a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Finally, health care getting attention

If there is one useful byproduct to come out of the current federal election campaign, it is the emergence of health care as a public issue.

Since the 2008 election, health care has been the proverbial elephant in the room among political issues.

Publicly-funded health care may be this country’s pride and joy. Politicians may be constantly paying limit lip service to it. But up until a couple of weeks ago, no political party has wanted to talk about it, even though the federal-provincial health accord expires in 2014.

Political parties like to look like they have solutions to the issues they talk about, or at least like they have a handle on them.

It is easy to understand why any politician would be reluctant to talk about something that is eating up half the revenues of Ontario and Quebec and likely will affect four more provinces in the same way by 2017.

With one portfolio hoovering up tax dollars like that, there won’t be much money left over for education, infrastructure, law enforcement or, in the federal case, jet fighters and prisons.

Complicating things further is that aging baby boomers are the cause of this imbalance just as the post-war generation forced society to spend more than two decades building schools and universities.

Generational politics is something no politician welcomes. Health care is a tough sound bite, no doubt about it.

This is why the March 22 federal budget said little about health care or how future generations will pay for it.

Now almost a month later, all political parties are vowing to preserve public health care – without saying how of course. But it’s a start.

Healthcare is something Canadians will have to stop taking for granted and start looking at some tough options. It is also something that will wind up dominating the remainder of this election campaign, the next one and possibly the election after that.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

If this doesn’t shake up campaign, nothing will

Most of us have been thinking the TV debates tonight and Wednesday would be the potential game changer or tipping point in the current federal election campaign.

But it looks like that potential game changer came a day early with the leak of a draft report of the Auditor General on how the Harper government plowed $50 million into dubious G8 infrastructure in Muskoka.

Actually there were two leaks of AG material on G8 spending, and the second one tells a lot about how the Harper government puts out a fire.

The first leak, as most of us know, was leaked to the Canadian Press. It is a draft report, dated in January, that concludes Parliament may have been misled and federal law may have been broken before last June’s summit – not exactly what a government wants to read about itself during an election campaign.

So the Tories got busy doing what they do so well during controversy – changing the channel – with a counter leak of their own. They distributed to media a second draft report from the AG that was dated in February.

This draft is also critical of G8 spending but uses softer language. It does not say Parliament may have been misled, for example.

We will see over the next week whether the tactic is enough to diffuse the controversy. However, it was enough for the Tories to turn the tables and challenge the validity of the draft obtained by CP.

Tonight’s debate will be a battle of narratives. The government will try to blur the impact of the AG’s findings with the softer version. The opposition will push an ongoing narrative of government misspending, as well an overall lack of integrity.

In 18 days of campaigning, the Tories have been plagued with allegations of everything from using RCMP officers as bouncers at their rallies to hiding the real costs of F-35 jet fighters. But they still maintain a healthy lead in the polls.

Will this latest controversy be the tipping point the opposition has been waiting for? We likely won’t know until this weekend. But tonight’s debate likely will be incredible political drama just the same.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A few surprises in election’s 1st week

When the election writ dropped, most of us thought Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff was dead man walking. What a surprise the first 10 days have been.

Aside from an initial mistake in which Iggy waffled on the coalition question, the Liberal leader has turned in a very solid performance.

He now looks comfortable in front of crowds. When the Liberals announced their platform over the weekend, their leader, speaking without notes, turned the event into a giant infomercial.

The latest Liberal Red Book of promises may have its critics. But the Liberals have managed to change the focus of the campaign away from the Tories’ scare stories about a Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition.

Harper, on the other hand, is an enigma. In the 2008 campaign, Harper managed to soften his image with all those regular-guy shots of him in a blue sweater vest. This campaign, the comfy sweater shots are gone and the Prime Minister is looking very cross and angry.

His harum-scarum talk of coalitions has turned out to be a bust. A growing number of Canadians now think a coalition government wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Harper foolishly challenged Iggy to a one-on-one debate from which, as the frontrunner, he would not have benefited. After Iggy replied with a quick ``any time, anywhere,’’ Harper backed off. That prompted a couple of political cartoons depicting him as a chicken -- literally.

