Elections Canada needs to reflect neutrality

Their website should reflect it. The by-elections are announced on their website in orange and red. These colours are, of course, the colours of the NDP and Liberal Party respectively.

Some bureaucrats, journalists and Liberals were concerned when the Prime Minister rebranded the government naming it Canada’s New Government and incorporated blue into the websites at gc.ca.

The new name follows criticism over what some considered a partisan remake of the official Government of Canada website, which now has bold splashes of Tory blue and prominently features photographs of Prime Minister Harper.

Of course, Elections Canada is completely separate from any federal ministry and any partisan interference.

Elections Canada used to use yellow to reflect a neutral colour. Why not stick with that model?

Canada’s New Government

Today, this blogger has learned that the Conservative government will be transitioning away from the use of “Canada’s New Government” and towards new branding starting with the Throne Speech tomorrow.

The CNG branding was used to distinguish new direction and a new perception of government as the Conservatives wanted to distance themselves from the previous administrations that had been plagued by the sponsorship scandal and allegations of corruption. The Liberals had been in power for 13 years and the Conservatives wanted to establish some Canadian branding exclusive from the co-opting of Canadian icons that had been done so successfully by the Liberals over last few decades.

And now, the Conservative are dropping “New” from “Canada’s New Government”. Will Canada’s New Democratic Party follow suit?

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.

Cabinet Speculation*

Ottawa is abuzz with cabinet speculation this week as the summer starts to wind down and there’s no election in sight. Between elections, I’m told, the parliamentary press gallery’s second favourite fix is speculating how the front bench of the government will change. Since the days are hot, and while filing stories about the arctic might cool some off it is still viewed as playing into the man’s hands, and since there are only so many grumble pieces that can be written, cabinet speculation will have to do.

I’ve been chatting with a few friends and sources about the topic and here’s what I’ve deciphered with a high level of confidence.

Ottawa staffers can breathe a bit of relief (just a bit though) because while Carol Skelton is retiring from politics, no other cabinet minister will be shuffled out of cabinet. There will be promotions and demotions within the cabinet structure, but no current cabinet minister will find themselves without a chauffeured car next week. Thus, contrary to some reports, Oda will remain in cabinet.

On the flipside, no back-bencher is to be promoted to cabinet this time around.

Therefore, besides Skelton, the cabinet will neither grow nor shrink.

The shuffle within cabinet itself will be substantial enough that it’ll make a few headlines. I previously speculated (but didn’t write) that a shuffle could be quite surgical and we’d see a trading of two or three portfolios without making other waves, but now I’m hearing that there will be more than a few ministers with new titles. The government might say that such a switch affords new experience to already very capable ministers. Most of us might acknowledge this while recognizing that some fine tuning is due.

Specifically, Maxime Bernier may be shuffled out of Industry (not entirely sure about this) but I can say with certainty that he will not be shuffled into defence or finance.

Security minister Stockwell Day will stay in his current portfolio as most Hill people (including press) have found him to be very capable in his current role.

John Baird is also staying in environment.

I can also say with a certain degree of confidence that there will be a throne speech this fall and that the government is not likely to be shocking the country’s system with a brand new set of priorities as there is a lot of the current agenda that still needs attention.

The Green Paradox

On the topic of greenhouse gases (GHGs), I think that the Conservatives will have more success cutting Canada’s output of them than the Liberals ever did. This is because swing voters are skeptical that the government will accomplish GHG reduction and therefore the Tories have something significant to prove. In a similar sense, we can look at the Liberals and their elimination of the deficit. As in that case, the ruling party is receiving pressure from the other side of the spectrum and the swing voter is skeptical of their abilities on the particular issue. This provides incentive as these voters and the pendulum swing between parties causing government turnover.

For some reason, people are more likely to believe that parties on the left will be more proficient at GHG reductions. Certainly, the record doesn’t indicate this. I’d like to show that this reasoning and the result are paradoxical.

On the environment, left-wing parties can take this sort of thinking for granted and say green things and do much of nothing. Conversely, voters don’t see the Conservative Party as the natural choice to progress on the issue and working uphill, the Conservatives are framed as a party with a lot to prove on their ability to reduce GHGs. This provides incentive to act instead of taking voter prejudices for granted as Liberals do on this particular issue. If the environment is framed as the number one issue, the Conservatives don’t have the convenience of solely paying lip service.

