Taking stock

Published Apr. 14, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record

Politicians by nature are not the most introspective of creatures. They do what they think they have to do, or what their leaders tell them to do. It is a rare politician who pauses to ask himself or herself why they are doing it, or to question whether it is the right thing, or best thing, for the country they serve.

That said, members of Parliament have an opportunity this week and next week to take stock. The sudden death of former finance minister Jim Flaherty shocked everyone on Parliament Hill and far beyond. Here was a man who had worked too hard for eight years in the service of the Harper government. In the process he destroyed his health and, suddenly, he was gone before he could even start to enjoy retirement. Many of his former colleagues from all parties, most of whom genuinely liked and respected the feisty little Irishman, are asking themselves whether it is all worth it.

Parliament has become a very nasty place. Back when, I spent 15 happy years in the Parliamentary Press Gallery covering the Hill. I barely recognize the place today. In those days, the House of Commons was a rough and tumble arena, but respect for the rules and the firm hand of the Speaker prevented it from becoming what it is today: a place where blind partisanship, vitriol and personal attacks have taken over. In those days, there was no Pierre Poilievre and no Orwellian “Ministry of State for Democratic Reform” — for which those of us who were there might, in retrospect, be grateful.
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The Commons is not sitting this week or next as MPs take an extended Easter recess. The break will not only enable them to say goodbye to Jim Flaherty — his state funeral is on Wednesday — but also to reflect on the sort of Parliament they want to return to.

Radical change is not in the cards, but MPs could take a few baby steps. On the government side, they could stop parroting the absurdly partisan and abusive lines written for them by the Prime Minister’s Office. On the opposition side, they could tone down the outrage; not everything the government does is wrong, badly motivated or an affront to democracy.

They could take a balanced approach to legislation. If a piece of legislation would make a bad law, they should expose its flaws (or, if on the government side, admit its flaws), then withdraw it or defeat it. If a piece of legislation would make a good law, they should applaud it and pass it.

The so-called Fair Elections Act is the place to start. This is Poilievre’s baby, conceived in the Conservative war room and handed to the young minister by the prime minister. The act surely has critics. Among other things, it’s being called the Unfair Elections Act, an Assault on Democracy Act, an Act to Perpetuate Conservative Governments (Forever), and Stephen Harper’s Revenge Against Elections Canada.

There are many things wrong with the Fair Elections Act, but I’ll mention just two. First, it is unnecessary. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the existing Canada Elections Act. It act has given Canada some of the fairest and most honest elections in the world. Canadians are the first people other nations call for when they need international election observers. Our rules work.

The second thing that’s wrong is that the Fair Elections Act is thoroughly bad legislation — retrograde, badly motivated, poorly crafted and appallingly partisan. It would discourage turnout by making it more difficult for some (mainly non-Conservative) groups to vote (the poor, homeless and students). It would politicize enforcement by transferring authority over the rules from the public servants who are custodians of the act today to the agents of the party in power.

Jim Flaherty has reminded us of the fragility of life. Do we need Pierre Poilievre and his Fair Elections Act to remind us of the fragility of our democracy?

A CAQ government? Stranger things have happened

Published Apr. 7, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record. 

People may not recognize the name of Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, a 19th century French politician and revolutionary, but they will have heard of his famous comment: “There go my people, I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.”

It’s like that in Quebec today, provincial election day. The electorate is moving — the pollsters and pundits detect the movement — but where the people are heading, where they will end up, and who will lead them is almost anyone’s guess. The situation reminds me of the 2011 federal election and the New Democratic Party’s “Orange Wave,” led by the late Jack Layton. The NDP came of nowhere, literally, to capture 59 of Quebec’s 75 seats in Parliament (and 103 of 308 nationally).

A surge of that magnitude may not be in the cards today, but something is happening. To the extent that there is consensus, it is that the campaign has been all-round nasty and the governing Parti Québécois is in deep, deep trouble. Premier Pauline Marois has led the worst campaign, muddled and off-message, anyone has witnessed in many years. The tumbrels will roll for her if she fails to win a majority; they will roll even if she manages to cling to another minority. Her self-designated successor will have to wait a long time before he will be able to crown himself President Péladeau (or perhaps he would prefer Emperor Pierre Karl the First) of a sovereign Quebec.

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It is a reflection of the PQ’s disastrous campaign, that the polls seem to be pointing to a return of the Liberals, out of office for just 18 months, still scandal-plagued and now led by the thoroughly underwhelming Philippe Couillard (he makes the late Liberal premier Robert Bourassa seem charismatic by comparison). But no one has the faintest idea whether it would be a Liberal majority or minority.

The polls this past weekend are little or no help. A Léger Marketing survey, published Sunday morning, put the Liberals at 38 per cent, nine points ahead of the PQ. Given the way support is split among the other parties, those 38 points could produce a Liberal majority. (A new projection by ThreeHundredEight.com, a poll aggregator, gives the Liberals 69 of the 125 seats in the National Assembly.) Or it could give the Liberals a minority — or nothing.

The huge unknown is the young Coalition Avenir Québec, which occupies the centre-right of the spectrum — conservative on fiscal issues and liberal on social ones. Led by François Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister, the CAQ is the only party with any momentum. While the PQ and the Liberals have been frozen in place or slipping slightly, the CAQ has kept moving ahead. As of Sunday, it had reached 23 per cent, up eight points since the third week of March.

The trend is what has Quebec politicians excited — and worried. The CAQ could end up with just a dozen seats, or it could end up in power. (It won 19 seats in the 2012 election that brought Marois and the PQ to office.) In this election, it has managed to keep out of the mudslinging between the PQ and the Liberals; it has sensed the public mood by declaring a 10-year moratorium on referendums; and its leader, Legault, is seen to have out-performed his opponents in the televised leaders’ debates.

Written off early in the campaign, the CAQ has surged in the past two weeks. “When you look at polls, what’s important are trends,” Legault said the other day. “There is a possibility that we will form a majority government, the CAQ, according to the trends.”

