But what if it’s not parliament that’s the problem here? Liveblogging the Public Policy Forum’s "Back to School" session

ITQ will be heading to the Westin this morning for a four-hour orgy of political metawonkery courtesy of the Public Policy Forum. Although the Chatham House Rule will bar her from liveblogging a good chunk of what is likely to be a fast, furious and fascinating exchange of views, she’ll have full coverage of the opening presentation by Nik Nanos, as well as the keynote address by Queen’s University professor — and fellow parliamentary obsessive — Ned Franks, so do check back throughout the day, starting at 10am.

Oh, and due to a last minute scheduling glitch, she’ll also be filling in for Colleague Wherry during the afternoon free-for-all on democratic reform, so if you’re planning to attend, don’t be shocked when she turns up at one of the open mics.  (That session, alas, is covered by the Rule, which is probably for the best, since liveblogging herself while trying to sound as erudite as Ian Brodie is well beyond the multitasking talents of ITQ.)

Anyway, feel free to chat amongst yourselves in the thread — and if, by chance, any ITQ readers plan to attend, do come over and say hi.

9:39:09 AM
Good morning, democratic reformers and passionate defenders of the status quo! ITQ is stationed in a hotel-calibre comfy chair just outside the Governor General room — how appropriate, no? — early, as always, and eagerly awaiting the no doubt imminent stream of wonkerati. The first order of business — which gets underway just after 10am, presuming the PPF runs its schedule like a well-oiled machine — will, as noted above, be an opening presentation by Nik Nanos; I’m not sure if he’ll have new results for us, or if he’ll just give an overview of the state of the electorate, but I’m sure it will be fascinating.

After that, it’s a little Chatham-ruled bit of business with a special live-before-a-studio-audience performance by the At Issue panel — including Colleague Coyne! — which I will not, alas, be able to liveblog, but the whole idea is to allow everyone to speak freely and without fear of nasty livebloggers recording their words for eternity, thus imbuing all present with rare and invaluable insight with which to better understand the universe. Or something like that, I sort of skimmed through the explanation on the Chatham House site.

Anyway, I just wanted to let y’all know that ITQ is present and accounted for; check back at 10am for all the non-space-filler action.

9:59:09 AM
Nanos update: Apparently, all that the Atlantic Canada numbers really show us is that the bloom is off the rose for the NDP in Nova Scotia. Everything else is muteable and depends on the margin of error. So really, pretty much what you smartypants commenters already concluded.

10:05:50 AM
And here we go! PPF president David Mitchell has hushed us all into silence, and is now wishing us a happy new year, politicalversedly speaking. He promises an interesting and lively discussion – yay! As we begin to consider the implications of another election, *he* thinks we should start thinking about how we can strengthen our institutions, including – maybe especially – parliament.

A brief recap of how it all ground to a confusing and abrupt halt last June, and then proceeded to spend the summer breaking down even further, with the fate of the Fortieth itself now hanging in limbo. Or purgatory.

Bring on Nik Nanos!

10:10:17 AM
After an intro that wraps up with a description that makes him sound like a human political mood ring, Nanos takes the stage, and points out that sometimes, back to school can be a traumatic event — children huddled in the corner in the fetal position, terrified of the leap between junior and senior kindergarten — much, he suggests, like some Canadians approach the return of parliament.

He hits us with some eerily timeless headlines from the days of Sir John A — ‘tired, scandal-ridden government’, that sort of thing — and notes that the promise of parliamentary reform — whether an elected Senate or more freedom for backbenchers — doesn’t necessarily move non-voters to the polls. Tinkering with democracy doesn’t necessarily renew it. Wait, so the low turnout isn’t entirely the fault of those of us who, as they say, chronicle the atrocities? Gosh, I hope that’s true. It keeps me *up* at night, you guys.

On the other hand, he has survey data that suggests more Canadians want citizens to have a “more direct say” in influencing public policy — from running for office to signing petitions — 61%, compared to 31% who want to leave it to the elected officials.

10:18:00 AM
Moving on, he takes us to his recent poll on minority governments — towards which 54% of the population has a positive or moderately positive reaction — and the paradox whereby what they *like* about it is the fact that it “forces parties to cooperate,” but what they *don’t* like is the sense that it is inefficient.

