Voters growing tired of the Harper Tories

Published Aug. 25, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

For lack of a better term, let’s call it “voter fatigue.” Voter fatigue is what sets in when the public simply grows tired of the politicians who are running their lives. They may not be especially angry at the people in power. It’s more a matter of being weary — and bored — of hearing the same self-serving arguments, the same empty platitudes, the same threadbare rationalizations over and over from the same political mouths.

That’s when voters start telling one another (and they tell pollsters, too) that “enough is enough.” I think we are at that point in federal politics today. As I read the opinion polls, people are not so much outraged by Stephen Harper and the Conservatives as they are tired of them. Some of this was reflected in the Angus Reid Global survey mentioned in last week’s column. Asked to describe Harper in one word, 26 per cent of the 1,502 Canadians polled chose “boring,” while 37 per cent said “arrogant.”

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These responses have less to do with the merits of the government’s policies than they do with the tone that the administration projects. Are they sensitive to the people’s concerns? Do they put the public interest ahead of their own political interest? Are they compassionate when compassion is called for, as with Canada’s veterans? Or do they treat the vets as just another special interest group to be shoved aside? Do they really care about the treatment of aboriginals? Are they really interested in protecting the environment?

The Harper government does not fare well when faced with questions like these. It comes across as being more concerned with its own well-being than with the interests of the population as a whole. After 8½ years in power, it has lost sight of why it wanted to get elected in the first place.

We have been there before. To cite one example, it happened to Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney at the same stage in his reign. He was elected in 1984 and re-elected in 1988. By 1992, the public had had enough. He might have weathered the controversies over free trade and the goods and services tax, but it was the Mulroney style (remember “Lyin’ Brian?”), the arrogance and the sense of entitlement of a party that had been in power too long that did them in. As the opinion polls cratered, Mulroney took his leave but it was too late; the Tories were annihilated in 1993 under the leadership of Kim Campbell. Thus began the Jean Chrétien Liberal era.

I am not suggesting a catastrophe of such magnitude awaits the Harper (or post-Harper) Conservatives in 2015. But when the public takes it into its head that enough is enough, it will take more than a portfolio of shiny new polities, a major retooling of the cabinet, or maybe even a new leader, to right the ship.

At the moment, the Tory ship is sinking, and has been for the past year. An EKOS poll this month put the Harper party 13 points behind the Liberals (25.6 per cent to 38.7) and barely ahead of the New Democrats (23.4 per cent). A Forum Research poll had it closer — a nine-point lead for the Liberals (41-32).

Either way, the numbers suggest a Liberal government. The Liberals are talking about winning 170 seats, enough for a bare majority of the 338 seats in the enlarged House of Commons. They aren’t there yet and may not get there; the NDP has no intention of rolling over. If the Liberals do form a government, it won’t be because they dazzled the country with irresistible policies or because Justin Trudeau set the woods afire with his personal magnetism.

If they win, it will because the Harper Tories got old, out of touch and took the keys to 24 Sussex for granted. It will be because voters, having concluded “enough is enough,” made the next short step to “time for a change.”

Is Harper influenced by polls?

Published Aug. 18, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Pollsters are forever serving up useless information. But sometimes they come up with findings that, while devoid of practical value, are sort of interesting nonetheless.

For example, polling companies report periodically on the number of people who believe that Elvis is still alive. Why they ask this, I don’t know, but they do. A few years ago, the number stood consistently at 12 per cent to 13 per cent of adult Americans. While more recent polls put the figure at “only” 8 per cent, it means that roughly 16 million (delusional) Americans believe the King is still with us. (For the record, Elvis left the building in August 1977, or so we are told.)

In the category of useless but marginally interesting information, I would put a new poll by the firm Angus Reid Global, which asked 1,502 Canadians to choose adjectives to express what they thought of a selection of national leaders. Not surprisingly, United States President Barack Obama, who always polls better north of the border than south of it, did very well. Forty-six per cent of Canadians said he was “influential,” 33 per cent chose “compassionate,” 32 per cent “inspiring.” 29 per cent “credible,” and so on. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Canadians can’t vote in the mid-term elections in November.
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Also not surprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin fared badly. To 54 per cent of Canadians, he is “arrogant,” “corrupt” (52 per cent), “dishonest” (45 per cent), and “secretive” (41 per cent).

And how is Stephen Harper viewed by his own countrymen? Surprisingly (or perhaps not), he stands closer to Putin than to Obama. In terms of being “secretive,” he is right there with Putin, at 39 per cent to the Russian president’s 41. In terms of being “arrogant,” Harper trails Putin 37-54. Among other descriptions, Harper is seen as “dishonest” (31 per cent) and “boring” (26 per cent).

Who cares about any of this? Probably not Obama. Personal popularity is not a big concern when he is constitutionally precluded from seeking a third term. Certainly not Putin. He doesn’t need to court public support at home let alone among detractors like Canadians.

But Harper may care. His Conservatives face a federal general election in October 2015, and if Harper decides to seek a fourth term as prime minister, he will have to be concerned about the hardening negative perception that Canadians have of him and his leadership. According to the poll, positive impressions are much weaker than the negative ones. Only 19 per cent say they see him as a “strong” leader, 18 per cent say he is “influential,” 17 per cent “credible” and 13 per cent “honest.”

So here is the dilemma, if you happen to be Stephen Harper. By election time, you will have been Tory leader for 12 years; you will have fought four national elections (and won three of them); and you will have been prime minister for nine long years. The negatives revealed in the Angus Reid poll are not news to you. You have never gone out of your way to make yourself lovable, or even very interesting, to Canadians. Today your party trails so badly behind the Liberals that pundits are starting to speculate that the Conservatives could finish third behind both the Liberals and the NDP.

But if you want to win again, how do you persuade the public that its perception of you is wrong? How do you convince them that you are, in fact, what they believe you are not? How do you convince them that you are open, honest and compassionate? How do you, after all these years, compete with the freshness and vigour of a Justin Trudeau? Or can you bring yourself to you fold your tent and let your party move on without you?