The CAQ is certainly the spoiler in this election. But a CAQ government, majority or minority? An impossible dream? Perhaps. But perhaps not. But when the electorate starts to move, no one knows where it will stop. Let’s not forget Jack Layton and 2011.

Slumping Ontario needs strong leadership

Published Mar. 31, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

If you are Kathleen Wynne, what do you do?

You have been leader of the Ontario Liberals for 14 months and premier of the province for 13. For most of that time, you have been spinning your wheels. In the 2011 election, your party, then led by Dalton McGuinty, came within one seat of a majority in the 107-seat legislature. But resignations, retirements and byelection attrition have eroded your standing. Today, the Liberals hold 10 fewer seats than the combined opposition (48-58, with one vacancy).

If you are Wynne, you know this. You know you may face an election this spring. You also know that, although your personal popularity is OK, your party’s numbers aren’t. According to the poll aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com, the weighted average of Ontario political polls, as of March 24, had the Liberals tied — at 34 per cent — with Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives; Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats were nipping at your heels with 26 per cent.

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The experts say the Liberal vote is more “efficient” than the PC or NDP vote, because of the concentration of support in seat-rich Toronto. If they are right, you might eke out another minority government — if you are lucky.

You have survived for the past year by making nice to the NDP. You and Horwath agree on one thing: you don’t want Ontario to return to what you both regard as the Dark Ages of Mike Harris by making Hudak premier. (You may be right about the Dark Ages, but how do you persuade more Ontarians to buy into your Hudak aversion? Many voters see him as a friendly fellow, a good family man and new dad.)

So far, you have managed to secure Horwath’s support in exchange for a few shiny trinkets, such as a marginal reduction in car insurance rates or a minuscule increase in the minimum wage, but nothing very big or very costly. Nothing that engages the real issues and fundamental problems of the province.

Ontario is in a slump. The former engine of Confederation is running on just half of its cylinders. It needs growth and it needs skilled jobs of the high-wage, high-tech variety, not the part-time, minimum-wage kind. It needs real jobs, real careers, for university graduates.

To get there, Ontario needs renewed leadership, leadership with a vision for the future. It is not likely to get that vision from Hudak, as long as he looks back to the Harris era for inspiration, and Horwath does not project a sense of bold leadership; she seems too preoccupied with jockeying for position in the next election.

A year ago, I would have said Wynne could provide the leadership Ontario needs. I’m not so sure now. The battle for survival has taken its toll. Her government is still struggling to eliminate its deficit by 2018, leaving the province about three years behind better-heeled Ottawa in that important effort.

She has been unable escape from the nightmares of the McGuinty past. The hydro plant outrage occurred on his watch, not hers; but last week’s news that the police are investigating the scrubbing of computer files in the premier’s office during transition from McGuinty to Wynne moves the scandal dangerously close to her doorstep.

And all Ontarians had a right to be appalled when the annual “sunshine list” of top earners in the provincial employ was published last week; they could see how province-owned outfits, especially in the energy sector, have been hiring mediocre executives, paying them far more than they are worth in salaries and bonuses, then handing them severance packages in the six- and even seven-figure range when they fire them.

That largesse is not corruption. It is simple bad management. Ontarians don’t expect miracles (or even excitement) from Queen’s Park. But they do expect their affairs to be competently managed with proper respect for the taxpayer dollar. Can Wynne instil that image of competence and fiscal respect at Queen’s Park?

Sulky children usher premier out of office

Published Mar. 24, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Politics is a thoroughly miserable profession.

It treats many of its practitioners, not with the deference or respect they may merit, but with cruel contempt. Too often, the career of a politician is, to borrow a phrase from philosopher Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short.

Alison Redford discovered this in the weeks leading up to her resignation as premier of Alberta. It wasn’t really a resignation so much as it was a political assassination. She was assassinated by her own party, by her Progressive Conservative caucus. Caucus members didn’t like her style. She had won the leadership in October 2011 with almost no caucus support (only one MLA voted for her) and went on to capture a majority government the following year.

Notwithstanding her success (or because of it), her caucus resented her – partly because to them she was an outsider, partly because she was a pinker Tory than most of them, and partly, I believe, because she was a woman who had succeeded in a province where politics is still played by old-boy rules.

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She treated her followers like professionals instead of what they were: a bunch of sulky children whose little noses were out of joint. She didn’t stroke them enough, make them feel important enough, or invite them home for dinner often enough. And she didn’t keep them busy enough – too busy to waste time plotting her assassination.

She made mistakes, but they were not mistakes of government policy (Alberta continues to be one of the best-run provinces), nor were they mistakes of political strategy (she trounced the right-wing Wildrose party in the provincial election two years ago).

The mistakes were more personal – travel expenses and the use of government aircraft. It was entirely reasonable that she should fly to South Africa for the funeral of Nelson Mandela, with whom she had worked in the 1990s. But she should have paid attention to the cost of the trip. That $45,000 should have set off alarm bells. In the end, she reimbursed the treasury, but the damage was done.

She stood accused of being a wastrel with an overweening sense of entitlement. As we have seen with the Senate expense scandal, relatively small amounts can cause large damage: for Mike Duffy, it was $90,000; in Redford’s case that $45,000 left her vulnerable to attack by people who didn’t like her for other, less commendable reasons. She became the target of a nasty (and brutish) smear campaign.

Caucus members bitched about her leadership style. One MLA complained that Redford had a short temper and was not a “nice lady.” So the poor aggrieved fellow quit the caucus. Caucus members spread false tales that Redford had abused a member of her staff – an allegation that turned out to be without foundation.

The damage was done. Governments’ poll numbers often crater at the mid-point of their terms (as Stephen Harper and the federal Conservatives could attest today) and Redford’s were no exception. Support for the Alberta PCs dropped to the 20 per cent range, Wildrose was re-energized, and, after 43 unbroken years in office, the Tories panicked.

