Tag Archives: conservatives

How Tories could do transparency – Globe and Mail

Today’s blog post appears in the Globe and Mail. You can read it there (please do, also give it a vote).

How Tories could do transparency

Britain’s new Conservative government did something on Friday that Canadians would fine impossible to imagine. After a brief video announcement from Prime Minister David Cameron about the importance of the event, Francis Maude, Minister of the Cabinet Office, and Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, announced that henceforth the spending data for every British ministry on anything over £25,000 (about $40,000) would be available for anyone in the world to download. The initial release of information revealed thousands and thousands of lines of data and almost £80-billion (about $129.75-billion) in spending. And starting in January, every ministry must update the data once a month.

For the British Conservative Party, this is a strategic move. Faced with a massive deficit, the government is enlisting the help of all Britons to identify any waste. More importantly, however, they see releasing data as a means by which to control government spending. Indeed, Mr. Maude argues: “When you are forced to account for the money you spend, you spend it more wisely. We believe that publishing this data will lead to better decision-making in government and will ultimately help us save money.” And they might be right. Already, organizations like Timetric, the Guardian newspaper and the Open Knowledge Foundation have visualized, organized and indexed the data so it is easier for ordinary citizens understand and explore how their government spends their money.

These external sites are often more powerful than what the government has. After observing the way these sites handle the data, the minister noted how he wished he’d had access to them while negotiating with some of the government’s largest contractors.

For Canadians, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government is but a distant example of a world that a truly transparent government could – and should – create. In contrast, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives seem stuck in a trap described by Mr. Maude in his opening sentences: “Opposition parties are always remarkably keen on greater government transparency, but this enthusiasm mysteriously tends to diminish once they actually gain power.” Canada’s Conservatives have been shy about sharing any information with anyone. Afghan detainee files aren’t shared with Parliament; stimulus package accounts were not emailed to the Parliamentary Budget Office, but uselessly handed over in 4,476 printed pages. Even the Auditor-General is denied MP expense data. All this as access-to-information wait times exceed critical levels and Canada, unlike the United States, Britain , Australia and New Zealand, languishes with no open-data policy. Only once has the government pro-actively shared real “data,” when it shared some stimulus data that could be downloaded.

The irony is not only that the Tories ran on an agenda of accountability and transparency, but that – as their British counterparts understand – actually implementing a transparency and open-data policy may be one of the best ways to stamp a conservative legacy on the government’s future. Moreover, it could be a very popular move.

During the digital economy strategy consultations, open data was the second-most popular suggestion. Interestingly, it would appear the Liberals are prepared to explore the opportunity. They are the only party with a formal policy on open data that matches the standards recently set by Britain and, increasingly, in the United States.

Open data will eventually come to Canada. When, however, is unclear. In the meantime it is our colleagues elsewhere that will reap the benefits of savings, improved analysis and better civic engagement. So until Mr. Harper’s team changes its mind, Canadians must look abroad to see what a Conservative government that actually believes in transparency could look like.

David Eaves is a public-policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert based in Vancouver

And now, the international laughing stock phase of our debate…

And now it has just become depressing.

The international media has picked up on the census debate and they’re just mocking it.

There is this priceless quote in a New York Times article:

“I wouldn’t call this political interference,” Professor Prewitt said. “I would call this government stupidity.”

Yes, the beauty for all of America to read from Kenneth Prewitt the former director of the United States Census Bureau and now Columbia University professor.

So, in the space of 1 short year our government has gone from model regulator of the banking industry to world laughing stock on policy. If only it ended there.

The Wall Street Journal – that left wing rag owned by that hippy Rupert Murdoch – has a piece as well. It opens up its article on the subject with a sly:

The government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is under fire from a range of opponents for an unusual privacy initiative—making participation in his country’s census largely voluntary.

Even the Christian Science Monitor pokes fun at the decision.

