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Reality Check

Monday, October 13, 2008 | 05:42 PM ET

By Ira Basen

This was the year it was all supposed to change.

This was to be the first Canadian campaign of the Politics 2.0 era, the election where the newest interactive web tools would allow users to easily create, share, and distribute their own political content on blogs, social network sites like Facebook, video-sharing sites like YouTube, and instant messaging applications like Twitter.

In the process, they were to change the political equation forever.

No longer would campaigns be run from the smoky backrooms. Howard Dean, whose quixotic 2004 run for the Democratic presidential nomination was the first to reveal the potential power of the internet, has called the web "the most important tool for re-democratizing the world since Gutenberg invented the printing press."

The era of the "one-way campaign" is coming to an end, Dean said. "It's not about communicating our message to you anymore; it's about listening to you first before we formulate the message."

For the true believers of Politics 2.0, the power of mainstream TV and of spin-doctors and message tracks would all diminish in the era of "open-source politics."

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Sunday, October 12, 2008 | 05:13 PM ET

By Ira Basen

The most nervous people in Canada Tuesday will undoubtedly be the 1,601 men and women running for office. The second most nervous group will likely be Canada’s pollsters.

Over the past five weeks they’ve been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by media outlets to try to capture the pulse of the nation. Hardly a day goes by without some new poll telling us how people are planning to mark their ballots.

But what if they’re wrong? What if the final results bear little resemblance to what the latest polls predicted? Wouldn’t that be embarrassing? Well, not really.

The snapshot

Pollsters are hard to embarrass. If you want to understand why, you simply need to think about the word “snapshot.” It’s a word pollsters love.

Our polls are simply “snapshots in time,” they tell us. They have no predictive value. A poll taken on October 10 will tell you what the electorate is thinking on that day. It will not tell you what it will be thinking on October 14.

But here’s thing, we have no way of knowing whether the poll on October 10 is an accurate reflection of voter opinion. The only time we can know for sure what voters are thinking is when actual ballots are counted on election day.

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Friday, October 10, 2008 | 06:44 PM ET

By Mark Gollom

NDP Leader Jack Layton has been leading the rallying cry recently against the "big banks" with their "big" profits.

They are an easy target, too, when the public hears how these financial institutions are recording billions of dollars in record profits while they're getting dinged with a service charge when they take out cash at the ATM.

Layton's recent condemnations have focused on what he calls the greediness of Canadian banks for their initidal refusal to pass along the full central bank's interest-rate cut on to customers.

Layton accused the banks of gouging consumers to protect their fat salaries and huge profits. (On Friday, however, banks announced further cuts in their prime rates.)

But are the banks profits, as Layton suggests, "too high?"

Although profits will likely be down for 2008, Canada's six banks reported 2007 profits of a record $19.5 billion.

Eye of beholder

It's a difficult question to answer since how much profit is too much is in the eye of the beholder. But Basil Kalymon, finance professor emeritus at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, explained what he considered "reasonable" profits.

First he said it's important to look at the rate of return, not the billions of dollars you see posted in profits.

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Thursday, October 9, 2008 | 06:15 PM ET

"The Liberal party has always believed that Canada must have its own voice on the world stage. He did the right thing and said, 'No.'"

— Bob Rae praising former prime minister Jean Chrétien's decision to keep Canada out of the Iraq war.

By Mark Gollom

The question of the Iraq invasion may seem so five years ago for many Canadian voters. But it was resuscitated in this campaign following accusations of plagiarism over a speech Stephen Harper gave back in 2003 over support for the mission.

Actually, the Liberals have trotted out the issue in every campaign since Harper became the Conservative leader. In their view, had Harper been prime minister during the time of the invasion, Canadian soldiers would have been right along with the U.S. marching into Baghdad.

Harper's stance on the issue has, at best evolved, and at worst, done a complete flip-flop. He registered his profound disappointment that Canada wouldn't be involved before and shortly after the invasion. But about more than a year later he was massaging his view, saying Canada couldn't be involved because of the strain it would cause on our military resources.

It's Jean Chrétien, Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae says, who took a principled stance from the start that highlighted Canada’s independent voice in foreign affairs.

But was Chrétien's decision really a show of foreign policy independence?

