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.

Public is conflicted, pollsters are bewildered

Published May 12, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record.

The Ontario election on June 12 is one of the most unpleasant — and unpredictable — contests in recent memory.

There is no excitement in this campaign, no sense that a brighter future lies ahead. The emotions generated by the three principal parties are negative. There is disgust with the Liberals — disgust both with the scandals of the previous Dalton McGuinty regime and with the lack of contrition displayed by the Liberals currently clinging to power under Kathleen Wynne. Why can’t they say they are sorry, tell us how much their malfeasance has actually cost Ontario, and ask forgiveness for treating public funds with such contempt?

Disgust with the Liberals is matched by fear of Tim Hudak and his merry band of Tory slashers who would return Ontario to the days of Mike Harris — the era of cutbacks that produced the Walkerton tainted water tragedy, along with decaying infrastructure, hospital closures, shortages of nurses and doctors and the layoff of teachers at a time when what the province’s schools needed most was more teachers. No one — not even hardcore Progressive Conservatives — believes Hudak can create the 1 million new jobs he promises. But everyone fears he will do his darndest to eliminate 100,000 public servants, regardless of who gets hurt in the process.
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To disgust with the Liberals and fear of Hudak, add nervousness and incomprehension about Andrea Horwath and her New Democrats. We used to think we knew what that party, as social democrats, stood for. Not any longer. In a seeming fit of political insanity, Horwath rejected a Liberal budget that was skewed so far to the left that it could have been dictated by NDP Central. What was Horwath thinking? Did she want to make Tim Hudak premier? Surely, she didn’t think she could win Queen’s Park herself.

We know Hudak has staked out the hard right. Having experienced Mike Harris, we can anticipate what to expect if Hudak wins — a Conservative administration wedded to austerity and minimal government. We have seen Wynne seize the progressive left, offering activist Liberal government more than willing to intervene in the economy. And Horwath and the NDP? They are now somewhere in the murky middle.

If the public is conflicted, the pollsters are bewildered. They are chasing their tails all over the electoral map.

Three major polls were published last week. At midweek, Forum Research reported that the Liberals had jumped ahead of the Tories (38 per cent to 35), apparently a reaction to Hudak’s promise (or threat) the week before to rid the province of those 100,000 civil servants. But a second polling company, Ipsos Reid, must have been talking to different Ontarians, because the next day it reported that the PCs were on the cusp of a majority, with 40 per cent to the Liberals’ 33 per cent.

On Saturday, however, a third pollster, Ekos Research, reported that the Liberals had opened a seven-point lead over the Conservatives — 37 per cent to 30. Ekos found that the Liberals had significant leads among baby boomers and among women voters while the Tories continued to hold an edge among pre-boomers (age 65-plus) and among male voters.

The various pollsters agreed on one thing: the NDP is out of the race. “Horwath’s party has cratered,” says Frank Graves, president of Ekos.

So if the race is down to two parties, how tight is it? Eric Grenier, the analyst who runs a poll aggregator called ThreeHundredEight.com, says when the three new polls and others are merged, they show a dead heat in popular vote with the Tories and Liberals both at 36 per cent, followed by the NDP at 22 per cent. Grenier’s seat projection, based on the regional distribution of this support, gives the Liberals 49 of the Legislature’s 107 seats, to 44 for the Conservatives and 14 for the NDP.

With the electorate so uncertain, the leaders’ debate on June 3 — nine days before the vote — assumes unprecedented importance.

Did Hudak just hand Wynne the election?

Published May 12, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Political parties, like sports teams, have a perverse knack of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. We won’t dwell today on the painful collapses of the Toronto Raptors and Maple Leafs. Let’s concentrate on Ontario politics instead.

In 2007, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives seemed poised to depose Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals when the PC leader of the day, John Tory, declared that if he became premier, he would extend public funding to religious or faith-based schools. That was the old ball game right there. The PCs lost the election. Tory lost in his own riding, to a virtually unknown Liberal named Kathleen Wynne. (Tory went on to retread himself as a radio host and now he’s running for mayor of Toronto, his principal asset being that he is not Rob Ford.)