Interestingly, even as people outside the country are starting to take notice, apparently the rank and file Conservative MPs continue to believe this story will blow over:

“It’s just another dead news-cycle story,” said one Conservative MP. “Most people will look at it, and say, what’s the difference?”

Ah, there is nothing like relying on the ignorance of Canadians to inspire confidence in leadership. This from a party who roots are allegedly in believing that the Canadian public has a way of learning about things and then forming judgments that are none too pleasant. Especially, when they think politicians are trying to pull a fast one.

Given that a diverse coalition of forces never before seen in this country has assembled in opposition to this idea, such a view smacks of arrogance. Possibly even hubris. Indeed, it is the same time of arrogance that the Conservatives have, for so long, claimed distinguished them from the Liberals. The kind of hubris that leads to decisions that wind up putting plans for a fall election on hold…

And yes! I do look forward to a day when I won’t write about this. Sorry about this folks… just sad to see billions upon billions of dollars of Canadian of taxpayers money spent over the last 100 years, and a multibillion dollar asset, destroyed by a government that doesn’t want reality to interfere with the decision making process. I promise this will be the only post on the census this week (barring some dramatic news).

David Akin: Live by the poll, Die by the…

The other week David Akin penned a commentary piece about an Ipsos-Reid poll that showed Canadians were evenly split about the census issue. It was trotted forward as proof positive that this was a non-issue that the press was blowing out of proportion.

Well, things have changed.

A more recent Angus-Reid poll shows that the numbers are shifting. Those opposed to the government’s decision (47%) has stayed constant but, in contrast to the poll Akin cited, Canadians have possibly become more aware of the issue and support has dwindled to 38% per cent. But dig deeper and the story is gets more interesting. Only one-in-four Canadians (24%) agree with the Conservatives assertion that the Long Form Census is intrusive and 58% think it yields data that is important to make policy decisions in all areas of public service, and should remain mandatory.

But wait for it… even among conservatives there is little agreement with the government. Only 31% of conservative votes agreed that “The long form census is intrusive and Canadians should not be forced to answer it” whereas 58% agreed with the statement that “The long form census yields data that is important to make policy decisions in all areas of public service, and should remain mandatory.”

And, to project into the future, things are not likely to get better. Most premiers have spoken out against the long form census decision and it will likely come up at an upcoming premiers conference. So, when citizens were asked:

“As you may know, some provincial premiers have criticized the federal government’s decision to eliminate the mandatory long form census, and the head of Statistics Canada has quit his post. Thinking about this, what do you think the federal government should do?”

the numbers jump even higher against the government’s decision with 52% saying the government should reverse and only 27% saying it should stay the course. And, once again, conservative voters are displeased with the outcome with 42% of them opposed to the governments decisions and 39% in favour.

If you are going to live by the poll, you must be prepared to die by the poll. So, given this new data, I’m hoping that David Akin will consider writing a new column about how this issue is starting to become relevant and may even be negatively affecting conservative poll numbers.

The Census weak link: What the Liberals, Bloc & NDP should do

Public and the media condemnation of the government’s decision to end the long form census has been universal (see more fun quotes below). Now the political opposition has started to mobilize. The focus of the opposition has been on the secretive nature of the decision and the failure to consult any stakeholders. While this is problematic I’m not sure it is the most ironic and sensitive point. There is actually a much more juicy Achilles heel in this decision, one that might garner press attention.

In explaining the decision (such as in the quote to the Canadian Press below), Minister Clement has repeatedly claimed that MP offices has received numerous complaints about the long form census form:

“Every MP has had complaints like that so this year we decided to at least try another method that could be a sound method that would beat the issue of concern of degradation of data, and deal with the issue of coercion and too much intrusiveness”

The statement suggests broad base support but, ironically, anecdotal and, in theory, untestable.

The fun thing is, it doesn’t have to be that way. The opposition could bring more (and hard) information to this process and expose how the Conservatives are using a lack of information to at best mislead and at worse, lie, to ordinary Canadians. Better still, if the opposition parties have been organized, they should possess that data.