In Ottawa, the federal Conservatives’ poll numbers aren’t all that much better these days, and, although there is anxiety, there is no panic. There is no sense that if they don’t push Harper off the Peace Tower right now, Justin Trudeau will become prime minister in October 2015. He may or may not win that election, but the Tories know time is on their side. Panic won’t help. They have time and the tools (lots of attack ads) to right the ship.

Alberta’s PCs have even more time, until spring 2016 before they have to face the electorate. When they do, it will be with a new leader – a male, surely. Ironically, they will be up against a Wildrose party under the leadership of, yes, a woman, Danielle Smith. Unless the old boys in Wildrose get to her first.



Péladeau’s separatist talk bad for Marois

Published Mar. 17, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

It was last week when the cameras captured the tension between Pauline Marois, the Quebec premier and Parti Quebecois leader, and her star recruit, Pierre Karl Péladeau, in the April 7, provincial election.

Marois was at the lectern with the candidate by her side as she addressed the faithful at a routine campaign stop, when Péladeau tried to get to the microphone. Gently but firmly, Marois pushed him away – not once, but three times, or so it appears from the video.

The incident reminded me of the so-called “bum-patting” incident involving Liberal leader John Turner and party president Iona Campagnolo in the 1984 federal election. It became an instant sensation, sending a message that Turner, coming out of political retirement was an old-school pol who had yet to master the new political correctness.

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Last week’s pushback between Marois and Péladeau also sent a message. The message: there is trouble ahead in PQ-Land.

Marois supporters face the dilemma of trying to accommodate the ego, ambitions and distractions of the man they call PKP. Can they maintain control of their election campaign? Marois wants to talk about the economy. Péladeau wants to talk about sovereignty, and his voice may louder than hers.

She wants to position the PQ in the left-centre, preserving the party’s traditional labour support. He wants to move it sharply to the right. He is a media giant in Quebec. From his father Pierre, he inherited control of Quebecor, which controls about 40 per cent of the media in Quebec (newspapers, television, cable and wireless) plus the Sun newspaper chain and Sun TV in English Canada. He has established a reputation as a union-buster; organized labour ranks Quebecor among the province’s worst employers.

A man of, shall we say, flexible principle, PKP is in it for himself. As his father before him, he can be a federalist when it is in his business interest to be one. And he can be a separatist when that suits his personal ambition. Let’s face it, he is not in it just to become the member for Saint-Jerome in the National Assembly or even a senior minister in a Marois cabinet.

Péladeau is used to running things. He thinks he sees a chance to take over from Pauline Who and become premier, on the way to making himself the first president of an independent Quebec. If Marois had not brought this misery down on her own head by recruiting the media magnate, one could almost have felt sorry for her as she stood at the microphone insisting that the PQ has only one leader, that leader is her, and she intends to win in April and be premier for a full four-year term. Good luck to her.

The worst thing a political party can do in an election is to send mixed messages to voters.  Marois, who is better at reading opinion polls than Péladeau, says the issue in the election must be the economy, creating jobs for Quebecers. While Péladeau talks about making Quebec a country, Marois talks about winning a majority. On her watch there would be no referendum on  sovereignty until conditions are favourable – meaning not until she is confident she could win it – and that would not happen until after there had been a softening-up process with a white paper and plenty of public discussion.

Viewed from a distance, Marois in election mode looks tougher than she had appeared to be earlier, but she is up against a corporate titan who is used to getting his own way, a man who projects both impatience and arrogance, a man who has little of the charisma of former PQ leaders (and premiers) René Lévesque and Lucien Bouchard.

He would, in effect, turn the provincial election in to a referendum on sovereignty. That would raise the stakes for everyone, not least Premier Marois and PKP himself.

The elephant in the Conservatives’ closet

Published Mar. 10, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record. 

The Senate expenses scandal may seem to be in abeyance. It no longer dominates question period in Parliament, leads the TV news or makes newspaper front pages on a daily basis.  But the scandal is far from over; it is destined to bite the Conservative government again before the election in October next year.

This elephant in the Tory closet was on display on the weekend when CBC-TV’s fifth estate program aired a documentary called “The Rise and Fall of Mike Duffy.” It brought back many questions.

Why did the Harper Conservatives decide to turn “Old Duff,” a popular and likeable television news host, into a Tory shill (one who soon developed a taste for $3,000 suits)? Why did the government tell Duffy it was okay to accept a Prince Edward Island Senate seat when he actually lived in Ottawa and had for decades? Why did Duffy claim $90,000 in expenses for living in his own home in Ottawa? Why did the Senate agree to let him claim them?

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Why did the Prime Minister’s Office make such strenuous efforts to cover up the affair instead of letting Duffy dig his own way out of the mess? Why did it (up to the PM himself, allegedly) agree to allow the Conservative party to buy Duffy’s silence by paying his expense debt (then believed to be only $32,000)? Is it credible that Harper was not aware of what a number of others in the PMO clearly did know: that his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had personally put up $90,000 in hush money in a failed attempt to make the scandal go away?

Why, when this came out and Wright resigned, did Harper initially express much regret and praise for Wright, only to turn around and declare that Wright was a scoundrel who had deceived him? Is  it possible that someone, a lawyer maybe, advised the PM  that if what Wright and Duffy had done was illegal (offering and accepting a bribe, perhaps), then Harper might be seen as an accomplice to the crime – an accusation that could end his political career if he did not quickly distance himself from the pair?

In monetary terms, the Senate scandal is relatively small potatoes. It cannot compete in dollars with the Liberals’ sponsorship scandal of a dozen years ago, or the more recent scandals in Ontario over Ornge ambulance or the costly relocation of hydro plants.

But the Senate affair matters for at least three reasons. First, because the clumsy cover-up has left so many questions unanswered. Second, because the Senate scandal, like the Airbus scandal of the Mulroney era, reaches into the highest office of the land where it raises grave issues of ethics, integrity and accountability. Third, with so many investigators poking around (Senate-appointed auditors, the Auditor General of Canada, and the RCMP), the affair is bound to make news for many months to come. And if Nigel Wright, who has been silent to date, has an opportunity to tell his story, he has the potential to blow the cover off the cover-up.