Conservatives have already secured the voters that favour a tax-cutting government. What they will act upon lies where they have to extend themselves to get non-traditional votes. Similarly, Liberals have more of a secure hold on environmental voters as Canadians believe the party to more of a regulating party than their Conservative opponents.

Dion’s strategy of making the environment an issue right from the start of his leadership campaign is challenging Harper to be more flexible and as a result, he is able to grab a few extra votes. Dion is handing the incumbent an opportunity to show agility over an extended period of time. Of course, it will be difficult for Mr. Harper to show real progress on GHG reductions as the current economy has quite a lot of inertia against the trend of overall GHG reduction. However, if the PM can show sincere policy that he’s put in place to get the job done over a realistic period of time, he should be able to neutralize Dion and show the voter than he’s acting in good faith on the issue.

Strategically, Dion could have made the environment a smaller issue (and one of many others) to prompt little action from the government to act on GHGs. Subsequently, he could have fired on all hybrid cylinders during an election to contrast how Canada could be different under his carbon-cutting direction (even if it is all talk).

Some say that it was the Reform party that prompted Paul Martin to balance the budget. Perhaps now it’ll be Dion that prompts Harper to succeed on the environment. And remember, on the budget, only Martin got credit.

Does the same logic apply with the Conservative party and tax-cutting? Specifically that voters expect Conservatives to be the party of tax relief and reduced spending? I believe that this reasoning does apply to the Tories, but only to a certain extent. People expect the Conservatives to cut taxes and to a degree, empty talk and promises will go far to satiate the voters. However, over an extended period of time, as we’ve seen, the conservative movement is likely to tear apart the Conservative Party if it doesn’t see its ideological agenda fulfilled. While the Liberals faced pressure from Reform to put the government’s books in order, Conservatives face not only opposition pressure but pressure from within to keep it’s course. It will be interesting to see how Conservative party addresses the environmental issues while balancing the prospect of electoral defeat with that of devolution from within. Or can it find a common path that spares it from both?

Ministerial staffers back on Facebook

I’ve learned that in a reversal of internal government policy this past week, Conservative ministerial staffers are once again permitted to keep a Facebook profile on the popular social networking website.

Indeed, Facebook has become the latest killer online app and for some, it has replaced email for messaging friends and scheduling events and parties.

Earlier, I opined that the ‘corporate’ Facebook ban implemented by the Conservatives on their political staff was a shrewd move made to prevent a hungry media and opposition from exploiting personal material not intended for “front-page” exposure. A complete ban may have been harsh, yet the careless use of the site would have also been less than ideal. Thus, in policy refinement and compromise, the government has found a new optimum that works for everyone.

I’ve learned that each department has been tasked with implementing a policy on the use of Facebook for their staff, particularly concerning which privacy settings ought to be adjusted to both allow employees the use of the popular social networking tool and to allow a government known for its tight messaging to keep any loose ends from sticking out. The policy might be considered analogous to any other employee code of conduct, but this one is specialized for a website.

Ministerial facebookers will be pleased by the move and their employers will remain conscious of how to maintain the ideal balance.

Could the last supporter of small government turn off the lights when they leave?

So, Canada’s New Nanny™ banned light bulbs today. Today, Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn announced that the government would force retailers to phase out incandescent light bulbs by 2012.

This kind of action is actually counter productive to our progress and to the development of even greener technologies. By tying the invisible hand of the market, the Canadian government has in effect created an artificially high demand in fluorescent lights instead of letting Edison-style incandescents compete with the swirly fluorescents in the marketplace. The inefficient bulbs banned today cost seven times less than the fluorescent variety. Indeed, cost itself poses the problem. By removing incandescent bulbs from the marketplace, the government is removing competition. Now, manufacturers of fluorescent bulbs do not face competing pressure from the incandescent demand. Thus, there is less incentive to make a cheaper and even more efficient fluorescent bulb now that the government has removed its competition from the shelves. Over the long term, we may have in fact stunted the development of cheaper and more efficient means of illumination.

Some may argue that over time, due to energy savings, fluorescent bulbs have better value than incandescents. If this is the case, there is already incentive to switch over. I would rather the government give 100% tax credits on fluorescent light bulb purchases than have it ban me from making my own consumer choices.

Today, I am a little disappointed in my Conservative Party. This is also the same party that two short years ago argued that banning trans-fats was counter to the principles of consumer choice. By one extension, this light bulb decision is even counter to the government’s position on the long gun registry. In 2012, bureaucrats won’t have light bulbs to register. No, by 2012, the government will have thankfully banned harmful incandescent bulbs and the only ones that you’ll be able to find will be on the black market. This isn’t the party that favours government regulations, bans, and registrars is it?