One more poll — looking at top of mind issues, and yes, the economy is still the tippy, although health care has skyrocketed up in recent months, and is now just seven points behind. Meanwhile, the environment has flatlined — it’s been around 8% since that magic green Christmas of 2007. (“Remember Rona Ambrose?” Nanos asks, in passing. Oh, we do. She’s still in cabinet, right?”)

10:21:55 AM
Finally, this morning’s numbers, and he says pretty much exactly the same thing he told ITQ when she cornered him and demanded that he tell her what, exactly – and statistically – was up in Atlantic Canada: the “halo effect” is gone for the NDP, and these numbers should be “troublesome” for both the NDP and the Bloc, which tends to poll much better outside of an election. (That last bit made Colleague Coyne visibly unclench, although he’s still glaring at that traitrous light blue Bloc line.)

10:23:32 AM
As far as strategy goes, Jack Layton is “the one to watch” this fall, according to Nanos — not in the sense that he may surprise us all and sweep the country orange, but because he’s the one who may ultimately decide whether we have an election this fall.

That’s it for Nik — and for ITQ, for the moment. The At Issue panel is Chatham’d, so I won’t be able to liveblog it — you’ll just have to bug Colleague Coyne to tell you what *he* had to say.

The liveblog will pick up again at 12:20ish, which is when Ned Franks will tell us — or possibly ask us; punctuation can make these things so ambiguous — “Parliament and Public Policy: What’s to be done?”

12:22:24 PM
And we’re back — sorry for disappearing on y’all like that, but the At Issue panel turned out to be *totally* fascinating, although I’m not entirely sure what, if anything, I can say as far as the opinions that were imparted, because it seems as though reporting anything that was said *verbatim* (or nearly so) would make it easy to identify the speaker, thus defeating the Chatham House Rule.

12:26:38 PM
“Where shall I begin,” Franks muses. “Saskatchewan, 1964,” is the answer, it turns out — that’s where he learned that governments actually *can* do things — good things — for the country. He then segues to an AA Milne quote – which can’t help but make ITQ think of Dorothy Parker – and then Kim Campbell’s prophetic comment that an election campaign is no place to discuss the issues. Oh, if only she’d been wrong.

And then it’s off to a – yikes, a spreadsheet on the comparative budgets of provincial governments, with Ontario as the zero, spending the least per citizen — “less than it should,” Franks avers, particularly considering the need for a “first class educational system,” not to mention infrastructure and the “cities of the future”. Then it’s another chart on “provincial inequalities”, but I don’t think it can be summed up in liveblog format; he does suggest that this may be part of the “death of the St. Lawrence”. I’m assuming he’s not talking about zebra mussels.

12:33:19 PM
So, what does he see as the big issues on the federal political scene? Pretty much what you’d expect — provincial inequalities, aging population, aboriginal communities, that sort of thing. He then whips out a truly eyebrow raising chart that shows the percent of bills given Royal Assent, from 1945 to 2009, which dwindles from the mid-nineties to just 48% for the current occupants. Wow. I didn’t realize it was *that* low. The House, the next slide reveals, also meets for far fewer sitting days than in the past; an average of 105 days since 2004.

12:38:57 PM
He touches on one of the reasons *why* parliament is ‘a fractious and unpleasant place’ — the fact that there is no particular inclination on the part of one of the two major parties to work with one of the others, which – in fairness – has more to do with the quirky nature of the Canadian ideological landscape than some sort of organizational sociopathy.

12:41:52 PM
A little more about committees — and the tenure of deputy ministers, which Franks seems to think is far too short. He reminds us that this is *our* public service — Canadians, that is — not the government’s.

12:42:56 PM
A closing — maybe closing — anecdote about the “dumbing down” of Canadian politics: When Ignatieff made what turned out to be the fatal mistake of acknowledging that yes, someday it might be necessary to raise taxes, which the Conservatives promptly turned into the leading talking point for the next three months, eventually driving him to say, a few weeks ago, that no, he *wouldn’t* raise taxes.
At some point, Franks thunders, *someone* is going to have to act like a grownup and admit that paying down deficits requires one of three things: tax increases, spending cuts, or increasing the monetary supply – and we all remember how that latter has worked out in the past.

12:47:09 PM
“And now,” he concludes, “you’re all wondering what I think about the prospect of an election.” His answer? “I. Have. No. Idea.” Man, I wish we could get away with that.

That’s it for the speech — I’ll try to post a few highlights from the discussion, if anything fascinating comes up and I can suitably obscure the identities of the participants. Otherwise, check back later for a summing-up, or something like that.