There’s another issue, a very political one that is beyond the reach of the various investigations. It’s the way the government works these days. Retired Progressive Conservative Senator Lowell Murray, who served in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet and has had more experience inside the corridors of power than just about anyone else, was interviewed by Linden MacIntyre on that fifth estate program the other day. Murray (who is no fan of Stephen Harper) talked about the “instinct to control everything” at the centre, in the Prime Minister’s Office.

No matter how hard he may try, no prime minister can control everything in a modern government. Some things are bound to get away. Harper could have left the Senate expenses mess to the upper house and its members to deal with. But he had to try to control it, and it got away. A lesson learned?

The truth is, the Tories are worried

Published Mar. 3, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The Prime Minister’s chief spokesman went into high dudgeon when reporters asked why opposition leaders and MPs were excluded from a reception for Aga Khan at Massey Hall in Toronto last week – an event hosted by Stephen Harper and paid for by the taxpayers of Canada.

“Those trying to cheapen the event by flinging baseless partisan accusations should be ashamed of themselves,” Jason MacDonald wrote in an e-mail. “We won’t dignify these partisan attacks with a response.”

Come, come, Mr. MacDonald. It’s your boss who has mastered the mechanics of petty partisanship and raised it to an art, at least in the eyes of the Conservative faithful. It’s your government that barred opposition representatives from Foreign Minister John Baird’s mission to Ukraine. It was one of your MPs who refused to allow Liberal MP Irwin Cottler, a former justice minister, to attend an Israeli charity event during Harper’s visit to that country.

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It’s your government that is using the cynically misnamed “Fair Elections Act” to strip Canada’s chief electoral officer of the power to investigate election cheating – because whenever he has found cheaters they have happened to be Conservatives. And it’s your party that is trying to squeeze the last drop of electoral advantage by exploiting divisions among minority-group Canadians.

Perhaps instead of accusing others of “flinging baseless partisan accusations,” Mr. MacDonald, you might come clean with the public. Try being candid. Why don’t try saying something along the following lines:

The  Harper government is sorry if we seem sleazy, petty or vindictive. But the truth is, we are worried, very worried. Our Tory universe is not unfolding the way we want. We’re starting to get frightened.

We  thought we  could bury the Senate expenses scandal in a black hole somewhere, but Thomas Mulcair and his media lickspittles wouldn’t let us. We thought we could demolish Justin Trudeau with attack ads exposing him as all hair and no substance, but that didn’t work either. Not only  are  the Liberals outgunning us in the polls, Canadians tell us they like this Trudeau kid better than our great leader,  the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper. Increasing numbers of you are telling pollsters that you even think the Liberals could do a better job than we do when it comes to running the economy. Can you believe that?

We are not asking for pity, but did you see the poll that the Manning Centre in Ottawa put out the other day? That’s “Manning” as in Preston, the founder of the Reform party, from which we Harperites sprang. So these Manning Centre people are our people and every year they have Carleton University’s André Turcotte measure the state of conservatism in Canada. The numbers this year are not pretty. They are gruesome. As Prof. Turcotte put it in his presentation, they are heading in the wrong direction.

The number of Canadians who call themselves Conservative is shrinking. In British Columbia, 33 per cent of respondents identified themselves as Conservatives in 2012; today, that  number is down to 20 per cent. In Ontario, the decline in the same period is from 35 per cent to 25.

What’s worse, the people are not embracing our toolkit of enlightened policies. Prof. Turcotte found the Liberals are tied with us on the question of ability to deal with the economy; both the Liberals and NDP are ahead of us on questions of managing health care and unemployment; and even the Green party leads us on ability to deal with poverty and the environment.

What’s more, 93 per cent favour increasing (not reducing) the investigative powers of Elections Canada while 92 per cent think party leaders should be made more accountable to their caucuses. Our prime minister may not be amused by that.

As the professor says, the numbers are heading in the wrong direction. If it continues, we could all find ourselves unemployed in October 2015. Is it any wonder we seem frazzled these days?

Trudeau’s Liberals have their eye on gold

Published Feb. 24, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There’s a theory that political junkies and sports fanatics are products of the same gene pool. As a broad generality, serious political fans are often serious sports fans, as well. It’s something about the game, the thrill of competition, the risk of failure and success, and the uncertainty of the outcome until the last second ticks away or the last ballot is counted.

For all I know, there may be some learned academic treatises on this sports/politics relationship, but if there are, I haven’t seen them. All I know, after too many years misspent while hanging around politicians and their gatherings, is that when they are not talking politics, they are frequently talking sports. (“Did you see that overtime goal?” “Why can’t the Jays land a starting pitcher?”)

So today let’s try a quick quiz to see if we can separate the sports nuts from the political groupies. How many of you got up early (very early west of Ontario) to watch the gold medal hockey game between Sweden and Canada in Sochi on Sunday? And how many of you remained glued to the final proceedings of the biennial convention in Montreal of the Liberal party of Canada? (That’s the party that, after disappointing with bronze in the 2011 electoral contest, is an early favourite for gold next time, in 2015.)

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It will take our scrutineers a few minutes to tally the votes, so let’s press ahead on the hypothesis that more Canadians are seized with the political games than the Olympic Games. You do agree, don’t you?

That said, it must also be said that the Montreal convention will not go down as one of the more stimulating political gatherings in history. I’ve never experienced a national political gathering when the moving expenses of a candidate for Parliament (retired General Andrew Leslie) was seen as a burning issue. Montreal was a singularly quiet convention. Even the Conservatives’ plans to disrupt the convention (if that was their intention) came to naught.

