Flora MacDonald was an exceptional Canadian

Published July 27, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Please forgive me if today’s column becomes personal.

A great woman, a great Canadian and a great figure in Canadian public life died early Sunday morning. Flora Isabel MacDonald – “Flora” to millions of Canadians even if they had never met her – died early Sunday morning in Ottawa. She was 89 and had suffered from multiple illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, in recent years.

Flora and I worked together to write her memoirs, which for a variety of reasons we were not quite able to finish. Hers is quite a story – quite a life.

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Born and raised in Cape Breton, Flora was the daughter of a Western Union telegrapher, Fred MacDonald, who decoded top-secret messages sent by cable between London and Washington during the Second World War. There was no money to send Flora to university, so after high school she went to business college.

I first encountered Flora in the 1960s when she was working as a secretary at Progressive Conservative headquarters in Ottawa. She had become the liaison between rank and file Tories across the county and the party’s headquarters and leadership. She knew everyone. The grassroots loved her, the leader – John Diefenbaker – not so much. He fired Flora (for suspected disloyalty), which may have been the worst mistake he ever made.

Her dismissal was the flashpoint that ignited a “dump Diefenbaker” movement. A canny Scot, she took a copy of the party membership list with her when she left headquarters and delivered it to Dalton Camp, the party’s national president who would lead the movement to choose a new leader. The drama played out at the PC national conference in Ottawa in the fall of 1966. Camp won re-election as party president, delegates voted to hold a leadership convention – and Flora was elected national secretary of the party.

She went to work to help make Bob Stanfield, then premier of Nova Scotia, national leader in September 1967. Flora took an administrative job at Queen’s University; in 1972, she won the Conservative nomination and was elected to Parliament in the Liberal seat of Kingston and the Islands.

It’s hard to realize today, but she was the only woman in a Tory caucus of 100-plus MPs. As she wrote in her memoirs: “Politics was then (and to a considerable degree still is) a man’s world. Women were tolerated as candidates and as members of Parliament, but the encouragement they received from their male peers was often half-hearted. … [T]hey did not see any compelling reason to go out of their way to enlist more female players.”

The promotion of women in all walks of public life became one of Flora’s passions. In 1976, following Stanfield’s resignation, she decided to run for the leadership herself.

She knew she faced three obstacles. The first was her gender. Although Margaret Thatcher had become Conservative leader in Britain the year before, most Canadian Tories had never contemplated being led by a woman. Second, she did not have what she called a “conventional political résumé.” She was not a lawyer, businessman or professor; she did not even have a university degree. Third, she was a “Red Tory, and proud of it.” She campaigned against capital punishment ; on abortion, she championed a woman’s right to choose – both radical positions to most Conservatives in the 1970s.

Flora did not win the leadership. After the second ballot, she threw her support to the other Red Tory, Joe Clark, who made her his foreign affairs minister when he became prime minister in 1979. Later, she served in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet as, among other things, immigration minister. Her signal accomplishment in that post was persuading a reluctant Conservative cabinet to admit tens of thousands of Southeast Asian boat people to Canada following the Vietnam War.

That grand humanitarian gesture was perhaps Flora finest moment. Yes, she could be stubborn – and she needed to be in the man’s world she set out to conquer. We have lost an exceptional Canadian.

Do Canadians care about right or wrong?

Published July 20, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The Jean Chrétien Liberal government, to its credit, made a belated, but genuine, attempt to create a level field for all players in federal elections by creating barriers to prevent Canadian campaigns from sliding into the cesspool of money and special interests that dominate U.S. elections.

The Stephen Harper Conservative government, to its discredit, is striking down those barriers to give advantage to the players who are most proficient at raising money and most devious at fiddling their way around the legal limits on campaign spending.

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Canada’s Election Expenses Act dates to 1974. A pioneering piece of legislation, it imposed limits on the size of political contributions, required public disclosure of the identities of contributors, set limits on the amounts that parties and candidates could legally spend, and reimbursed them for some of their election costs.

Although it was revolutionary for its time, the Election Expenses Act (now incorporated in the Canada Elections Act) was not perfect.

Not long before he left the stage in 2003, Chrétien moved to make the playing field even more level. He tightened the rules on contributions, and he introduced a new subsidy — an annual allowance paid to parties on the basis of their share of the popular vote in the previous election. It was this allowance or subsidy that enabled the Green party to set itself up as a national party.

The allowance is gone now, abolished by the Harper government. Harper did something else last year. His so-called Fair Elections Act (“so-called” because among other things it made it more difficult for students to cast ballots) created a new spending loophole.