'Look, I want to be with you guys…"

In his memoirs My Years as Prime Minister, Chrétien said he told U.S. President George W. Bush and then British prime minister Tony Blair that Canada was set to join in the invasion if only they could get a UN resolution authorizing force.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008 | 10:07 AM ET

By Mark Gollom

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper rarely passes up an opportunity to characterize Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion’s Green Shift carbon tax plan as a recipe for economic disaster.

Harper has said the plan will "undermine the economy,” "drive up the price of everything” and hurt families in the process, and drive the country into recession.

What’s barely mentioned, if ever, is Harper’s own plan to clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions and the potential costs incurred by it. In fact, only two sentences are devoted to the issue in the Conservatives' recently released platform.

So what are the costs?

The Tories' plan, Turning the Corner, which was released last year, incorporates what is known as a cap and trade system. It imposes regulations (caps) on industries in selected sectors, forcing them to reduce their emissions intensity by 18 per cent by 2010 and a further two per cent every year after that.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008 | 09:03 PM ET

By Ira Basen

Chances are you have better things to do with your time than make your way through all 42 pages of the Conservative party platform. Well, that's what we get paid to do here at Reality Check HQ, and here are a few things that caught our eye as we were wading through.

Page 11: Aboriginal peoples

The Conservative platform is surprisingly thin on the subject of aboriginal peoples. In just three short paragraphs, the party offers up some boiler-plate promises, including:

1. "Ensure Aboriginals have the opportunity to fully participate in Canada's economy and society."

2. Improve aboriginal education and "complete tripartite educational agreements" with provinces and First Nations organizations across the country.

3. Address the wrongs of the residential school era for students not covered in the original settlement agreement.

By contrast, the 2006 Conservative platform promised a much bolder approach to aboriginal issues. Nowhere in the current platform is there any talk of settling land claims, or replacing the Indian Act with "a modern legislative framework" to allow aboriginal peoples to govern their own affairs.

And perhaps most significantly, there is no mention of the Kelowna Accord struck by the Liberal government before the last election in 2005. The Conservatives rejected the accord at the time, but in 2006 their platform pledged to accept "the targets" set by the accord and work with aboriginal leaders to meet those targets. Most aboriginal leaders believe that is a promise that has not been kept.

Page 14: Copyright

The Conservatives pledge to re-introduce their federal copyright legislation that died on the order paper when the election was called in September. The platform says the legislation "strikes the appropriate balance" between the rights of artists and the wishes of consumers. But the bill was bitterly attacked when it was introduced last spring as being too friendly to large American media companies, and hostile to Canadian consumers trying to download music from the internet.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008 | 07:50 PM ET

By Ira Basen

You can learn a lot about what messages the various parties are trying to communicate to voters by examining their platforms. And yes, you can pore over the hundreds of promises that the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP have included in their documents, and try to figure out if they make any sense and are adequately costed, but you can also learn some valuable lessons just by looking at what, or whom, the parties tend to emphasize, and what, or whom, gets ignored.

The Conservative platform

If there is any doubt that the Conservative party in 2008 is all about Stephen Harper, those doubts would be quickly dispelled by a quick browse through their platform, entitled "The True North Strong and Free: Stephen Harper's Plan for Canada."

The document is 42 pages long and there are a total of 24 pictures. All but two of the pictures include Harper. There are eight pictures of the prime minister surrounded by unidentified Canadians, three with him and various members of his family, and three of him speaking. In one picture he is being kissed by a young child, and in another he is hugging a senior.

Of the two pictures that Harper is not in, one is of the Canadian flag, and the other shows a group of mostly older Canadians. They are holding up Harper signs, and one man has a sign that reads "Promise Made, Promise Kept," which curiously was a slogan used by Paul Martin during the 2006 campaign.

In introducing the various sections of the platform, there are 76 references to "A re-elected Conservative Government led by Stephen Harper" …, compared to just 18 references to "a re-elected Conservative government …"

It is a striking contrast to the Conservative platform of 2006, called "Stand Up for Canada." It was 47 pages long, and featured an introductory message by Harper and an accompanying photo on Page 1. But apart from that, the document makes no mention of the leader, and has no pictures.

The Liberal platform

If the Conservative platform is all about the leader, the 2008 Liberal platform projects a party that is selling a brand, and not a man. The platform is more than 70 pages long. You will find references to Stéphane Dion on Page 1, Page 64 and Page 69.