In the end, maybe none of this matters. A poll is just a poll after all. This one may prove to be useless, but it is sort of interesting all the same.

The F-35 continues to haunt the PM

Published Aug. 11, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Somewhere in Ottawa, unknown to the outside world, there is a black hole — a secret place where the government consigns toxic ideas, ideas that it dares not implement, yet cannot bring itself to kill.

The F-35 fighter jet is one such idea. The Harper government has been grappling with it ever since it took office in 2006. It has heard from experts that the super-sophisticated F-35 is not the right plane; that it does not suit Canada’s modest military requirements; that its single engine makes it too dangerous for patrols across the country’s vast distances; and that its humongous cost — $45 billion or more for 65 aircraft — puts it well beyond the reach of the budget-conscious Conservatives.

Somehow the F-35 has managed to survive on the government’s to-do list, never categorically endorsed, but also never firmly rejected. This June, it surfaced on the cabinet’s agenda for a decision. To his credit, the prime minister removed the item from the agenda, ostensibly to give ministers more time to weigh the implications. So the F-35 went back into that black hole.
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One can hope that its time there will be usefully spent. The question of whether Canada should buy any military aircraft without an open competition among manufacturers is a long-standing issue. There have also been some recent developments to be considered. Safety is one. On the eve of the July 4 holiday, the Pentagon announced it was grounding its entire fleet of new F-35s following an engine fire during trials in Florida. It decided it would be too dangerous to fly the F-35s across the Atlantic to debut at two air shows in Britain, the Royal International Air Tattoo and the Farnborough International Airshow. Those appearances were cancelled.

Critics in the United States keep hammering away at the cost. The Pentagon plans to purchase 2,443 copies of the F-35 at an all-in cost (including operating costs over the lifetime of the aircraft) of something in excess of $1 trillion.

To the critics, it’s a question of spending priorities. Eliminate homelessness? The F-35 expenditure would be enough, one report calculated, to buy every homeless person in the United States a $664,000 house.

Food for the poor? If the money were directed to the U.S. National School Lunch Program, it would pay for nutritious lunches for all 55 million students enrolled in elementary school in country, not just next year, but for the next decade. Or to look at it another away, the money could fund UN peacekeeping operations at their current level for 46 years.

Logic and priorities aside, there is no chance that the United States will abandon the F-35 program. It is too far in to back out, having already spent $298 billion in taxpayer funds. What’s more, the F-35 is more than a weapons-acquisition program for Washington. It is a massive job-creation scheme, extending into almost every corner of the United States. It’s a huge pork barrel. Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer, has hired suppliers and subcontractors in no fewer than 45 states, meaning virtually every senator and congress person has a vested interest in keeping the aircraft program alive.

Like other countries that have been supporting the F-35, Canada’s aeronautical sector has a slice of the jobs. The slice would presumably grow if Canada proceeds with the purchase.

For a government focused on job creation and economic growth — and facing a general election next fall — those highly paid jobs are an important consideration. Against them, the Tories must weigh arguments that Canada doesn’t really need F-35s to do what they are meant to do — support ground forces in combat zones; that the requirements of continental defence could be better served by twin-engine aircraft; and that the obscene price of $45 billion or more would devour an inordinate share of the national budget.

The F-35 would be a hard sell on the hustings, which is why it may remain in the black hole for quite some time.

Taking politics out of the Senate

Published Aug. 5, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Politics, as they say, is the art of the possible. What, one wonders, would happen if the Harper government applied that adage to the seemingly intractable issue of Senate reform?

We already know, courtesy of the Supreme Court of Canada, what is not possible. It is not possible to abolish the Senate without the unanimous consent of the provinces. The same unanimity requirement would surely pertain to any effort to redistribute Senate seats to reflect demographic reality — by taking from the East and giving to the West. Other reforms, involving the powers of the Senate, the direct election of senators or term limits for its members, would also require significant involvement of the provinces — if not unanimous agreement, at least the consent of seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population (the 7/50 rule).
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The failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords in the Mulroney era illustrate the futility of trying to negotiate provincial agreement on constitutional proposals. It would be no easier today, in an era when the provinces simply do not trust the federal Conservative government to say what it means and to do what it says.

Given this sad reality, the trick for Stephen Harper, if he is serious about Senate change, is to work around the constitutional straitjacket by implementing measures to make the upper house more democratic, more relevant, more useful and more productive — without wasting years arguing with the provincial governments. The measures are all within the realm of possibility, and within the power of the federal government, acting on its own.

First, eliminate party blocs within the Senate by abolishing the Conservative caucus as Justin Trudeau has already abolished the Liberal caucus. Freed of partisan shackles, senators would be able to debate legislation without party rhetoric and to make laws better before sending them back to the House of Commons. Isn’t that what the chamber of sober second thought is supposed to do?

Second, flush the patronage out of the Senate system by changing the method of appointment. Direct election (as for members of the Commons), would require a constitutional amendment, but Harper doesn’t have to go that far.

He could do two things without sacrificing his constitutional prerogative to name senators. First, he could encourage provinces to hold “consultative” elections of senators, as Alberta already does. But Harper would have to pledge to appoint whomever the electorate chose, even if the person were not a Tory. Alternatively, the prime minister could invite the premiers to choose the senators for their provinces.

For example, Ontario has 24 of the 105 Senate seats. Four Ontario seats are currently vacant. Harper could invite Kathleen Wynne to present four names and he would appoint them, no questions asked. She might choose four Liberals, or she might not. That wouldn’t matter. Once partisanship is eliminated from upper house, the party stripe of newcomers will be less important than their experience and other qualifications.

Informal groups of senators, feeling the pressure of public opinion, have been meeting secretly in recent weeks to discuss ways of fixing the upper house. (Why the secrecy, I have no idea.) One of their ideas, long overdue, is that their speaker be elected by the members (as the Commons speaker is), instead of being appointed by the prime minister. Another sensible idea is to abolish the daily question period. Now that the government leader in the Senate is no longer a member of the cabinet (a move Harper made to distance himself from the Senate expenses scandal), the question period is even more useless than it has historically been, because now there is no one to answer for the government.