One of the weaknesses of the law since 1974 has been that the spending controls apply only during the “writ period” — that is the period, now generally 35-37 days, between the formal dissolution of Parliament and voting day. The exact limit or ceiling is calculated on the basis of the number of registered voters; this year it will work out to roughly $24 million for each national party.

The new loophole courtesy of the Fair Elections Act? If a campaign is longer than 37 days, each political party will be allowed to spend above the ceiling a daily amount equal to one-37th of the $24 million limit — or roughly $650,000 a day seven days a week. For an election on Oct. 19, the writ period would normally start on Sept 12. But Harper could stretch the campaign period out by issuing the writ on, say, Aug. 12, for the Oct. 19 vote. That would add 30 days to the campaign — and nearly $20 million to the spending ceiling.

The Conservatives can surely afford an advertising-intensive $44-million campaign; the Liberals and New Democrats surely cannot.

In a piece last week, Conservative columnist John Ivison of the National Post, who has a pipeline to and from Tory central, describes this as a “cunning plan” by the Conservatives “to drain the resources of their relatively impoverished opponents.”

Not being privy to the “cunning plan,” I can only report what I hear. This is that if the first televised debate, to be presented by Maclean’s magazine in Calgary on Aug. 6, goes well for Harper, he would take a few quick polls, then ask the governor general to dissolve Parliament. His schedule is clear; he has already cancelled his annual August tour of the North. If the debate goes badly, he waits.

But isn’t this twisting of the election law unethical? Doesn’t it amount to trying to steal the election?

I might say it does. But I’m not sure the public cares. There was no public uproar when the Harper government pumped millions of taxpayers’ dollars into thinly veiled partisan advertising this season. They escaped damage in the robocall scandal in the last election and in the advertising in-and-out scandal in the election before that.

The laws are weak. The lust for victory is strong. Who cares about right or wrong? Ethics are for losers.

A campaign of confusion thus far

Published on July 13, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

There is only one word to describe our infant federal election campaign. The word is confusion.

There is confusion over the leaders’ debates – how many there will ultimately be, what the rules will be, who will be invited to participate, and who will show up and who will not.

There is confusion over the polls. They muddy the water more than they clarify it with layers of seat projections, predictions,  forecasts, scenarios and now – a new wrinkle – “Monte Carlo’ simulations, based, it seems, on algebraic logarithms (a torture most of us hoped we had left behind in high school math).

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Finally, there is confusion over when the election will actually be held. The fixed-election law says Oct. 19, but the prime minister has the power to change that. The rumour in Ottawa last week was that Stephen Harper, worried about sagging Conservative poll numbers, an economy that has gone into recession, and the appearance of Nigel Wright as the first witness when the Mike Duffy trial resumes on August 11, will reschedule it for just after Labour Day – meaning most of the campaign would be in August when voters might not be paying much attention.

Let’s start with the debates. The main ones, sponsored by the television networks are scheduled for Oct. 7 (French) and Oct. 8 (English) – assuming the election has not already happened by then. The prime minister has said he will not participate. Whether that’s because of his distaste for the CBC or his disinclination to be a punching bag for the other leaders so close to the election is an open question.

So, it seems, is the participation of NDP leader Thomas Mulcair. The NDP has agreed in principle to the English and French debates, but has not confirmed their leader’s presence. If Harper is not there, the New Democrats are not at all sure they want Mulcair, the perceived front runner, to become a surrogate punching bag for Justin Trudeau, Elizabeth May and (in the French debate) Gilles Duceppe.

Harper may yet change his mind and agree to debate, but if neither he nor Mulcair is there, why bother?

Both leaders say they plan to take part in an early debate to be organized by Maclean’s magazine on Aug. 6. How that debate goes will, I suspect, help determine whether other projected debates, to be hosted the Globe and Mail, the Munk Debates and by the private French network TVA, get off the ground.

Next, the polls. About all that can safely be said is that the race looks desperately close – a three-way race in which the NDP is slightly ahead of, or slightly behind, the Conservatives, with the Liberals still within challenging distance.

Everyone is trying to get into the act with projections, predictions and forecasts. Last week, the Globe and Mail unveiled what it called, “an interactive election-forecasting tool that analyzes polling data and helps make sense of it all.”

