Leaders’ debates breathe life into elections

Published May 25, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

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

Q: Do leaders’ debates really matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political success not usually tied to ideology

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

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

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

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

Read more. 

Harper’s Conservatives running out of steam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political landscape changing course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trial is adjourned, but only until June 1.

 

Aboriginal Title One Year after Tsilhqot’in

Published by Christopher Alcantara and Michael Morden in the May 2015 issue of Policy Options.

When the Supreme Court rendered its Tsilhqot’in decision in June 2014, the federal government’s terse response almost seemed delivered through gritted teeth, while many Canadians experienced a familiar sense of uncertainty and quiet apprehension. But most indigenous leaders and commentators reacted with public celebrations and optimism, seeing the decision as a victory for their communities.

Our view, almost a year later, is that all Canadians and indigenous peoples should celebrate the decision.

Read more…

LISPOP Observes the 2015 Alberta Election

Few provincial elections garner as much attention as the current campaign in Alberta, about to reach its conclusion when voters hit the polls tomorrow. Furthermore, Alberta elections tend to be a foregone conclusion, with the incumbent Progressive Conservatives assumed to return to power. This was true since 1971, and before then, the Social Credit solidly held on to power for a generation. If polls are to be believed, and there does appear to be a consensus, on Tuesday voters in Alberta are likely to make history. This is certainly an election night to watch, and one that we here at LISPOP have been observing.

Here are three contributions.

1) Most recently, Geoff Stevens compares Alberta Premier Jim Prentice’s possible misjudgment in calling an early election to the similar fate that visited former Ontario premier David Peterson in 1990.

2) Simon Kiss challenges the long-held assumption that Alberta is Canada’s safe repository of right-wing ideology.

3) Christopher Alcantara commented on former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith’s ultimate political descent.

 

Senate is the big loser in the Mike Duffy affair

Published Apr. 30, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The trial of suspended senator Mike Duffy isn’t halfway through its proposed schedule, but Canadians have already heard enough to draw conclusions about the malaise in Canada’s second legislative chamber.

The essence of the former broadcaster’s defence against charges of bribery and fraud seems to be “everybody’s doing it,” and the rules and enforcement of them are weak and meaningless.

Moreover, when the established regulations are so vague, why should any level of common sense judgment or responsibility be expected from our governing officials?

Read more…

Full public disclosure: Publish water bills?

Published Apr. 30, 2015, in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Over the last several years, accountability and transparency issues have been at the forefront of discussions and news coverage of Canadian politics. The usual targets have been politicians such as former MP Bev Oda, former Alberta premier Alison Redford, and senators Mike Duffy, Mac Harb and Pamela Wallin. Other popular targets include the “sunshine list” of public-sector employees at all levels of government, such as professors, teachers and police officers, among others.

The usual narrative in these stories is how we need more accountability and transparency in our governments. In practice, this means the government should post more public information about these politicians and employees, such as salaries, benefits and expenses, and to include as much detail as possible about their office, travel and technology expenditures.

Read more…

 

Government budgets no longer “news”

Published on Apr. 27, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

There was a time, within living memory, when budget secrecy was a big deal, a very big deal. A budget leak could cause a crisis for government and lead to the dismissal or resignation of the minister responsible.

In Britain in 1947, for example, the chancellor of the exchequer, Hugh Dalton, paused to say a few words to a journalist as he was walking into the Commons to deliver his budget speech. As it turned out, a procedural issue delayed the speech for a bit, and Dalton’s few words were on the newsstands before he had finished speaking. He had to resign.

In Canada, a budget leak has never brought down a federal finance minister, but it has come close a couple times – in 1983 when Marc Lalonde was Pierre Trudeau’s finance minister and in 1989 when Michael Wilson was finance minister in Brian Mulroney’s government. (Although the opposition howled, Lalonde and  Wilson kept their jobs; in the 1989 incident, the RCMP actually charged the reporter who broadcast the leak.)

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There’s no such thing as a budget leak anymore. What we have is a cynical system of selective disclosure and message control. Governments release details of tax or spending changes, often well in advance of budget day. The aim is twofold: to whet the appetite of the media to ensure maximum publicity when the budget finally comes down; and to give the government an opportunity to beat a retreat if public’s reaction is negative.

Was anyone in Ontario really surprised when Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government finally confirmed in its budget last week that it would sell off a chunk of Hydro One and allow the sale of beer in supermarkets? That “news” had been in the papers and beaten to death on talk shows for weeks.