Then were a series of embarrassing disclosures for which Harper was clearly unprepared, most notably the ongoing Bruce Carson saga. Despite five convictions of fraud, Carson somehow got hired as the Prime Minister’s right hand man.

Furthermore since the weekend, there has been a litany of embarrassing incidents in which Tory organizers have kicked people with suspected Liberal connections out of rallies involving Harper. One of those frog marched out of a rally was a young woman who happened to have a photo of herself with Iggy on her Face book page.

So let’s get this straight. Someone attending a Conservative party rally is vetted very carefully. A person with a criminal record working in the Prime Minister’s Office? Not so much.

All in all, Harper has looked like he is not enjoying this campaign. And his performance has been underwhelming.

Yet, the Tories enjoyed continue to maintain a strong lead in the polls. If anything it may be increasing and Harper may be on his way to finally winning a majority government.

However, the latest three-day rolling poll reported by Nik Nanos has started to show that lead is shrinking. So the Tories’ campaign troubles may catch up with them yet.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Frame Wars: The election so far

Well so much for all those predictions that the Tories would be running on their economic record while the Opposition would be hammering away at the Harper government’s record on ethics.

The first weekend of the 2011 election has wrapped up and the word, coalition, is on everyone’s lips.

Stephen Harper may be the first Prime Minister in Canadian history whose government has been found in contempt of Parliament. He may be the guy who came into office on the ethics ticket only to be branded as ethically challenged by the Opposition.

But without doubt he is a master at manipulating the public agenda and the media.

Within 24 hours of losing a confidence vote in the House of Commons, Harper managed to put his accusers on the defensive over a hypothetical possibility that should the Tories not gain a majority, the three Opposition parties will gang up and form an evil coalition to take control of Parliament and void the will of the people.

As proof, he cited the ill-fated 2008 coalition by the Opposition to seek the Governor General’s permission to form a coalition government after the 2008 election.

Harper claims the Liberals and NDP plan to take control of the country with the separatist Bloc Quebecois as a partner.

Actually the proposed coalition only consisted of the Liberals and New Democrats. The Bloc only agreed not to vote against the coalition for two years. But what is the truth in politics when you have a convincing narrative.

The feat is all the more remarkable when you consider that Harper himself tried to hatch such a coalition after the 2004 election in a letter with NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe.

The Prime Minister has been called everything from a hypocrite to a liar (by Duceppe). But still his narrative seems to be sticking with most of the voting public as the truth so far.

To borrow a term that came out of the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is being ``swift boated.’’ In that election, a group of American veterans of naval swift boats used in the Vietnam War came forward to claim Senator John Kerry, the Democrats’ candidate for president, and a decorated war hero, wasn’t the swift boat commander he was cracked up to be. He was a fraud, according to the swift boat veterans.

The allegations by the swift boat veterans, who were Republicans, turned out to be BS. But it didn’t matter. During the election campaign they framed Kerry as a fraud.

The swift boat episode is a classic case study in the process of issue framing in politics. Whoever can set the ``frame’’ around political issues usually can control the narrative of an election campaign and put the opponent on the defensive.

The Liberals of course didn’t help themselves by being vulnerable when the election began on Saturday. They should have moved before Parliament was dissolved last Friday to rule out participation in a coalition. That would have been getting in front of the story.

Instead, Ignatieff stumbled when the question was to put to him at first and then issued a press release a day later to deny any intention of forming a coalition. Score one for Harper.

The Liberals could have released ads featuring Harper’s 2004 coalition letter. That way they could have planted the idea in voters’ minds that Harper is a hypocrite who will stop at nothing to gain power. Harper of course denies he had any intention of coalition in 2004.

Now Harper has been able to frame or define Ignatieff as a usurper of democracy. Harper has also been able to demonize coalitions when they are in fact a legitimate part of parliamentary democracy.

Remember, this country was founded because Sir John A. Macdonald was able to form a coalition with Sir George √Čtienne Cartier in support of Confederation.

