers were not randomly cycled.

That said, this data gives us insight into the priorities of Canadians who are against the concept of a Bloc-supported NDP-Liberal coalition government.  The first question was a careful balance on both sides of the spending vs. taxes debate.  On one hand, the answer set does not include an option to decrease spending and on the other, four out of five answers prompt at least some tax relief.  Most analysts believe that the federal budget will include some tax relief and stimulus in the form of government spending.  The largest group believed a balance spending/tax relief approach would be best while the second largest group favours substantial tax relief and no new spending (given the options presented).

The second question had 24 options.  Each option was a yes/no checkbox to pick public policy priorities.  There was little surprise on the distribution of public policy interests as the generally right-of-centre respondents selected jobs, economy, crime, tax cuts, healthcare choice, and military spending as priorities while passing on foreign aid, culture and arts, and native affairs.  Wheat board reform is generally a conservative priority yet this question is likely too regional for a national survey.

On the specific questions, it is of particular interest that 90% of respondents believe that the Senate in it’s current form must change.  Only 10% of respondents thought that the Senate ought to be left as it is.  On the question of spending for a particular budget item, respondents indicated that funding for the CBC should be decreased (61%) while only 6% thought it should be increased.

Budget notes

From conversation with some friends in the PPG,
– while detained in budget lockup, someone yelled out regarding CBC Newsworld being shown on the tv: “what’s this s**t? Turn it to TSN!”. The budget document/executive summary was easily consumed in 20 minutes and there was an NHL trade deadline looming.

– budget lockup means no communication with the outside world, so reporters complained of not having Google to check facts, do background, and put together the finer details on a story. One wonders how reporting was done before 1993. But seriously, something could be done about this. Wikipedia, for example, can be downloaded to an iPod (or laptop). Not perfect, but it could help fill in some blanks in background understanding.

– One reporter said to me “I’ve never seen the Liberal government so willing to publicly commit suicide so frequently and willingly”

from conversation with conservatives,
– conservatives are generally happy that the Conservatives have passed their first “conservative budget”. Debt reduction and the new tax-exempt savings account are the headlining items for the movement.

– conservatives are unhappy about the spending increase projected for 3.4% this year. That totals 14.8% government growth under Flaherty (source: CTF). Why can’t we rein-in government growth?

– Guaranteed Income Supplement raised to $3500 should help patch things up with seniors whom have been upset about income trusts, according to Bob Fife and Craig Oliver of CTV. This budget item sounds like creeping socialism. (UPDATE: Oops, that was poorly interpreted. The GIS tax exemption has been raised, encouraging seniors to stay in the workforce.)

– taming the EI beast is a welcome change. Capping EI surpluses and moving towards better fiscal management (and proper allocation) of the fund is long overdue.

– effective communications line of the day was from Stephane Dion’s team which described the budget as “a mile wide and an inch deep”. The line was often repeated on newscasts and in print. It’s a perfect descriptor for Dion to achieve his objective: diminish the significance of the budget and and his subsequent approval of it. It’s also important to note that the Liberals have claimed this to be a “watered down Liberal budget”. Is Harper as Tom Flanagan would put it “triangulating” the Liberals out of relevance? This was first done with the Afghanistan mission, now the budget. Liberals essentially support the Conservatives in coalition without any leverage.

– the NDP is using the Liberal support of the budget to make the argument of Liberal bankruptcy from the left; they argue voters who don’t agree with Harper’s government can oppose it with the NDP. But this isn’t exactly news. What changes will the NDP have to make in order to more effectively challenge the Liberals from the left?

– the only thing sustaining the Liberals is their brand.

Predicting the future
– In the absence of Liberal opposition, will segmented conservative interests in the party and in the movement start leveraging for their own agenda? With slim majorities we see maverick government MPs potentially holding the balance of power subject to their agendas (PM Chretien government with MP Paul Martin). With large majorities we can see whole factions form and break off (as with Reform and the Bloc from the Mulroney government). Harper has the power of majority with the psychology of a minority; the PM can govern on the agenda he chooses because the the prize of a majority is still in sight and this will generally keep maverick MPs and the movement tightly following Harper’s lead so that their agendas can be realized in the future.

Harper’s now in the sweet spot of governance; he sits opposite a neutered opposition but holds the incentive of untapped potential for his government and its MPs. I’m certain that the Prime Minister would be very satisfied continuing his government under this balance until the fixed election date in fall 2009.

On budget day

one gets the feeling that the Liberals are neutered when Stephane Dion rises in the House during question period to ask about the Clean Air Act and greenhouse gases.

No other matters of importance today for the Liberal party?

Gilles Duceppe also focused on greenhouse gases during his round of questions.

It sure doesn’t feel as though there’s an election looming.

Layton gives Dion some oxygen

Jim Brown, THE CANADIAN PRESS

OTTAWA – NDP Leader Jack Layton is admitting there are divisions in party ranks about whether to support the next Conservative budget to ensure that $1 billion in promised economic aid flows to the provinces.

