Fixing our broken Senate

Published June 29, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Three weeks ago, I wrote a column about everyone’s favourite subject: the Senate of Canada. Well, perhaps not quite everyone’s. Stephen Harper’s fondest wish is that the upper house go quietly away and take Mike Duffy with it.

In the column, I suggested the time has come for definitive action – either by blowing the place up (to take a page from Guy Fawkes’ venture in 1605), or by holding a national referendum to abolish it (perhaps in conjunction with the general election this October).

Let’s be candid, reader response to my humble, but helpful suggestions was underwhelming.

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For one thing, it appears there are laws against setting off barrels of gunpowder in the basement of the Centre Block. Who knew? And a referendum on abolition is easier to advocate than to make happen.

Our constitutional straitjacket of 1867 makes the Senate virtually immune to fundamental change. Abolition would require the approval of all provincial legislatures plus the House of Commons and the Senate itself. Given the mood of the country these days, it is conceivable that a referendum to abolish would be approved by popular vote nationally. But unless it were approved by voters in each province and territory, it is almost certain that some legislatures would balk. (I’m thinking primarily of Quebec, which has precious little use for the red chamber, but is its devoted defender for reasons we need not go into here.)

The election of a New Democratic Party government under Thomas Mulcair – the only party leader calling for abolition – would give the cause a leg up, but it would not satisfy the constitutional requirement for unanimity. But with the Conservatives and Liberals both talking about the need for reform, there is a chance this year to make some of the most significant changes since 1965 when Lester Pearson’s Liberal government was able to establish a retirement age – 75 – for senators.

The two most needed changes are to eliminate partisanship (every appointment made by the Harper government since it came to office in 2006 has been a Conservative) and to remove the government’s iron control over the upper house. There are various ways these changes could be made. The Constitution mandates that senators be appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the prime minister. But there is nothing in the Constitution to preclude the prime minister from delegating his authority to provincial governments or legislatures. They could choose the people they think would best represent their regions, present those names to the prime minister who would appoint them (as happens now with special senate nominee elections in Alberta).

Some provinces might prefer to divorce the selection process from politics entirely. They could create panels of non-politicians to seek out and screen prospective senators from all walks of life, to be presented to the PM for appointment. We might get a few poets as well as pipefitters.

Once senators stop being appointed on the basis of service to their party and their loyalty (and usefulness) to the prime minister, it becomes a fairly straightforward matter to eliminate partisanship. Like the Commons, the Senate is master of its own rules. It would not require a constitutional amendment to abolish party caucuses and party whips in the upper house (as the Liberals, under Justin Trudeau, have already done), or to eliminate the position of government leader in the Senate – a position the government uses to control the Senate agenda.

Finally, senators could change their seating arrangements. They could eliminate the centre aisle that separates government senators from opposition senators. With no government senators and no opposition senators, there would be no reason (aside from hoary tradition) for the aisle. The red chamber could be reconfigured to seat members in rows, United Nations-style.

These non-constitutional reforms would not transform the place from the political scrapyard it is today to the chamber of sober second thought that it was meant to be. But they would be a start.

Prime Minister Tom Mulcair? New seat projections, poll show NDP surging across Canada

Published June 26, 2015, in the Global News Toronto.

If an election were held today, Tom Mulcair would be Canada’s next Prime Minister.

The latest seat projections taken from an aggregate of opinion polls suggest Mulcair’s New Democratic Party could win 130 seats in the House of Commons – 11 more than Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and 44 more than Justin Trudeau and the once-powerful Liberal party.

“Two months ago one couldn’t have imagined this,” Barry Kay, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University said about the seat projections.

Read more.

Four months of pure joy ahead for political junkies

Published June 22, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

It’s a long road that has no ash cans, as John Diefenbaker liked to remind his critics.

What precisely the old Chief may have meant by that profundity was no clearer then than it is today. A loose translation might be what goes around comes around or don’t count your votes before they are cast.

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Regardless of Dief’s semantic inexactitude, this is good advice as the country moves into the penultimate phase of a very long election campaign; it’s been going on ever since the ascension of Justin Trudeau as Liberal leader in 2013. Now it gets serious. Parliament is shuttered. MPs have gone away, not to return until after the vote on Oct. 19. The landscape changes from mostly politics most of the time to all politics all of the time.

