PM should heed Mulroney’s career advice

Published Sept. 29, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury.

Imagine, if you can, that you are Stephen Harper.

You’ve had quite a career. You’ve gone from being an obscure economist on the political right to the leader of a national political party. You’ve fought four federal elections and won three of them. You’ve been prime minister of Canada for nearly nine years, and you love the job. There is nothing you would rather be.

The storm cloud on your horizon is a general election that must be held by next October. The polling gods are not smiling on you. They suggest you have lost a quarter of your electoral support since the 2011 election, leaving your Conservative party far behind the Liberals and barely ahead of the New Democrats. In an election today, you would be demolished in Atlantic Canada, decimated in the Greater Toronto Area and wiped out in Waterloo Region, for example.

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For reasons not entirely clear to you or your close advisers, you have been unable to win the hearts of the Canadian people.

What can you do? Well, you are not very good at taking outside advice (and that’s an understatement), but you could do worse that take some that was offered earlier this month by Brian Mulroney. Everyone knows you have issues with Mulroney and he with you. But you have to admit he has made a quite remarkable transition from polarizing prime minister and national embarrassment to elder statesman. “Lyin’ Brian” has become “Brian the Wise.”

In a CTV interview marking the 30th anniversary of his first landslide election, Mulroney offered these bits of wisdom.

To start with, treat the opposition leaders with some respect. Mulroney called NDP leader Thomas Mulcair “the best opposition leader since John Diefenbaker.” As to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau: “He’s a young man, attractive, elected two or three times to the House, attractive wife, beautiful kids — this is a potent package. …You’d have to be foolish to sit back and not recognize if somebody’s leading in the polls 14 months in a row, this is not a fluke.”

And don’t heed those who say Trudeau has no program: “His program is that he’s not Stephen Harper.”

Stop picking fights with the Supreme Court: “You don’t get into a slagging contest with the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, even if you thought that he or she was wrong. You don’t do that.”

Get your foreign policy in order: “When Canada, for the first time in our history, loses a vote at the United Nations to become a member of the Security Council … to Portugal, which was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time, you should look in the mirror and say: ‘Houston, I think we have a problem.’”

Mulroney said Canada’s foreign policy should not be one-sided: “(It) has to be enveloped in a broader and more generous sweep that takes in Canadian traditions and Canadian history in a much more viable way. We’re in the big leagues … so we have to conduct ourselves in that way. We can’t be out-riders.”

In particular, Harper needs to nurture Ottawa’s relationship with Washington and his personal relationship with President Barack Obama. Close ties matter: “If you can’t do that, you don’t have much clout internationally. The relationship with the United States is something the prime minister alone has to nurture the same way he would tend to the most delicate flowers in a garden. It’s that important.”

Recognize that a “pristine environment” is important to the middle class. The prime minister needs to get personally involved in the issue, make the environment a top government priority and commit the necessary funds.

Mulroney was prime minister for nine years, just like Harper. In the end, he overstayed his welcome and his Tories went down to crushing defeat in the 1993 election. If he has any retirement advice for Harper, he did not offer it in the television interview. That would have been fascinating.

Access to Information and Research Road Blocks

In the Winnipeg Free Press, perspectives and politics editor Shannon Sampert (who is also from the University of Winnipeg) has a great article about the challenges many journalists have in getting information from government. She describes road blocks put in place by government that are disturbing, yet far too common: obscenely high fees for receiving documents and filing Freedom of Information (FOI) Act requests, insufferable delays in getting information and rampant inaccessibility.

Those of us doing research in political science also experience the challenges that Sampert describes. Getting government documents and accessing budget figures are often far more challenging than they need to be.

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Gaining access to information from municipal governments is particularly challenging. Over the past three years, I have been conducting research on inter-local agreement use in Canada – basically agreements for shared servicing and contracting among municipalities. Part of this work is building a database of inter-municipal agreements. Getting access to these documents has been incredibly challenging. Very few of these agreements are publicly accessible. Those that are not need to be requested, often with FOI requests. Copying and delivery charges are applied. More concerning, many of these documents arrive redacted with basic information removed, making them practically useless for research purposes. Often information provided by city staff is incomplete. Needless to say, this is usually a frustrating and costly experience.