A better idea, I submit, would be for senators to arrange for the prime minister to attend the Senate once a week to take questions for a half-hour or so.

None of these changes would revolutionize Parliament. But they would make the Senate more relevant without reopening the Constitution.

Sleepless nights on Sussex Drive?

Published July 28, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

If Stephen Harper lies awake nights, tossing and turning, the cause of his sleeplessness is probably not the impasse between Israel and Hamas or the territorial ambitions of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. More likely, the cause is closer to home: in the ornate red chamber of the Senate of Canada.

The Senate is Harper’s great frustration. He can’t abolish it or reform it; the Supreme Court won’t let him unless the provinces buy in. And, despite packing the place with political supporters, he can’t control it, as the Senate expenses scandal makes clear.

The Conservatives’ fear now is that the Senate scandal — which stubbornly refuses to go away — will do to them what the sponsorship scandal did to another majority government, a Liberal one, a decade ago. Although the sponsorship scandal occurred on the watch of Jean Chrétien, it was his Liberal successor, Paul Martin, who paid the political price, losing his majority in the 2004 election, then going down to defeat to Harper’s Tories in 2006.
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Could history repeat itself? Compared with sponsorship, the Senate scandal is a picayune affair, the public funds being counted in the hundreds of thousands compared with sponsorship’s hundreds of millions. However, two elements elevate the Senate affair to the level of sponsorship, or beyond. The first is the direct involvement of parliamentarians — members of the Senate — who are being charged with fraud and abuse of trust. In sponsorship, the axe fell on civil servants, party hacks and advertising company executives.

The second element is the involvement of the prime minister and his inner circle. A decade ago, Chrétien was able to argue that, although the sponsorship program was controlled by his office, he did not know — nor did he want to know — how funds were diverted into the hands of friends of the Liberal party. He had deniability, plausible if not entirely convincing.

Deniability cannot provide cover for Harper. He appointed the three senators at the heart of the scandal, Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau. He chose them not because he wanted them to be fearless legislators. He knew, or should have known, that none of the three actually lived in the region they were supposed to represent. That didn’t matter (not until Duffy’s purported principal residence, a cottage on Prince Edward Island, became central to a $90,000 expense claim).

The PM chose them because he wanted them to go forth and preach the party gospel, raise money and win voters for the Conservatives. It was as cynical as it was unethical.

The party should have paid for travel and other expenses. Instead, many of those expenses got charged to the Senate, which either didn’t notice or care. The PMO didn’t care, either, until an independent audit picked up some of the abuses about four years after they began.

The coverup further distinguishes the Senate scandal from the sponsorship scandal. It was mounted at the highest level, and it has the prime minister’s fingerprints are all over it. Harper knew about Duffy’s expense problem, because the senator told him about it following a weekly caucus meeting. Moving into damage-control mode, senior officials of the Conservative party secretly went to work with the PMO to make Duffy’s problem go away; Harper was kept aware of this effort. In the end, Nigel Wright, Harper’s chief of staff, wrote a personal cheque for $90,000. But the problem didn’t go away. When CTV broke the news of Wright’s cheque, Harper fired his chief of staff.

Meanwhile, the three errant senators were kicked out of the Conservative caucus, then suspended without pay from the Senate. The Senate called in the RCMP to investigate Pamela Wallin’s expense claims. Auditor General Michael Ferguson is preparing a full report on Senate expenses. Mike Duffy is charged with 31 offences, including fraud and breach of trust. He proposes to call Harper as a defence witness if he goes on trial.

Sleepless on Sussex Drive? It’s not surprising.

I have a soft spot for Duff the reporter

Published July 21, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Let me begin with a confession. I have a soft spot for Mike Duffy. Not for the Conservative hack he chose to become, nor for the self-important senator (Old Duff) that he morphed into as he shilled for the party at fundraising events.

As a journalist, I cannot excuse the hatchet job he orchestrated on Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, an honourable man who struggled in English, near the end of the 2008 election campaign. A nasty, partisan job, it helped tip that election to Stephen Harper and secured Duffy’s appointment to the Senate.

The soft spot dates to an earlier time, when Duffy was a simple reporter in the Parliamentary Press Gallery who climbed the ladder by virtue of hard work, shrewd instincts and raw ambition. He was good. He got to know more key players on Parliament Hill than other reporters and, as a result, he broke more stories. He was the go-to reporter for many MPs.
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I watched him move from private radio to CBC radio to lead parliamentary reporter for CBC television, then on to stardom at CTV and celebrity status as host of his own shows. He earned his success, but it went to his head. He adored the spotlight. He left the press seats for the playing field in the political game that fascinated him. And he chose the Tories because they offered the best route to what he really wanted: that seat in the Senate.

Now the RCMP has charged him with no fewer than 31 criminal charges related to his Senate expense claims. The 31 charges amount to prosecutorial overreaching. The police undoubtedly hope to intimidate Duffy into pleading guilty to two or three of them, meanwhile demonstrating to their political masters and to the public at large that they have left no stone unturned in their investigation.

This is going to be a difficult prosecution for the police and government lawyers. Some of the charges are clearly redundant. Some are based on the quicksand of Senate expense rules, which tend to be vague and ill-enforced and which, over the years, have depended on an honour system among senators.

Duffy is accused of using his Senate expense account for personal travel and travel to political events on behalf of his party. Senators are not supposed to do that, but, if Duffy did, he wouldn’t be the first. These relatively small expense items account for 18 of the 31 changes.

The crux of the case is the residency issue. The Constitution and enabling legislation stipulate that senators be resident in the province they represent. That means they must own at least $4,000 worth of property in that province. The requirement is woefully outdated. These days, a parking space might satisfy the legal requirement.

Everyone, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, knew when he appointed Duffy that he had lived in Ottawa for decades. But he owned a cottage in Prince Edward Island and that seemed to satisfy the residency requirement. Members from beyond the National Capital Region are permitted to claim accommodation expenses when in Ottawa on Senate business. Usually, that means a hotel room.