A quiet convention suited the Liberals just fine. Delegates had an opportunity to see, hear and evaluate their new leader, Justin Trudeau. Most seemed to like what they saw. His big speech on Saturday was warm and fuzzy. Although he invoked the memory of his father, Justin is no Pierre. I couldn’t help but think back to his father’s electrifying speech in April 1968 to the Liberal leadership convention in Ottawa.

But where Trudeau the Elder promised Canadians a “Just Society,” Trudeau the Younger settled for a more modest rhetoric. He promised all Canadians “a fair shot at success.” As poetry, it may fall short, but times change. When Pierre spoke in 1968, the Liberals were in power and were looking for a new leader to give it a shot of adrenalin to keep them there. Pierre did that. In 2014, Justin’s Liberals, although performing well in recent polls, are still a third-place party.

He has to overcome not one, but two, formidable opponents. In Stephen Harper, the Conservatives have a leader who has all the advantages and levers of power. He is resourceful, well-financed and determined, with a mean streak a yard wide (as his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, might attest). To get to Harper and the Tories, Justin Trudeau has to climb over Thomas Mulcair and the NDP. Opposition leader Mulcair is determined, too, and absolutely relentless, as he demonstrated in Parliament when he dismantled government evasions in the Senate expense scandal. While the Conservatives may have grown tired in government, Mulcair’s NDP is still vigorous in opposition.

There won’t be many easy seats for any party in October 2015. It shapes up as a riding-by-riding, take-no-prisoners battle where small mistakes can cause big very damage. It will be particularly difficult for the Liberals as they try to move from third to first, from bronze to gold. But, like Canada’s women’s and men’s hockey teams in Sochi, they can already smell the podium.

Politicians face tough times too

Published Feb. 18, 2014, in the Guelph Mercury.

Anyone who harbours the delusion that politicians lead a soft existence might take a look at the dilemmas that some leading political figures are facing.

Let’s start with Quebec where Premier Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois, clinging to a weak minority since September 2012 — and having procrastinated as long as possible — will bring down a budget on Thursday. The budget is widely expected to open the door to a general election this spring. That would be a real gamble. When Marois won in 2012, she did so with just 32 per cent of the popular vote, down three per cent from the previous election, when the PQ lost to the Liberals. But the way the vote split in 2012, she actually gained seven seats, to 54 in the 125-seat National Assembly.

While recent polls suggest Marois is within reach of a majority, if she falls short — if she loses or returns with a second minority — her leadership days would surely be over. But if she gets her majority, life will not be so comfortable in Ottawa. Quebec would be back on the national agenda.

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Let’s move on to Ontario, skipping lightly over Toronto, where Mayor Rob Ford will continue to be a national embarrassment until the people throw him out next fall. At Queen’s Park, Premier Kathleen Wynne and her minority Liberals are in trouble as all signs point to an Ontario election this spring.

Unable to shed the baggage of the Dalton McGuinty years, she has lost whatever momentum she enjoyed in the early months of her leadership. She has failed to demonstrate that she leads a party with new ideas and new priorities. Her government has become almost indistinguishable from the McGuinty Liberals who led the province for a decade, growing old and tired (and careless) in the process.

No one expected Wynne to win two byelections last week, in Niagara Falls and Thornhill, and the Liberals did run poorly in both, including Niagara Falls, a former Liberal seat. Tory leader Tim Hudak saved a bit of face by hanging onto Thornhill in suburban Toronto, but NDP leader Andrea Horwath emerged as the only winner by capturing blue-collar Niagara Falls.

Now — lest anyone think it is only politicians in power who confront dilemmas — Horwath, the leader of the third party, has to decide whether she will continue to prop up the minority Liberals or to force an election that she almost certainly can’t win. Another Liberal minority would be one outcome — so no change. A second outcome, even worse from the NDP perspective (but possible, the polls say) would be the election of a right-wing Conservative government headed by Hudak, a mini-Mike Harris. Howarth will be stewing over that dilemma until the Queen’s Park budget comes down.

In Ottawa, Stephen Harper doesn’t have to fret about an election just now, but he does have worries. After 20 years in politics, 10 as Conservative leader and eight as prime minister, he finds himself leading a government that has grown old, tired and increasingly arrogant. It is going the way of the Pierre Trudeau Liberal government of three decades ago. And it seems at times unable to cope, incapable of making decisions on such practical issues as the ordering of military hardware — search-and-rescue aircraft, new fighter jets, Arctic patrol ships, an icebreaker, naval resupply ships and maritime helicopters.

It tabled a budget last week that landed with a dull thump, destined to be remembered only for the rift it exposed within the cabinet and caucus over family income-splitting for tax purposes.

Worse, a new poll last week had some terrible numbers for the Tories. Nanos Research reported that 55 per cent of Canadians would not consider voting Conservative. The 36 per cent who said, yes, they would consider voting Tory, left the Harper party well behind the leading Liberals and the NDP, although still ahead of the Green party’s 27 per cent.

There are tough times looming for Harper, too.

Tories forgetting who voted for them

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

The problem (or one of them) with the Harper government is that it is tone deaf. It listens to people, or claims to listen, but it does not hear. It does not hear those people who support or vote for parties other than the Conservatives. That’s not particularly surprising. What is surprising is that on occasion the government is also deaf to members of its own Tory universe, people who have voted for Harper in the past and whose votes will be absolutely crucial in the 2015 election.

I cannot think of a better example than the disrespect the Harper government has demonstrated for Canada’s veterans. Veterans are part of that Tory universe. They are older. They have served their country loyally. They have earned the nation’s admiration. Their military experience inclines them, perhaps more than many other Canadians, to respect authority and to value law and order in society. The Conservative party should adore veterans.

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So what happens? A group of veterans comes to Ottawa to protest to their minister the closure of eight regional veterans’ affairs offices. This is a small deal for government bean counters (a projected annual saving of $3.78-million) but it’s a very big deal to those veterans who relied on these convenient offices for advice and assistance on such matters as pensions and medical and post-service mental-health issues.