So far this election campaign has been looking a lot like Bambi versus Godzilla.

What’s interesting is why Harper is not running on his government’s record on the economy, or anything else. Why the fear frame, particularly when Harper has such a commanding lead in the polls?

Perhaps it is because Harper knows Canadians are still uneasy about him regardless of what they might think of Ignatieff. And the only way the Tories can win a majority is by stampeding a fearful electorate, or so he seems to think.

But Harper’s framing tactic could back fire yet. His former chief of staff, Tom Flanagan, has come forward to say, yes, his old boss was looking at possibly forming a coalition with the NDP and the Bloc to take control in 2004.

Score one for Bambi.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Blog delayed this week

I am about to go into the budget lockup this morning. So this week's Spindoctor blog is delayed by a day or so.
Gord McIntosh

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Branding Canada as Harperland

Amid all the things going on in the world, it might seem like a small development. But a federal decision to direct civil servants to refer to their employer as the Harper Government rather than the Government of Canada seems to have hit a national nerve.

One cartoonist has doctored the Canadian flag by replacing the centre Maple Leaf with the Great Man’s face. There have been alterations of the government’s familiar Canada logo to include you know who. There was even a cartoon about Elections Harper.

Even the Tories themselves are getting in on the fun by taking time out from bashing Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff to run feel-good TV ads of our prime minister working at his desk for a better tomorrow for you and I.

It should be clear to anyone that a decision was made months ago at party headquarters to treat Stephen Harper as the Conservatives’ prime asset whenever the election does come.

And why not? The Tories have successfully defined and cast Ignatieff as a hapless political tourist who thought he would come home from Harvard to lead the country of his birth.

Harper has done better in the polls than his own party. Most Canadians were convinced long ago that Harper is a capable political leader, whether they liked him or not.

Just a few weeks ago when the Tories seemed to be on cruise control toward majority government, party insiders were probably congratulating themselves on a very successful branding strategy. Canada’s economy is better than most countries’ and why not position the prime minister to take the credit?

The late Harold Macmillan was asked by a journalist when he was the prime minister of Britain what was the biggest challenge a government could face. His reply was ``Events, my dear boy. Events.’’

The prime minister’s handlers here in the People’s Republic of Harperland may now be wishing they had remembered Macmillan’s words.

The Harper government has been hit with a tsunami of allegations of contempt of Parliament, doctoring document lying, cheating and interfering with the Access to Information law.

The Opposition can’t believe its luck. The sudden reversal of fortune for the government (oops, that is the Harper Government) is taking attention away from the economy and casting it on ethics. That would be the government’s ethics and therefore Harper’s.

The sudden decisions by two more prominent western ministers to retire from politics over the weekend will likely mean the attention on Harper’s governing style will be all the more intense.

If ethics does become the ballot question in the next election, Harper’s style of government could cost him his long coveted majority.

Then again Canadians’ opinion of politics may be so low, that nothing in Ottawa shocks them anymore. No doubt the opposition parties will be weighing this question before deciding whether to defeat the government next week.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How about making sense of political polls?

There is an interesting cat fight going on among political pollsters about the accuracy of their products.

Last week the pollsters’ trade association, the Market Research and Intelligence Association, took out an ad in the Hill Times, the newspaper serving Parliament Hill, to assure politicians and the rest of us that polls by their members were in fact accurate and professionally prepared.

The ad didn’t get much notice. But it should have.

Think of what the reaction would have been if the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers Association had taken out an ad to assure us that cars made by its members were safe, or if say the Canadian Bankers Association publicly proclaimed that its members were competent enough to take care of depositors’ money.

These days political polls are all over the map. One week the governing Conservatives have a 16-point lead over the Liberals. The following week, another poll says the lead is a much slimmer at eight points. Canadians are well within their rights to ask what gives.

As a result of the wide variance, Allan Gregg, the Harris-Decima pollster, has publicly questioned the reliability of some of his competitors. As a result, the polling industry is furious with Gregg. Hence, last week’s ad.

