Thoughts about the Pakistan story

Often when writing this blog I try and wear two hats: one of a reporter and one of a conservative critic. If I get whiff of a good story, I’ll do my best to investigate and be first to put it out there for public consumption. As an advocate of blogging as a new reporting medium, I will say that I am thrilled when I see big stories break on blogs before the so-called mainstream media goes to air/print.

Last night, I received word from someone that works in media that a press release from the High Commissioner was just starting to hit the email boxes of fellow reporters in Ottawa. As I’m not usually on the press contact list of most organizations, I called the Pakistani High Commission to confirm the story. They referred me to the press officer who had already gone home for the evening. Likely expecting a number of media calls that evening, the commission passed on the officer’s home number which I called. When speaking with the press officer, I only inquired as to whether a statement or release had been authored concerning “Mr. Dion’s remarks on Pakistan and NATO” and requested that a copy be emailed to me. They informed me that they had in fact just penned a release and that they would email me a copy.

Some people have emailed me with concerns that by calling the High Commission, I brought attention to a news story of which they would have otherwise not been aware. This is laughable and quite insulting to the professionalism of diplomatic staff whose job it is is to track the host country’s political scene in order to report developments which concern their government. Stephane Dion’s statements regarding NATO and possible “forces” being introduced into Pakistan were already published in the Ottawa Citizen and I’m quite certain that the diplomatic staff reads the papers (and watches the news. The story was on both Mike Duffy and Newman last night). I did nothing to suggest to the Pakistani High Commission that Mr. Dion’s statements were inappropriate; I simply expressed to them that I wanted to be cc’d on the release that they were only starting to send out.

I believe that I was the first to publish the release. Minutes later on his blog, David Akin published it too. My blog beat the CP wire by an hour on a breaking news story. The story’s value was “very high” as Canada has important security interests in central Asia and that a man seeking the office of the Prime Minister had apparently taken a new track on proposed Canadian foreign policy. While I may have been first to break news of the release, it is unfair to say that the mainstream media was negligent or uninterested in reporting on the story. After I posted on the story last night, I benefited from discussions with one of Ottawa bureau chiefs and two other Ottawa reporters. To Peter Mansbridge’s credit, the CBC anchor used a scheduled Mansbridge One-on-One taping the same day to press Dion (and hard) on his statement and to ask him about Pakistan’s condemnation of Dion’s remarks.

As for the partisan statements that I made on this blog concerning the release: I do believe in what I wrote. In fact, much of it mirrors and complements what I have previously said. I think that Canadians should set a very high standard for their applicants to executive and legislative powers, especially when it comes to matters of national defense and foreign policy.

As for Conservatives “taking advantage” of Mr. Dion’s statements or positions? This does nothing to hurt foreign relations as Mr. Harper is the Prime Minister and such high level diplomatic/military transactions cross his desk and not that of Mr. Dion. Despite this, it is the responsible duty of our party-based political system to discuss/debate and sometimes ridicule the positions of opponents. As Canadians, we charge our elected representatives with pursing our interests and those of Canada, and anything less than challenging a new proposed track on foreign policy would be irresponsible and a betrayal to our principles of informed debate, the foundation of our democracy. Parties are the method by which discussion is focused and made effective. Rather than having 308 independent and non-cohesive message tracks, we more effectively debate a handful at a time. It is the duty of parties to propose new ideas and the duty of other parties to put those ideas through the test of intense debate.

The Conservatives can hardly be blamed for both debating what appeared to be Mr. Dion’s divergent foreign policy proposal, and they cannot be blamed for taking the Liberal leader at his literal word. Now Mr. Dion has said that he means “diplomacy” and not “force” even though he called for considering “NATO forces” in Pakistan. Either one of two things then happened. Mr. Dion either realized the faults of his proposal and climbed down in the face of being battered on an already weak file of his. Or the Liberal leader misspoke, which is known to happen. However, misinterpreting Dion’s intent based on his words has really only been known to happen in English. Is it possible that Mr. Dion made a gaffe in French about an issue that was on the top of his mind (he had just come back from his first trip to Afghanistan)? It’s possible, but its not probable. I believe that Mr. Dion was proposing a new track even if it’s a proposal for others to help develop his ideas. And in this, I honestly believe that this is where one of Mr. Dion’s political faults lies; he takes an academic approach which is better suited to the safe environment of a “what-if” university seminar. Such an environment is the incubator to under-developed ideas and untested policy proposals. The national stage is no place to “spitball” ideas.