Many would refer to this as an occupational hazard (this, of course, is the cost of doing research), but consider the fact that these are documents that address servicing for local citizens. If I, as a curious researcher, do not have access to documents detailing the contracting and shared servicing agreements a municipality has in place, how are members of that particular community supposed to know how their local services are delivered? As an example, do they not have a right to know that when they turn on a tap their water is being delivered from another municipality? Do they not have a right to know how much their municipal government is paying for that water? Or how it is administered? Or under what conditions the other municipality could shut off that service?

Most people are simply satisfied that water comes out of their tap and are not concerned its the source. But the fact remains that those interested need to have access to that information.

The information blocking strategies that Sampert describes in Winnipeg are common across the country. Below are a few that require the attention of government.

1) The filing fees for FOI requests are modest (between $5-$25 for getting the process started), but when filing multiple requests, the cost can become prohibitive.

2) Far too often, the manner in which information can be accessed is inconvenient and one can only imagine designed to impede transfer. Sampert describes a reporter being made to transfer information about municipal campaign donations by hand at city hall – no copying, no taking photos. Everything needed to be transferred by hand. This is unacceptable, but far too common. Municipal staff should not necessarily be responsible for digitizing documents for us, but researchers should be allowed to copy public information however they wish.

3) In municipalities where access to information is granted, fees for copying and distribution are often prohibitive. Estimates for certain sets of documents can run into the hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of dollars. Sampert describes how much journalists are spending up to $500 a year on access to information fees and charges. It’s the same for researchers. Depending on the size of the project, perhaps two or three times that amount. Fees placed on information provision needs to be examined and standardized.

4) There are always options for fee waiver by an FOI commissioner. However, the conditions for granting a fee waiver are quite arbitrary. One condition for a fee waiver is that the information would be used to enhance the “public good.” There is no set criteria of what constitutes enhancing the public good. I have personally had fee waiver approved in some cases because I was conducing research (after I could prove conclusively that I was not financially profiting from the publishing of this research), but in other cases I have been rejected for fee waivers precisely because I was publishing in academic journals. The reason given here is that academic journals are not publicly accessible. In most cases, a fee waiver is denied with little explanation as to why. The fee appeal process needs to be examined and hopefully standardized.

As Sampert argues, journalists need to have access to government information to do their jobs. So do researchers. In both cases, we’re providing the public with information they should have access to already. Roadblocks put in place to access information need to come down. The process needs reform.

Press Freedom, Journalism and the Duty to Answer Questions

Recently, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announced that he would no longer deal with any journalists from the Sun News outlet because of a particularly virulent report from Ezra Levant.

While this is serious inside baseball, it does touch on an important point in press-government relations: Does the freedom of the press imply a duty to answer questions? Although the Trudeau-Levant kerfuffle is small-ball, the question is a larger one.

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My first reaction is that, no, a free press does not imply a duty to answer questions.

Press freedom is usually justified on the grounds that citizens require information about public affairs that does not stem from the state itself and that a free press is a useful check on state power. On the face of it, I don’t think that the latter reason for a free press gets you at all close to justifying an obligation to answer questions. The former reason might get you closer in that in a hypothetical world where no politicians took any questions from any journalists, the citizenry might lack sufficient information to serve as citizens. But it fails on a couple of other counts. First, the obligation seems wholly impractical to implement. Second, though, even in the hypothetical scenario I described above that did involve the executive being held to account to the legislature in debate open to a free press and the legislature being held to account to the people in open elections, with a free press operating, you’d be hard pressed to argue that citizens had no access to information.

This comes up pretty often, whenever a politician gets in a fight with journalists. Politicians rarely win out when they do get in these conflicts. But it’s one thing to say that it’s good sense for politicians to deal with journalists, and another thing to say that there’s an obligation to answer questions. While most journalists are reflexive enough to be aware that a free press does not imply an obligation to answer questions, a lot of the coverage of events like these gets pretty close to implying that there is a duty which is being shirked.

Of course one of the main reasons many journalists often push this interpretation is that it’s in their interests to. I’m currently working on a research project with a colleague that will put forward some survey data from politicians and journalists that will show the competing standards for particular democratic standards differ greatly. Journalists in particular hold to standards that, surprise, surprise, emphasize the importance of their own role.