In Duffy’s case, he unwisely claimed expenses for his house in Ottawa. That claim passed inspection by the Senate for a few years, until an outside auditor raised a red flag. Duffy was ordered to repay $90,000. He didn’t have the money. To cut a complicated story short, that’s why Duffy arranged to accept the $90,000 from Nigel Wright, the PM’s chief of staff, who tried to protect Harper from further embarrassment by writing a personal cheque for Duffy.

Harper got angry. Wright lost his job. Duffy got suspended from the Senate. Now, among the 31 charges, he is accused of corruptly accepting a $90,000 bribe from Wright. But Wright is not accused of offering a bribe. Go figure.

Clearly, Mike Duffy is the author of his own misfortune. It’s a misfortune that makes him as much a victim as a villain.

How will historians judge Harper’s reign?

Published July 14, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Stephen Harper has been prime minister since February 2006. They have been eventful years, but some day — if not next month or next year or a year or two after that — the Harper era will come to a close.

The prime minister may decide enough is enough and choose to retire while the cheers of his grateful party still resonate on Parliament Hill. Or he may lose an election (the next one is due in October 2015) and leave before he is pushed. Or he may stay too long and be pushed.

He may opt for a soft landing in boardroom Canada. Or he may do what other former leaders have done: lend their name to the letterhead of a big law firm to open doors for corporate clients — in other words, become a pricey lobbyist. Or he may hire a scribe to help him write his memoirs (and settle scores), as Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney have done and as Dalton McGuinty is doing now. Or Harper could hold his nose and appoint himself to the Senate of Canada, an institution that he may hold in low esteem, but which still pays a living wage with benefits and expenses.
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However it happens, the Harper years will end. When that happens, the Harper legacy file will be passed from the pundits, pollsters and political scientists to the historians. What will their verdict be?

Will they place him in the upper tier of prime ministers, with John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier, Mackenzie King and, perhaps, Robert Borden and Pierre Trudeau? Will they put him in the mid-range along with Mulroney (Airbus scandal aside) and Chrétien? Or will he find himself sharing the bottom shelf with the likes of John Diefenbaker?

His advocates will draw attention to his handling of the Canadian economy since the market meltdown of 2008. True, Canada weathered the storm better than most, and no Canadian banks collapsed, but how much of that survival was due to the wise stewardship of the Harper government and how much was due to laws and regulations put in place by previous administrations? That’s a question for the historians to ponder. They may note that the Canadian economy has not rebounded as quickly as the Americans’, that the country is still bleeding manufacturing jobs, and that the national unemployment rate remains unacceptably high. They may or may not be impressed by the various iterations of Harper’s “economic action plan.”

Their verdict of the Harper government’s performance on the world stage is likely to be more definitive. Canada lost more than a seat on the UN Security Council; on Harper’s watch, it has lost influence everywhere, most notably in the Middle East where, since the days of Lester Pearson, Canada had played a significant role. Foreign Minister John Baird’s hectoring tone is more irritating than effective. Harper’s little punch-up with Russia’s Vladimir Putin may be good politics domestically (although I doubt that), but it is silly and irrelevant internationally.

At home, historians may observe that the political atmosphere has changed for the worse on Harper’s watch. Confrontation has replaced co-operation on many fronts. This is a government that picks fights with the courts, the opposition and even the Senate. It no longer holds first ministers’ meetings with the provinces; Harper either doesn’t respect the premiers or want to share a national stage with them, or he doesn’t think he needs their support for most things he wants to do.

He tried to get away with disenfranchising thousands of voters with his ill-named Fair Elections Act. His administration thinks it can somehow make prostitution go away, no matter what the courts and the Charter may say. Sometimes his ministers seem more incompetent than arrogant. They can’t figure out how to bring competition to the wireless sector. They can’t organize a proper, open procedure for the purchase of new aircraft for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Historians may be less than impressed.

Did byelection results send PM a message?

Published July 7, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Federal byelections can be quite dramatic, harbingers of political upheaval to come. We saw that back in 1978 when the tired Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, backed into a constitutional corner, was forced to call no fewer than 15 byelections, all held on Oct. 16 that year. The Liberals’ worst fears were realized as they took a beating everywhere, winning just two of the byelections, both in Quebec. Seven months later, the Grits were out of office and the Tories, under Joe Clark, were in (briefly).

In March 1989, Deborah Grey won a byelection in the Alberta riding of Beaver River. Her victory, by a wide margin over a Progressive Conservative, signalled the arrival of the Reform party and the beginning of the disintegration of the Tory base on the Prairies. Seventeen months later, in August 1990, a Quebec union organizer, Gilles Duceppe, captured Laurier-Sainte Marie in a byelection. He ran as an independent because he did not yet have a party to belong. But that party, the Bloc Québécois, was soon created by defectors from the Liberals and Tories; in 1997, it became the official opposition in Ottawa.
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There were four federal byelections last week, two in Ontario and two in Alberta. They did not offer the drama of the contests mentioned above. The Conservatives retained their two Alberta seats and the Liberals held theirs in Scarborough-Agincourt. The only change came in the inner city Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina, Olivia Chow’s old seat. It has been an NDP-Liberal swing seat, and this time it swung back to the Liberals, with city councillor Adam Vaughan as their high-profile candidate.

But more happened last week than met the casual eye. The exceptionally low turnout masked some revealing movement. The Liberals gained strength everywhere while the Conservatives lost vote share, even in the two Alberta seats that they won. The Liberals took an aggregate average of 21 per cent of the vote in the four ridings in the 2011 general election. In last week’s byelections, they averaged 41 per cent. The Tories, meanwhile, collected an average of 38 per cent in the byelections, down from 50 per cent in 2011.

The NDP’s share dropped from 24 per cent to 15, while the Green party held steady at 4 per cent.

