Friday, October 30, 2009

Will H1N1 derail the "economic recovery"?

I really do not believe that the economy is recovering, which is the reason for the quotes in the title.

The global ecomomy was pushed off of a mountain last Fall and it fell for a long time, hitting hard outcroppings all the way. If finally hit bottom and it is now stumbling along the very rough terrain of the valley floor heading for the next peak. It is not even close to reaching the point where it can begin climbing to that peak but it is moving that way. While it is doing so will a big boar come out of the underbrush and knock it back on its ass again?

Ok, I think I have taken that analogy far enough.

I ask this question because I am seeing a significant drop in productivity at my place of business as a result of H1N1. So far only one person in my organization has been away as a result of a confirmed case of H1N1. He came through alright and he is back to work. However, the number of people who have taken time off because of normal seasonal illnesses, either for themselves or in their families is quite a bit higher than last year. We had one situation where one member of a team was coughing and hacking. It was just a chest cold but he finally said the heck with it and took a day off. That very same day 4 out of 5 of his fellow teammates took the day off as well, even though they were not sick but just worried that their sick teammate would make them sick. That is five lost person days that can be attributed to the fear of H1N1 but not the actual virus.

I wonder if this is happening elsewhere?

Regardless of how bad this outbreak actually becomes, just the fear of it seems to be causing work disruptions. We are still early in the season, could these disruptions become longer and more widespread? I believe they could and if it does happen then I think we can count on the economy not showing consistant signs of recovery until at least the Fall or even beyond.

Why the Fall?

The flu season will last until Spring. Any distruption it creates will probably not work through the economy until late spring, early summer. On April 1 we will see the beginning the the new fiscal year for the government, which mean most of the stimulus funds that are being spent right now will dry up. The stimulus package was meant as a short-term tonic for the economy and most of it was slated to be spent in this fiscal year. The amount slated for next year is much smaller. Incidentally, this is true for most of the developed world.

So possibly before the economy fully works through the effects of H1N1 the funds that have managed to smooth the sharper edges of the recession will be removed. I cannot believe that combination will create the best conditions for an economic recovery.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Are the Conservatives dropping the political H1N1 ball?

My wife is like the majority of Canadians in the sense she does not give a damn about politics. She could not care less about all of the things I read and write about here on Liblogs.

I mention this because a couple of nights ago we were sitting at the supper table talking about the H1N1 vaccine. She is concerned and had questions on whether she should get it. Our family doctor says yes but a family friend, who also happens to be a doctor, is much more circumspect, mentioning such things as the lack of testing of the vaccine in Canada and possible side effects.

So my wife decided to look to see what the government has to say about it. Thus my wife and I had one of our rare "political" discussions. She mentioned she was confused because of the mixed messages she was receiving from the doctors and that the government did not provide much useful information and at one point in the discussion about the government information she asked the question: "Is the government giving us all of the information, are they holding any of it back?"

After thinking about it yesterday she decided to get the shot. She falls into one of the groups that are considered high risk so she can get it before the rest of us. We had a prior commitment last night but she said we will be done by 8:00pm, the clinic closes a 9:00pm, so we should get there with plenty of time. We arrived at 8:15 and she was told the clinic was closed. They were so overwhelmed they had to stop taking new recipients almost as soon as they opened the doors at 5:00pm. They told her if she wanted to have any chance of getting the vaccine she should show up at the clinic around 1:00pm, a full four hours before it opens.

She was not impressed, in fact she was downright angry.

She again asked me my opinion on the situation and I told it was simply that they did not have enough of the vaccine. She then asked me who was responsible for getting the vaccine and I told her it is the federal government. She then made the statement: "How can they not have enough vaccine? Everybody knew the Swine flu was coming back. What the fuck has the government been doing for the last 6 months?"

My wife is concerned about H1N1, although she has decided to receive the vaccine she is still confused about it and still has doubts about the decision and now she is frustrated and at least partially blames the federal government for that frustration and confusion.

Concern, confusion and frustration. A heady mix, that if it infects enough of the Canadian population would spell the end of a sitting government because when they rear their heads the person feeling these emotions begins to look for someone to blame and the federal government is an easy target.