This debate likely will continue. With growing privacy concerns, call display and growing reliance on mobile phones, polling by telephone is getting awfully challenging. Some pollsters have already switched to online polling.

Does the industry really know how accurate its polls are?

Gregg does have a point when he says we put too much faith in individual polls and that they are over-reported by the media.

There is an old political adage that says polls may not matter. But trends in polls do.

We should be probably following trends instead of reacting to one particular poll.

The problem is that the media treat their own exclusive polls as the gospel truth while ignoring those commissioned by their competitors.

I have complained about this before. But it is worth repeating. The media are short changing the public in the way polls are reported by pretending their own polls are the last word.

If the polls are all over the map, that is what should be reported. If the trend is in one party’s favour that too should be reported.

The media should also have people on staff who are able to critically analyse methodology.

We live in an increasingly numerate society. Audiences are ready for a more sophisticated look at political polls.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How Tories managed coverage of election charges

Whether they realized it or not, Canadians witnessed an interesting case study last week of how governments can and do manage the media.

On the evening of Feb. 24, an official of the Conservatives was busy phoning around the Parliamentary Press Gallery to advise that Elections Canada had charged four key members of the Tory campaign team in the 2006 election, plus the party itself.

Those charged included Senators Doug Finley and Irving Gerstein, both key backroom players.

Why would someone tip off the media that their organization and colleagues are facing a whole raft of charges by a federal agency over expenses in the 2006 election?

It was all about getting in front of the story. As any media strategist will tell you, it is better that the media carry your version of the bad news rather than someone else’s.

And in this case, the tactic appears to have worked.

In the first batch of stories that appeared overnight Thursday and into Friday, the charges were described as administrative rather than criminal. Most outlets quoted the Conservative party as saying this. But some didn’t bother with attribution.

For the most part, the media tried to present their reporting as the result of working Parliament Hill sources, when in reality they were recipients of a gang leak. Or is that a mass spoon feeding?

Nor did anyone bother explaining there is really no such thing as an administrative charge.

Some of these charges carry a hefty fine of $25,000 and the possibility of one year in jail upon conviction.

The following day Elections Canada and the public prosecutor’s office released the actual charges and began setting the record straight. And the media dutifully reported what they said. They also reported the outraged reaction of the Opposition parties.

However, by that time the story was already growing stale as old news.

Since Parliament was off last week, the Tories had a huge advantage in getting its version of the facts planted in most people’s memories. By Monday, there was scant reference to the election charges in the media. Case closed.

In most people’s minds this is the latest development in a longstanding dispute between the Tories and Elections Canada. After all, the Federal Court had ruled in the Tories’ favour last year about the party’s financial methods in the 2006 election. The ruling is under appeal.

Most people likely believe Elections Canada is looking for payback. However, there are elements of this story that has been lost in the clamour.

The charges were not actually laid by Elections Canada. They were laid by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which had to be convinced there was a reasonable chance of conviction. What prompted federal prosecutors to proceed now?

Also, these charges were laid on Wednesday, Feb. 23. Why no news release by Elections Canada or the Public Prosecutor Office? Authorities don’t usually leave the chore of announcing prosecutions up to those facing prosecution.

Let’s hope there are journalists enterprising enough to investigate those questions.

Nobody can blame a political party for trying to play its ace as best it can in the court of public opinion. But we can blame the media for allowing themselves to be played.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why didn’t Oda tell the truth in the 1st place?

Here’s a news flash that provides questions instead of answers.

Over the weekend, Conservative MPs were issued talking points that say Bev Oda was out of the country when her office received a report from the Canadian International Development Agency recommending approval of $7 million in funding for Kairos, the international aid group.

So the Minister of International Co-operation ordered her office staff to insert the word ``not’’ in front of ``approve’’ in the final line of the report and use her signature stamp. At least this is the government’s latest version of what happened in Oda’s run-in with parliamentary procedure.

Had the minister simply given that explanation to a Commons committee in December, would she now be in danger of becoming the first cabinet minister in Canadian history to be found in contempt of Parliament? Not.