There are about a dozen pictures scattered throughout the document, but they tend towards generic nature shots and pictures of Canadians at work. There is one photo of Dion on the last page. There are hundreds of promises, most of them introduced by "a new Liberal government will …."

By contrast, the 2006 Liberal platform had 83 pages, and included an introduction by leader Paul Martin. It made frequent references to the accomplishments of "Paul Martin's government," but most promises were introduced by "a Liberal government will …" There were about 20 small pictures scattered throughout the document, but only five featured Martin.

The NDP platform

The 2008 NDP platform is clearly centred on leader Jack Layton. The cover identifies Layton as "a Prime Minister on your family's side, for a change." The platform begins with a "personal message" from the leader. All of the promises are introduced by "Jack Layton and the New Democrats will … There are about a half dozen pictures included in the 45 pages. All but one feature Layton; the other depicts enthusiastic kids wearing Layton T-shirts.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008 | 06:50 PM ET

By John Gray

When they set out their election platform two and a half years ago, Stephen Harper's Conservatives set high standards for a reformed Senate. The Conservative platform of the day promised that a new upper chamber would be "an effective, independent and democratically elected body that equitably represents all regions."

The reality of Canadian politics crashed in on the Conservatives after that and persuaded them to lower their standards for what they hope will be a new effort at reforming the Senate.

The Conservative government did try to re-make the Senate but the Senate itself — largely populated by Liberal-appointed Liberals — was a stumbling block and forced the government to shelve its reform plans.

The senators, who hold office from the day they are appointed until the day they reach 75, did not like a time limit on their careers.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008 | 05:56 PM ET

By Ira Basen

"We looked at all the programs and reallocated those and then increased the funds for the Canadian arts and increased the funds for the museums and actually the CBC, you may be surprised."
— Stephen Harper, English language leaders' debate, Oct. 2, 2008

Several of us here at Reality Check HQ have tried to untie the Gordian knot of arts funding in Canada in order to determine whether Stephen Harper is correct when he asserts that he has increased spending on arts and culture, or whether the opposition parties' claim that the Conservatives have slashed tens of millions of dollars from arts programs is closer to the truth.

And the answer is … well, it all depends what you mean by "arts," and what you mean by "programs" and what you mean by "funding." In other words, there is no simple answer to the question.

How much does the CBC get?

So today's assignment seemed much more manageable. Have the Conservatives actually increased funding to the CBC as Harper claimed at last week's debate? The Liberals say they didn't, and point to the latest CBC annual report that shows the parliamentary appropriation dropping from $946 million in 2006, to $914 million in 2007.

So who's right? It should have been pretty simple to track this one down. But like so often happens when you start diving into how much our government spends and where it spends the money, you can quickly get swamped in a sea of appropriations, supply bills, and any number of supplemental estimates. Try it one day, and you will quickly see why those office towers in Ottawa are jammed full of federal number crunchers.

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Monday, October 6, 2008 | 06:47 PM ET

By John Gray

A few years ago Curtis Gans, the American political scientist who has devoted most of the last half century to tracking the decline of American democracy, came to an unhappy conclusion. In an era of what was then unprecedented military and economic power and personal wealth, there is "an underlying dirty little secret."

That dirty little secret, he wrote, is that the underpinnings of American democracy are coming apart.

Gans's concern is not unique to the United States. Canada will have its own test of its own democratic underpinnings on election day, and the lesson of the past two decades suggests that the news is not likely to be good.

The reality is that politicians and academics in both countries have come to the conclusion in recent years that it's harder and harder to describe their political system as democratic when fewer and fewer people are bothering to vote. On that score at least, the Americans are doing better — or, rather, they are not doing as badly as Canada.

Since 1960 there have been only three U.S. presidential elections that attracted a turnout of at least 60 per cent. The nine other presidential elections attracted a turnout of between 50 and 60 per cent except for 1996 when only 49 per cent of the voters bothered to cast their ballots. Mid-term elections produced an average turnout of a lowly 40 per cent.

The Canadian trend

By contrast, during that same period, voter turnout for 15 Canadian parliamentary elections has been about 71 per cent.

Where alarm bells start to ring in Canada is not the average over four decades but the trend over the last two. In 1988, a healthy 75 per cent of the voters cast their ballots, but no turnout since then has come close to that level.

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