Of course, this is just an anecdote but my wife's experience is not an isolated case. It is happening all over the National Capital Region and probably all over the country. For the first time in several years my wife has noticed the federal government and she is not impressed with how it has handled this situation. If that sentiment begins to catch on amongst other apolitical Canadians the Conservatives could find themselves in deep trouble.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Conservatives know they are vulnerable

I am a little confused by the Conservatives' actions with regard to the blatantly partisan dispensation of the stimulus funds and the unprecedented amounts of taxpayer's money they are paying on partisan advertizing.

Both are high risk actions that have a very large potential downside for their political fortunes. They provide their main political opponents with ready made advertizement material where they can take Stephen Harper's statements of 2006 and place them beside his actions of 2009.

So, why have they done it?

Some would say it is hubris. They believed they would not get caught and even if they did they would not pay a price for it. There is some truth in that but I believe there is a deeper reason.

Simply put they are vulnerable and scared. For the first couple years of this government the Conservatives walked with a swagger. They believed they were unassailable and invincible. That swagger disappeared after Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament last year. It has never returned. Since then I have detected a very different attitude since then, an attitude of bravado covering up a great fear.

We saw that in the late spring and late summer when Stephen Harper first made a deal with Michael Ignatieff to prevent a summer election and practically begged Mr. Ignatieff to allow his government to survive come the Fall.

We have seen it in the fact the Conservatives are enjoying good poll numbers but there is not even a hint of Stephen Harper forcing or calling an election. We know he does not fear any negative fallout from the electorate about doing so because he totally ignored that threat last year. Certainly, we have seen speculation in the media that he will force an election but nothing from Mr. Harper, the guy who really counts.

We currently see it now in those poll numbers. The Conservatives have spent untold millions, maybe billions, of stimulus dollars in Conserative and swing ridings. He has spent an unprecedented amount of taxpayer's dollars on blatantly partisan government ads and they are still enjoying the afterglow of a backlash against their chief opponent when their necessary strategy to sever themselves from Mr. Harper's confidence games caused a widespread eruption of election speculation with Mr. Ignatieff being blamed for it.

In addition the Conservatives have enjoyed a national media that has been compliant at best and complicit at worst.

Despite this the Conservatives are not much better off than they were on election day last in 2008. They have failed to break the 40% mark for more than a couple of weeks and they are now slowly sinking back to the levels that they achieved before the Sudbury Declaration.

That is telling. Stephen Harper is almost four years into his government. He is at that stage where there is usually no great desire for change and where the government usually enjoys widespread support. If Jean Chretien would have had all of the advantages I describe above during his fourth year as PM the Liberals would have been sitting comfortably in the mid-40 range. The same could be said of Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau.

Stephen Harper, he struggles to acheive 40% and even if he achieves that level it is not sustainable.

The Conservatives are not acting like a government that is strong and confident, like Jean Chretien did in the fourth year of his government or like Mike Harris for that matter at the same stage in his. Instead they are acting like a government that knows they are vulnerable and they are trying their damnest to turn things around, very much like Ernie Eves did leading up to his one and only election as Ontario Premier. You may remember that in the last few months of his goverment he lavished all sorts of money on Ontario voters while spending all sorts of government money on partisan advertizing. We all know that worked very well.

I have argued several times on this blog that the Conservatives are frightened. The fact they believe they need to take a huge political risk in playing partisan games with economic stimulus money during an economic downturn and spending an inordinate amount of government money on partisan advertizing would seem to confirm that argument has merit.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A warning to Liberals

EKOS is scheduled to come out with a poll this Thursday. That poll is going to indicate that the Conservatives do not appear to have been harmed by the current Cheque-Gate scandal.

They may drop but if they do it will be within the margin of error (MOE). The same can be said of the Liberals. They may increase but again it will be within the margin of error. Then again the Conservatives could increase and the Liberals decrease but within the MOE.

One thing about these kinds of scandals is they do not have an immediate impact on the horse race estimates of polls. When Ms. Fraser broke Adscam, in a much more dramatic fashion than this scandal broke, the Liberals did not suffer an immediate hit in the polls and the Conservatives did not enjoy an immediate benefit. Indeed, throughout the three year Adscam saga the Liberals never trailed the Conservatives until the final three weeks of the 2006 election campaign.

What these kinds of scandals do is cause a slow burn in the electorate towards the party in power. It causes many to believe that a change may be in order, even those who continue to tell pollsters they support the government. In other words, these types of scandals sow the seeds of discontent amongst the electorate that can be reaped at a later date. As well, they create the impression in the electorate that the government may be corrupt, which then causes even the smallest transgression to become magnified. Witness David Dingwall's pack of gum to see that in action.