Harper keeping his options open

Published Sept. 22, 2014, in the Guelph Mercury and Waterloo Region Record.

The politicians and the pundits seem to be agreed. Like it or not, the campaign for the next federal federal election has already begun. True, the actual election is not supposed to happen until Oct. 19, 2015, roughly 390 days down the road, but that’s irrelevant. It was clear when MPs returned from their long summer recess that the business of the coming 13 months will have much less to do with legislating and governing than it will with electioneering.

Normally, with Parliament about to resume, as it did last Monday, the prime minister would assemble the government caucus on Parliament Hill to brief his MPs and senators with earnest words about the parliamentary timetable. This time, however, the Conservatives abandoned their caucus room for a rented hall in downtown Ottawa where they could whoop and holler in what looked like a cross between an old-time revival meeting and a high school pep rally. Their head cheerleader (aka prime minister) strode the stage, whipping his energized troops into what might be described as a bit of an excited lather.
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The election excitement doesn’t mean, as some pundits suspect, that the Conservatives are plotting to call an election earlier than next October; that’s possible but, barring a dramatic turnaround in the polls, the odds are heavily against it. It also doesn’t mean that there is something happening on the leadership front – either that Harper is preparing to leave politics or, alternatively, that he has made up his mind to fight the election and carry on when it is over.

My sense is that Harper, a cautious man, is keeping all his options open – maybe an early election, maybe not; maybe a leadership convention, maybe not. He knows he has a leadership window that, although it is narrowing, will remain open until late February or early March next year. If he resigns by then, there will be time for a hurried but not-too frantic transition: a convention in late May or early June, followed by a short parliamentary session in which the new prime minister could establish himself or herself, followed by the election on schedule in October.

There is no indication, however, that Harper will go that route. Whipping the troops into election mode does not commit him to leading the party into his fifth election. But it serves as an opening gambit to see if he can move the polls and voters, especially in Ontario, away from Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and back to the Tories.

That’s not going to be easy. To do it, he is going to have to change the so-called “ballot question.” The Conservatives want the ballot question to be the economy and their success in managing it by finally turning years of deficit into a surplus. But, as they are acutely aware, the ballot question they would face in an election today has little to do with the economy. It is all about Stephen Harper himself. As people tell pollsters, they are tired of him. They don’t like him. He bores them. They just want a change of leadership.

This is not a new phenomenon.  It happened to Pierre Trudeau and to Brian Mulroney.

By election time next year, Harper will have been in power for virtually a decade. In the internet age, a decade is an eternity. If the desire for change is strong enough, the presumed deficiencies of the other national leaders won’t save Harper. People will vote for whichever party and leader they think offers the best chance of getting rid of Harper and his Tory government.

It’s a fascinating situation. You would think that Harper would have to change, to re-invent himself. But how would he do that? He is not a political chameleon. He cannot make himself as charismatic as Trudeau or as passionate as Thomas Mulcair. Like his political soulmate, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, Harper is not for turning or changing. He is what he is, for better or worse.

Scotland Independence and Implications for Quebec’s Sovereignty Movement

Some notable Quebec sovereignists are making their way to Scotland to observe the Sept. 18 vote with the hope that a victory for the independence movement there will provide pointers on a repeat performance in a future Quebec referendum. While sovereignists may derive some inspiration from their Scottish counterparts, the real lessons might begin Sept. 19.

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If Scotland votes to secede, apart from the jubilation in the streets of Edinburgh, the real show will be about how Scotland manages its independence transition. The implications of this process are potentially profound. In some ways, the Quebec referendum of 1995 was fought by arguing the risks of the Oui side winning. There was talk about whether an independent Quebec could continue to use the Canadian dollar, whether Quebec “citizens” would still be able to hold on to their Canadian passports, whether Quebec pensioners would still be eligible to draw from the Canada Pension Plan, and so forth. Before the actual vote, all that political leaders do is debate these matters. So a “pre-independent” Quebec or Scotland functions inside a context of great uncertainty.