Sense to some perhaps, but not so much to me. After feeding polling data into a computer, the newspaper’s guru, Paul Fairie, a political scientist at University of Calgary, ran “simulated elections” in all 338 ridings. This is where the “Monte Carlo” factor apparently comes in.  The outcome: a 51.9 per cent probability of an NDP win with a 0.9 per cent probability of a majority government. The paper published six “random examples” – three NDP minorities and three Conservative minorities. Two of the NDP minorities had the Liberals as the official opposition; the third had a Tory opposition.

New simulations published on the newspaper’s website yesterday, showed the Conservatives winning by seven seats, the NDP winning by 34 (with the Tories and Liberals tied for second) and the NDP winning by two seats over the Conservatives.

We will have to hope Stephen Harper is up on his algebraic logarithms and Monte Carlo simulations when he decides whether to have the election at Labour Day or to wait until Oct. 19.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

Polls show Alberta ready for change

Published May 4, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

The desire for change is the most powerful force in politics. We are seeing that in Alberta where voters will go to the polls on Tuesday in a provincial election that appears destined to end the Progressive Conservatives’ 44-year stranglehold on power. All the pollsters agree: the New Democrats will take over in Alberta, their only reservation being whether the NDP will emerge with a majority or minority government.

Change? In Alberta? An orange government in the bluest of Canadian provinces? NDP Premier Rachel Notley? Wow!

But wait. Is it possible that the pollsters – all of them – are wrong? Continue reading

In theory, yes, and given the polling fraternity’s abysmal record in the last Alberta election in 2012, a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted. But it seems highly unlikely that they are all wrong this time. By last week, the various polls were all showing the NDP well ahead, with about 38 per cent of the popular vote, which given the fragmented vote on the right, might be just enough to eke out a bare majority.  The one thing the pollsters did not agree on was whether rookie Premier Jim Prentice’s Tories were in second place or in third, behind Wildrose.

As of Friday, the poll consolidator ThreeHundredEight.com put the NDP comfortably ahead with 41.8 per cent of the vote to 26.0 for Wildrose, 24.7 for the PCs and just 4.7 for the Liberals. By then, the desperate Conservatives had mounted a “fear” campaign to warn the people of the dreadful consequences of electing the socialist hordes. The campaign apparently fell flat. A new poll, by Forum Research on Saturday, showed the NDP at 42, Wildrose at 24 and Conservatives 21. Numbers like those would yield a majority NDP government with about 50 members in the 87-seat Alberta Legislature.

What happened to turn Alberta from Tory blue to NDP orange? There were several factors. To start with, Prentice was so overconfident that he called the election a year before it was required; he might have consulted David Peterson, the former Liberal premier of Ontario, who did the same thing in 1990, thereby paving the way for the election of Bob Rae and the NDP. Peterson could have told Prentice that voters don’t like being taken for granted or being pressured into unnecessary elections.

The collapse of world oil prices and its impact on Alberta’s economy, both in terms of job losses and lost government revenue, was a huge factor; it caused Albertans to question some of their political assumptions and allegiances. Prentice’s budget, with its tax increases (on individuals but not on corporations), austerity measures and a record deficit, made matters worse – and the premier dug his hole deeper when he suggested Albertans look in the mirror to see who is responsible for the province’s financial woes.

He came to epitomize cynical old-style politics when he tried to destroy the official opposition by using policy concessions to buy off the Wildrose leader and eight of her caucus members. He was outperformed by Rachel Notley in the leaders’ debate. She and her New Democrats came to represent change, while Prentice and his party stood for the status quo or worse.

Forty-four years is quite a record. Let’s think back to 1971 and what was going on away back then. The Vietnam war was raging. Charles Manson and three women followers were convicted of murdering Hollywood star Sharon Tate and seven others. The Toronto Telegram died and the Toronto Sun was born. It would be another two years before the Watergate scandal would burst on the world. The top song in the Canada was “Sweet City Woman” by The Stampeders. There were no cell phones yet, and personal computers were not generally available in 1971.

And in August, 1971, with political change in the air, a young Calgary lawyer named Peter Lougheed led a band of Tories to an upset election victory in Alberta. The rest is – or was – history.

Put your money on an early election

Published Apr. 20, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

This advice is not for the faint of heart, but if you have a spare loonie or two, you might plunk them down on a modest wager: that Stephen Harper will call a general election by early summer.

Oh, I know that’s not conventional wisdom in Ottawa these days. Everyone is proceeding on the assumption that the election will not happen until Oct. 19, the scheduled date. Although no one is talking openly about an early election, you can bet your bottom loonie that the Conservatives are thinking about it.