Instead, she has had several stories. First she tried to claim she didn’t know how a document bearing her signature came to be altered. Then she claimed Kairos didn’t fit the aims of CIDA when senior staff of the agency under her charge were recommending approval.

And most laughably, Oda claimed funding was denied after ``due diligence’’ by CIDA.

Oda has already been rebuked by the Commons Speaker over this affair. Telling fibs in the House of Commons is a line that is not supposed to be crossed.

This is because truthful information is the oxygen that feeds parliamentary democracy.

Even if Oda somehow remains a member of cabinet when this nasty affair finally ends, her political career is effectively over. No one is going to take seriously a disgraced minister who reportedly lied to a parliamentary committee and tried to pin her own deeds on civil servants reporting to her.

Why didn’t the minister simply tell the truth in the first place since she was within her rights to reject a recommendation from the civil service?

Both she and the government obviously didn’t expect the document to surface publicly, which it did thanks to an Access to Information request. But they should have since the rules of disclosure are pretty clear.

In fairness, this is not the first government to think it owns the truth. But considering this government got itself elected by promising increased accountability, the whole affair is likely to leave a stench.

Maybe this is a case of some kind of hidden death wish because every time this government is within sight of majority rule, it starts shooting at its own feet.

But more likely, this is a sign that official Ottawa needs a reminder that truth isn’t just an inconvenience to be overcome.

We may get that reminder before this affair is over.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

VANOC used aggressive media tactics

By now most of us have an opinion whether John Furlong should have done more to prevent a fatal accident on the luge track at last year’s Vancouver Olympics. There isn’t much point in passing judgment here on the man who was head of the Vancouver Organizing Committee.

But there is a sidebar issue on VANOC’s media relations tactics.

The CBC’s Fifth Estate obtained a sensitive e-mail from the B.C. Coroner’s Office through the province’s Freedom of Information law. In the e-mail, Furlong alerted colleagues that VANOC had received a letter in which the track’s designer expressed concern about speeds being recorded on it.

This concern was made and passed on to VANOC officials almost a year before a young Georgian luger, Nodar Kumaritashvili, died instantly after hitting a metal pole at 145 km/h on the track.

Furlong passed on the designer’s concerns in an e-mail to senior VANOC officials, including legal counsel, and said the letter was ``a warning that the track is, in their view, too fast and someone could get badly hurt.’’

He added: ``I think the case could be made we were warned and did nothing.’’

No one disclosed this e-mail after the tragedy. In fact, Furlong said after the crash there were no safety concerns raised about the track.

So how did Furlong’s media adviser handle this?

Renee Smith-Valade, VANOC’s former vice-president of communications, managed to get a hold copies of the documents in the Fifth Estate’s possession, including the Furlong e-mail. She then released the material before the Fifth Estate could go to air to other media, namely CTV, the host broadcaster of the Olympics, and the Globe and Mail, a corporate cousin. Neither disclosed how they obtained the material.

It was a pre-emptive move designed to rob the Fifth Estate of its scoop and therefore deaden the impact. Or as Smith-Valade put it, it was a manoeuvre to present ``a more balanced view and protect VANOC’s reputation.’’

Smith-Valade was likely hoping the turmoil in the Middle East would distract public attention away from the issue. Did the tactic work?

Reports by the Fifth Estate have brought down cabinet ministers. Smith-Valade was trying to dilute the Fifth Estate’s impact by making the issue old news by the time its program aired, which wasn’t until Feb. 11.

But it is hard to say whether the move worked. VANOC media tactics became a story themselves. As a result, other media such as the Vancouver Sun and the Toronto Star weighed in with harsh commentary about Furlong and Smith-Valade’s tactic.

In fact, the tactic might have the opposite effect that what was intended.

The best media relations tactic probably would have been to disclose the safety concerns a year ago and take the lumps then. Or better still, ensure that the track was fully safe in the first place.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

CRTC chairman: Nobody deserves undermining by tweet

Thanks to Twitter and our tweeting Industry Minister, we can all add CRTC chairmanship to the list of least desirable jobs in Canada along with chief fundraiser for the Liberal party, coach of the Ottawa Senators or CFL commissioner.