Some will say that they’ve found it refreshing to hear a Canadian politician “tell it like it is on Pakistan” and “say what we’ve all been thinking”. Pakistan has been a laggard when it comes to taking care of the radical elements in its western province. Like most Canadians, I am concerned about our inability to address this problem directly. Yet, Pakistan is a sovereign country that has the jurisdiction over its own security. Most Canadians would agree that the only scenarios that would allow military presence within Pakistan’s borders would be either with the permission of the Pakistani government, or with a broad international consensus to violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. The Pakistani government is not about to allow any western nation to put our soldiers on the ground there (this is a well known sentiment of the Musharraf government – so it is surprising that Mr. Dion suggested this). Further, the UN is not on the verge on granting any military the authority to violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. Mr. Dion’s statements were ill-conceived and more theoretical than practical in nature.

For Canadian security in central Asia, Pakistan needs a stable administration. If it’s democratic, all the better. But, the “nuance” here is that if Western troops go in, it’ll tip the population of Pakistan away from Musharraf, and away from Bhutto’s PPP and towards radical elements. Having Americans in Saudi Arabia supposedly radicalized Osama bin Laden against the West, so suggesting something half-baked (but on the very surface, quite logical until you dig deeper) is irresponsible of Dion and especially for a man who is supposedly advised on these matters. As a privy counselor, former member of cabinet and leader of the Opposition, Dion receives security briefings. Since Pakistan stability is a key buttress against the whole of central Asia collapsing, Dion made an unfortunate error in making such a weakly-considered statement as the Pakistani media picked up comments from the Canadian opposition leader, named him as the likely winner of the future election and claim that his policy musings will be the Canadian agenda in a matter of weeks or months.

Dion, of course has the right to make such statements however inappropriate they may be. But it is the duty of partisans of all stripes to put his ideas through the machinations of public debate in order for Canadians to be best served.

Facebook freeze

I was wondering when this would finally happen…

Facebook, perhaps the most popular social networking site in the world where one can build a network among friends, acquaintances and professionals is to no longer be used by Conservative ministerial exempt staff.

Frankly, I’m surprised it took this long. Facebook pages are like semi-private blogs that can include off-colour comments by colleagues, photos from last night’s bender and can even display deeply personal details such as one’s relationship status and sexual preference. Blogs understandably represented a communications challenge amongst a team that prides itself on tight messaging. Facebook not only represents this same challenge, but also has the potential for being a rich back-channel for opposition researchers, among others.

In fact, a reporter friend once remarked to me that Facebook was a ‘goldmine’ of information. With a few clicks, an industrious Globe and Mail scribe could find out that the press secretary to a Minister was at a Cinco de Mayo party this month, has interests that include “Ayn Rand, fast boats, ATVing and walks on the beach” and has a Guns ‘N Roses tattoo from earlier, less sophisticated
times.

David Akin, another reporter who is actively involved in the Facebook community, earlier wrote about the social networking phenomenon and then unknowingly highlighted what is likely the reasoning behind this recent decision:

“One of the reasons I wanted to be Harper’s FF [Facebook friend] was so that I could see who Harper’s other FFs were. I’m a nosy parker by profession and it’s my job to find out what his supporters and colleagues in the Conservative party are thinking about. So here was a good chance to invite myself to a virtual party where most (I suspect) are people who either are or would like to be Harper’s real offline friend. Now, the flipside of this is that all of these people at this virtual party of Harper’s friends can also see that I, too, have listed myself as Harper’s “Friend”. So, here I am, a journalist who is paid to provide independent, non-aligned and occasionaly sceptical reports on the Prime Minister and yet, here I am, on a list of his “Friends”.”