And how about the federal budget that also came down last week – the one that seems destined to be known as “Stephen Harper’s granddaughter’s budget?” The Conservatives had wrung every drop of partisan advantage out of that dreary document long, long before Finance Minister Joe Oliver donned his New Balance running shoes and headed to the chamber.

Yes, there will be a minuscule surplus. Yes, it will be achieved by dipping into reserves. Yes, there will be income-splitting that will benefit more affluent families. Ditto, the doubling of the contribution limit for tax free savings accounts. Yes, there will be enhanced child care benefit cheques in Canadians’ mailboxes in July. All this was known far in advance, as were the facts that it would take some creative bookkeeping and time-lapse accounting to produce the balanced budget. (Not that this discouraged the Toronto Star from declaring on its front page the next day: “Tory budget paves streets with gold.” Oh, do tell.)

The only real “news” – in the traditional journalistic meaning of the word – came from Finance Minister Oliver who either strayed from the Tory party message or suffered an inadvertent fit of candor when he was asked by the CBC’s Amanda Lang whether the doubling of the TFSA limit would not saddle future governments with a revenue shortfall in the billions. To which Oliver replied: “I heard that by 2080 we may have a problem. Well, why don’t we leave that to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s granddaughter to solve that problem.”

When I heard that, I sort of expected a bolt of lightning from the Prime Minister’s Office to strike Oliver down. But it didn’t happen. He was exiled from Question Period for a couple of days while Harper did damage control, trying to explain that his government isn’t really trying to win re-election in 2015 by spending money it doesn’t have and by piling up debt to burden  future generations.

Expect to hear more about Stephen Harper’s hypothetical granddaughter as the election unfolds. The gaffe affords the opposition a small edge, a tiny opening, as they battle a Conservative government that has mastered the art or science of message control.

 

Put your money on an early election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harper screwed up on Duffy appointment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Harper is finally getting his wish — a war

Published March 30, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Back in the spring of 2003, in the waning days of his prime ministry, Jean Chrétien announced the decision for which he will be long remembered. Canada, he told a tumultuous House of Commons, would be not joining the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” in its war against Iraq.

There are times in politics when a decision not to take a certain step is tougher, yet wiser, than a decision to take that step. In March 2003, Chrétien was under pressure both from U.S. president George W. Bush and from Stephen Harper, the newly minted leader of the opposition in Ottawa, to commit Canadian forces to the invasion of Iraq. If Chrétien had succumbed to their pressure, Canada would have been locked into an unwinnable war that in the end dragged on for eight years, claiming the lives of 4,491 U.S. military personnel and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops and civilians. Continue reading

Chrétien said no to Bush because the United States had been unable to persuade the UN Security Council to endorse military action. There was no evidence to support the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Canada, Chrétien said, would honour military commitments to its allies in the then two-year-old war in Afghanistan, but it was going to stay out of Iraq,

There’s not much doubt that if Harper had been prime minister in 2003, and particularly if he had a majority government, Canada would have followed the United States into Iraq. That would have been a huge mistake, as Harper finally and grudgingly admitted five years later, during a leaders’ debate in the 2008 election campaign. By this time, he was prime minister, and as the Green party leader declared in that debate: “We’re only not sending anyone to Iraq because you weren’t prime minister at the time (in 2003).”

So now it is 2015. Harper has a majority government, and Canada has followed the United States into war against ISIL with a bombing campaign in Iraq. Now the Harper government intends to extend its bombing to ISIL targets in Syria.

The situations are different, of course. Saddam Hussein was a brutal despot who deserved to be removed from power. He had thoroughly annoyed the United States, but did not directly threaten Canadian interests. ISIL is a monster of a different order. It is a movement of murderous fanatics who do not hesitate to wreak violence abroad as well as at home. Any polls I’ve seen suggest strong public support for the war against ISIL.

(It’s worth noting that the United Kingdom, which was alongside the U.S. in the “coalition of the willing” a decade ago, and which is part of the current anti-ISIL bombing in Iraq, is not going into Syria. The Cameron coalition government could not win the support of the British Parliament for a Syrian campaign. That’s not an obstacle Harper faces.)

Harper is able to do in 2015 what he wished he could do in 2003. He is going to war with no idea of how long it may last (longer than shorter one suspects) and with no assurance that Canada will be able to avoid committing boots on the ground somewhere down the road. And the government has no exit strategy to turn to if the war proves to be unwinnable.