Ottawa has every legal right to take issue with any decision by the CRTC and over-ride it through cabinet order.

Many Canadians would applaud Industry Minister Tony Clement for standing ready to overturn a CRTC decision to implement usage-based billing for internet customers.

A case can be made for usage-based billing now that consumers are downloading feature-length movies from the internet. But a case can just as easily be made not to suddenly saddle people with huge cost increases without warning. There was no surprise the CRTC was facing a public backlash.

But the way Clement chose to tell the CRTC – over Twitter – showed a lack of class. The head of a federal regulatory agency deserves something more than 140 characters over Twitter. So do Canadians.

Clement made it plain that if the CRTC didn’t change its position on usage-based billing, cabinet would do it for them. But he also twisted the knife a little further by tweeting that he was ``looking forward’’ to remarks by CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein before a Commons committee the following day.

Not only was Clement publicly undermining the commission, he was doing some old fashioned bullying – something von Finckenstein didn’t deserve.

After all the CRTC was only following a written directive by Clement’s predecessor, Maxime Bernier. Bernier, the first industry minister when the Conservatives assumed office in 2006, ordered the CRTC to put market forces above the public interest.

The CRTC was just following government policy when it approved usage-based billing. Then Clement figured out which way the wind was blowing and got on Twitter.

Canadians shouldn’t have to guess what the government is going to do in the future – or what the minister is going to tweet. The government should take the trouble to formally spell out policy.

Ironically, the Federal Court dealt Clement a stinging rebuke a day after the minister pushed around the CRTC. The court ruled a 2009 cabinet order that allowed Globalive to launch its Wind Mobile wireless service was in contravention of Canada’s limits on foreign ownership in the telecommunications sector.

The CRTC had originally ruled Globalive was an Egyptian-controlled company. The government ruled Globalive was Canadian controlled without bothering to clarify or change existing law.

Now it is the government’s turn to be pushed around – this time by the courts. Courts don’t tweet.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Election if necessary, but not necessarily an election

Here we go again. We’re in the midst of more excitement about a pending election nobody claims to want.

All party leaders have been fanning out in what they insist is not campaigning. The two major parties are busy blasting each other with attack ads. And the media are playing their part by acting like fight promoters.

Yup. It sure looks like an election is imminent. Or maybe not.

We are witnessing what is fast becoming a standard part of minority government – the pre-campaign. Pre-campaigns are good for market-testing potential ballot questions. Or, in the event of near-deadlock in the polls, a pre-campaign is good for testing for cracks in the other guy’s support.

Both of these reasons are factors in this current pre-campaign.

The polls haven’t changed much since the 2008 election. As they stand now, an election would produce a Parliament not terribly different from the current standings.

Should there be a shift in the Conservatives’ favour during the pre-campaign, we can be sure the governing party will find a way to engineer an election, regardless of what the Prime Minister is saying.

It will not be so easy for the Liberals to cash in on a shift in their favour, or signs of one pending. Historically, any surge in Liberal support has been at the expense of the NDP.

There is a very real possibility the New Democrats could wind up propping up the government in the budget vote this spring.

Still it might be useful for the Liberals to force a confidence vote in which the NDP has to bail out the Tories. The Liberals may also need the NDP to back up the government if their strategy backfires. Michael Ignatieff’s ultimatum that the March budget contain a rollback of phased-in cuts to business taxes or the Liberals will vote against it doesn’t have much wiggle room.

As for possible ballot questions, the pre-campaign will be risky for Liberals and Conservatives. The two majors seem to have both decided to lock horns over tax cuts for business – at least for now.

After two years in the current mandate, the Tories really don’t have much to put in the store window.

The stimulus plan will be past tense by the time voters do head to the polls. The Tories at first thought they would be able to count on bragging rights for replacing the number of jobs lost during the recession.

However, Statistics Canada has played spoiler by restating post-recession employment creation numbers. As a result, the government is 30,000 jobs short of making that claim.

