Friday, December 21, 2012

Reviewing the Pointless Politics of 2012

When it comes to politics 2012 was pretty much like any other year, in that lots of  pointless stuff happened.

Yet it's my job as a pundit to take that pointless stuff and forge it into a plausible sounding narrative.

With that in mind, here's my chronological look back at the major political happenings of the past year:

January 9 –To determine ownership of strategic Arctic islands, Prime Minister Stephen Harper competes head-on with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in a rock-paper-scissors competition

January 16 – The Liberal Party holds convention in Ottawa, during which delegates announce bold new election strategy: “Fervently hope the Conservatives and NDP somehow screw up.”

January 26 - While attending an international summit in Davos, Switzerland, Prime Minister Harper explains radical Canadian initiative: Tim Horton's new coffee cup sizes.

February 5 – Prime Minister Harper travels to China where he send sends the following diplomatic message to American President Barack Obama: “I am in a country with billion freaking people. And guess what? Not one of them is a tree hugging, Hollywood celebrity. And they want our oil. So suck on that!”

February 13 - Surprising poll shows no NDP leadership candidate can name any other NDP leadership candidate!

February 14 – Conservatives calm fears about their proposed internet surveillance law saying it will simply make all Canadians the government’s "special" Facebook friend.

February 18 – Good news of for the Conservatives:  “Vikileaks” scandal diverts national attention from “robo-call” scandal.

February 27 –The CBC is found to be broadcasting “porn”, including such programs as “The Too Friendly Giant" and "Mr. Undressup".

March 2 – “Robo-call” scandal goes international when Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tells UN he remembers getting phone call giving him wrong location of Israel.

March 18 – Due to mounting attacks from the left wing is his own party, NDP leadership frontrunner Thomas Mulcair vehemently denies charges he is trying to make his party more electable.

March 23 -- NDP delegates gather in Toronto to perform the important democratic task of picking the next target for Tory attack ads.

March 26 - At news conference, newly elected NDP leader Thomas Mulcair reacts to charges he has a temper by beating two reporters to death.

March 28 – Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says he plan to combat economic slowdown by immediately erecting hundreds of new Economic Action Plan billboards.

April 2 – The military tests F-35 fighter jets by strafing the Auditor-General’s Office.

April 6 – New study shows polar bear population in Northern Canada larger than expected; David Suzuki reacts to this news by denouncing polar bears for not dying more.

April 24 –Albertans exercise the most cherished and important act of any democracy, i.e. embarrass pollsters and pundits.

May 18 - NDP unveils new slogan -- "Alberta's the Disease; Mulcair's the Cure".

May 19 – Muclair’s “Dutch disease” strategy working as new poll shows the NDP leader gaining strong support among Dutch doctors.

June 13-  Bob Rae says he decided not to run for his party’s leadership after he received an annoying robo-call message from Justin Trudeau.

June 14 - Opposition MPs oppose government forcing a monstrous omnibus bill through the House mainly because it's not them forcing a monstrous omnibus bill through the House.

June 20 - As part of its official War of 1812 commemorations the federal government burns down Toronto.

July 3- Cabinet Minister Bev Oda resigns; in unrelated news, orange juice stock prices tumble.

July 6 -- Thomas Mulcair blames Canada's economic problems on the Calgary Stampede.

July 10 –  To bolster national unity, Calgary stampede officials require cows to emit bilingual "moos".

July 11 – Conservative cabinet Minister Tony Clement announces government will put up a memorial to communist sympathizer Norman Bethune; in a related development North Korea puts up a memorial to Tony Clement.

July 25 -  The UN sends peacekeeping troops to emerging global hot spot: The British Columbia - Alberta border.

July 26 - Canada says it will take Omar Khadr back from US, but only if he is shipped through Keystone pipeline.

July 28 -- BC Premier Christy Clark demands "Fair Share" from Chinook winds passing through her province

August 3 - Heritage Minister James Moore slams idea of putting pipeline through BC, says oil should be pumped through CBC cable.