So, when the poll comes out on Thursday and you see that the estimates have not moved much please do not whine and cry about how the Conservatives are getting away with yet another scandal or how the Liberals are not taking advantage of this. The time will come when the seeds Mr. Harper and his members have planted this week will germinate and grow until they overwhelm them and they find themselves on the opposition benches looking over at PM Ignatieff.

However, if you really must obsess over the next polls then I would suggest you look at the undecideds. I would suspect that the estimate for that will increase at greater than the MOE.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Conservatives are just keeping an election promise

Remember back in 2006 when the Conservatives made an election promise to be a more transparent government.

Their using oversized novelty stimulus checks with the Conservative logo and being signed by individual members, cabinet Minister and Stephen Harper is them being transparent in using taxpayers money for partisan purposes. So they have kept that 2006 election promise.

The Conservatives cannot be blamed if everybody else interpreted their promise of transparency some other way.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Calvin Klein's Obsession for Politicos

This particular fragrance comes in many bottles sporting such labels as Strategic Council, EKOS, Angus Reid, Ipsos Reid and Nanos. The fragrance is likened to that which comes out of the back end of a bull but that does not stop politicos of every stripe, both professionals and otherwise, from constantly marinating in it.

Why? Who knows but the obsession is real which is very strange. After all

Polls are not predictive. I still remember reading a banner headline in a newspaper just a couple of days before the writ was dropped for the 2004 election that stated "Liberals Heading for a Majority: Poll."

Polls do not measure support for parties. They measure the opinions of a sample of people at the time the poll was taken. The only true measure of support for a political party is what it received on election day. When a person marks his X on that little piece of paper and drops it into the cardboard box he is committed. He cannot change his mind.

Public opinion can change at any time. You just have to look at the 2004 election example. It is obvious that many Canadians changed their minds as the campaign wore on because on the Saturday before the election the Liberals and Conservatives were deadlocked at around 33%. Then many of these same people changed their minds again because the final result was a 6 point victory for the Liberals.

Then you can look at the 2008 election. Towards the end alot of people had changed their minds about the Liberals and Mr. Dion, which fact probably went into the calculation of Mr. Duffy as he was deciding whether to release the now infamous Dion Atlantic TV interview.

I know many out there would still argue that all of this is true but polls do matter because of two considerations.

Polls drive the media narrative. What came first the chicken or the egg? I am more convinced that the narrative drives the polls, not the other way around. We saw that at the end August, beginning of September. The media began hammering away at the narrative that Canadians did not want an election but it took them more than a week to publish polls stating that. Assume it takes at about three days to take and publish a poll and that works out to almost a full week to peddle that narrative before actually asking Canadians for their opinions. I can guarantee that had some effect on the subsequent polling estimates.

Then there was Paul Martin. When Mr. Brault gave his testimony during the Gomery Commission the Liberal polling numbers dropped 6 points overnight. The Conservative numbers did not budge either way. The Liberal numbers had fully recovered and were back to their pre-testimony levels within 10 days but that did not stop the media from stating in almost every political news story, in the subsequent months, that the Liberals were plunging in the polls.

Polls influence public opinion. There is some truth in that but do not overestimate that influence. If its influence was as strong as some people think we would never have a change of government. It is very rare for an opposition party to ever lead a sitting government. So, except in the rarest of instances the sitting government will always be seen leading its chief opponent. That is true of the horse race numbers and the individual leadership numbers for each party leader. If that situation has such a strong influence on public opinion we would not have seen some of the big changes we have seen in the last 20 years. Think Peterson, Campbell, Eves, George Bush Sr..

As well, if polls had such influence on public opinion we would probably have a two tier health care system by now. The Fraser Institute has published many studies, containing much polling data, demonstrating that Canadians are alright with the idea for more than a decade. Yet no politician out their will ever suggest converting the Canadian health care system into a two-tier system.

With this in mind I find it disturbing that some Liberals out their are stating that the Liberals should change their strategy to turn their numbers around. That is bad advice. They had better hope beyond hope that the Liberals do not succumb to the temptation to chase higher polling numbers. They are unlikely to succeed in overtaking the Conservatives.

As well, a political party or individual who makes decisions bases on polls, particularly the public polls is destined to fail.