Fast forward to 2014. The aforementioned Kathleen Wynne, now premier, calls a provincial election that common sense would suggest she cannot win. The Liberals have been in power too long (11 years). They need a spell in opposition to give the fumigators time to rid the party of the stench of the scandals of the McGuinty eras. Most of the opinion polls put the Tim Hudak’s Conservatives a few points ahead of the Liberals.
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Yet Wynne calls an election anyway — which is either really dumb or, just maybe, really smart. She has used the provincial budget to torque her party to the left of the NDP, and she has made some progress in shifting attention away from the Liberals’ scandals by adopting a tried-and-true provincial tactic: attack Ottawa and tie those villains to her own opponents. So “Smirking” Stephen Harper becomes the enemy of the Ontario state with Tim Hudak as his faithful local agent.

But savaging the feds, fun though it may be, only works up to a point. A real issue is required.

And when a political leader is lucky, her opponent hands her that issue, as Tory did for McGuinty back in 2007.

I think Hudak did that for Wynne last week when he pulled a Mike Harris. He promised to eliminate a whopping 100,000 jobs in the Ontario public sector. Yet he was already promising to add one million new jobs across the province. How one can subtract and add simultaneously is a question best put to the ideologues of the right.

But Hudak was not done. To his promise to get rid of 100,000 public-sector employees —— exempting only nurses, doctors and police officers, but pointedly not teachers (for whom the Conservatives seem to have a special hatred) — he added another gift for Kathleen Wynne. He announced that if elected he would make Ontario’s business taxes the lowest in North America by reducing the corporate taxes rate by 30 per cent. He says this would create 120,000 jobs; his critics contend it would turn Ontario into a poor-man’s Mexico.

It will be fascinating to see how the election plays out in the broad swath of southwestern Ontario from Guelph through Waterloo to London. Communities in this belt are hurting. Tens of thousands of traditional manufacturing jobs have disappeared and the downsizing at BlackBerry is evidence the tech sector is not immune.

How will voters in these communities respond to Hudak economics? As in the Harris era, public services will be cut almost across the board. Roads will be neglected. The poor will get less support. Fewer teachers mean larger classes, fewer extracurricular programs and diminished opportunities for special-needs students.

To see if Hudak economics has any resonance, I’ll be watching Kitchener-Waterloo a former Conservative seat that New Democrat Catherine Fife took in a 2012 byelection, and Kitchener Centre, held by Liberal John Milloy, who is retiring. The Tories ran second in both the last time around.

If Hudak’s approach turns off moderate voters, they will have to decide strategically which party offers the better opportunity to stop him, the Liberals or the New Democrats. I’d think Wynne’s Liberals, but I’ve been wrong before.

PM owes chief justice an apology

Published May 5, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record

You might think that anyone who has spent many years observing politicians would not be surprised by anything they do or say. But you would be wrong.

Never — not since my first days in the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1965 — have I encountered anything quite as appalling as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s attack on Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Everyone knows that this prime minister plays by his own hardball rules. He insists on winning. He has a mean streak, a vindictive side, when he does not get his own way.

He does not hesitate to throw people under the bus, as he did to his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, whose only sin was an excessive loyalty that led him to try to extricate the PM from the Senate expenses scandal. Harper also did the bus thing to once-loyal Conservative senators Mike Duffy and Pam Wallin.
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These three, and there are others (Dimitri Soudas comes to mind), were political appointees. They accepted the prime minister’s favour, surely knowing that his favour might not last. Harper made them, and it was his prerogative to unmake them. It’s not nice; it’s not pretty, but it’s within the rules of the political game.

But it is not within the rules for the prime minister to act like a schoolyard bully, by using the platform of his office to beat up public servants, of whom the chief justice is the most recent. Unlike Wright, Duffy, Wallin and Soudas, these public servants are not part of the political power complex that surrounds the PM. They are public servants in the true sense of the term. They serve all Canadians, regardless of who happens to be in power. And they cannot defend themselves from partisan attack the way political appointees can.

These victims include the former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission; chief statistician; parliamentary budget officer; head of the Military Police Complaints Commission; chief electoral officer; and former auditor general Sheila Fraser. Last week, Harper expanded his enemies’ list to include the chief justice and, by extension, the entire Supreme Court of Canada, a majority of whose members he himself appointed.

That Harper is furious with the court is no secret. In a series of high-profile decisions, the court has ruled that the government must abide by its own laws and by the Constitution of Canada, whether the issue is a package of tough-on-crime measures or reform of the Senate. Parliament has the option of enacting new laws or amending the Constitution. Until it does so, the government must live with what it has.