August 4 – Due to poor officiating by Norwegian referee, Canada loses Olympic soccer match to the US. Prime Minister Harper avenges loss by saturating Norway with robo-calls.

August 6 -- NASA's rover on Mars shocks scientific community when the first image its beams back to earth is an “Economic Action Plan” billboard.

August 7  – Canadians beam with pride when our Olympic contingent ends up leading the world medal count in the "Sports Nobody has ever Heard of" category.

August 14 – During Quebec provincial election PQ Leader Pauline Marois pledges to ban the English Muffin and the English Horn.

August 16 – The United Church votes to boycott Israeli products; later that day, God announces He is boycotting the United Church.

August 20 – PQ leader Pauline Marois threatens to hold a referendum on whether or not to hold a referendum on whether or not to hold a referendum.

August 29 - Disagreement breaks out at Iran Summit meeting; Delegates can't agree on whether Israel is a "Cancer" or an "Imperialistic parasite".

September 2 - Study suggests new riding redistribution scheme for House of Commons will result in 30 more annoying politicians.

September 4 - PQ wins minority government in Quebec, giving Premier Pauline Marois has just enough of power to irritate English Canada.

September 8 - Canada closes down embassy in Iran. In response Iranians issue following statement: "What's Canada?" 

September 11 - Prime Minister Harper named ‘World Statesman of the Year'. Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad demands a recount!

September 17 - In compromise move, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois removes Canadian flag from National Assembly, but replaces it with Justin Bieber poster.

September 18 – Conservatives accuse the NDP of wanting to impose a “carbon” tax. The NDP calls this a massive lie, saying it actually wants a "carton" tax.

September 24 – Canada and Britain agree to share some diplomatic duties, meaning the embassy cafeterias for both countries will serve steak and kidney pie covered in maple syrup.

September 29 - Canadian UN delegates walked out of Iranian President Ahmadinejad's speech after the dictator praises Gary Bettman's management style.

October 2nd – While announcing his bid for the Liberal leadership, Justin Trudeau denies he is the party’s “savior”, he then proceeds to feed vast media throng with two fish and five loaves of bread.

October 12 -- European Union wins Nobel Peace Prize, narrowly edging out the Holy Roman Empire.

October 18 – Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty offered roles in sci-fi flick entitled "The Prorogue-erator

October 23 -- President Barack Obama  prorogues Congress ... until somebody reminds him he isn't in Canada.

November 11 - American Alliterative Association promotes Pupatello for provincial premier.

November 20 – Conservative governments spends $1.4 million on TV ad which explains how the War of 1812 was won thanks to the Economic Action Plan.

November 21 – Polls show Justin Trudeau is a strong favorite to win the Grey Cup

November 23 –Justin Trudeau announces that “some of his best friends are Albertans.”

November 24 -- Liberal leader Bob Rae tries to trade Mayor Joe Fontana and MP David McGuinty to the Miami Marlins. 

November 26 -- In a stunning ruling, a Toronto judge finds Toronto Mayor Rob Ford guilty of conflict of interest. The resulting penalty is applied on the ensuing kick off.

November 26 – After Liberals lose Calgary Centre by-election, polls reveal Justin Trudeau to be 13% less adorable. 

November 28 – In order to gain support in Western Canada, Liberal leadership candidate and former astronaut, Marc Garneau says he prefers Alberta to that "Awful planet of the apes."

December 3 – Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announces Canada faces a "Fiscal Toboggan Hill".

December 7 -- Harper government agrees to sell Nexen to the Chinese, but only if they also take Peter MacKay.  

December 8 – During a UFC fight, a House of Commons Debate breaks out.

December 12 -- Defence Minister Peter MacKay becomes bidder on TV show "Storage Wars" in hopes of finding locker containing abandoned fighter jets.