Canadians are less than enthralled over the F-35 purchase. The Tories’ fear mongering over an evil coalition of Opposition parties hasn’t produced the results they had been seeking. The law and order initiatives are at saturation point. The character assassination ads may be wearing thin. And there has been nothing but damage control in foreign affairs.

So the rebranding of continued tax cuts for business as a job creation initiative might turn out to be a good move for the Tories as long as they are able to define the debate. After all, the Liberals did support the phased-in tax cuts for business in 2007. Business taxes now stand at 16 per cent. The Tories want to move them down one more percentage point in 2012 to give Canada the lowest business taxes in the G7.

As for the Liberals, the science of economics is on their side. Cutting taxes in a deficit situation is really spending money you don’t have. If the Liberals are able to frame business tax cuts as a deficit enlarger, the Tories have a problem.

They can also argue low business taxes alone don’t automatically create jobs. Otherwise Ireland, with business taxes of 12.5 per cent, would have an abundance of new jobs.

The Liberals can truthfully say they supported tax cuts when there was a budget surplus. But that detail could easily be lost in all the noise made by the Tory spin machine.

Still, the Tories don’t feel comfortable enough to spell out exactly how they will slay the deficit by the promised 2015. So they are vulnerable on the deficit.

About the last thing the Conservatives can be accused of is being fiscal conservatives. The Tory cheque writers have been busier than the spin machine.

We are about to witness a spectacular issue framing war between the major parties.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Harper after 5 years in power

What’s interesting about all the coverage of the fifth anniversary of Conservative rule is how little attention has been focused on the party.

Instead the stories have been about Stephen Harper, the man who became Prime Minister after leading the merger of the old Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties.

Mention of the party Harper happens to lead is only incidental.

When you compare what the Conservatives under Harper in five years of minority government have achieved in tangible accomplishments with the minority under Liberal Lester Pearson of 1963-1968, resemblance is very slight.

Pearson’s government gave the country a new flag, a national health care system, the Canada Pension Plan, the foundation of a bilingual civil service, social insurance numbers and so on.

Harper’s government has given us the Federal Accountability Act, which tightened up legislation governing lobbyists (with loopholes) but also rolled back provisions of the Access to Information Act. His government also cut the GST by two percentage points and introduced a ton of law and order legislation despite Canada’s declining crime rate.

Harper’s government also introduced fixed election terms in 2007 – a law it disregarded a little over a year later.

And yes he made the dubious decision of eliminating the mandatory long form census while failing – at least so far – to get rid of the long gun registry.

The Harper government’s legislative record looks pretty slim compared to most governments.

But that is not why we are so fixated with our Leader.

There is no question; politics in Canada has changed under Harper. Historians will probably look at Canadian politics in terms of before and after Stephen Harper.

The authority of Parliament, which the textbooks tell us is supreme to the executive, has been diminished under Harper. Parliamentary committees have been openly undermined under Harper. Public servants who dare to be watchdogs instead of lapdogs are very publicly disposed of by Harper’s government.

Yet Canadian media seem to devote most of their scrutiny to the weaknesses of the Leader of the Opposition as opposed to the tactics of the man who leads our government.

Time was when Canadian Conservatives fancied themselves as rugged individualists who weren’t afraid to speak their minds. Now dissent, at least publicly, is unheard of in the Conservative caucus.

Recently, Toronto Star writer Linda Diebel wrote about the climate of fear that is consuming Ottawa under Harper. That story was no exaggeration.

When Harper campaigned in the 2006 election, he promised a new era of accountability and transparency. That message clearly resonated with most voters.

Once elected Harper began rolling back the very things he promised to increase. Secrecy became the new normal. Yet the public for the most part has accepted that.

There must be something in human nature that submits to a forceful, alpha-dog of a leader much like Quebec allowed Maurice Duplessis to be ``Le Chef’’ for so long.

Harper may not be able to win a majority in the next election. But he will be able to rule like he had one as long as he continues to have a strong hold on the national psyche.