Further, what secondary effects can are we not considering? Studies have shown that children exposed to fluorescent light were statistically more likely to develop hyperopia (far-sightedness). Children under the age of two whose rooms were lit with fluorescent lighting are more likely to develop astigmatism. Fluorescent lighting has also been shown to heighten the symptoms of agoraphobia.

So, the government has decided to ban light bulbs to appease the growing hysteria that, some might say, stems from the left-wing need for global social and economic reconfiguration. Granted, the ban will have a measured benefit in the short term. But, for reasons I’ve outlined above, it is best for the consumer to make such a decision because the market has shown a great talent for addressing consumer needs, whatever they may be.

If a lightbulb is turned on in Timmins, will a tidal wave hit Japan?

Liberal meltdown

This week was the first week back after a break for Canada’s New Government. Climate change was expected to lead the agenda as it seems to be the sole issue on which the Liberals care to define themselves. Conservatives rose to power promising to clean up government after the most significant corruption scandal in Canadian history. The Liberals think that they’ll rise to power cleaning up… Carbon dioxide and water vapour? Canadians have perceived Harper delivering on the Federal Accountability Act while Canadians believe that neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals will deliver on climate change.

In fact, I believe that this underlines a key weakness in Liberal messaging. While polling has shown that the environment is a top priority for Canadians, they’re not about to throw out the government on the issue when they actually go to the polls. If heathcare — an issue which actually has a direct effect on the life and death of Canadians — can be taken off the ballot of the electorate by a couple of weeks of warm weather in Toronto, it would seem that there aren’t any pressing issues that are really on the minds of Canadians. “Environment? Sure that sounds like something I should care about”

Unless a hurricane hits Toronto killing scores of people, the electorate is not about to uproot a government to install the old guard led by a sponsorship-era cabinet minister with no real record on the only issue on which he has chosen to define himself.

That’s why this week’s messaging was so puzzling. At the beginning of this week, a protester braved the freezing temperatures of downtown Ottawa to stretch out to play the part of a sunbathing polar bear. One wonders if the protester only had the suit rented for that day.

Liberals were sporting green ribbons in the House this week,
presumably to show that they care about the environment. Since Dion’s election as Liberal leader, the Liberal website has also incorporated a splash of green. Apparently this is to make it known that our Liberal friends care about the environment so long as the vehicle for their environmentalism is the Kyoto protocol. According to the popular narrative these days, one does not believe in saving the environment if one does not believe in a global, bureaucratic, statist wealth transfer agreement. In fact, one also does not believe in the science of climate change if one does not also believe in such a one world collectivist approach to saving the Earth from certain doom (according to our latest amended models). In fact, while Michael Ignatieff was lecturing the government to meet global Kyoto targets, the green ribbon-clad Ignatieff had his own words thrown back at him when environment minister John Baird quoted Ignatieff questioning Kyoto by saying “nobody knows what Kyoto is or what it commits us to”.

Thursday afternoon, Mark Holland, part of the new Liberal rat pack, had a meltdown (actually he didn’t flinch) when he said on Charles Adlers’ show that a Liberal government would control oil sands development in Alberta. Sacrificing the Canadian economy just because green has become fashionable will have Canadians thinking twice about the Liberal party. (The Liberal Party of Canada is already dead to Albertans).

Earlier on Thursday, Dion had a poor question period performance as he bizarrely stated that Harper was “paralyzing the world” when it came to Kyoto. Somebody ought to proofread Dion’s notes before QP, but I imagine this would be a difficult talk as I hear that Dion is very top-down in his approach and has no time for criticism from his staff.

All in all, a bit of a bizarre week for the Liberals on their climate communications. We heard some whispers about an old Harper letter calling Kyoto a “socialist scheme”, but the Liberals didn’t seem to get any mileage on it.

Why would the Liberals spend this frigid week lecturing the Conservatives on the global warming file (one on which they themselves have a dismal record). Is there really nothing else to talk about? Did the Liberals really spend the week telling Canadians “We got nothing”?

BONUS BAD MESSAGING: Bill Graham demanded Conservative action on Guantanamo Bay, a bizarre request given that Graham was foreign affairs minister in the years after 9/11.

Also, Dion called Harper fat?