December 20 – After issuing a series of profane tweets, NDP MP Pat Martin quits Twitter, fulfilling ancient Mayan prophecy.

At any rate, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas and Happy Pointless New Year!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Conservatives’ legal ploy against Council of Canadians wrong-headed

Yesterday, in the  robo-call court battle, the Conservative government's lawyers went after the Council of Canadians for "champerty".  Here's a column I wrote seven months ago for the Ottawa Hill Times, explaining why I don't think that's a good idea.


The Conservative Party of Canada recently accused the Council of Canadians, an advocacy group, of “champerty and maintenance”
Now when I first read about this startling accusation, I naturally assumed the council was guilty of illegally maintaining some champerties.
But upon further investigation, I realized my error.
It turns out “champerty and maintenance” is legal jargon to describe a party which improperly involves itself in another party’s lawsuit in order to share in the proceeds.
So what does this have to do with the Council of Canadians?
Well, according to the Conservatives, the Council of Canadians is guilty of improperly involving itself in seven lawsuits which aim to overturn the election of Tory MPs.
It’s a clear case of “champerty and maintenance” the Tories told a court, in hopes of getting the lawsuits dismissed.
Now, I am no legal expert, but in my view this Conservative legal ploy is wrong-headed.
To see why, let’s examine the council’s actions.
It all started earlier this year when the so-called “robocall” scandal was making national news.  Recall how allegations were flying all over the place about the Conservatives using telephone calls to illegally “suppress” voter turnout.
At any rate, the Council of Canadians—which by the way is a pretty far out there left-wing group based on previous causes it has supported—decided to jump on the robocall bandwagon.
In March, the council announced it was financially supporting citizens who are going to court to annul the election results of seven ridings that were narrowly won by Conservatives, based on “evidence of irregularities, fraud and other activities which affected the outcome of the elections.”
Naturally, to help defray its legal costs the council is aggressively fundraising.
For their part, the Tories see these court challenges as more about politics than justice.
In their motion to dismiss the challenges, the Conservatives argue the council’s “involvement is for the improper motive of attacking only Conservatives, consistent with their very vocal opposition of and malice towards the Conservative Party of Canada.”
The Tory motion also claims the council is using publicity from the cases to raise money.
Of course, it’s hard to argue that the charges are true.
I don’t know what motivates the Council of Canadians but as an advocacy group opposed to many of the Conservative Party’s policies, it makes sense that its reasons for these court challenges would include: (1) to embarrass the Conservative Party; (2) to raise its profile in the media and; (3) to squeeze dollars out of its donor base.
If it happens to actually win any of these legal challenges, well that’s just a nice bonus.
But just because the council’s motives may be self-serving and political, it doesn’t mean the court challenges it’s backing should be dismissed.
After all, don’t the citizens, who are actually launching these challenges with the help of the council, deserve to have their day in court?
Besides, let’s face it, the Council of Canadians isn’t the first advocacy group in history that’s used court challenges to self-promote or to promote an agenda or to raise money.
That’s just a part of the way the advocacy game is played.
In fact, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s old group, the National Citizens Coalition, often used court challenges both to undermine left-wing politicians and to fundraise.
And there’s nothing sinister about that.
Indeed, advocacy groups are supposed to advocate; and if advocacy means getting involved in a costly court proceeding they need to fundraise to pay for it; and the more publicity they get the easier it is to raise money.

The end result is good for democracy: important legal challenges get a hearing.
That’s why the Tories should leave the champerties alone.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Curious Case of those Infamous Robo-Calls

One of the things I learned from watching the old Perry Mason TV show is that to win a court case you often need what jurisprudence experts usually refer to as “evidence.”

And it’s this legal technicality which could prevent the free-trade-hating, Stephen Harper detesting, left-wing fringe club, otherwise known as the Council of Canadians, from winning its highly publicized “robo-call” court challenge which starts this week.