How is this? Well, I’d like to see the Liberals, Bloc and NDP ask each of their MPs to search and count every email and letter from constituents over the past 4 (or some sensible number) years that involved a complaint about the census.

My suspicion is that there are no more than 100 such letters (and, maybe even a lot less, like 10). You could then pick a couple of issues of your choice on which you have received 1000s of letters and which the conservatives have taken no action and put a simple chart up showing how they react to made up issues, but ignore real priorities of ordinary Canadians.

Of course, maybe there has been some massive, secret letter campaign targeted at Conservative only MPs but I think most Canadians will want to know how many letters the Minister and conservative MPs have actually received (sadly I don’t think you can FOI this) and most will suspect it is about as many as other MPs have.

Let’s show that better data leads to better decisions and that a little transparency can go a long way to exposing those who seek to mislead us. The minister says MPs get lots of letters – lets find out how many. And in comparison to what. Moreover, let’s show that those who seek to restrict the gathering of good information are generally those most inclined to use a lack of data to mislead the public and drive agendas that are not in the public interest. Canadians are sensible people, they want a smart government that makes good decisions. This, much more than secrecy, will rub them the wrong way.

The narrative isn’t as neat – but I suspect it could be turned into something more fun and more impactful.

Other fun articles…

Also, the universal condemnation of the Conservatives decision to end the mandatory long term census continues. My newest favourite is an article in the Globe where Derek Cook, Calgary’s the research and social planner at the City of Calgary and in the riding of the Prime Minister Harpers states that “If we don’t have that data at the neighbourhood level, we’re crippled.” Now, in addition to business groups, ngos, think tanks, cities, university researchers we are also seeing even more local and focused organizations such as those representing French Canadian communities, Inuit people and others starting to call for a reversal as well.

Neo-Progressive Alert: The NDP as risk-averse conservatives

As some of my readers know, I’m always interested in articles that highlight how all the political parties in Canada (and the US?) have become conservative. Not necessarily in the sense that they want to roll back government, but in the sense that they cannot not imagine some new future.

I think the classic example of that in Canada is the NDP which seems stuck in trying to remake the country as it was in the 1950s. This opinion piece in the Star by McMaster Assistant Professor David Goutor touches on the theme of a conservative NDP party, to scared to take a stand.

At the most basic level, today’s NDP is a truly remarkable phenomenon: it is a fourth-place party, usually stuck in the teens in the polls, and purporting to represent the most marginalized groups in society – yet it has become stubbornly risk-averse, acting as if it has too much to lose to speak out strongly on many key issues facing the country.

When it comes to strategy, the NDP was certainly bold in lunging for power through the coalition. It also has a notable amount of talent in its parliamentary caucus, with even right-wing commentators praising NDP MPs for being knowledgeable and performing effectively in parliamentary committees.

But when it comes to the party’s main policies, a mind-numbing blandness has set in. There are few instances where the NDP has boldly taken a controversial position on a key issue.

If you have visited the NDP’s website frequently in the last couple of years, you were much more likely to read about credit card rates, bank fees, and insurance premiums than central economic, social, or foreign-policy questions.

A particularly deep part of the NDP’s rut is that avoiding controversy has become to be seen as the “pragmatic” approach. Standing out on major issues, meanwhile, is viewed as the “radical” approach that will keep the NDP on the fringes. But if pragmatism means anything, it is paying attention to results. The results of the recent “pragmatic” approach are in, and they are dispiriting.

I suspect (but could be wrong) that Goutor would disagree with my and Taylor’s neo-progressive thesis and that our understanding of why we believe the NDP are conservative are markedly different. My assumption(potentially deeply flawed) is that I’m sure Goutor wishes the NDP was more aggressive in re-invoking the 1950’s (a more planned economy, closed off from the world with labour forming a bigger part of the pie) But the fact is, for many Canadians going back isn’t desirable, moreover the party doesn’t know what going forward means and so is flailing around in the present, going after small wins without a grand vision appears to be the order of the day.