For political junkies, the next four months will be pure joy. For non-junkies, it will be pure torture, to be endured as one of the prices of democracy.

The writ won’t come down until about Labour Day, but no one is waiting for that official starting gun. The Conservatives will run two simultaneous campaigns. One, bearing the imprimatur of the Government of Canada and wholly funded by taxpayer dollars in the pre-writ period, will continue to remind voters of all the great and good things the Tories have done over the past decade – including those exciting things they might have done if they had obtained parliamentary approval before shuttering the place last week.

Their other campaign, financed from taxpayer-subsidized party funds, will attack the opposition parties. Justin Trudeau will continue to be portrayed as a latter day Ethelred the Unready. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair can expect to be painted by Conservatives as the most reckless ash can to roll down that long road since, well, Pierre Trudeau.

The New Democrats and Liberals will call for change, present alternative policies, and attack each other. But mainly they will denounce the Conservatives as old, tired, out of touch, patronage-ridden and arrogant, and Stephen Harper as the nation-wrecking Darth Vader of Parliament Hill.

As entertainment, the campaign will have its fun moments. As an exercise in democracy, not so much.

This is one election which, as it begins, no one – absolutely no one – knows how it may end. The stats-obsessed gurus who labour in the political backrooms don’t know. Nor do the pollsters, or the seat-projectionists, or all the media pundits who will strive to appear all-knowing whenever the TV cameras are turned on. But they won’t know either.

All that can be safely said as the campaign begins is that the NDP has made some inroads of late. Some polls put them a bit ahead of the Conservatives. But whether that lead is real or ephemeral is anyone’s guess. The NDP probably got a boost from the party’s victory in the Alberta provincial election, but that bit of momentum may dissolve as the Alberta election fades in memory and as Rachel Notley’s administration inevitably gets bogged down in the day-to-day slog of governing.

The polls put the Tories at about 30 per cent or roughly 10 points less than they polled when they won a majority in 2011. But incumbency gives them the advantages of recognition, experience and money – lots and lots of money – to invest to retain power.

The Liberals have been struggling of late as they went from first to third in the polls. But they are addressing an area of weakness – a shortage of policy, especially on the economic front. And in Justin Trudeau they have a young, attractive – some say, charismatic – leader who appeals to younger voters (if only he can get them to turn out at the polls). He is rated as the most likeable of the leaders, and likeability is no small asset for a politicians.

The bottom line: I have no idea what Oct. 19 will bring, but I suspect we will discover a few ash cans along the road.

Researchers and Scholars! Beware of your Cognitive Biases!

I am in the midst of reading Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0, which was shortlisted for this year’s Donner Prize.  It covers a lot of similar ground in other recent books about how humans think, such as Daniel Kahnman’s and Jonathan Haidt’s books.  Collectively, these books are having a powerful impact on my views of the world and on my scholarship.

Heath’s book is a great read.  It is very accessible and provides an excellent summary of the literature on cognitive biases and decision making (at least it’s consistent with Kahnman’s and Haidt’s books!). Continue reading

Among many important and interesting tidbits, Heath argues that one of the major problems that all citizens face, whether they are academics or non-academics, is confirmation bias (and indeed there’s research showing that philosophers and statisticians, who should know better, also suffer from the same cognitive biases).  It’s why some scholars insist on the need to reject the null hypothesis when engaging in causal inference.

Yet confirmation bias is such a powerful cognitive effect on how we perceive the world and make decisions. Certainly in my subfield, and I assume in many others involving strong normative debates and positions, there is a strong temptation to accept and embrace confirmation bias.

In the words of Joseph Heath:

The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one. Often when we study social problems, there is an almost irresistible temptation to study what we would like the cause of those problems to be (for whatever reason), to the neglect of the actual causes. When this goes uncorrected, you can get the phenomenon of “politically correct” explanations for various social problems – where there’s no hard evidence that A actually causes B, but where people, for one reason or another, think that A ought to be the explanation for B. This can lead to a situation in which denying that A is the cause of B becomes morally stigmatized, and so people affirm the connection primarily because they feel obliged to, not because they’ve been persuaded by any evidence.