Here’s the scenario. Finance Minister Joe Oliver presents his maiden budget on Tuesday. The government doesn’t have much fiscal wiggle room, but the budget will offer some fuel for the Tory spin machine. There will be some infrastructure spending, which can be spun into a major investment in job creation. There will be some tax relief, including income-splitting, for mid- to upper-income families, whom the party will be targeting. Continue reading

And the budget will show a small surplus. The Tories will not advertise that they inherited a surplus from the previous Liberal regime, or that they turned the surplus into a record deficit, and only now, a decade in, are proposing to break even. But they can be expected to saturate the airwaves with advertising to the effect that, under Harper, Canada has become the envy of the world, if not the galaxy, for its steady economic management in the face of collapsing oil prices and for its brave war on terror at home and abroad.

As the scenario unfolds, nothing will happen right away on the election front. The Conservatives will be polling frantically to see if their post-budget propaganda has moved the electorate. They have been in a deep hole since ascendancy of Justin Trudeau to the Liberal leadership. The latest polls show them finally edging ahead of the Liberals and, although the trend may be in the Tories’ direction, their margin of one percentage point (32-31) in one composite of recent polls is decidedly precarious.

The date Tory strategists will be watching is May 5. That’s the day of the provincial election in Alberta, Harper’s home province and power base, which the Tories have ruled for 44 unbroken years. May 5 could end that run. Voters there are seriously angry. The new premier, Jim Prentice, is in deep trouble. His approval rating is an abysmal 22 per cent; his disapproval rating is 63 per cent. The latest polls put his Progressive Conservatives in third place, behind both Wildrose and the New Democrats.

It must be noted that the opinion polls were wildly wrong in the last Alberta election, but if they are not wrong on May 5, look for Harper to stuff his election genie back in the bottle until fall.

There’s another date to note. That’s May 2, the day Harper’s current mandate enters its fifth year. If the various portents – budget fallout, polls and Alberta – are favourable, the fifth anniversary of the election of his majority government might be an opportune time to call for a new mandate.

Although Harper is a polarizing figure, he has actually worn somewhat better with voters than two of his predecessors, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, who were deeply unpopular by the time they were eight or nine years into their prime ministries, as Harper is now. Yet he’s in a position today to win at least a minority government, thanks to the divided opposition.

The wild card in all this is the Mike Duffy trial, which continues until May 12, then takes a break and resumes from June 1 to 19. It has potential to do electoral damage to the Conservative brand. I’m not convinced it is a necessarily game changer, but with this trial you never know what the next testimony may produce.

So if you are tempted to bet on a June or early July election, okay. But keep it to a few loonies.

Harper screwed up on Duffy appointment

Published Apr. 13, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

Senate residency rules become a public issue approximately once in a blue moon.

It happened back in 1979 when Joe Clark became prime minister with a minority Progressive Conservative government. Clark wanted to appoint his friend and trusted adviser Lowell Murray to the Senate. Problem was, Murray, although he had lived in Ottawa for years, was still technically a resident of Nova Scotia where he had a home in Cape Breton – and there were no Senate vacancies in Nova Scotia.

But there were in Ontario. So Clark approached Bill Davis, the Tory premier of Ontario, to ask if he could “borrow” an empty Ontario seat for Murray, who Davis also admired. No problem, Davis said. In short order, Murray acquired a condo in Ottawa, thereby satisfying the Confederation-era requirement that senators own $4,000 worth of “real property” in the province they represent. (Real estate prices may have risen in 148 years but the old quantum hasn’t.)

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Anyway, Murray became known as the “Senator from Condominium”; he served with distinction in Upper House for 32 years before retiring at 75; while there, he held three cabinet portfolios in Brian Mulroney’s government.

That blue moon is shining on Ottawa again as the Mike Duffy trial unfolds. As we learned in week one, residency for Senate purposes is, to borrow Winston Churchill’s definition of Russia, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” A native of Prince Edward Island, Duffy owns “real property” there, a cottage worth a good deal more than $4,000. You might think that would qualify him to be a senator from PEI.

But wait! Senate rules provide that members may claim travel and living expenses in Ottawa if their “primary residence” is more than 100 kilometres from the national capital. So Duffy declared the PEI property to be his primary residence and claimed living expenses for the Ottawa home where he has lived for 30-odd years. He could have claimed Ottawa as his primary residence, but if he had done that, he might have disqualified himself from his PEI Senate seat because the rules also require that senators be residents of the province they represent.