Layton has accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of trying to “blackmail” opposition MPs into supporting the budget, expected next February, by tying it to the aid package.

And with that, the NDP leader signals to Dion that it may just be alright to vote on the budget rather than abstain.

By the way, since when is governance, continuing debate and prompting a party to vote for your policy called political “blackmail”? Is it the default position of the NDP to oppose all moves by the government?

The NDP chief hinted strongly Monday that he’s not willing to play the game, noting that “we have opposed (Harper’s) budgets up until this point because we think he’s taking the country in the wrong direction.”

Too late. Why tip your hand to the Liberals so early?

The Prime Minister is tying promised federal assistance ($) to the budget ($). Opposition parties have called this “political”.

Woo.

Hey, aren’t the U.S. primaries on?

February/March election? Think again

As we break for the Christmas/New Years holidays, Ottawa has been talking about a real possibility of an election in February and March.

I believe that the current conventional wisdom on the timing of an election is wrong.

First, no party is really in a good position for an election.

Consider the Conservatives; statistically tied with the Liberals in the latest Harris/Decima poll, the Tories aren’t riding their traditional high numbers. Some have attributed this decline to Canada’s bad press at Bali, some blame the attention that Mulroney has received. But a budget will be a bonanza of tax cuts in February, you may think, and this surely will be enough to buoy Conservative numbers. It may, but the Conservatives need the decision of at least one party to survive and three to defeat it.

That brings us to the main opposition party: the Liberals. Stephane Dion has been routinely embarrassed in the House of Commons by being forced to abstain from votes of confidence such as the throne speech and subsequent crime legislation (named a matter confidence by the PM). A staffer in Dion’s office recently told me that this pattern cannot continue at length. He’s right. The Liberals will stand in February to defeat the budget. In fact, they’ve already indicated that they intend to try force an election. This is a necessary move by Dion, as he cannot remain neutered indefinitely lest his caucus revolts. The smart play here is that he’s been first out of the gate in declaring his intentions meaning that he will not have to race Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe to the waiting cameras outside of the House doors (besides Layton and Duceppe are closer to the doors anyway). So Dion is forcing the NDP and Bloc to react to Dion whereas earlier Dion reacted to the declared intentions of those two parties instead. Dion is well ahead on this vote. This will help relieve some of the negative attention received from his chronic abstentions in this latest session in 2007. The move, however, is somewhat disingenuous as Dion knows that at least one other party will save Harper’s government (and Dion) to fight another day.

While the NDP has had better fundraising fortunes than the Liberals, this opposition party still needs to continue its strides in becoming a viable opposition in the minds of Canadians. While they will no doubt vote against the budget (and the Conservative government won’t change its legislation to accommodate them), they are unlikely thrilled about a March election. Further, the NDP standing with the Conservatives on a conservative budget would destroy much of the NDP’s credibility.

That leaves us with the Bloc, who shares a particularly important electoral interest with Stephen Harper: Quebec. The Bloc will vote for the budget because there will undoubtedly be some good items for their province. In fact, we can be quite confident in this prediction as Harper/Flaherty would be unlikely to pen a budget without extended consideration for Quebec. If they did, they would guarantee that their government would fall and that their hard-fought gains in that province would be tenuous at best and their planned gains would evaporate overnight. Expect good things for Quebec in 2008 and expect the Bloc to pass the budget; the Bloc is the only party Harper needs onside to survive.

This scenario generally satisfies all parties to some extent. The Conservatives will continue to govern while entrenching their image as tax fighters in the minds of Canadians. They will also continue to build in Quebec. The Liberals (and especially Dion) will relieve a lot of pressure internally in caucus and externally in their image as the hapless leader breaks his abstention streak. The NDP will still get to stand up to the Conservatives (the NDP gains from this scenario are the least of the four parties). Finally, the Bloc will have voted for a better budget for the people of Quebec, even if it is delivered by Conservatives. The Bloc has been concerned by the Conservative encroachment upon their nationalist strategy as it has been reconfigured by Harper as decentralization and respect for provincial jurisdiction. Duceppe would only be handing Harper voters if he defeats this government as the Prime Minister will be seen to be a better defender of Quebec’s interests.

If the Prime Minister really wants an election in March, the budget will contain a poisoned pill that is inert to Quebeckers but unacceptable for the Bloc.

Casey votes against the budget he liked

Today, Nova Scotian MP Bill Casey from Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley voted against his party’s budget by voting against C-52, a budget implementation act.

This is odd, because Casey has spoken favourably about the budget in the past. Consider this article from the Truro Daily News on March 22nd of this year:

TRURO – Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley MP Bill Casey feels the 2007 federal budget is a boon for his riding.

“I have never seen a budget that has had more in it for the people of my riding than this one does,” Casey said from his Ottawa office, yesterday.