 

Let me give just one example, to get the juices flowing. I routinely hear extraordinary causal powers being ascribed to “racism” — claims that far outstrip available evidence. Some of these claims may well be true, but there is a clear moral stigma associated with questioning the causal connection being posited – which is perverse, since the question of what causes what should be a purely empirical one. Questioning the connection, however, is likely to attract charges of seeking to “minimize racism.” (Indeed, many people, just reading the previous two sentences, will already be thinking to themselves “Oh my God, this guy is seeking to minimize racism.”) There also seems to be a sense that, because racism is an incredibly bad thing, it must also cause a lot of other bad things. But what is at work here is basically an intuition about how the moral order is organized, not one about the causal order. It’s always possible for something to be extremely bad (intrinsically, as it were), or extremely common, and yet causally not all that significant.

 

I actually think this sort of confusion between the moral and the causal order happens a lot. Furthermore, despite having a lot of sympathy for “qualitative” social science, I think the problem is much worse in these areas. Indeed, one of the major advantages of quantitative approaches to social science is that it makes it pretty much impossible to get away with doing normative sociology.

 

Incidentally, “normative sociology” doesn’t necessarily have a left-wing bias. There are lots of examples of conservatives doing it as well (e.g. rising divorce rates must be due to tolerance of homosexuality, out-of-wedlock births must be caused by the welfare system etc.) The difference is that people on the left are often more keen on solving various social problems, and so they have a set of pragmatic interests at play that can strongly bias judgement. The latter case is particularly frustrating, because if the plan is to solve some social problem by attacking its causal antecedents, then it is really important to get the causal connections right – otherwise your intervention is going to prove useless, and quite possibly counterproductive.

 

In the subfield of Aboriginal politics, there are powerful incentives to ascribe everything that has gone wrong with Aboriginal communities post-contact to the British and later the Canadian state.  Those who try to say otherwise are routinely hammered and ostracized by the public and some members of the academy without even taking a moment to consider seriously their work.  Say what you want about the books and articles by Tom Flanagan, Frances Widdowson and Ken Coates, but at least they are providing us with an opportunity to test for confirmation bias.  Causal inference requires eliminating rival explanations! Otherwise, how can you be sure that A causes B?

In many ways, it is for these reasons why I’ve long been suspicious and wary of ideology (and certainty), whether it comes from the right or the left.  Someone who is hard core left or right, it seems, is more likely to be driven by confirmation bias.  I’ve seen dozens of episodes in my life where ideologues (from the left and the right) or those with strong views of the political world, when confronted with overwhelming evidence, refuse to budge.  It’s irrational, in many ways.  And so I long ago vowed to try and avoid becoming one of them and to embrace uncertainty. Sure, I will take a strong a position in my articles, books, and op ed columns, but I’m always ready and willing to change my mind.

Perhaps it’s a cowardly way of approaching politics and scholarship (and so I guess I should never run for office!) but for me, it conforms to my goal of striving towards causal inference and certainty.

Premier Kathleen Wynne should take on the mantle of reconciliation

 Published June 15, 2015, in the Toronto Star.

Earlier this month, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne criticized the federal government for delivering a “disappointing” response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 recommendations. By doing so, Wynne was engaging in what has become an almost institutionalized form of doing politics in Canada. Like many premiers before her, she chose to criticize the prime minister and the federal government for inaction rather than taking action herself.

Although coverage of the report almost exclusively focused on the role of the federal government, a closer reading of the executive summary suggests that there is ample room for provincial and territorial governments to embark on reconciliation on their own. In other words, this issue doesn’t have to suffer the death of a thousand intergovernmental meetings like many other issues in the past.

Read more.

Will it be Hillary, Jeb, Marco or Rand?

Published June 15, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

Observers of the American political scene might wonder why the 2016 U.S. presidential contest is drawing some 20 prospective contestants, most of whom have engaged in a peek-a-boo exercise of “exploring” their candidacies, while evidently running flat out.

The motivation for exploratory campaigns relates to the regulation of campaign fundraising, which is more flexible before an official declaration is made. The reason for the massive number of candidates — many of whom have little prospect of winning — pertains to ego, a desire for attention in the media spotlight, and alternate agendas.

Read more.

Ten years in, Harper is fighting with his back to the wall

Published June 15, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

This will be difficult, I know, but try to imagine you are Stephen Harper.