When the Senate asked the Deloitte auditing firm to review the residency riddle, the auditors threw up their hands in confusion: “There is a lack of clarity in the terminology used for the different residences mentioned or discussed in the applicable regulations and guidelines. The following terms are used without being clearly defined: primary residence, secondary residence, NCR (national capital region) residence, provincial residence. In addition, the term registered residence is not defined.”

Mark Audcent, who was the law clerk of the Senate when Duffy was named, told the trial he was not aware of any definition of primary or secondary residence. He said there was no rule about the length of time a senator spent at his primary residence and no rule against seasonal structures being designated as primary residences. Audcent testified, in effect, that a senator’s residence was wherever he claimed it to be and wherever the prime minister agreed it was when he appointed the senator.

When Stephen Harper appointed Mike Duffy in late 2008, both men knew Duffy had lived in Ottawa for years and was only a summer resident of PEI. They didn’t think it mattered. Harper chose to make Duffy a senator from Prince Edward Island. (On the same day, he made Pamela Wallin a senator for Saskatchewan, where she had roots, although she actually lived in Toronto.)

Mark Holmes, the crown attorney prosecuting Duffy, told the court that Duffy was probably ineligible to sit (and to claim expenses) as a senator from PEI from the moment Harper named him. “He was constitutionally eligible to have been appointed from the province of Ontario, but that is not what happened,” Holmes said.

In other words, the prime minister screwed up. He should have followed the Joe Clark/Lowell Murray precedent and made Duffy a senator from Ontario.

 

All eyes will be on Duffy this week

Published April 6, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The Mike Duffy trial, which begins this week, is first of three political happenings that will determine the fate of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government this year. The second is the belated federal budget to be presented on April 21 by Finance Minister Joe Oliver, an improbable alchemist who will try to convince the country that it is possible to turn red ink into black.

The third is the election itself, which by law must be held no later than Oct. 19. The pre-campaign has already begun, thanks to the generosity of taxpayers who, without having to be asked, are graciously contributing $7.5 million to advertise the Tory budget before it has even been presented. That $7.5 million is just a drop in the bucket, of course, a pebble in the ocean, as the Conservatives will keep spending to sell their dual message: they are the only party that is serious about the terrorists in our midst; and they are the only ones who can rescue the economy from its miseries (some of which, or so it might be inferred, could be laid at the door of nine years of Tory economic management). Continue reading

Back to the Mike Duffy trial.  The suspended senator from Prince Edward Island (a former journalist and celebrity fundraiser for the Conservative party) faces a total of 31 charges, most of which will drop away as the trial proceeds. The big one is bribery. Duffy is accused of accepting $90,000 from Nigel Wright, then Harper’s chief of staff, so that he could reimburse the treasury for expenses he claimed on his residence in Ottawa. Duffy says the claim was legitimate, although he agreed under protest to repay the money; the government says the claim was fraudulent and that Duffy was guilty of accepting a bribe when he took the money and agreed to keep quiet about the whole affair.

However, Wright, who is expected to be the crown’s star witness, was not charged with offering a bribe (although he lost his job), and that non-charge could be the Achilles heel of the government’s case.

The first part of the trial will examine the Senate expense-accounting system. For years it operated more or less on an honour system; senators spent money in the course of their work and the Senate (aka the taxpayers) paid them back. Now, however, auditors have the final say. No expense claim is too picayune to escape their mind-numbing notice. Should senators who do not relish the cold Camembert that Air Canada serves its executive-class passengers be expected to eat it rather than expense a breakfast elsewhere? Who really cares?

There are real issues that may – and should – come to the fore in the 41 days set aside for the Duffy trial. One is the patronage-riddled system of naming senators. Duffy and his colleague Pamela Wallin, another former broadcast journalist, who was appointed the same day as “Old Duff,” were not chosen for what they could contribute to Parliament. They were appointed for what they could contribute to the Harper party. They were expected to go forth and attract crowds and raise money for the party.

They were very good at it. Harper loved them, until the auditors got on their trail. Then he disowned them. The Prime Minister’s office went into overdrive, generating thousands of emails in a cover-up designed to insulate the office and the Prime Minister from any responsibility for any aspect of the Senate scandal.

These issues – what the Prime Minister knew, when he knew it and what he did about it – are central to the trial. As it begins, watch Duffy. When this all began, he wanted to save his job and protect his reputation. He still wants to do that, but his focus has shifted. He is angry and bitter. His priority now is nothing less than to bring down Stephen Harper and his government.

The trial may start slowly, but it could turn nasty very quickly.