As we know from history, once Duplessis was gone, the party he founded, the Union Nationale, began a long spiral to oblivion. Will the same thing happen once Harper is gone?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Censorship for nothing, futility for free

Pop music stations in Canada aren’t known for daring programming. But some of them might be on to an important principle by defying a censorship order.

As any Canadian reasonably conscious of popular culture knows, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has ordered radio stations across the country not to play Money for Nothing, a big hit in 1985 by Dire Straits, without editing out a certain word that is insulting to gays. The order was made in a response to a complaint from a radio listener in Newfoundland.

But a growing number of stations across the country are defying the order with support of their listeners.

There is no point in repeating this word. We all know what it is. But most of would agree it is insulting, much like the N-word is to blacks.

But should the F-word be stripped out of a classic rock song about a bigoted and alienated guy working in an appliance store who thinks musicians don’t have to work for a living? The same question has been applied to whether the N-word should be stripped out of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

I would argue the answer in both cases should be no.

Twain’s book was controversial the moment it was published because of its scathing look at racism and entrenched bigotry in an era when racial slurs were common vocabulary. This is probably why it was first published in Britain in 1884 instead of Twain’s native U.S.

Even though Twain was describing a slavery-based southern society that no longer existed 20 years after the Civil War, it can be easily argued the book was an important step in eventually ridding the U.S. of institutionalized racism. To fully understand that era it is important to understand the vernacular of the period.

Money for Nothing was actually written by lead guitarist and singer Mark Knopfler while he was in an appliance store in New York. There was a guy delivering boxes while MTV was blaring on a wall of television sets. Knopfler says he used the guy’s actual words like ``that ain’t working’’ as he composed the lyrics on a piece of paper.

The song is a narrative on working class alienation in the 1980s and the vernacular of the time – a time when the F-word at issue was common in everyday conversation.

``The societal values at issue a quarter-century later have shifted and the broadcast of the song in 2010 must reflect those values, rather than those of 1985," the Broadcast Council said in its ruling. That amounts to retroactive censorship.

If the Broadcast Council wanted to, it could find hundreds of recorded songs with the potential to offend. There are songs on the airwaves today that glorify violence, advocate law breaking and use sexist language.

But the council’s policy is not to act unless there is a complaint. That means its stewardship of the airwaves is uneven at best.

Public taste shouldn’t be arbitrated on the basis of one complaint. Nor should the past be purged to suit political correctness today.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Arizona tragedy a political game changer

It is risky to make political predictions at the best of times. So it is too early to say if the tragedy in Tucson over the weekend will end Sarah Palin’s political ambitions, or anyone else’s for that matter.

But it is probably safe to say the attempted assassination of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of six others on Saturday will force Americans to take a long look at what has happened to their political culture.

The media of course didn’t wait long to blame right wingers – Palin in particular – for using such inflammatory rhetoric against liberals and Democrats that a disturbed young man would be incited to shoot the Congresswoman in the head and kill six others.

They were especially hard on Palin because her political action committee published a map last year with the cross hairs of a rifle marking the Congressional districts of 20 Democrats, including that of Giffords. Palin also once uttered the words to supporters, ``Don’t retreat. Reload.’’

Palin likely lent some credence to those allegations by her reaction on Monday. She sent one of her aides out to deny the map had anything to do with the shootings rather than do it herself. She also e-mailed her sorrow for the shootings to right-wing commentator Glenn Beck on Fox News.

Her seclusion will be interpreted by most people as cowardice. Indeed, her reaction could cost her more political capital than the map.

Beck, meantime, tried to imply Palin was in danger of being assassinated by liberals. He also accused the left of using a terrible tragedy to score cheap political points. (Actually, Beck’s behavior on Fox was cheap.)

But even though both right wingers acted like they were guilty as hell, it is important to remember both sides are responsible for the current political climate.

“If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.

Barak Obama used those words to supporters in Philadelphia in 2008.

Americans need to clean up their political debate by all sides just as they need to inject some sanity into their gun laws. Canadians need to ensure politics here doesn’t become more Americanized than it already has.