The “friend” network of a Conservative ministerial exempt staffer may include Conservatives, high school friends, Liberals, PMO staff and Mark Holland (just for kicks — and to spy on him too to see if he is as ill-timed with the keyboard as he is with what he says in public — he is). And therein lies the biggest problem for a professional network that trades on gossip, leaks and juicy details: while you’re checking them out, you’re open to the same. “Bozo eruptions” are not limited to a backbench MP freelancing opinion about social issues to a small- town newspaper reporter; Facebook, in its ease of use, and its socially reciprocating nature, lowers the threshold of access to and ramps up the rapid dissemination of the information about anyone that is about to ruin their political career.

Of course, staff will be upset by the move as Facebook is easily one of the day’s best diversions as it brings procrastination, web surfing and socializing together in a truly amusing way. However, the decision is a wise one for a team that must deal in this political reality.

The Liberals, predictably, will not follow suit in order to contrast their “openness” and “transparency” to Canadians. In fact, Stephane Dion has been an active participant of the social networking site (“Hello Facebook”). The contrarian move, of course, will be to their folly for the reasons that I outline above. But now, it is the potentially embarrassing Liberal information that is now available while Conservative information has been removed.

It should also be noted that this ban is different from that brought down by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. This ban by the Conservatives only applies to ministerial exempt staff. Facebook will still be accessible on their computers, but they are advised not to participate. McGuinty effectively had the Facebook site made inaccessible from Queen’s Park computers for all staff, regardless of their political stripe (or lack thereof). The aim of McGuinty’s ban is to cut down on procrastination while the Conservative ban is to patch up leaks before they occur.

Economic update

Here are the main points of Flaherty’s economic update:

  • Eliminate the net debt by 2021
  • Reduce debt to 25% of GDP by 2012-13
  • inflation target at 2% until at least 2011
  • GST at 5% by 2011
  • Working Income Tax Benefit for low-middle income Canadians
  • Income tax reductions based on interest that would have been paid on the debt. Debt reduction will result directly in income tax cuts.
  • Establish lowest tax on business investment in G7.
  • Large investments in the knowledge and training economy

Here’s the executive summary of Advantage Canada.

Income splitting, but just for seniors. No GST cut yet.

VERDICT: Nothing too exciting. A good direction forward.

UPDATE: David Akin sends me a correction live from the finance committee! It’s NET debt that’ll be gone by 2021, not the debt.

UPDATE: NDP finance critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis is decrying the Conservative plan to put so many surplus dollars against the debt. A sound endorsement!

UPDATE: Liberal finance critic John MacCallum isn’t impressed and believes that this doesn’t change anything. Underlines the distinction of “net-debt” and calls it a gimmick. Net-debt is a valid OECD measure though.

UPDATE: reaction from stakeholders (the ones that do press releases!)…

The Canadian Real Estate Association
(CREA) and its more than 88,000 REALTOR(R) members across Canada welcomed the
federal government’s identification of tax, fiscal, and infrastructure issues
as key elements to improve the quality of life for all Canadians. The three
were among the five Canadian Advantages outlined in the Fall Economic
Statement delivered by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty today.

One of the proposals outlined by Minister Flaherty in the Advantage
Canada document was the reduction of taxes on savings, including capital
gains, to make Canada’s tax system more competitive. REALTORS(R) have been
calling on the federal government to implement a capital gains rollover
provision for small investors when the proceeds of the sale of real property
are reinvested in another real property investment within a set timeframe.

Certified Management Accountants:

CMA Canada is encouraged by the direction of
Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s economic and fiscal update and looks
forward to the government accepting its recommendations to achieve economic
objectives.

“We are pleased that the economic groundwork laid out by the Finance Minister today is aligned with our recommendations to the government,” said Michael Tinkler, CMA Canada’s public finance analyst. “However, the proof will be seen in the specific measures delivered in the next federal budget.”