Their minister, Julian Fantino, keeps them awaiting for 70 minutes, does not bother to apologize, refuses to address their concerns, accuses them in effect of being stooges of a union (the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which paid some of their travel expenses to Ottawa), and sends the veterans away angry and frustrated, some of them in tears.

Under opposition attack, Fantino did apologize the next day for his thuggish behaviour, but the apology begs the real question: why didn’t Harper fire him on the spot? Ministers who belittle and abuse the people they are paid to serve — and make then cry! — have no place in the cabinet (or in Parliament, for that matter).

Another example is the standoff over the Canada Pension Plan. The CPP is exceptionally well run, but it is time for revisions. Most of the provinces feel the CPP no longer provides an adequate income for retirees. They want Ottawa to increase the payout by raising the contribution level for workers and employers alike.

That’s a reasonable request. It would not add to the federal deficit. What’s more, it would benefit all those baby boomers who are in, or entering, their retirement years — a large pool of potential Tory voters. But voices of reason are not always heard in Ottawa. The premiers met a stone wall in Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. An increase in CPP contributions by employers might be called a payroll tax, and the Conservatives (unlike those tax-and-spend Liberals, wastrel New Democrats and irresponsible premiers) are not about to increase taxes. No, sir. Talk of pension reform will have to wait until the deficit has been eliminated.

Ontario and some other provinces will probably introduce their own measures to supplement the CPP, but they shouldn’t have to go it alone. The CPP is a national plan and has been for a half-century. All Flaherty had to do was to welcome the premiers’ representations, say he agreed with their concern that an aging population be well cared for, and invite provincial finance ministers to join him in planning CPP amendments, to be brought into effect when the federal budget is balanced.

But that didn’t, and won’t, happen for two reasons. First, ideological purity dictates that Flaherty reject any thought of anything that can be construed as a tax increase. Second, these Harper Tories have an inbred resistance to hearing, or heeding, anything provincial governments propose.

When I was a kid, adults would talk about people cutting off their nose to spite their face. That’s what the Harper people are doing these days by insulting veterans and ignoring pensioners.

Trudeau’s Senate move leaves door open for a Harper response

Published Feb. 2, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Justin Trudeau made a bold — and, I think, smart move last week when he cut loose the 32 Liberals in the Senate. He did not cast them into outer darkness, as Stephen Harper did with his defrocked Conservative senators, Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau. The 32 remain members in good standing of the Senate. They will continue to draw a salary and be able to claim expenses when on Senate business. They will still be able to call themselves Liberals if they wish (and if they pay the party membership fee).

But they will no longer be members of the Liberal caucus on Parliament Hill. They will no longer speak for the party or be involved in its parliamentary strategy. They will no longer be expected to vote the way the leader dictates.

Unlike their 57 Conservative senate-mates, the Trudeau 32 will be free. Free of the party whip. Free to speak as they wish. Free to put partisanship aside. Free to consider legislation on its merits and to improve it as required. Free to follow the dictates of their conscience and the wishes of their constituents.

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And isn’t that what the Senate is supposed to be all about — an upper chamber of sober second thought, where lower-house errors and oversights can be corrected, where the regional interests of the country can be heard in the capital, unfiltered by petty partisanship?

None of this is going to happen overnight. There is absolutely no indication that the prime minister has the slightest interest in unshackling his 57 Tory senators; the thought of a small army of independent senators loose on Parliament Hill makes the blood run cold in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Trudeau’s initiative, however, does two things. It raises Senate reform an important notch or two on the public agenda. And it holds the prime minister’s feet to the fire. Harper began promising Senate reform even before he became prime minister. In eight years as PM, he has delivered diddly-squat. There is always an excuse. The constitution is an impediment. The Supreme Court won’t allow it. The provinces won’t agree.

The latest excuse is the need to wait for the Supreme Court to rule on last year’s reference in which the Harper government asked for advice as to what degree(s) of provincial support would be required, constitutionally, to make various hypothetical changes to the Senate. The court reference is a stalling tactic. Deep down, the Conservatives want to keep the Senate just the way it is — as a cesspool of party patronage. If they really wanted answers, they wouldn’t have to ask the court; the government employs, or has on call, legions of constitutional experts who could provide answers overnight.

They know from experience with the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords in the Mulroney era that the serious obstacles to reform are more political than constitutional. Ottawa will never be able to effect important changes to the Senate — to its membership, or its powers, or to establish direct elections of senators — unless it can persuade most or all of the provinces to come on side. That would not be easy. It might be impossible, even for a federal government with the best intentions in the world.

In the meantime, there are changes that can be made without provincial blessing. Justin Trudeau’s initiative is a beginning. The second step, as he proposed last week, would be to take the selection of senators out of the hands of the prime minister and turn it over to a non-political body, in much the way members of the Order of Canada are selected — the idea being to choose senators who are distinguished Canadians rather than party loyalists.

That may also take some time. In the near term, Trudeau can present himself as an agent for change, the leader who would take patronage and partisanship out of the Senate, while Harper comes across as an apologist for a shabby status quo.

Harper’s Mideast trip promotes ‘strong and decisive’ image

Published Jan. 27, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

If you ask people who run political campaigns at the highest levels, they will tell you that one of their essential tools is a plan.

The leader must be able to declare to voters: “Elect me and this is what I will do. Guaranteed.” The plan doesn’t have to be elaborate or detailed — simpler is better — but campaign strategists say electors are more inclined to support a party with a plan, even if they don’t agree with much of it, over a party that grapples with subtleties and complexities and lacks a clear vision. In other words, black and white works; grey doesn’t.

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I’m wending my way to Stephen Harper and Israel. But, first, some other examples. Brian Mulroney won the 1988 federal election by promising free trade with the United States. That policy was not popular, according to polls, and most voters probably had, at best, only a vague idea of what free trade might entail, but they voted for Mulroney and free trade in preference to whatever it was John Turner and the Liberals were offering (who remembers?).