Should Scotland vote to secede, what happens next will be vitally important to Quebec’s sovereignist and federalist leaders. The fate of any future Quebec referendum partially hinges on whether the transition moves along relatively smoothly or whether Scottish (and British) society descends into major political (and economic) chaos. If there are long disputes about what it would take for an independent Scotland to continue using the British pound (and there is some indication this is a already main point of contention), or disagreements about access to oil reserves, or other inter-governmental entanglements, then Quebec sovereignists would look at this mess with discouragement. This transition, therefore, provides Quebecers with a simulation, of sorts. A positive and peaceful transition will add substance to any drive to regenerate Quebec’s sovereignty movement.

Revisiting the Debate: Canadian and Comparative Politics

Last summer, I wrote a blog post lamenting the decline of Canadian politics.  I worried about whether the “big” departments would continue to prioritize and hire scholars to teach and write about Canadian politics.  I complained about the push for a “comparative turn” in Canadian politics, directing some worry towards a volume that many of my friends, mentors, and colleagues put together at UofT on this very issue.

Although UBC and McGill have not advertised any Canadian politics jobs recently, UofT has this year, as has Queen’s, which are welcome signs.  But the debate continues! Recently, UBC Press announced the publication of a new volume entitled, Comparing Canada: Methods and Perspectives on Canadian Politics, edited by some of the best, young, Canadian political scientists on the scene today (of course, I may be biased since all were at UofT when I was there and all are friends or at least acquaintances but still!).

The following below is a message from one of the editors, Luc Turgeon (assistant professor of political science at University of Ottawa), commenting on my original blog post and his new co-edited book.
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Dear Chris –

 

I promised you last year I would eventually write a rejoinder to your blog entry “Political Scholars fiddle while Rome Burns”. I apologize for taking so long!

 

In that blog, you lamented the assault on the study of Canadian politics. You pointed to the gradual replacement of Canadian scholars by comparative ones in political science departments throughout the country and to the growing promotion of the “comparative turn in Canadian political science”, rather than a focus solely on Canada. In this year’s presidential address at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Alain Noël was similarly very critical of the “comparative turn”.

I share many of your worries about the future of our discipline. And I could not agree more with you “that political science departments in this country need to do more to protect, prioritize, and publicize the study of Canadian politics”.

 

It might seem strange that I share some of your critiques of the “comparative turn in Canadian politics” considering that I recently published a co-edited volume entitled Comparing Canada: Methods and Perspectives on Canadians Politics. Whereas the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science explored the ways in which Canadian scholars contribute (or not) to comparative politics theories, our book explores the ways in which the comparative method allows us to better understand Canada.

 

In our book, while promoting the potential benefits of the comparative method to the study of Canadian politics, we also acknowledge three potential limits or problems with what your present as “embracing the comparative turn”.

The first one is simply that our discipline cannot and should not be reduced to a subfield of comparative politics. Normative and critical perspectives on Canadian politics have been and are still central to our discipline. Moreover, some of the main contributions of Canadians to international political science and comparative politics have been the result of our interest (some might say obsession) with normative issues raised by the country’s struggle over national unity and debates about Canadian multiculturalism.

 

The second potential problem is that a focus on comparison can lead us to dismiss case studies or Canada-centred studies. As discussed in the introduction of our book, such case studies are crucial to explore under-studied aspects of Canadian politics and also to inductively develop new theoretical perspectives. Moreover, as Alain Noël stressed in his presidential address, comparative politics privileges a positivist epistemology. The object of social science inquiry is not always to explain, but also to interpret or to criticize. In such case, a comparative strategy might not be useful in light of the researcher’s intentions.

 

The third problem is that it can give a relatively distorted view of the history of our discipline. The main strength of the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science is that it documents, I believe, a real shift in the 1990s and 2000s as the number of cross-national studies of Canada increased significantly. The different contributors also artfully explore the way Canadian political scientists have been “givers” or “takers” when it comes to theories of comparative politics. These are important contributions that should not be dismissed.

 

I find problematic though the idea that, somehow, Canadian political science was before the 1990s “introspective, insular, and largely atheoretical”, to quote from the The Comparative Turn‘s blurb. While Canadian political scientists were certainly preoccupied by national unity concerns, they engaged with theoretical debates in international political science and used some of those approaches to illuminate the Canadian case. Just to give an example from our book, political economy in Canada was influenced by and engaged with theoretical perspectives such as British neo-marxism and the French regulation school.