If you haven’t heard of this case, here’s the low down: The Council is backing the legal challenge of six citizens who allege “fraudulent robo-calls” discouraged non-Conservative voters in their ridings from casting ballots in the last federal election.

Accordingly, they want the courts to overturn the election of six Conservative MPs and order new by-elections.

(Originally there were seven challengers but one complainant dropped out after it was discovered she actually didn’t live in the riding she claimed to live in. Way to go, Council of Canadians crack research team! Although in fairness to the Council perhaps this woman was misled by a robo-call.)

Anyway, to win its challenge the Council will need to prove in court that robo-calls misled citizens, who were all set to vote Liberal or NDP or Green or Other, into spending Election Day sitting on the couch eating potato chips.

That’s a pretty high threshold of proof. How can you prove that people changed their voting patterns because of a robot phone call that took place more than a year ago?

Answer: It isn’t easy.

Mind you, some people have tried using fancy, shmancy statistical models to gauge the impact of robo-calls.

For instance, back in March, Professor Anke Kessler of Simon Fraser University published a statistical analysis which seemed to show that robo-calls suppressed non-Conservative supporters in the last election.

More specifically, Kessler did a poll-by-poll comparison between the 2008 election and the 2011 election, and found "a statistically significant effect of the alleged demobilization efforts" in the 27 ridings where robo-call complaints emerged compared to all other ridings.

Mind you, Kessler also cautioned that her "analysis and the corresponding results are not suited to bring the outcome in a particular riding into question" and that her “findings in no way can 'prove' whether misconduct or an illegal act has occurred."

Naturally, the media took these caveats into consideration when reporting on this story.

Ha! Just kidding!

What actually happened, of course, was the media reported this study with sensationalistic headlines like: “Study supports vote suppression allegations” and “ELECTION FRAUD! Robo-Calling May Have Significantly Impacted Voting, Says SFU Study” and “Did Robo-calls affect the last election? Apparently so, says new study.”

Me, I registered my skepticism about this study on Twitter, calling it “Statistical nonsense”. I would have offered a deeper analysis, but the word “gobbledygook” took up too many characters.

And for this I was immediately assailed by academics and economists who accused me of being “anti-science.”

Me, anti-science!!?

Full disclosure: It's true, at one time science and I didn’t really get along all that well (I barely passed grade 11 physics) But these days, now that I am no longer required to actually write exams, I am very much pro-science.

Besides, Kessler’s study wasn’t really science, but more like social science hokum dressed up as true science.

For one thing, her econometric regression analysis model didn’t and couldn’t factor in the myriad of different variables that can and do impact on voting behaviour. Or to put it another way, some things in politics just can’t be quantified or fed into a mathematical equation. For example, how do you compute the fact that former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff had the charisma of a moldy kumquat?

To my mind, such a critical failing made Kessler’s study more useless than two tickets to the NHL Winter Classic.

Fortunately, a bright young man named Michael R. Smith, who witnessed my Twitter battle on this issue, agreed with me and what’s more, he helped prove my point in a brilliantly funny way.

Acting in a completely scientific manner, Smith managed to show how Kessler’s formula could also be used to provide statistically significant evidence to suggest  a secret, Conservative mind control device may also have demobilized the anti-Conservative vote.

Yes, Smith’s “study” was just for fun, but I am half-expecting the Council of Canadians to use it as the basis for a new court challenge.

Or maybe it won’t, since the Council is not using Kessler’s model in its court challenge.

But it is using for evidence something we all know is absolutely 100 percent infallible: polls.

In fact, last spring, the Council commissioned Ekos Research to do a survey on the impact of robo-calls in the last election.

(Ekos, by the way, is the same polling firm that confidently predicted that the last election would result in an NDP-Liberal Coalition government replacing the Conservatives.)

At any rate, the resulting Ekos survey showed Liberal, NDP and Green party supporters in the ridings involved in the legal challenge were much more likely to report receiving a misleading telephone call in the final days of the election than Conservative supporters in the same ridings.