Canada’s life and health insurers:

Canada’s life and health insurers strongly commended the government’s Advantage Canada economic plan. CLHIA President Greg Traversy said, “The combination of tax reduction, debt reduction and paper burden reduction will position Canadians to compete effectively and prosper over the years ahead. Life and health insurers particularly welcome the commitment to foster a dynamic and globally competitive financial services industry and look forward to continuing their own efforts towards that goal in the context of the improved business environment set out in Minister Flaherty’s plan.”

Greg Sobara, Minister of Finance of Ontario:

The federal government’s economic update
contains a few positive signals that Ottawa may be listening to Ontario’s call
for fairness in federal transfers, Finance Minister Greg Sorbara says. “What I don’t see – and this disappoints me – is any detail on anything except tax cuts and debt reduction,” Sorbara said. “There are no specifics on how they’re going to invest in infrastructure. There are no specifics on how they’re going to address the fiscal imbalance. There are no specifics on how they’re going to invest in post-secondary education.”

CUPE:

“Today’s Fiscal and Economic Update shows
that Stephen Harper’s government is trying to buy the votes of Canadians with
the promise of more tax cuts that could lead to deep spending cuts in the
future,” said Paul Moist, national president of Canada’s largest union – CUPE.

Certified General Accountants:

The Certified General Accountants
Association of Canada (CGA-Canada) is pleased with the federal government’s
plan to boost Canada’s productivity and global competitiveness. Of special interest to CGAs are the government’s policy commitments relating to: Program spending, the Canadian economic union [and] the business environment “We welcome the government’s policy commitments. The plan to reduce taxes, streamline the regulatory environment, reduce the paper burden and remove internal trade barriers will address Canada’s competitiveness”

Federation of Canadian Municipalities:

“We welcome the reaffirmation of the Government’s commitment to work
toward a comprehensive infrastructure plan that includes long-term and
predictable funding. The extension for two additional years of the federal gas tax transfer is an important first step as we transition toward a longer term effort to erase Canada’s municipal infrastructure deficit. This also signals the Government’s long-term commitment to vibrant and competitive cities and communities.

Canadian Taxpayers Federation:

“Since 1997, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation has called for Ottawa to implement a legislated debt relief schedule and eliminate the debt in a generation,” said CTF federal director John Williamson. “Today, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced the Government of Canada will do just that.”

Williamson continued, “We applaud Mr. Flaherty for embracing and adopting policy advanced by the taxpayers’ federation, but for this policy to be meaningful the Conservative government must table legislation to make it the law of the land. Otherwise it is an empty promise. With the national debt standing at $481.5-billion, lawmakers cannot afford to not take debt repayment seriously.”

“In the May budget, Minister Flaherty reported program spending would grow by 5.3 per cent this year yet today he reported the annual spending increase will instead be 7.1 per cent,” observed Williamson. “The government has already betrayed its commitment to keep program spending below the growth rate of the economy. Economic growth is estimated to be 2.8 per cent this year. It is disappointing the Conservative government’s spending is already way off target. And if spending targets are missed, meaningful tax relief in the next budget can’t happen and debt repayment just isn’t possible either.”

Blogging Tory on CTV News tonight

Andrew at Bound by Gravity is making his network television debut tonight in a story about blogging and the shifting trend from advertising in the MSM to advertising online.

I tried catching him on CTV Newsnet at 10pm but either CTV or my cable company decided to go nuts and start playing commercials halfway through the report. I’ll try again at 11 on the main network.

The report is by Ottawa-based reporter David Akin who is a blogger in his own right. I forwarded Akin some election research that I had done earlier this year. He follows the blogs closely and if CTV ever does its own “Inside the Blogs” feature, I’d expect that he’d host it.

There should also be video available on the CTV website tomorrow so I’ll post it here when it becomes available.

UPDATE: Here is the video (Blogging Tories is shown for a split second, thanks for the thought Andrew)

Congratulations Andrew, you made the Blogging Tories, and the rest of the Canadian blogosphere, proud!