Chief Justice McLachlin stands accused, spuriously, by the prime minister of attempting to interfere in a case before the court. The issue was the nomination of Federal Court Justice Marc Nadon to fill a Quebec vacancy on the Supreme Court. In the normal course, a parliamentary committee that was screening a short list of candidates asked McLachlin about the needs of her court.

There are special constitutional rules for the selection of judges from Quebec, and McLachlin knew that judges of the Federal Court did not come within the rules. She felt compelled to alert her political “boss,” Justice Minister Peter MacKay. MacKay, who may or may not have understood her alert, told her to call the prime minister, which she decided not to do.

Yet Harper accuses her of trying to influence him in a case that was before the court. If the allegation were true, she might have to resign as chief justice. But it’s not true. This all transpired months before Harper selected Nadon and even longer before there was any challenge to his appointment. Eventually, a challenge did make its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled 6-1 that Nadon was ineligible.

The prime minister owes the chief justice a profuse apology for impugning her integrity. But she should not hold her breath waiting for it.

In politics, avoid the ‘conventional wisdom’

Published Apr. 28, 2014, in The Guelph Mercury and Waterloo Region Record.

Today, here are five useful rules to help skeptical citizens to navigate the maze of politics.

First rule: don’t trust promises made by politicians — that’s just common sense. Second rule: don’t believe anything you find on a political party website — at its best, it will be balderdash. Third rule: don’t fool around with politicians via social media — you will never escape from their fundraising embrace. Fourth rule: when a political leader warns you that the sky will fall if you don’t vote for him or her, don’t be conned — put the warning to the test.

Fifth rule: mistrust conventional wisdom in politics. Here are two examples; Senate reform, and the prospect of a provincial election in Ontario this spring.
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According to conventional wisdom, the Supreme Court of Canada dealt the Harper government a body blow on Friday when it gave the back of its hand, unanimously, to the Conservatives’ reference on the Senate. “Supreme Court thwarts Harper’s Senate ambitions,” read the front-page banner in the Globe and Mail. “PM says court ruling means Senate reform ‘off the table,’” said the Waterloo Region Record.

My own sense, as a skeptical citizen, is that if Harper ever had “ambitions” for the upper house — and perhaps he did in the old days when he was still policy-wonking for the Reform party — he abandoned them once he became Conservative leader. Senate reform was a useful light to keep in the Tory window for the reassurance of old Reformers, but it was never “on the table” as Harper government policy.

As PM, he made a couple gestures by proposing term limits and “consultative” elections, but he never invested the political capital needed to turn these tweaks into law. He had to know when he sent his reference to the Supreme Court what the answer would be: Ottawa can’t mess around with the Senate; significant changes would require constitutional amendments; and that means gaining the support of the provinces (all of the provinces in the case of abolishing the Senate).

I suspect Harper was one of the most relieved people in Ottawa when the court told him, No. It gave him cover to abandon the field of Senate reform (he could say he tried, but the Supremes wouldn’t let him; naughty judges!), which means no constitutional conferences and no tedious negotiations with provincial premiers over the future of an institution for which most Canadians don’t give a tinker’s damn.

As to a provincial election in Ontario, conventional wisdom says it is going to happen this spring. Why? Because Kathleen Wynne’s minority Liberal government is in trouble. Because it is unable to get traction to escape from the aura, and odour, of the Dalton McGuinty-era Liberal scandals. Because the opposition parties want an election (at least Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives do). And because the pundits say Ontario needs an election.

The Liberals are to bring down their 2014 budget on Thursday. That, according to conventional wisdom, will lead to an election.

Maybe that is the way it will play out, but I wonder. Provincial politicians, like federal ones, live and die by opinion polls. Right now, the polls are clear as mud. A spring election might be in no one’s interest. Instead of one winner, it could produce three losers. No party seems to have enough support to improve its position in the legislature.

The NDP is the critical player, as it has been for the past year or so. The only thing that seems clear from the polls is that Andrea Horwath’s party has lost the momentum it gained following the last election, in October 2011. The New Democrats are standing at 22 or 23 per cent in the polls, which is exactly where they were in the 2011 election.

Why would Horwath, who wields the balance of power, want to risk a spring election that she couldn’t win but could lose badly. The answer: she wouldn’t, unless to protect her leadership against impatient rivals.