As I have stated in a previous post the Liberals having finally shown that they have developed a long-term election strategy and an election theme. It is easy to see if you look past all of the political noise that we have subjected to since the Sudbury Declaration. It would be a shame if they let that strategy and theme fall by the wayside in a futile quest to improve their polling numbers. Instead, continue to implement the strategy and the polling will take care of itself.

A little piece of trivia. In the primary season leading up to the 1992 US elections none of the stars of the Democratic Party believed they could unseat George Bush Sr. He was extremely popular after winning the first Gulf War and the polling seemed to indicate he would take the '92 election in a walk. So none of these party grandees put their names into the ring. They figured they would lose, thus ending their hopes of winning in '96, so they decided to let a relative unknown win the nomination so that he could be sacrificed. Needless to say they were wrong, Bill Clinton won two elections and the time of these grandees passed, denying all of them a chance at the White House. I wonder if some of them regret allowing the polls to have such an influence on their decisions.

I know I am asking alot in saying ignore the polls but at the very least I would suggest that obsessing over them is probably not a good idea.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Sometimes Canadian politics bugs me

Stephen Harper sang at an arts gala during the weekend and it becomes big news.

Liberal and Conservative bloggers begin examining this event like a witch doctor examining chicken entrails to try to determine whether this will help or hinder this reelection chances. Naturally, for the most part, the conclusions fall along partisan lines.

The media does the same thing. John Ibbotson in the Globe today was absolutely gushing and greatly demonstrated that his bosses should have left him in Washington. Dude, I really hope you wore a condom when you wrote that column.

Meanwhile, this weekend we saw evidence that the world economy is still not out of recession. The rate of descent has decreased for certain but otherwise it is still descending and this is before the stimulus spending governments pumped into the the world economy runs out at the beginning of the new fiscal year, which begins, in most countries, in April. That's only six months away folks. As someone in project management I can tell you that six months is a very short time indeed. Since the bulk of that stimulus was earmarked for this year, when April 2010 rolls around things will begin to change for the worst again and probably rather quickly.

Remember folks the thing that started this whole ride, the sub-prime mortgage collapse and the gigantic toxic debt it left behind is still there. It has been masked by the stimulus spending and the bank bailouts but those were only temporary measures to prevent the collapse of the global financial system and to give the illusion that governments were doing something about the recession. However, once that runs out that debt will rear its ugly head again and smack the global economy onces more.

Do we see anybody giving this issue the attention it deserves on the weekend or today?

Of course not. Instead we hear about Stephen Harper singing the Beatles.

Sad really.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Liberals are sticking to their strategy

With the benefits of hindsight we are beginning to see that the Liberals have finally developed a medium to long-term strategy for winning the next election. Something we have not seen since before Jean Chretien won his third majority.

We have seen only the beginning and in broad strokes it looks something like this. Stop supporting the government and begin to lay the groundwork for having an election on competing values.

It began in June when they allowed the government to survive despite not receiving what many believed they could have received at that time. While others were thinking short-term political advantage it was apparent to some that the Liberals were playing the long game.

The summer was spent developing and fine tuning the strategy for the Fall and the Winter.

We saw the beginning of its implementation in Sudbury. A necessary first step was to extricate the Liberal caucus from Stephen Harper's confidence games and they did that beautifully, side swiping the NDP in the process. Of course that set off a storm that has lead to a predictable fall in their polling numbers. (Note I do not say support. Polls measure peoples opinions at a given time and we all now peoples opinions change all of the time.)

Despite this the Liberals did not flinch. They continued to implement their strategy.

The next step was for Mr. Ignatieff to outline the broad strokes of how the Liberals would handle the economy. It received as much play as you would expect for a speech by the Leader of the Opposition but it was generally well received.

Then we saw the Liberals begin to go after the Conservative record and set up their attack lines for the next election. Gerard Kennedy's report on stimulus spending is gold. It received very little attention at this time but it was never meant to. Again, the Liberals are thinking medium to long-term.

The final step of this part of the strategy that they have shown us is Mr. Ignatieff's speech for the non-confidence motion. It establishes an election theme. Something the Liberals have not had since I do not know when. As I stated in a previous post it is a winning theme. It is the one that has made the Liberal Party the Natural Governing Party in this country. If you do not believe me on this last point then I would point out the National Post is stating there is not much difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives. That is something I would expect to hear from Jack Layton. The Liberals should feel very good. When the house newsletter of the Conservative Party begins to spout decades old NDP talking points, when criticising your party, you are probably on to something.