In 1993, Jean Chrétien stumped the country waving his “Red Book” of Liberal commitments. The contents of the book — a mystery to even many Liberals — didn’t matter. The fact of the book and the image of the plan it represented carried Chrétien to a majority government.

To work, a plan needs to seem to be simple and clear. Then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion confused everyone, including his own followers, in the 2008 election with his environmental “green shift.” Earlier, in 1974, Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield promised to combat inflation with a temporary wage and price freeze, but the Tories could never really explain how their controls would work. Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals laughed them off the hustings — “Zap! You’re frozen!” Trudeau cried.

Trudeau himself had come to power six years earlier by stumping the country promising to make Canada a “Just Society.” Whatever that slogan meant, it seemed clear enough to voters, and powerful, and Trudeau won in a walk. A triumph for black and white politics.

This brings us, circuitously, to Prime Minister Harper and the Middle East. When Harper played his Israel card last week, there was no grey area, no qualifications, no discreet reservations as he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conferred best-friend status on each other. Middle East politics is incredibly complex and in the years (pre-Harper) when Canada had a measure of influence there, Canadian diplomats did their best to pick their way through the minefield of conflicting Arab-Israeli interests.

No longer. In the Harper era, Israel is good. Israel is a democracy surrounded by enemies. Canada stands four-square with Israel. Let others worry those Israeli settlements. Let someone else come up with a peace plan. Canada has Israel’s back.

Harper’s professions of friendship seem to be sincere. He probably believes most or all what he said in Israel. But his real audience was here not ever there. The Conservatives are in trouble in the polls. They are running 10 to 12 points below their election 2011 level, keeping their heads above the NDP but trailing the Liberals by about six points. Harper’s personal approval has been sliding throughout the Senate expense scandal.

The Jewish vote is one of his party’s better hopes. As in the 2011 election, Conservatives will be targeting a half-dozen ridings in Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg where the Jewish vote could be decisive. According to exit polls, 53 per cent of the Jewish vote, so long in the Liberal fold, went Tory in 2011. They’d like to make that percentage even higher in 2015.

Last week has to help. Harper had a very good week. His visit will not have any lasting influence in the Middle East. But he shone among friends in Israel. He looked strong and decisive. And his message contained a clear, simple plan everyone could understand: unconditional support for Israel.

PM needs advisors who can ‘see around corners’

Published Jan. 20, 2014, in the Guelph Mercury. 

If the Harper government has any sense, it will withdraw the nomination of Justice Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court of Canada, then, after a discreet interval of two or three months, offer him a consolation prize.

Perhaps a diplomatic appointment as ambassador to Portugal or Denmark or Ireland, or some other posting that offers prestige without any heavy lifting.

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Peter MacKay could go back to his lists of qualified Quebec jurists to find a candidate whose nomination would not put the Supreme Court in the embarrassing position of having to pass judgment on a putative colleague. A nomination that would not create a constitutional issue. A nomination that would not anger the Quebec government or hand the minority Parti Québécois administration an issue with which to bash Ottawa in the next provincial election. A nomination that could be defended by court-watchers as being more than an effort to pack the Supreme Court with conservative judges.

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MacKay will not find Judge Nadon’s name on any of those lists. As McGill University law professor Robert Leckey puts it, “Nadon was on nobody’s short list — he wasn’t on anybody’s long list as far as I know.”

This is not to say Judge Nadon was not a capable jurist in his years on the Federal Court of Appeal. But he was an improbable choice — so improbable that it should have raised warning flags in the Prime Minister’s Office. For starters, at 64, he was already on the downward slope of his judicial career. Two years ago, he took advantage of a cozy arrangement to move into semi-retirement as a supernumerary judge on the Federal Court — an arrangement that enabled him to cut his workload in half while retaining his full salary ($288,100 a year).

A supernumerary judge had never been named to the Supreme Court before, so why would Harper choose a judge who clearly wanted to work less to fill a seat in which he would have to work harder than he had ever worked before? And why would he pick a judge from the Federal Court in Ottawa to fill one of the three Quebec seats on the Supreme Court?

Traditionally, those Quebec seats have gone to judges who are either serving on the Quebec Superior Court or are active members of the Quebec bar. It remains unclear following last week’s hearing at the Supreme Court whether Federal Court judges are actually eligible for the Quebec seats; the Supremes will have to sort that one out as they ponder their uncomfortable decision. (My hunch is they will conclude that Federal Court members are, in fact, eligible, but that won’t change the perception that Nadon is an Ottawa judge who is out of touch with Quebec civil law.)

So why did the Harper government make such an improbable choice? The reason, it appears, is that Harper really liked the stand that Justice Nadon took in his Federal Court dissent in the case of Omar Khadr, the child soldier. Nadon supported the government’s argument that it was not obligated under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to seek Khadr’s repatriation from United States custody.

Diminishing the importance of the Charter is an element in the Harper government’s justice strategy, and Nadon may have seemed like a safer, more sympathetic jurist than Harper’s five earlier appointees who have shown a distressing (to Conservatives) tendency to independent thinking on such issues as prostitution laws and safe drug injection sites.

The problem in the Nadon case, as in such high-profile affairs as the Senate expenses coverup, is that there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the PMO who has the ability, as they say, “to see around corners.” That is, to anticipate that, if the PM does X, then Y and Z must surely follow. The prime minister has surrounded himself with people with tunnel vision. They don’t even notice the corners as they charge straight off the cliff.

French affair would never happen in Ottawa

Published Jan. 6, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

No matter where you were late last week, from Detroit to Doha and all points in between, you could not have escaped the media coverage of the amorous secret life of the president of France, François Hollande.

Pictures and breathless accounts of the president’s late-night trysts with Julie Gayet, a glamorous film actress, were top of the news everywhere, starting with the French edition of Closer magazine, which had staked out the couple’s love nest.

Yes, it was big news, so big that it pushed Rob Ford off the front page of Saturday’s Toronto Star. That big.