You are prime minister of Canada. You are approaching your 10th anniversary in that high position. You have won three consecutive general elections and are looking to make it four in a row on Oct. 19. With your majority in Parliament, you have more power and control today than an American president. You rank among the most successful political leaders in Canadian history.

Yet something is wrong.

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Success does not translate into affection and admiration. You are successful, but you are not loved. Schoolchildren do not squeal with delight when they see you. Their fathers do not hoist them on their shoulders for a better view. Their mothers do not rush home to tell neighbours they have touched the garment of the prime minister of Canada. For all the sense of moment you generate, you might be an ordinary MP or a school trustee.

It’s not your fault. It’s the way you are. Popularity has never been your shtick. You don’t make friends easily. You are actually better at making enemies than friends. After a decade in government, you are still a Reform-style opposition politician at heart. You need enemies more than friends to make your style of politics work. You would rather attack than defend and explain.

You have already assembled an impressive enemies list for the election campaign. Heading the list is the chief justice of Canada and her infuriating Supreme Court. The court keeps saying “no” to you. “No” to mandatory minimum prison sentences, “no” to appointing supreme court judges who don’t meet eligibility requirements, “no” to abolishing or reforming the Senate without provincial consent, “no” to federal anti-prostitution laws, “no” to banning doctor-assisted suicide and, most recently, “no” to your government’s efforts to stamp out the medical use of marijuana.

You upped the ante in your war with the court last week when your health minister, Rona Ambrose, declaring that she was “outraged” by that ruling, accused the court of steering young people toward marijuana use, just like, she said, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau who proposes decriminalizing possession of pot.

An election that pits the government against the Supreme Court would be an appalling precedent. But it’s not as though Harper doesn’t have other enemies to choose among. There’s also the Senate — his own Senate — which cannot control the wastrels in its membership. There are all those terrorists in our midst who must be put down by Bill C-51, the new anti-terrorism law. There are those annoying scientists and environmentalists who keep insisting climate change is real.

And there is Vladimir Putin. Bashing Putin must be good domestic politics, because Harper was back in Europe again last week, stamping his foot and demanding the Russian leader get out of Ukraine. If Putin noticed, he has not responded, but he will have other opportunities to yield to Harper’s demand before the polls close here on Oct. 19.

This shapes up as a singularly nasty election. Ten years in, Harper is fighting with his back to the wall. His Conservatives have lost 10 percentage points in popular support since the last election in 2011. At first, the threat came from the Liberals under their new leader Trudeau. But while the Conservatives were concentrating their fire on Trudeau, momentum began to shift to Thomas Mulcair and his New Democrats. Today, they are even with the Tories, or marginally ahead. Another majority seems out of the Conservatives’ reach. If the Liberal collapse continues, even a minority could be a stretch.

Mulcair has been able to build on the federal support base assembled by the late Jack Layton. He has also benefited from Rachel Notley’s victory in Alberta. If Albertans are not afraid of the NDP, why should other Canadians dread Mulcair and his party?

Watch for Harper and his attack team to try to answer that question, frequently, between now and October.

Public is ready for drastic action on Senate

Published June 8, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

What are we going to do with the dear old Senate?

The appointed upper house has graduated from being a political anachronism to a national embarrassment. Under attack by the auditor general and investigation by the RCMP – and abandoned by their patron, the prime minister – senators now expend their energy trying to cover their sorry butts.

It would be tempting to say, just blow the place up. Although the public might applaud, I fear this extreme solution would not sit well with the RCMP, which takes a dim view of explosions on Parliament Hill. Nor would it commend itself to scholars who would doubtless argue that it would be an intolerable violation of the Constitution of Canada to blow the place up unless all provinces and territories agreed to hold the match. Continue reading

We can blame a succession of prime ministers who have used the Senate either as a political scrap yard or a comfy refuge for party loyalists, or both. Stephen Harper is only the most recent offender. Now that the Senate expenses scandal has blown up in his government’s face, he is trying to flee the scene. Don’t blame me, he says, washing his hands; blame the Senate; it’s responsible for members’ expense accounts. Sure. This is the all-controlling prime minister who has larded the upper house with 59 appointees, every single one a Conservative, and whose office mounted an unprecedented campaign of denial and cover-up in the Mike Duffy affair, before throwing the embarrassing senator under the Tory bus.