 

Many of the critiques of the “Comparative Turn”, whether fair or not, came down to the fact that it gave the impression that our first objective as students of Canadian politics should be to contribute to the international comparative scholarship. The first objective, critiques responded, should be in fact to better understand Canada.

I believe that the comparative approach to the study of Canadian politics can contribute to the revitalization, not the cannibalization, of the study of Canadian politics. In order to do so, we must first recognize that the comparative approach is one of many other approaches that can help us better understand Canadian politics. We must also acknowledge that in order to contribute to the study of Canadian politics, our students need to know better the history of our discipline, and not only the most recent comparative theoretical approaches.

 

Comparison can play an important role in the study of Canadian politics. It allows us to overcome a number of potential pitfalls: making erroneous normative claims about aspects Canadian politics, exaggerating Canada’s specificity or uniqueness, neglecting the country’s internal diversity (which brings the important of comparative provincial or local studies), and over-emphasizing the centrality of certain factors in explaining different political phenomena.

 

More importantly for the study of Canadian politics though, the comparative method and continuing engagement with the comparative literature can leads us to ask new questions about our country and explore aspects of Canadian politics previously neglected or overlooked. As Stretton argued in the late 1960s, the function of comparison is perhaps less to simulate an experiment than to stimulate imagination.

 

Ultimately, one of the main merits of the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science is to have contributed to a debate about methodological approaches to the study of Canadian politics. We need to pursue that reflection. There are a number of methodological approaches in fact that have not been sufficiently explored in the study of Canadian politics (life history, political ethnography, different experimental methods, etc).

 

More than a decline of Canadian politics, I see a renewal. The national unity crisis of the post-1970s had a defining impact on our discipline, contributed to the intervention of many political scientists in the public sphere and influenced their research. What I see today are a number of political scientists exploring previously under-studied aspects of Canadian politics and using different platforms to disseminate their findings. In most cases, those who adopt a comparative perspective do so not because of some sort of misguided belief in the superiority of comparative approaches, but because they think that such approaches allow us to gain important insights about our country.

 

Luc Turgeon

 

I’m a big fan of Luc Turgeon, both as a person and as a scholar.  The first time I met him, we clashed in the Sidney Smith lunch room over the value of Canadian political science. I was a very junior PhD student and Luc was one of the rising stars in the department.  I don’t remember who argued what but I do remember we had a vigorous debate and that I must have been losing because some of my colleagues began to inch away from me as the debate continued!

Luc’s letter sounds promising.  I like the nuance he provides in terms of the contributions and relationship between Canadian and comparative politics.  How many political scientists in Canada, however, agree? Maybe this book will spur a much needed debate in Canada political science departments.  Will the anti-Canadianists listen?

 

Missing Aboriginal Women and the Canadian State

This is a topic I don’t know very much about except what the statistics indicate: that this is a major problem in Canada and that it’s clear that action is needed.  But what kind of action?

The popular answer seems to be that the federal government should hold a national inquiry.  Critics counter by saying that there is already a large body of research out there and so there’s no need for another study.

Harper’s original response was that this issue was a criminal one, rather than one based in sociological issues.

So what should the federal government do? I think the government needs to act, at least symbolically, but ideally with real action.

If critics are right that there are already many studies available, then a national inquiry is not an answer.

In terms of real action, I think meeting with the provinces, the territories and Aboriginal governments and stakeholders at a series of roundtables is certainly one viable course of action and should be pursued.  Here, the participants could develop a national strategy based on existing research.

In terms of symbolic action, Harper needs to go old school.  He needs to deliver a rousing speech in Parliament, like some of the great parliamentarians, and address the Canadian people on this important issue.  Take a page from the residential school apology and use Parliament to address the nation about the importance of this problem and his desire to address it.

 

 

If you’re a betting person, here are some safe bets

Published Sept. 8, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There are precious few safe bets in politics these days, but here are a few.