He said benefits can be easily pinpointed throughout the budget for the high population of seniors, working families with children and low-income families in his riding.

Casey was surprised by the controversy caused by the federal budget because it provides extra funding for health, infrastructure, and post-secondary education through equalization payments and other programs.

The vote, of course, is one of confidence and if parliamentary tradition is any guide (and it usually is), Casey will find himself outside of caucus tomorrow.

UPDATE: According to government whip Jay Hill, Casey is out of caucus.

Press shuts down blogger

A couple of weeks ago, I headed down the street to Parliament Hill to cover the budget for my blog and for Blogging Tories. You can see the product of that effort here, here, here, and here. I have a Hill pass that indicates that I have been pre-screened by security and allows me access to a variety of places in the Parliamentary district. While hovering on the periphery of a budget-day scrum with Jack Layton, I was spotted by Elizabeth Thompson of the Montreal Gazette. She scolded me and expressed to this lowly blogger that he wasn’t allowed to scrum with Layton. Largely ignoring her, I continued to mind my own business and started to needlessly check my camera settings. Thompson alerted Parliamentary Press Gallery President Richard Brennan to my presence and minutes later, security asked me to leave the foyer area.

I left the hallway outside of the foyer and walked over to the railway room to interview some ‘stakeholders’ of the budget. This went off without incident and during that time, I cheerfully chatted with some reporters that were in the same room.

Having completed my interviews with the stakeholders, I left and headed on over to the Rotunda where I had a friendly chat with Jack Layton. Elizabeth May and her assistant were also hanging around chatting when I saw Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc walk by. Having heard that his party was the lone opposition party supporting the budget, I asked him for an interview. He agreed. After the interview something ugly happened.

An official from the Press Gallery walked over and informed me that he had received “complaints” about me. “Thompson?” I inquired. “Complaints”, he seemed to acknowledge. I pointed out that we were currently in the Rotunda of Parliament and that my pass allowed me to be there. “But you have a camera” he informed me. He called over a security guard to escort me from Parliament.

Unbelievable!

Yes, the Parliamentary Press Gallery, with no powers granted to it by constitution or statute, used security to remove somebody who had the right to be present on the Hill granted to him by the Speaker of the House.

A similar incident happened recently when two female staffers from the Conservative Resource Group were similarly removed from the Hill by security when the Liberals complained to the Gallery.

After the incident, the Prime Ministers office called the sergeant-at-arms (who works on behalf of the Speaker on Hill security) and was told that the Gallery and Liberals were wrong to ask for the ouster of the CRG staff from Dion scrums (and scrums in general).

Of course, this brings up a few questions. If security on the Hill is the responsibility of the Speaker, and if I have been granted access to most non-privileged areas of the Hill by the Speaker, what authority does an official of the PPG have in calling in the guard to have me removed from perhaps the most public area of the Hill? Elizabeth May was also present in the Rotunda, yet she is not an elected member, nor is she associated with an elected party in Parliament. She has also been granted security clearance to the Hill by the Speaker. So, is it the camera? What is so offensive about my camera? Since I am cleared to be present on the Hill, is it because I haven’t been cleared to use one of the Press Guild’s many tools? Would May be ejected by the Gallery if she was in possession of a camera? What if I am invited by a politician to use my camera on the Hill? Is this forbidden? Was this interview with Jack Layton in the NDP leader’s office violating some unwritten rule of the media powers that be? Does the CRG/Dion Hill incident (and the aftermath) set a precedent for my presence (with camera) on the Hill? Again, why does the power reside in a largely unelected, unaccountable body of Parliament that is not defined by statute? I’ve made a sport out of taking on institutions with artificial and inflated senses of entitlement, maybe the Press Gallery is next.

Or, you may ask, why don’t I just suck it up and join this all-powerful guild as some of the friendlier gallery-folk have suggested? I’ve always been unsure about this move as I am a declared partisan, yet I am not employed by the Conservative Party. Still, should partisan media exist? Should it be allowed? Since this blog is de facto media and it already operates in a partisan manner, should the CRTC or Elizabeth Thompson shut it down? Frankly, I can understand reasons against ‘official’ recognition of my media status in the Parliamentary precinct. After all, couldn’t I flood Conservatives with long and friendly press conference questions to waste time? (yes). Would I? (no). Would I sell out my media brethren and sign up for ‘the list’? (yes).

But then again, the game is changing and bloggers are becoming a new category in a variety of forums they intersect. Will the next evolutionary phase be a smooth one or will it require direct action?

As the concept of “press” is being redefined to include bloggers, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that some of the “officials” that are trampling on our rights include members of the “dead tree” division of the guild we wish to complement.

UPDATE: I’ve been told that I am ineligible for membership in the Parliamentary Press Gallery because I am not employed as a journalist by any organization. Do you think that the evolution of media and reporting should change some of the traditions and practices on parliament hill?