We can blame the ludicrously loose Senate expense rules. We can blame the Senate leadership for fostering an anything-goes culture in the use of taxpayer dollars. And we can blame the opposition parties for wringing every drop of partisan advantage out the scandal without offering a constructive remedy.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair says he would abolish the Senate, even if he doesn’t know how he could circumvent the provincial-consent strictures laid down by the Supreme Court. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau kicks his party’s senators out of the Liberal caucus and calls it reform. Harper blames the Supreme Court for his inaction and stops appointing new senators; with 20 of the 105 seats now vacant, perhaps he hopes the survivors will eventually die of neglect.

It seems to me that this year offers an ideal opportunity to do something definitive about the red chamber. The expenses scandal has made the public receptive, I believe, to drastic action. The general election scheduled for Oct. 19 offers an avenue to tap into that public will.

Any party that campaigned on a promise to hold, within its first year in office, a national referendum to abolish the Senate would draw broad electoral support. If the referendum carried, the new government could take the next three years to introduce the required constitutional amendments and bring the provinces on side. If some provinces balked, making it impossible to scrap the upper house, the government could move to Plan B – a comprehensive package of reform measures to place before the electorate in the ensuing federal election. If they can’t blow the place up, at least they could clean it up.

The Senate was created to give voice to the regions in the councils of Ottawa. Strong, outspoken provincial governments render that function redundant. It was also meant to be a chamber of sober second thought – to act as a brake on a headstrong, popularly elected lower house.

But majority governments don’t listen to the Senate because they don’t need to. The upper house becomes an extension of the government caucus and a tool of the prime minister and cabinet. With majority government, sober second thought becomes a rubber stamp.

At the very least, the power of appointment should be taken out of the hands of the prime minister. If we must have a Senate, it should be populated with distinguished Canadians and given useful work to do. But better, surely, to put the place out of its misery.

How to ensure Truth and Reconciliation Commission report changes the country

Published on June 2, 2015, in the Toronto Star.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Canadians have long engaged in a process of “cultural genocide” towards Aboriginal Peoples in this country. Residential schools, for instance, were one of the primary ways that the federal government carried out this genocide and so if we want to repair our relationship with Aboriginal Peoples, then we need to acknowledge this dark fact about our country’s history.

The commission’s report, however, was not all doom and gloom. It also provided a list of 94 recommendations for how Canada might reconcile with its Indigenous peoples. Some of these recommendations include a new Royal Proclamation on reconciliation, annual government progress reports on reconciliation activities, a national inquiry on missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and a massive effort at re-educating Canadians about the history of residential schools, among other things.

Read more. 

MacKay exiting politics – for now

Published on June 1, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

Peter MacKay made Stephen Harper prime minister. He’s the man who drove a stake into the heart of his party, the Progressive Conservatives, broke his word to his supporters, and turned his dwindling band of moderates and Red Tories over to Harper and his ascendant army of unreconstructed Reformers.

That was back in 2003. Twelve years later, MacKay, the justice minister, is like a lonely Nova Scotia lighthouse – one of the last progressives still standing in Harperland. Now he is leaving Parliament, which is not the same as giving up political ambition. MacKay made that clear last week, carefully leaving the door ajar to return at a later date.

He wanted to be prime minister a dozen years ago and by all accounts he still does. His problem is to find a way to get there. There’s a general election scheduled for Oct. 19 and MacKay, although already nominated, will not be a candidate. Continue reading

Why leave now? There are two explanations. First, if the Conservatives were to lose the election – or return with a minority (which would amount to the same thing in this scenario) – Harper would be toast. If MacKay were still there, he would be caught up in a nasty leadership battle he could not win; the right would prevail and chances are its champion, Jason Kenney, would take control.

Second – ironically, even worse for MacKay – the Conservatives could win another majority government, meaning Harper would be around for another four, five or maybe 10 years. MacKay would go from lonely lighthouse to parliamentary artifact. I can hear the tour guides showing schoolkids the House of Commons:

“Do you see that old fellow to the prime minister’s left? He’s a bit wizened. He’s been around forever, since he was first elected away back in 1997. That’s Peter MacKay, the last leader of the Progressive Conservative party. You may have learned about the PCs in history class. You’d never know it now, but Peter was once voted sexiest MP and most eligible bachelor on Parliament Hill. He had a succession of glamorous girl friends. He married one of them and raised a beautiful family. He’s been minister of foreign affairs, defence and justice, but he really wants to be prime minister, so he keeps running and running while he waits for Mr. Harper to pass on.”