I do not know the next steps in this strategy. I imagine we will see the Liberals continue to push their election theme over the next few months and I would expect to see more reports like that produced by Mr. Kennedy. As for other parts of that strategy we will just have to wait and see.

A month of bad press and dropping poll numbers did not deter the Liberals from pursuing their chosen strategy. That shows strength, resolve and courage. That should make Liberals happy and it should be a cause for concern to its opponents.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Why do the media try to be political strategists...

because they are not very good at it.

As I have stated in this space before Stephen Harper does not want an election this Fall. His reasons are many and Mr. Ignatieff just gave him another reason today. (See my previous post).

That does not stop the media and others from speculating that Mr. Harper will engineer his own defeat by using some sort of poison pill.

I saw the latest speculation on this yesterday in the Globe where they stated that the Conservatives may use the HST enabling legislation as a poison pill.

What stupidity!!

The HST is deeply unpopular in BC and it is becoming increasingly unpopular in Ontario. It is widely seen in both provinces as a tax grab during hard economic times.

In that kind of atmosphere why would the Conservatives even think of introducing legislation that will enable this tax as a stand alone Bill, let alone use it as the hill in which to sacrifice their government? Up to this point the Conservatives have been distancing themselves from the two provincial government decisions on the HST. They made the necessary agreements with the two provincial governments but they are hoping no one will notice that it takes two to make such agreements.

Now people are suggesting that they will abandon this strategy and highlight their role in the imposition of the HST by using it as a Bill to trigger an election?! These people must be on crack. I cannot think of a strategy more likely to cost votes in the two most populous provinces in the country.

It is true that such a bill would make things ackward for the Liberals. They would either have to make things difficult for the Ontario Liberals and break a commitment by voting down the Bill or they would have to give Jack Layton ammunition to use against them by supporting it.

However, neither option would hurt the Liberals that much in the long run. Mr. McGuinty would be inconvenienced by having the bill defeated but I am certain he also remembers the fact that former Harris reformatories now in the Harper cabinet have overtly tried to undermine his political position, leading up to the last provincial election, on several occasions. Now that another Harris acolyte and former colleague of these same ministers is the leader of the Provincial PC Party he can probably expect more of the same if they are still occupying those posts. As well, considering how unpopular the HST is in both provinces the two premiers may welcome an out from having to implement it without being seen as giving into the opposition in their respective provinces. In other words, neither provincial government is likely to make too much noise if enabling legislation is defeated.

As for Jack Layton, voting for the Bill will allow him to again say there is no difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives. But they have been saying that for decades and the results speak for themselves. Canadians believe that there are only two parties capable of governing this country and if both are implicated in the implementation of the HST it will be cancelled out as an election issue.

The HST enabling legislation will not be introduced as a stand alone bill. It is too toxic. Instead it will be buried in a good news budget in the Spring or it will be buried in a big, good news omnibus bill just before or after the Christmas break.

Oh look, an election theme

Today Michael Ignatieff did something that Liberal leaders failed to do in the last three elections. He actually set out an overarching theme for the next Liberal campaign. Good on him.

As elections themes go, it is a good one. The agreement amongst Canadians that governments are a force for good runs deep in this country. Canadians do not want governments to be all encompassing but at the same time they do expect their governments to actively contribute to the greater good of the nation and society.

This idea has been a core Liberal value for over a century and it is a contributing factor to its great success in that time in winning elections and forming governments.

From a strategic point of view it is a good strategy as well. Stephen Harper has never articulated his vision for Canada. There have been hints which have lead to accusations amongst his opponents of a hidden agenda and hopes amongst his supporters of the same thing. Mr. Ignatieff might have just removed that luxury from him. Depending on how well Mr. Ignatieff continues to articulate and elaborate upon his vision the greater the pressure he will put on Mr. Harper to put forward his vision. If it is as bad or as good as his opponents or supporters believe it could make things rather difficult for him.

During the last election he took some flak for waiting until almost the last minute to release a platform. He could take more if he is unwilling to offer his own vision when his chief opponent does nothing but talk about his.

If this theme continues through to the next election, in the Spring, then we could find ourselves in a campaign that we have not seen in awhile. One that is actually about competing visions for this country.