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President Hollande, let it be said, is not cut from the same cloth as the sexy leading men with whom Gayet appears in her steamy (if not overly artistic) films. He is middle-aged, balding, bespectacled and a bit pudgy. Gayet is drop-dead gorgeous, thereby confirming the validity of an observation made by the dumpy Henry Kissinger (who knew whereof he spoke) that power is the greatest aphrodisiac of all.

My first thought was, well, this is France after all. In France, it is virtually assumed that men of wealth or power will take a mistress (or two or three) and that their significant others will take a lover (or two or three). Extramarital adventures merit no more than a Gallic shrug from the public and, traditionally, from the French media, too.

Affairs are nothing new in French presidential history — President Valérie Giscard d’Estaing survived a car crash while returning from a sleepover with a lover. President Jacques Chirac was rumoured to have had as many as 40 mistresses (consecutively, that is); he kept himself so busy that he was privately known as “five minutes, shower included.” François Mitterrand kept the love child he had with his mistress, Anne Pingeot, secret for most of his two terms as president. President Nicolas Sarkozy dumped his second wife to take up with supermodel Carla Bruni, whom he later wed.

In France, the off-duty behaviour of political leaders is regarded as being less reprehensible than the publicizing of that conduct. Hence, Gayet and Hollande, while not denying their relationship, are proposing, quite separately, to sue French media organizations for invasion of privacy, a crime punishable in France with a very stiff fine and a year in jail.

Protection of privacy is a concern among politicians everywhere. There used to be a “conspiracy of silence” between journalists and politicians in which intimate indiscretions, although gossiped about, were not reported. Everyone, except the general public, knew about John F. Kennedy’s many dalliances. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson’s love child with a slave girl and Franklin Roosevelt’s mistress were kept secret, to mention just a couple of examples.

The conspiracy of silence began to break down in the 1960s: with the John Profumo-Christine Keeler scandal in Britain; the Gerda Munsinger-Pierre Sevigny sex and security scandal in Canada; and in the United States with Teddy Kennedy and the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick. These stories were too big, too important to be dismissed with shrug, Gallic or otherwise.

As noted, my first reaction to last week’s revelations from Paris was to think, this is France, after all, and the French have a different, perhaps healthier, attitude to sex than people in other places. My second thought was, this could never happen in Ottawa. Could it?

Can you imagine seven pages in a Canadian magazine devoted to the nocturnal activities of Stephen Harper? First, the pictures show a beautiful woman arriving at an apartment block in, say, Ottawa’s Lower Town. Next an RCMP bodyguard arrives to check out the premises. Then the prime minister arrives on the back of a chauffeur-driven scooter. In the morning, the bodyguard returns with a bag of fresh croissants for the hungry lovers, who then go their separate ways. That’s what happened in Paris.

No, it could never happen in Ottawa — although the capital might be a more interesting place if it could.

Reform movement lacks leader, but gaining traction

Published Jan. 6, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Reform is in the air on Parliament Hill. It’s a very gentle breeze, still quite tentative, but veteran Hill watchers can feel it as it wafts through the party caucuses.

True, it has not yet had any noticeable effect on the Harper administration — still in scandal lockdown mode — but an increasing number of Conservative backbenchers are actually starting to entertain the notion that, just maybe, there are better ways to do things.

The reform movement does not have a leader, as such. However, it does have public advocates, the two most prominent being Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green party, and Michael Chong, the Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton Hills and a former Harper cabinet minister. Both have proposed reforms that have generated interest and support across party lines.

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Leader of a caucus with just two members (herself and former New Democrat Bruce Hyer), May has no real power, but she does have influence on progressive issues and she commands respect as one of the hardest-working MPs in Ottawa (she gets 400,000 letters and email a year). She wants to redress the balance — or imbalance — of power on Parliament Hill by reducing the iron control of the prime minister and the unelected officials in his office and by increasing the opportunities of ordinary MPs to question and to oppose.

The Harper administration tried to silence her last fall by introducing a seemingly innocuous procedural change. Until then, independent MPs, like May, were able to move amendments to government bills and the Commons would debate and vote on them. Now, however, May and other independents must first submit their amendments to a parliamentary committee. The committees, of course, are tightly controlled by government majorities. It means that instead of being able to bring an issue for debate and a vote in the Commons, May sees her causes being killed off by Tories in committee rooms.

May thinks the state of Canada’s democracy should be a ballot-box issue in the 2015 election. “People have died for us to live in a democracy and we are letting democracy slip through our fingers,” she says. The crowds she addresses on her travels across the country enthusiastically applaud her message, even if it hasn’t penetrated the stone walls of the Langevin Block. Not yet, anyway.

While May focuses on the power imbalance between the ministry and parliamentarians, Michael Chong is approaching the same broad issue from a slightly different perspective. Last month, he introduced a private member’s bill, a reform act, that would shift power away from party leaders and toward ordinary MPs, party caucuses and local riding associations.

For example, leaders would no longer to be able to appoint election candidates without the blessing of local associations; caucuses would be given decision-making powers and party leaders would be made more accountable to their caucuses. The caucuses would not be able to directly replace the leader, but they would be empowered to trigger a leadership review.

A petition signed by 15 per cent of a party’s MPs would prompt a secret caucus ballot on the leadership. If a majority voted in favour of changing the leader, a second secret ballot would be held immediately to choose an interim leader to serve until the party could elect a new permanent leader.

Although Chong’s bill has not been met with glad cries of welcome from the PMO, nor has it suffered outright rejection. It has attracted support from an estimated 40 Conservative backbenchers, many of them chafing under the constraints of the PMO. Former Tory prime minister Joe Clark, at the urging of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Paul Heinbecker, a former United Nations ambassador, has endorsed the bill, as, of course, has Elizabeth May. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau appears to be on side and it looks as though NDP members will have a free vote.

In a genuinely free vote, Commons-wide, the bill would pass and the breeze of reform would become a stiff wind.