In fairness, MacKay says his reason for leaving is his desire to spend more time with his family. Many politicians say that when they leave for any number of other reasons, but in MacKay’s case there is probably an element of truth. He got into politics early and marriage late; he’s 49 now with one son, a two-year-old, and another child on the way. On the other hand, if the leadership were available, and if he thought he had a realistic shot at it, he would be sticking around.

As it is, this is a good time to take a sabbatical from politics. At his age, he can afford to go away for five or six years while the Conservatives sort out their direction. This could take more than one election. Do they want to be the voice of the 25 per cent of the electorate that exists on the hard right? Or do they want to reposition themselves closer to the middle? If they want a leader to woo progressives and former Red Tories back from the Liberals and NDP, MacKay could be the ticket.

He plans to retain his Nova Scotia seat until closer to the election. Speculation in Ottawa has it that Harper will make him ambassador to Washington, a post held by Gary Doer, the former premier of Manitoba, since late 2009.

Washington would be a convenient perch, visible but uninvolved, from which to reboot while sitting out the political wars at home. Harper owes this final favour to the man who made it possible for him to become prime minister all those years ago.

Former NWT Premier George Braden Died on Monday Night

George Braden was the first NWT government leader to be called “premier” in the NWT. I got to know George when I was completing my project on territorial devolution in the Canadian north.  At time, he was working for another former territorial Premier, Dennis Patterson, who is the Senator for Nunavut.  I had interviewed George in Ottawa, I think, several years ago and was amazed at the vast amount of knowledge he had and how generous he was in sharing it.

Several years later, when the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations invited me to contribute a chapter to its 2011 State of the Federation book, I readily agreed but only if George would co-author and happily, he agreed.  And boy was a glad, because his knowledge of territorial intergovernmental relations was vast and unparalleled.  Check out our chapter here (ungated) and you can find the entire book here.

George was a real joy to work with, whether as a co-author or simply as someone I could bounce my crazy ideas off of about the north.  We had, at one point, talked about doing a conference and book on the north, with Kirk Cameron.  The goal was to gather all of the territorial “founders” together to talk about “the once and future” political and constitutional development of Canada’s territories but much to my regret, we never put aside time to do it.

Here’s the story about George’s passing.

Leaders’ debates breathe life into elections

Published May 25, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

Let’s talk today about the flapdoodle in Ottawa over the election debate(s).

Q: Do leaders’ debates really matter?

A: Yes, I think they do. We saw that most recently in the Alberta provincial election where the television debate helped turn the tide to Rachel Notley and her New Democrats.

Politicians of all persuasion complain about the lessening of public engagement in the political process. They find it difficult to attract campaign workers and to woo voters to the polls. The leaders’ debate is the one event that breathes real life into a federal election. As many as 10 million Canadians usually tune into the English debate and perhaps 4 million to the French debate. Continue reading

Q: So why is Prime Minister Harper making such a fuss and refusing to participate in any debate that will be organized by the usual suspects – a consortium of national broadcasters?

A: This is complicated, and there are several explanations. It’s partly a question of control. The broadcasters get to control the format, the topics and the selection of questioners. The Conservative government doesn’t – and, as some people may have noticed, control is a pretty big deal to Stephen Harper.

It’s also partly a product of Conservative paranoia about CBC, which is the dominant player in the broadcast consortium. The Tories are convinced the public broadcaster is irredeemably liberal and Liberal – a notion that former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien might find amusingly quaint; the fact is, all prime ministers of whatever stripe, come to dislike the CBC. It’s the nature of the beast.

Lastly, it is not necessarily in the government’s partisan interest to engage in debates (one in each language) that might create so much interest as to drive up voter participation. Low turnouts generally benefit parties in power while high turnouts work to the advantage of opposition parties as fence-sitters come down on the side of change.

Q: Harper says he favours up to five debates (so long as none is organized by the consortium). Does he really mean it?