It would be foolish to read too much significance into the byelections. The results, however, do reflect the same trends as the national polls. The Liberals retain the momentum that has kept them in first place in the polls since Justin Trudeau became leader 14 months ago. Conservative support is stagnant, at best. Some cracks are appearing in their base, even Fortress Alberta.

Their negative attacks on Trudeau’s maturity and ability have done the Tories no good and may have hurt their cause.

For the New Democrats, the 103 seats and official opposition status they won under the late Jack Layton, is as good as it will probably get. Despite the stellar parliamentary leadership of Thomas Mulcair, they seem destined to slip back to their accustomed third place, as the 60-odd per cent of Canadians who reject Stephen Harper’s Conservatives mostly choose the Liberals over the New Democrats as their default government. For Elizabeth May and her Greens, the numbers suggest more of the same — a fringe party clinging to one or two seats in Parliament.

There is nothing at this stage to indicate that any party has enough support, or momentum, to elect a majority government. Anything can happen between now and October 2015 when the next election is scheduled, but as matters stand, a minority government is a real possibility.

For Justin Trudeau, a minority Liberal government would be a huge breakthrough and a personal vindication. A minority Conservative government would be, for Trudeau, a smaller breakthrough, but a victory nonetheless — and an opportunity to continue to build. For Harper, reduction to a minority would signal the end of the road after nine years as prime minister.

Does Canada really need fighter jets?

Published June 30, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

“Canada does not need fighter aircraft! Buying them would waste upward of $45-billion.” – C.R. (Buzz) Nixon, former deputy minister of national defence, letter to the Globe and Mail, June 27, 2014.

Someone in the addled world of Ottawa should pay heed to Buzz Nixon. He knows whereof he speaks, having been the deputy defence minister the last time the government went shopping for fighter aircraft. It was on Nixon’s watch that the government of the day (Trudeau Liberal) decided in 1977 that it had to replace Canada’s aging war planes — the single-engine CF-104 Starfighter, based in Europe with NATO (and known among pilots, unfondly, as “The Widowmaker”) and the twin-engine CF-101 Voodoo, based in Canada and assigned to continental defence under the NORAD umbrella.

The policy-makers of Nixon’s day wanted several things. They wanted one aircraft to replace both the Starfighter and the Voodoo; that would help to keep the price and operating costs down. They wanted an off-the-shelf model with proven capability. They wanted an aircraft with two engines for the sake of reliability and pilot safety on long-distance patrols across the North and over the oceans off our coasts.
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With a budget of roughly $2.4 billion, Nixon’s people went shopping for 130 to 150 new fighters. They organized a competition. Six aircraft makers from the United States and Europe made pitches, offering a total of seven models. By 1978 (things moved more quickly in those days), the government had a short list of three aircraft from which it selected the McDonnell Douglas Hornet, which became the CF-18. It ended up buying 138 of them for $4 billion (prices in the military sector have a quicksilver quality); that works out to about $9 billion in today’s dollars.

Fast forward a generation. The CF-18, which proved to be an excellent choice, is nearing the end of its service life. Since it came to office in 2006, the Harper government has been stewing over a replacement.

It doesn’t know what it wants. Not having a thought-out defence policy, it doesn’t know what sort of military aircraft Canada may need for the future. It doesn’t even know, as Buzz Nixon suggests, whether Canada needs fighter aircraft at all.

Common sense suggests that the policy come first, then a determination of the need — if any — for fighter aircraft, then a competition be held to select the aircraft that would best serve the policy objectives. Not knowing their own mind, the Harper Conservatives listened to all the vested interests who whispered (or shouted) into their ear that Canada not only needed new fighter aircraft, but it needed the most sophisticated and expensive warplane in history.

That would be the F-35 Lightning, a single-engine stealth fighter by Lockheed Martin in the United States. It was the choice of the U.S. administration and of what former president Dwight Eisenhower once denounced as the powerful “military-industrial complex” in that in country, which also operates as a potent lobby in Canada.

The Harper government listened and agreed to buy 65 F-35s for a price that it told Canadians would be $16 billion. There were two problems. At the time, the F-35 did not yet exist; the evolution from artist’s concept to fighting machine would be fraught with delays, production problems, performance issues — and wild price inflation (to $45 billion in Buzz Nixon’s informed estimate).

Two years ago, the Tories ordered a review of its F-35 commitment. That review apparently led right back to the F-35, without any competition to confirm the wisdom of the choice. It was reported last week, however, that the prime minister has removed the fighter aircraft decision from the cabinet agenda in order to give ministers more time to digest information and to think about it.

Theirs could be a watershed decision for the country, especially if they address two fundamental questions. First, does Canada really need fighter aircraft? Second, aren’t there much better uses for $45 billion?

What does history teach us about politics?

Published June 23, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The deep thinkers who serve the various political parties in Ottawa have been scratching their heads over the same question: what does the election of Kathleen Wynne’s majority Liberal government in Ontario imply for the federal election, scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015?

The short, easy answer is, “probably not much.” The election is 16 months away. One week can be an eternity in politics; to travel 16 months into the political future requires a time machine rather than a calendar. Anything can happen in 16 months, and almost certainly will.

Who would have predicted 16 months before the June 1968 election that Lester Pearson would resign as Liberal leader and prime minister, that he would be succeeded by a new recruit, Pierre Trudeau, and that a strange phenomenon, dubbed Trudeaumania, would propel the Liberals to a majority government? Who would have predicted 16 months before the stunning October 1993 election that Canada would gain its first female PM and lose her almost immediately as the majority Progressive Conservative government disintegrated, retaining only two seats in the whole country as a separatist party became the official opposition, just a pair of seats ahead of a new protest party, Reform, which replaced the Tories as the voice of the West?
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Who would have predicted 16 months before the May 2011 election that an “orange wave” would sweep Jack Layton’s NDP into the position of official opposition, reduce the Liberals to third place and, in the process, hand Stephen Harper and his Conservatives a majority government? And, finally, who would have predicted 16 months ago, when Justin Trudeau was elected leader of the Liberals, that he would lead them to the top of the opinion polls and keep them there for 14 unbroken months, right up to the present?