Last week’s Commons debate produced plenty of partisanship and posturing, but a dearth of clear thinking about the degree of the ISIL threat, the actual need for Canadian military involvement, and the anticipated effectiveness of that involvement.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect clear thinking when the country is on the road to an election. Harper needs this war. Back in 2003, he wanted to push the Chrétien Liberals into the Iraq War. Now that he is in power he doesn’t need any pushing. Today, he is jumping of his own volition without knowing where he and the country may land.

Where Did All the Baby Bottles Go? Interest Groups, Media Coverage and Institutional Imperatives in Canada’s Regulation of Bisphenol A

Author: Simon Kiss

Published in Canadian Journal of Political Science

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Abstract: As part of an $816 million initiative to manage risks represented by possibly hazardous substances, Canada was the first country in the world to determine that the common chemical bisphenol A (BPA) should be classed as “toxic” and accordingly banned polycarbonate baby bottles. The process set up to conduct this risk assessment differed from the previous Canadian experience in that it was more formal, systematic and more pluralistic with much greater participation from interest groups. This case study examines the forces that impacted the regulatory process of BPA and argues that long-term, institutional and legislative forces interacted with short-term interest group politics and public opinion. It argues that the federal government issued a decision that went beyond what was scientifically validated but that reflects a widespread social perception of risk posed by chemicals that was embedded in the legislation governing the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP), public opinion and the media coverage of the issue. It uses existing literature on the nature of risk perception to assess critically the values underlying the CMP and those expressed in the regulation of BPA.

 

Canada needs a leader with a bold vision

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

As Canada lurches unsteadily toward a general election, something important is missing. That “something” is a sense of national purpose – or vision – from any of the three major parties. How do the Conservatives, the New Democrats or the Liberals envisage the future of the country they aspire to lead for (let us say) the next decade or beyond?

We know, broadly, where they are coming from. But do they have a roadmap? How do they see the Canada of 2025 or 2040? Will we still be a moderately liberal society, committed to equality of treatment and opportunity for all citizens? Will we still welcome immigrants? Will we still embrace the values of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (or will we let the charter be reduced to a relic of a bygone era)? Will we still respect the supremacy of Parliament and the Supreme Court? And looking beyond Canada’s borders, will we be content to play a modest, if useful, role in a world dominated by bigger powers and their agendas? Continue reading

Of course, all three parties are dedicated (or say they are) to the service of the “middle class,” however they define it. But accommodating the middle class does not a vision make. It’s as though the leaders of the parties are so busy struggling with minutiae of the present (what should Muslim women wear on their heads; should rural dwellers be encouraged to keep guns by their beds; is income-splitting a good or bad idea) that they lose sight of the bigger picture. They become preoccupied with politics on the margins, slicing and dicing the electorate into interest groups where they hope to gain electoral advantage.

Elections should be an opportunity, for bold thinking, for big ideas. You can say what you will about John Diefenbaker, but he was not afraid to proclaim his vision (he even called it a vision) for Canada, based on northern development. So many Canadians embraced his vision that his Progressive Conservatives won the largest majority in Canadian history in 1958. A decade later, Pierre Trudeau led the Liberals back to a majority with his vision of a Just Society.

Judging from the polls, Canadians are confused. They have elected Stephen Harper three times, but they still don’t love him or trust him very much; his poll numbers reflect that. The people like Thomas Mulcair, as long as he is leading the opposition. They would like to like Justin Trudeau, and they told pollsters that for two years; now they are not so sure.

As of early last week, the online poll aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com had the Liberals and Conservatives in a statistical dead heat. Later in the week, however, a new poll by EKOS Research showed an apparent four-point shift from the Tories to the Liberals, putting the Trudeau party ahead of the Harper party by 32 per cent to 30, with the NDP holding at 21.

Frank Graves, the head of EKOS, suggested the movement, which he found significant, could partly be blowback over Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terrorism bill. “The more likely explanation, however, is that the security and culture narrative is beginning to lose strength as the threat of a stagnant and eroding economy takes root in voters’ minds,” Graves reported.

The federal budget is due in the next month. But if the economy is struggling – and if the fear card is losing its potency – the Conservatives will be in trouble this spring.

Trouble for the government generally spells opportunity for the opposition. But for which opposition party? Talk of an NDP-Liberal coalition is very much in the wind. It may be the moment for a bold idea – say, a joint announcement by Mulcair and Trudeau that if (as seems likely) no party wins a majority of the 338 seats, their two parties have agreed to join forces to replace the Conservatives.

A risky idea and maybe dangerous, but its very boldness would make for an exciting election.