A:  No and yes. Given his druthers, Harper  would almost certainly opt for no debates at all. But if he has to debate, the more the merrier. About 20 supplicants have expressed interest in hosting the extra debates, the principal ones being Maclean’s, Globe and Mail, the Munk Debates and the private French network, TVA.

Increasing the number of debates would reduce the impact of gaffes in any single debate. Ten million Canadians might watch one English debate. But how many would care enough to watch four or five? How many would watch a consortium-sponsored debate without the prime minister? Audience fragmentation might play into the Tory low-participation game plan.

Conservatives say Harper is relishing the opportunity to take on Justin Trudeau, because he believes he can make mincemeat of the Liberal leader every time they debate. Maybe he can, but underestimating one’s opponent is dangerous in politics. And what about the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair? He is the most proficient debater of the bunch. Does Harper really want to face off against him four or five times? I seriously doubt it.

For the moment, the parties are playing a silly game of political football.  What they should be doing is looking for a better way to institutionalize and organize debates. Since 1987, the United States has had a Commission on Presidential Debates that has the legal authority to run presidential and vice-presidential debates. Non-profit and supposedly non-partisan – it is jointly controlled by the Republican and Democratic parties – it has taken much of the political gamesmanship put of the debates system.

It is one model Canada could look at. It would make some sense to establish an all-party committee of Parliament to find a better way to organize debates here, to recommend a body to administer them and to write the new rules into the Canada Elections Act where they would be out of easy reach of broadcasters and election-bent politicians alike.

Political success not usually tied to ideology

Published May 23, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

For those who have difficulty understanding how a longtime conservative province like Alberta can elect an NDP government, the most obvious conclusion is that it wasn’t about ideology.

Appearances frequently to the contrary, elections usually aren’t about ideology. The reason that such a contrary illusion so often persists is that the elite opinion leaders who most actively participate in partisan political campaigns, and those who write about or otherwise cover them, are among the minority who see politics through an ideological prism. They want to think that others interpret politics as they do.

The evolution of the Alberta campaign suggests that the result had more to do with the perception of a hidebound Conservative party, and the entitled insensitivity and manipulative cynicism of its leader Jim Prentice, than any specific policy proposals of the New Democrats.

Read more. 

Harper’s Conservatives running out of steam

Published May 19, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the Harper Conservative era?

The opinion polls — yes, they must be viewed with extreme care — would suggest the end is nigh, as those old religious billboards used to declare. With precisely five months to go before Oct. 19, the scheduled election date, polls are showing the three principal parties in a virtual tie; all are at, or very close to, 30 per cent. A couple of the most recent polls put the New Democrats in second place, a tad behind the Tories and a hair ahead of the Liberals.

The Conservatives have lost nine points since the 2011 election, in which they won a majority with 39.6 per cent of the vote. The Liberals, back on their feet with Justin Trudeau, have regained nine points since 2011, when they plummeted into third place. Under Thomas Mulcair, the NDP has recovered enough mojo to climb back to the level they reached under Jack Layton in 2011.

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The federal landscape is not experiencing a tsunami or earthquake (or even a 2011-style orange surge), but the political plates do seem to have moved and to be moving still. The May 5 provincial election in Alberta, in which the New Democrats registered a stunning majority victory, is part of it — although perhaps less in Alberta itself, where the federal Tories continue to enjoy a commanding lead, than in the more important (electorally) provinces of Quebec and Ontario.

It may be that the desire for change that was expressed so emphatically in Alberta two weeks ago is being felt in the big provinces as well. The NDP has taken a solid lead in Quebec, according to polls, and has turned Ontario into a three-way competition.

Some of the Conservatives’ old tricks aren’t working. Their attack ads failed to blow Justin Trudeau out of the water after he became Liberal leader; their “fear card” is not working as public support continues to erode for Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism legislation that the government is ramming through Parliament; the latest manifestation of its tired “economic action plan” is generating more questions about the cost of political propaganda than support for the measures to be found buried in its omnibus budget bill.

The central dilemma for the Conservatives is that they have been in office for more than nine years — the full life of two normal Parliaments — without undergoing any renewal of personnel or policies. The Harper team is a tired team. Its policies are increasingly threadbare. It has depleted its shallow well of ideas.