If history teaches us nothing else about politics, it is that the only safe response when contemplating events many months in the future is: “I don’t know.” But political thinkers and practitioners, such as pollsters and pundits, hate those three little words. Have you ever heard Stephen Harper admit, “I don’t know?” I thought not. Doubt has no place when it comes to political forecasting.

That said, we all look for threads or clues to reveal the future. Some analysts probing the Ontario election results have noted the tendency of voters in the province to play a balancing game. When the Liberals are in power in Ottawa, they like to balance the scale with Conservatives at Queen’s Park. And vice versa. This balance-of-power theory suggests Wynne’s victory bodes well for Harper’s Tories, especially in the Greater Toronto Area, while it bodes ill for Trudeau’s Liberals.

Other analysts see in the Ontario vote a rejection of Tim Hudak’s right-wing agenda and an embrace of Wynne’s centre-left approach. If that sentiment carries over to the federal election, it would to play to Trudeau’s advantage and to Harper’s disadvantage in the province where national elections tend to be won and lost.

Having already admitted I don’t know, permit me to offer a couple of observations. First, there is growing arrogance in Harper’s Ottawa — a my-way-or-the-highway attitude — that I don’t think sits well with the sort of Ontarians who voted for Kathleen Wynne. Second, Wynne didn’t win just because she positioned her Liberals as the only choice on the progressive side of the ledger. I think she won because she projected an air of authenticity that neither of her opponents could rival. Hudak seemed driven by narrow political expediency, while Andrea Horwath, the NDP leader, tried to transition from social democracy to conservative populism. Neither worked.

By comparison, Wynne came across as the real goods. When she talked about equity, she did so with conviction and passion. She was believable. Voters are pretty good when it come to spotting the unbelievable. At least, they are in Ontario.

Will this have any bearing on the 2015 federal election? Perhaps not. Sixteen months is more than an eternity in political time.

Good candidates do make a difference

Published June 16, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

How much difference do local candidates make in the outcome of an election?

If you ask the High Strategists who direct federal and provincial campaigns from Ottawa or Queen’s Park, the answer would be: not all that much difference. They tend to rank the most important factors as the party brand, the leader, the platform, the strength of their organization on the ground, and the amount of money they have to spend. Local candidates — good, bad or indifferent — tend to place near the bottom of the list.

They used to say that a little yellow dog could be elected in Saskatchewan if it were a Conservative or in Quebec if a Liberal. An exaggeration? Of course. But to the minds of many High Strategists, the candidate is worth only about 5 per cent of the vote or, perhaps, 10 per cent in exceptional situations.
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Well, I wonder. I have long felt that good candidates make a huge difference, especially in byelections, but in general elections as well. To prove my case, let’s look at three area races in last week’s Ontario election.

Kitchener-Waterloo. Catherine Fife became the MPP for K-W in a September 2012 byelection. A New Democrat in alien territory (the riding had been held by Conservative Elizabeth Witmer for the previous 22 years and the Liberals were assumed to be the only viable alternative to the Tories), Fife realized from the moment she won that she would face an uphill battle to hold the seat. Not knowing when the general election might happen, she just kept running.

Fife is one of those politicians who actually listens to people. She used her personal political skills and 21 months of hard work to put a lock on the riding. Although it was not a happy election for the NDP, Fife bucked the Liberal trend to win by 4,000 votes. She will be hard to dislodge.

Cambridge. This was a stunner. The Liberals hadn’t elected a provincial member in Cambridge (or Waterloo South, as it was then) since 1943, the year when Conservative George Drew became premier of Ontario (for trivia buffs, it was also the year that Oklahoma! opened on Broadway and Lassie Come Home took the movie box office by storm). Seventy-one years! It was that long ago.

Yet Liberal Kathryn McGarry, a nurse who had run and lost on two previous occasions, proved conclusively that hard work and perseverance pay off. She won on her third try, defeating first-term Tory MPP Rob Leone, a political-science professor. McGarry and her people outhustled Leone’s. Like Fife, she listened to voters’ concerns, including their uneasiness about Leone’s leader, Tim Hudak. She won handily, by 3,000 votes.

Kitchener Centre was the third area riding to which I paid particular attendance. It was widely advertised as a provincial bellwether because of its reliable tendency to elect a candidate from the party that won the election. It did so again in 2011, returning John Milloy, a member of Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal cabinet, although by a mere 323 votes as the party was reduced to a minority government.

This time, Kitchener Centre was an open seat, Milloy having announced his retirement from politics. With its party running ahead in the polls, the Progressive Conservatives were confident they could take the riding along with the province. But the voters of Kitchener proved to be a more accurate barometer than the pollsters.

The Liberals nominated a local television personality, Daiene Vernile, from CTV in Kitchener. Media celebrities often flop as political candidates (voters don’t take them as seriously as they take themselves), but in Vernile’s case, profile, personal popularity and strenuous campaigning enabled the Liberals to widen their margin from 323 measly votes to nearly 7,000.

The point of all this is that good candidates are essential. They can win in difficult elections, even when the polls are sour — and even when seven decades of electoral frustration tells them not to bother.

Moderate Ontarians favoured Grits

Published June 14, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The voters of Ontario sent two clear messages on Thursday.

The first message, addressed to all political leaders and their parties: Ontarians are fed up with arguments about the errors and scandals of previous years and regimes. Forget those stupid gas plants. The people told the politicians they want to move on; they want them to address the challenges of the future, not the sins of the past.

Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne got the message; her opponents did not, which is one reason why she is still premier and they are not.
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The second message: when all is said and done, Ontario remains a province of moderates. Ontarians prefer the safety of the middle of the road to the risks of the extreme right or left. Most people like their province pretty much the way it is. They may wish it was better run and able to create more opportunities for themselves and their children, but they don’t want it to be changed radically.