Safe bet number one: Stephen Harper will not win the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, for which he is being nominated by his admirers in B’Nai Brith Canada, the group that earlier gave the prime minister its Gold Medallion for Humanitarianism. It didn’t take long, just a few hours, for an online petition to spring up demanding that the Norwegian Nobel Committee reject Harper’s nomination; overnight it attracted 13,000 signatures. Elsewhere, the reaction ranged from outrage (among Palestinian Canadians) to laughter (among most non-Conservatives).

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Safe bet number two: Andrea Horwath will not be the NDP leader when the next Ontario election rolls around in four years’ time. She faces a crucial NDP provincial council meeting this coming weekend – followed, if she survives that meeting, by a formal leadership review in November.

The council will want to know why she forfeited the influence the NDP had enjoyed with the then minority Liberal government by opposing its budget, which was loaded with goodies for the NDP. By rejecting the budget, Horwath precipitated a June election she could not win. She ran a poorly prepared and executed campaign. She alienated the party’s traditional labour base and many of the NDP rank and file with policies that moved the party to the right of the Liberals. The new head of the Canadian Labour Congress described her as a “coward.”

When the dust settled, Kathleen Wynne had a majority government and the NDP was still in third place – now cloutless and bitter. “Andrea is fighting for her life,” a longtime party worker told the Toronto Star. “Among a very large section of the activist base there is little more than comptempt for her.” Ouch!

Safe bet number three: Rob Ford will not be mayor of Toronto for 14 more years, as he says he intends to be. That would take him up to his 60th birthday.

Of course, nothing is “safe” when dealing with the unpredictable Ford. A few months ago, before entering rehab, most people – me included – would have bet against his reelection for a second four-year term. Now the race has changed. He is in second place, the underdog to front-runner John Tory, and underdog is where the populist mayor likes to be. I still don’t think Ford can win again in October, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

But 14 years? Nah, it couldn’t happen. Could it? Make it a small bet against.

But back to Stephen Harper and the Nobel Peace Prize. His supporters are certainly gung-ho, his detractors not so much. “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” says Hanna Kawas, the head of the Canadian Palestine Association in Vancouver. “It’s outrageous.”

But Frank Dimant, the CEO of B’Nai Brith, harbours no doubts. He praises Harper’s international leadership and the “moral clarity” he brings to issues of good and evil. “More than any other individual, he has consistently spoken out with resolve regarding the safety of people under threat – such as opposing Russian aggression and annexation of Ukrainian territory – and has worked to ensure that other world leaders truly understand the threat of Islamic terrorism facing us today.”

That’s a much larger and more influential role than most other leaders would concede to Harper. His support of Israel is unconditional and, I think, genuine. It is also good politics at home. But by being so one-sided, it doesn’t allow for Canada to play any useful role in the delicate diplomacy of the Middle East.

When it comes to Russian aggression in Ukraine, Harper roars from the sidelines and shakes his fist at Vladimir Putin. He will do anything for Ukraine, so long as the cost of any Canadian contribution does not jeopordize his pursuit of a balanced budget in time for the federal election in October next year. Unfortunately, deficit elimination is not one of the criteria for a Nobel Prize. Sorry, sir.

Canadian First Ministers’ Conferences and Heresthetic Strategies: Explaining Alberta’s Position on Multiculturalism at the 1971 Victoria Conference

Authors: Christopher Alcantara, Renan Levine, James C. Walz

Published Spring 2014 in Journal of Canadian Studies.

Abstract: The Province of Alberta seems an unlikely early advocate of multiculturalism; yet, several months before the federal government unveiled its official policy on this issue, it was an Alberta premier, Harry Strom, who demanded that multiculturalism be a condition for constitutional reform during the 1971 Victoria Constitutional Conference. What explains this puzzle? Using William Riker’s concept of heresthetics and the literature on Alberta politics, Western alienation, and Canadian federalism, the authors argue that Strom introduced multiculturalism at the conference as a strategic manoeuvre to bolster and defend Alberta’s compact perspective on federalism and to block any constitutional change that would prevent Alberta from recognizing itself as an equal and autonomous partner in the Canadian federation. The authors’ findings suggest that Riker’s concept of heresthetics may be useful for analyzing other instances of intergovernmental relations in Canada.

Voters growing tired of the Harper Tories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Harper influenced by polls?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The F-35 continues to haunt the PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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