Afraid to face change, it tries to control everything within its reach. It doesn’t trust the people enough to share information with them — whether it is the stone wall in question period, the arbitrary denial of Access to Information requests, suppression of the long-form census, or the silencing of government scientists who are no longer allowed to speak about their research or discoveries. It is control for control’s sake, not for any valid or constructive purpose. Sometimes it overreaches, as it did in its attempts to control the Senate expenses scandal; does anyone really believe the PMO’s clumsy coverup in the Mike Duffy affair?

When Barack Obama was elected U.S. president in 2008, his campaign mantra was, “Yes, we can.” As Stephen Harper moves into his fifth general election campaign, his mantra is “No, we won’t (and we won’t tell you why not).”

When their support is down to 30 per cent, the old strategy of reinforcing the base while ignoring most of the rest will not work any longer. The Conservatives cannot count on a divided opposition to re-elect them — or to prop them up if they fall short of a majority — any more than Jim Prentice could count on his divided opposition to save him in Alberta.

After nine years, the Conservatives need new ideas, new direction, new faces and, yes, new leadership. Otherwise, the end will indeed be nigh.

Political landscape changing course

Published May. 11, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Who do you suppose is the happiest politician in Canada today?

Would it be Rachel Notley who achieved something Albertans thought they would never see in a million years: the election of a (majority!) New Democratic Party government? True blue Alberta painted NDP orange? Pinch yourself!

Or would it be Kathleen Wynne, the Liberal premier of Ontario, who probably could not believe her astonishingly good fortune as her principal opponents, the Progressive Conservatives, opted for the Tea Party route, choosing a new leader to carry them out of the political mainstream. Never have the Liberals had so much room in which to pitch their big red tent.

The happiest politician would not, alas, be Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who sees his road to reelection strewn with new landmines, some of his own devising.

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Let’s start with Alberta. The pollsters got it right. They detected the surge to the NDP and the collapse of the Tories. The tricky thing, when the electorate starts to move, as it did last Tuesday, is to anticipate how far its momentum will take it. It went a long way, giving the NDP 50 new seats and dumping the PCs, after 44 years in office, into third place.

With the right-wing Wildrose party as her official opposition and the Tories reduced to irrelevance, Notley has four years in which to establish the NDP’s command of the centre-left. She’s already started, reaching out to the oil industry and to erstwhile Tory supporters.

The election-night contrast between Notley and her PC predecessor, Jim Prentice, was striking. She was gracious in victory, conciliatory and not triumphal; her speech touched all the right bases. Prentice was a study in bad grace. He not only announced his resignation as party leader, as would be expected, but he also resigned his seat in the legislature to which he had been reelected just minutes before, leaving the province facing a byelection. So much for dignity or commitment to service.

In Ontario, the PCs rejected their deputy leader, Christine Elliott, a mainstream Tory (and widow of former federal finance minister Jim Flaherty) in favour of an obscure federal backbencher, Patrick Brown, a social conservative MP from Barrie who might have been more at home at Queen’s Park in 1955 than 2015.

He is too conservative even for the taste of the Harper Conservatives.  He is anti-abortion, against gay marriage, and opposed to sex education in the schools, which is the hot issue in provincial politics these days. Central casting could not have come up with a more perfect opponent for Kathleen Wynne.

Brown won by selling far more party memberships than Elliott. Whether he can sell the public on his extreme conservatism is a different proposition. “He is fundamentally a radical Tea Party individual who is far outside the mainstream,” says Liberal cabinet minister Steven Del Duca.

As for Stephen Harper, the past few weeks have not been kind. His government’s long-awaited balanced budget landed with something of a splat, generating little goodwill for the federal Conservatives.

He is on the wrong side of history in the case of Omar Khadr, the former child soldier, now free on bail in Edmonton pending appeal. The government’s determination to get him back behind bars smacks more of persecution than pursuit of justice.

The Mike Duffy trial is going better for the suspended senator than for the prime minister. It now appears that Harper may have violated the Constitution when he appointed Duffy to a senate seat in Prince Edward Island, where he was not legally resident.

Testimony has revealed that the PM’s agents were up to their elbows in efforts (ultimately successful) to rewrite an early auditor’s report on Duffy’s expenses. And now the PMO is trying to suppress another auditor’s report – the suspicion being that the government’s case against Duffy would be weakened if the court were informed that other senators have similar expenses issues.

The trial is adjourned, but only until June 1.