Wynne and NDP leader Andrea Horwath heard that message, but Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak did not. He may be tone deaf. For some reason, he believed the conservative economic ideas he had solicited from U.S. Republicans and tea party sages would play in Ontario. They didn’t. His Millions Jobs Plan and proposal for deep corporate tax cuts cost him dearly.

Hudak’s party was a few points ahead of the Liberals in the polls in early May when he made the mistake of handing Wynne an issue with which to defeat him. As I wrote in a column on May 12, his PC predecessor, John Tory, had made the same mistake in the 2007 election with his promise of public funding for religious schools. This time, it was Hudak’s proposal to eliminate 100,000 jobs in the Ontario public sector.

It doomed his campaign. He was never able to explain — no one could — how cutting 100,000 jobs in the public sector would contribute to the creation of one million jobs in the private sector. It was “voodoo economics,” Ontario-style.

Hudak made it worse by presenting his cuts as the elimination of “positions,” glossing over the fact that positions are occupied by real people. Voters saw through that abstraction. They knew the 100,000 would include the breadwinner who lived next door, their kids’ teachers, emergency workers, inspectors who keep their water supplies and highways safe, or the single mom who depends on her part-time job in a government office. Unable to relate (and obsessed with reducing spending), the Tories seemed indifferent to the real needs of people.

Hudak announced his resignation Thursday night. He had no realistic alternative. He leaves, his departure unlamented even by his followers. Like John Tory seven years earlier, the election was his to lose — and he lost it with unpalatable policies and strategic errors. Andrea Horwath remains as NDP leader, pro tempore; after suffering two election defeats, the chances of a third chance are slim.

Just about all of the pollsters and pundits got it wrong on Thursday. The pollsters thought the outcome would be closer than it was: 39 per cent for the Liberals; 31 per cent for the Tories and 24 per cent for the NDP. But the Liberals were able to parlay their 39 per cent into a solid majority of 59 seats in the 107-seat Legislature.

Although it can be argued that Hudak lost the election, it can equally be said that Wynne won it. She understood the mood of the electorate; she offered policies that had broad appeal, and she relentlessly exploited the weaknesses of her opponents.

It was revealing that, as a CBC commentator noted on election night, her sexual orientation never became an issue.

The first and only openly gay government leader in Canada has just been handed a four-year mandate to run the largest province. There’s lots of room for everyone in the middle of the road.

Will fear trump loathing on election day?

Published June 9, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

“In a very real sense, a vote for Andrea Horwath is a vote for Tim Hudak” — Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, writing in the Toronto Star, June 8.

There, in a nutshell, is the issue that will, in my view, determine the outcome as the ugly Ontario election campaign — a wretched excuse for a democratic exercise — lurches to a finish this week. Someone will win on Thursday, although it can be argued that no one deserves to win.

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For the Liberals, who seem to have a bit of wind in their sails in the closing days, the key to success is fear — fear of what would happen to Ontario if Progressive Conservative Leader Hudak (the man with “The Plan”) comes to power. For Wynne, this fear is a tool to make sure her Liberal supporters turn out to vote. And the same fear is a weapon to persuade wavering New Democrats to jump to the Liberals or, failing that, to stay home on Thursday lest they split the anti-Hudak vote.

Wynne did not mince words as she addressed voters in her Toronto Star commentary: “Like you, I am convinced that if Tim Hudak is given the slightest opportunity, he will destroy and dismantle so much of what you and I care about in this province.”

Strong stuff that, but this has been an election scarred by negative emotions — loathing of the Liberal legacy of scandals pitted against fear of the Hudak alternative. From this vantage point, it seems that fear may trump loathing.

I think Hudak made two mistakes. He played the scandal card too hard and too long without managing to convince very many Ontarians that Kathleen Wynne was culpable for the scandals that occurred on Dalton McGuinty’s watch. People wearied of all the scandal talk. Second, Hudak bet his political future on his “million-jobs plan” — an economic plan that experts panned and that Hudak himself was never able to explain to anyone’s satisfaction. All that the average voter could see was that Hudak planned to fire 100,000 public-sector employees, reduce some essential services, cut taxes on corporations and somehow pay off the deficit. It made no economic or political sense.

The NDP’s Andrea Horwath also made two mistakes. Having joined forces with Hudak to defeat the Liberal budget, she did not have an exit strategy to disengage her party from the Tories once the campaign began; she found herself playing second fiddle to Hudak’s attacks on Liberal scandals. Second, and more important, she lost her political bearings. By moving to the right (traditionally barren ground for socialist parties), she allowed Wynne to take over the entire left and centre-left of the spectrum.

The pollsters and pundits remain confused. Most pundits, though not all, declared Hudak the winner of last week’s leaders’ debate. He and Horwath kept Wynne on the defensive throughout the 90-minute encounter. Hudak stayed on message and he performed better than most pundits had expected him to. But he did not come across as being as likable as the besieged Wynne or even the aggressive Horwath, who lived up to her “Steeltown Scrapper” nickname.

It wasn’t much of a debate, and it failed to address such important issues as health care. In the end, I thought Hudak lost. He played well to his base, but he did not broaden it. He failed to dispel the perception that he can hardly wait to start slashing and burning at Queen’s Park. Kathleen Wynne comes across as a more sympathetic political leader, and that’s worth something at the polls.

The opinion polls are still unclear. There seems, however, to be some movement — although not a stampede, to be sure — toward the Liberals. Seat projections suggest another Liberal minority with a majority government, perhaps, being within the realm of possibility. If enough voters agree that a vote for Horwath is the same as a vote for Hudak, Kathleen Wynne will have a very pleasant Thursday evening.

Wake up! It is crunch time in the Ontario election

Published June 2, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

Will Tuesday’s Ontario leaders’ debate determine the outcome of provincial election?

The custodians of our public airwaves – that is to say, the TV networks – have grudgingly agreed to sacrifice 90-minutes of pre-prime time (6:30 to 8 o’clock) to accommodate this province-wide exercise in democracy. By dictating that there be only one debate and that the time slot be early and short, the masters of Ontario television are making sure that the democratic exercise does eat into their commercial revenues or into the number of minutes they have available to devote to the endless promotion of their own program offerings.