In other words, if the survey is to be believed fraudulent robo-calls were “widespread” and targeted in the last election.

Sounds damaging for the Conservatives and good for the Council’s case, right?

Well, before passing judgment on this poll, a few key points must be considered.

First, to conduct its poll Ekos used (ironically) robo-calls. Yup that’s right. Rather than talking to a real live person, respondents to the Ekos poll answered questions posed by a soulless machine (And no I don’t mean Stephen Harper!).

Such a survey might go a little something like this:

Ring, Ring, Ring

Human: Hello

Robot Pollster: Hello sir and or madam. We would like to ask you a simple survey question.

Human: Well, I don’t live actually here, I’m from Alabama; I’m just visiting my brother-in-law so …..

Robot Pollster: If you received a fraudulent robo-call in the final days of the last election press “one” on your phone; if you didn’t receive a fraudulent robo-call press “two”; if you are not sure if you received a robo-call press “three”, if you’re sitting on the couch eating potato chips press “four”.

Human: What’s a robo-call?

Robot Pollster: If you need me to repeat your choices, please press “seven”.

Human: OK … Oops I hit one by mistake.

Robot Pollster: Thank you for completing our survey.

Human: But I didn’t….


The polling industry is divided as to whether or not this sort of polling method can achieve reliable results. Darrell Bricker of Ipsos Reid, for instance, has slammed this sort of polling as “tremendously biased in terms of sample coverage” he also noted that  in the last federal election such polls were “MASSIVELY (capitalized emphasis his)off on the final vote.”

Second and more importantly, the Ekos poll assumes people can accurately remember details of a phone call that took place several months in the past.

That’s an awfully huge assumption since humans, generally speaking, have extremely unreliable memories.

I can’t even remember why I’m writing this!

And it’s not just me.

Just consider a recent story that ran in Post Media newspapers concerning donations to the Conservative Party.

According to the story, reporters had uncovered the names of several people who said they did not donate to the Conservative Party even though party financial filings indicated they did.

In fact, eleven people contacted by Post Media claimed they definitely, positively, absolutely did not make any donations to the Conservatives and they wanted to know how their names ended up on the list.

As one of them put it, “I have nothing to do with the Conservatives. I want to find out who the guy was doing the fundraising because I have a few words to say to him.”

Seems like another sure-fire scandal, not to mention another possible Council of Canadians’ lawsuit.

Yet, a few days after this story appeared, we learned it was all just an innocent misunderstanding -- it turns out the people cited simply forgot they had made donations to the Conservatives.


So my point is, if people can forget about writing checks (that were for hundreds of dollars) isn’t it reasonable to assume they can also forget the details of a phone call that might have taken place nearly a year ago?

Plus all the publicity about robo-calls has probably tainted any survey results. People might genuinely misremember getting a robo-call just because they kept hearing about them on the news.

(For a more technical shredding of the Ekos poll, check this out and this and this.)

Certainly the Ekos poll would have been much more persuasive had it been conducted a few days after the election, instead of several months later.

I realize, of course, this analysis will disappoint those people who desperately want to believe the only reason the Conservatives prevailed in the last election was because they cheated.

But like it or not, there is no real scientific evidence to support the thesis that misleading robo-calls swayed any election results.

And if a judge is going to take the drastic step of overturning an election result and in effect disenfranchise thousands of Canadian voters, he or she will need some solid evidence of wrong-doing.

In my view the only true, scientific way to settle this would be to re-run the entire federal election under the exact same conditions as in 2011, except the robo-call variable would be eliminated.[1]

And since that’s unlikely to happen, it’s hard for me to see how the Council of Canadians will ultimately win its robo-call challenge.

But what do I know? Maybe legal rules have changed since Perry Mason went off the air.

Now if you will excuse me, a robo-call recently instructed me to sit on the couch and eat potato chips.

[1] This would make a great plot for the next Matrix movie!