This isn’t to say the other parties are significantly better off, the challenge is just more noticeable with the NDP.

Postscript – I notice the NDP never got around to debating the motion about the name change. My sense is that this means it got killed… in the way you’d expect from a democratic party, by procedural means.

Federal Leaders on the run…

In early December – as a result of the mess that was the first Conservative budget and the proposed coalition – I proposed that all the federal leaders, save Duceppe, would be out of their jobs within a year. We’ve already lost Dion… that just leaves Harper and Layton. In both cases things are look like they are proceeding apace: Harpers’ office is in disarray with senior people leaving, and Layton’s numbers have tanked.

Some highlights from the pieces…

What does all this mean? Search me. But some who orbit just outside Mr. Harper’s innermost circle speculate that a Conservative party with no heir apparent could lose its leader before the next election.

Layton was seen positively by 37 per cent and negatively by 49 per cent of respondents, almost a complete reversal since the closing days of the election campaign when the NDP leader was the most favourably viewed national leader.

I suspect that Mulcair and a host of Conservatives are at least beginning to feel out the possibility of a leadership bid.

Not persudaded? I understand completely, but perhaps you could be tempted into placing a friendly wager. Just to keep things intersesting of course…

What next for Liberals? – Proceed with Caution

I’ve yet to talk to a Liberal who is excited by this coalition. I’m sure they are out there – I just have yet to meet one. From what I have heard, most feel the coalition proposal is a necessary evil – one required to reign in a Prime Minister who -during a period of economic crises – became partisan, out of touch and just plain nasty in his approach. I see that Bob Rae wants to champion the coalition idea – I think he’ll find it a hard sell in many corners.

The smart move for a leadership candidate now is to not get more partisan, but instead to try to be a statesman-like. Canadians are tired of this political mess, they want someone to end it – and there are probably political points to be earned. Herein lies the opportunity.

I’m looking for the leadership candidate who says:

First, I don’t agree with the Governor General’s decision. I think it is wrong for a Government to escape a confidence vote with a procedural move – I think it sets a bad precedent and weakens our parliamentary democracy. That said, I respect the decision and this is the situation we must work with.

The Conservatives now have a month with which to rethink their approach to the economy and how they wish to manage parliament. They should use this time carefully. Canadians, the Liberal Party, and I’m sure the NDP and the Bloc are all eager to have a parliament that is focused on the critical issues of the day, not partisan infighting. That said, Canadians, and this parliament, have lost faith in the Prime Minister – in his priorities, in his approach and in his leadership.

The Liberal party is prepared to work with all parties both to make this parliament work and ensure Canadians are well represented in this time of economic turmoil. To this end, we think talk of a coalition should be suspended, if, and only if, the Prime Minister resigns and/or a new budget with a sufficiently credible stimulus package is put forward. We say this because the Prime Minister’s capacity to lead a cooperative, effective parliament has been fatally compromised, and because, given the severity of the economic crises confronting us a real stimulus package is essential to the financial well being of the country.

Such an approach has several benefits. It offers a clear route out of the crisis. It allows the proposer to be appear above the fray – trying to reconcile a partisan battle. It also gives Conservatives a clear choice while simultaneously fostering tension within their party. It temporarily ends the discussion of a coalition by enabling opposition parties to score a significant victory. Finally, it allows the crises to be pulled back from the brink, but sustains the threat of a coalition to compel the Conservatives to act responsibly on policy matters in the future.

Finally, as an after thought I suspect that. as it becomes more and more obvious that the public is uncomfortable with the idea of this coalition, Dion and Layton are going to wear the coalition proposal like an anchor around their neck (Gilles will get away scot free because, well, it doesn’t really matter for him – the Bloc win no matter what happens at the moment). Consequently, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that all of the authors of this disaster – Harper (for instigating the crises) and Layton and Dion (for overplaying their hand and perpetuating it) – could lose their jobs over the comping months.