In an era when most voters don’t attend campaign rallies, there is an argument for public-interest legislation (as exists in the United States) to force the TV industry to provide adequate time for election debates. Continue reading

Three debates of two hours’ duration might be long enough to permit an airing of important issues. But that’s a subject for another day.

Today’s subject is Tuesday’s debate and its possible impact on the June 12 election. Let’s start by acknowledging that this has been a strange campaign. People are barely paying attention. Yet seldom has the Ontario electorate been offered two such vividly different visions – a progressive, interventionist option from Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals versus a classic conservative option (smaller government, reduced levels of public services, fewer regulations and lower corporate taxes) from Tim Hudak’s Tories. Meanwhile, Andrea Horwath, seeing a yawning gulf between Wynne on the left and Hudak on the right, is determined to drive her New Democrats into that space, even if it means abandoning some longstanding socialist causes, such as public pensions, to the newly-left Liberals.

As a rule, television debates do not determine the outcomes of elections – Kennedy-Nixon in 1960 and Mulroney-Turner in 1984 may be exceptions – but Wynne-Hudak-Howarth could change the course of the remaining days of the campaign. For many voters, the debate, short and superficial though it may be, will be a first opportunity to compare the leaders and their platforms.

They may not like what they see and hear. They may not find it credible that Hudak could create 1 million new jobs in the province or that he could eliminate 100,000 public-sector positions without drastically compromising education and other essential services. They may not be convinced that Wynne has put the Liberal spending scandals behind her or that she can control Ontario’s deficit. And, knowing that Horwath may emerge with the balance of power once again, do they know what she wants and where she is going? Is she a closet liberal or a conservative wannabe?

It is highly unlikely that the debate will cause a stampede in any direction. But if it injects a measure of clarity into the election, pollsters would be relieved. They’ve been flummoxed so far. Their smorgasbord of projections has run the gamut from majority Liberal to majority Progressive Conservative. One day the Liberals are ahead, next day it’s the Tories.

The confusion is abetted by a debate within the polling fraternity, a debate that fascinates political groupies and bewilders everyone else. Traditionally, pollsters work by sampling eligible voters – everyone who is of voting age. By this method, the Liberals and Tories seem to be in a dead heat, with about 36 per cent apiece (short of a majority). This time, however, some pollsters are narrowing the sample from eligible voters to “likely” voters. It seems that Conservatives – being older, more settled and perhaps more distrustful of anyone who wants to spend their money – are more determined to turn out to vote. If “likely” voters alone are considered, the Tories show a lead of as many as 10 points over the Liberals.

This suggests Wynne needs to step up her ground game – to raid the NDP by relentlessly exploiting fear of a Hudak government while dragging every living breathing Liberal to the polls on June 12. Hudak, meanwhile, needs to keep playing (loudly) to his already motivated base.

Building a Supreme Court with the ‘right’ view

Published May 26, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record.

When someone comes to write the history of the Harper government, he or she will have to save a chapter for the strange saga of Stephen Harper’s clumsy attempt to pack the Supreme Court of Canada with conservative-minded jurists. Or, you might say, to turn the Supremes into a choir of the right.

I am indebted to Sean Fine, the very good justice reporter at the Globe and Mail, for pulling aside the curtain that normally shields the judicial-selection process from public scrutiny. Working with sources independent of the Supreme Court – no leaks there! – Fine uncovered two crucial lists.

One was the long list, prepared by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Justice Department, of six potential candidates for a Supreme Court vacancy from Quebec. Early last summer, that list went to a five-member selection panel of parliamentarians – three Conservative MPs, one New Democrat and one Liberal. The panel did its due diligence, consulting with Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, studying judgments written by the six jurists, and traveling to Montreal to seek the advice of leaders of the Quebec bench and bar.
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The panel then trimmed the long list to a second short list of three names to be placed before the prime minister.

It was the second time in less than a year that the panel had been through this routine. The first time was relatively easy because there was a consensus choice, Justice Richard Wagner, a well-regarded, conservative-minded jurist from the Quebec Court of Appeal, and Harper appointed him.

This time, PMO/Justice looking for someone who could be counted on to support their anti-crime agenda, were unable to find a reliable prospect among the judges of the Quebec bench or in the ranks of the province’s senior lawyers. The most impressive candidate from the Court of Appeal was Justice Marie-France Bich, a former law professor, who was valued for her strong judgments and her streak of independent thinking. But was she sufficiently conservative?

The strategists at PMO/Justice could not ignore Judge Bich. They put her on their long list, but made possible for Harper not to appoint her by loading their long list with the names of no fewer than four members of the Ottawa-based, government-friendly Federal Court of Canada. This meant that when the selection panel cut the long list of six to their short list of three, there would have to be at least one candidate from the ranks of Federal Court.

And that’s how it played out. Judge Bich made it to the short list, along with two judges from the Federal Court of Appeal. One of them was Justice Marc Nadon, an expert in maritime law. Although the prime minister is not obligated to choose from the short list, convention dictates that he should. He bypassed Judge Bich to choose the semi-retired Judge Nadon.

The Constitution guarantees Quebec three seats on the nine-member Supreme Court. The Supreme Court Act accommodates the need for expertise in Quebec civil law by setting out special qualifications for these three. It was not at all clear last summer that judges from the Federal Court were even eligible for the Supreme Court; as it turned out, they were not.

When Chief Justice McLachlin saw the long list with its names of four Federal Court judges, she anticipated the problem. Following protocol, she contacted Justice Minister Peter MacKay. She did not, as Conservative MPs have alleged, lobby against Judge Nadon. Rather, she warned MacKay that four of his six candidates might be ineligible.

What MacKay should have done was to halt the process, tell the PM that their devious court-packing scheme hadn’t worked, and advise him either to appoint Marie-France Bich (the only eligible name left on the short list) or start the selection over again, thereby leaving the Supreme Court short-handed for another year or so.

But Harper would not have been amused at being told it was beyond his power to make the Supremes sing right.