Published Apr. 18, 2014, in Maclean’s.
Geoffrey Stevens mentioned in Maclean’s article about Jim Flaherty’s death and what it might all mean for behaviour among parliamentarians.
Published Apr. 21, 2014, in The Guelph Mercury and Waterloo Region Record.
Justin Trudeau has been leader of the federal Liberal party for one year.
How is he doing?
Somewhat better, I think, than most people had anticipated. Although he has not taken the country by storm, neither has he wilted in the glare of public and party expectations. Like all politicians, he has made minor mistakes, but he has demonstrated the quickness of foot to acknowledge his errors, to apologize, to correct course and to carry on. The public has been forgiving.
After one year, he has raised his battered party from third place to first in the polls. Pollsters project he would become prime minister at the head of a minority Liberal government, if an election were held today (which, of course, it won’t be). Based on today’s numbers, LISPOP (Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy) projects a wafer-thin margin: 127 Liberal seats, 120 Conservative and 81 New Democrat.
In an article for the Globe and Mail, Grénier reports that the Liberals have consistently led in the national polls for the past 12 months “The Liberals are up five points on where they stood a year ago, eight points on where they were in the month before naming their new leader, and 14 points compared to the support the Liberals enjoyed in September 2012, just before Mr. Trudeau announced his intentions to run for the leadership,” Grénier writes.
The Liberals have a huge lead in Atlantic Canada, have moved ahead of the NDP in Quebec and stand at 40 per cent in battleground Ontario, up 13 points from their pre-Trudeau level. They have gained ground, but still trail the Tories in the West.
Not all of this improvement is Trudeau’s doing, of course. In Canada, as in other democracies, opposition parties seldom win elections; they become the beneficiaries when governments defeat themselves. That certainly what happened in 2004-2006 when the Liberals defeated themselves over the Sponsorship scandal, bringing Harper’s Conservatives to power.
But Trudeau seems to wear well. He is no longer seen as a kid with a good name and a slender resume. He has established himself as a serious politician. He is also a genuinely likeable politician, and likeability is a significant asset in politics. Bill Davis and Peter Lougheed had it. So did Jean Chrétien in the early years. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair comes across too hard-edged to be truly likeable. And likeability is simply not part of Stephen Harper political wiring.
Ask yourself, if you were inviting a national leader over for a beer and a burger in your backyard, who would you ask? You would choose someone who is interesting and fun. Harper? No way. Mulcair? Probably not. Elizabeth May? Yeah, maybe. Trudeau? For sure. That likeability is reflected in renewed Liberal popularity, especially among young voters and female voters.
Eric Grénier notes that the Liberals’ year-long lead in the polls is the longest stretch that the Harper government has trailed in second since their election in 2006. “The last time a majority government trailed in the polls for as long as the Conservatives have was in the last years of Brian Mulroney’s tenure,” Grénier observes. That was back in 1992-93. Mulroney hung on. Kim Campbell eventually replaced him. And the mighty Tories won just two seats in the 1993 election.
No one is predicting obliteration on that scale for Harper’s Tories. But the question on Ottawa lips (it has passed the sotto voce stage) is: will Harper stay on if he is not pretty darned sure he will retain his majority? The smart money says No.
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.
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?
Published Apr. 10, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.
Rumours emanating from the Middle East peace talks suggest things are not going well.
This is hardly a surprise for anyone who has followed the twists and turns of past negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. It will inevitably lead to a bout of finger-pointing as to who is at fault, where sympathizers of both sides will quickly blame each other. However, the truth is everyone is at fault, because whatever narratives are spun, neither side is prepared to make the difficult concessions for a real peace treaty to emerge.
Critics of Israel can and will blame the expansion of settlements in the West Bank as the core reason for the impasse and it is a problem, but Palestinian representatives have never acknowledged the legitimacy of an Israeli state even before 1967, when the entire area in question was in Arab hands.
Interview by Julie Rempel from the Centre of Environmental Health Equity.
Community Psychology and Environmental Justice
From your own perspective, what is the specialty of your research? As a community psychologist my research focuses on the intricate interactions between community, the environment and justice. These issues cannot be examined independently as they are intimately connected and psychology, especially community psychology, can help to understand these connections.
Traditionally, community psychology includes topics such as oppression, promoting diversity, citizen participation, and striving for social justice. But the current environmental crisis illuminates with unforgiving clarity how closely linked these issues are to the environment and further emphasizes a sense of urgency for the need to act.
Social justice is one of the core values for community psychology and in order to adequately address inequality, it is essential that environmental issues are an integral part of the discussion. While affecting all of us, the impact of these environmental threats to our health and well-being are not evenly distributed. For example, as identified with my work and that completed by others, homeless individuals and those living below the poverty line in big cities are most vulnerable to the extreme weather in North-Western countries like Canada. It’s apparent beyond our countries borders that within developing countries, the poor have the least means to fight vector-borne diseases and that natural disaster like floods and hurricanes are much more likely to occur in developing countries that have fewer means to protect themselves.
In the rest of Canada, much of the coverage of the Quebec provincial election has focused on the possibility of a PQ majority government and the spectre of another referendum.
Lost in this coverage, however, is the fact that in 2013, the PQ government passed a fixed election date law that set the next provincial election to occur on Oct. 3, 2016. Similar to what the Stephen Harper government did in 2008, the PQ “violated” or at least circumvented this law by calling a spring election to coincide with favourable polling numbers. According to some observers, this was problematic because such a strategy supposedly and unfairly improves the re-election chances of the incumbent government.
Political experts have long argued that the election-timing power gives prime ministers and provincial premiers a powerful advantage at election time. The solution, they argue, is fixed election-date legislation, and indeed, the federal government and almost every provincial government across Canada, with the exception of Nova Scotia, has passed this type of legislation.
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.
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?
Published Wed. Mar 26, 2014, in The Star.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s move to block the nomination of Christine Innes in the Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina has filled the political news recently. He took the step, according to Ontario campaign co-chair David MacNaugton, because the Innes campaign was using “intimidation and bullying on young volunteers.”
More specifically, according to some party officials and critics, Trudeau’s decision was really about protecting star candidate Chrystia Freeland, a celebrated author and journalist, who last year beat NDP and fellow star candidate Linda McQuaig in the by-election for the riding of Toronto Centre.
Leaders and party strategists have long recruited and protected star candidates for a variety of reasons. They assume, for instance, that these individuals make excellent cabinet or shadow cabinet ministers. They also assume that star candidates attract all sorts of positive attention from the media. But the main reason why leaders and strategists are so attracted to these individuals is because they assume that these candidates can significantly increase their party’s vote share at election time.
Published on Mar. 27, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record.
It’s no secret that many aboriginal communities across Canada are underserviced and underfunded.
Media reports over the last several years have highlighted the lack of adequate funding for on-reserve education, clean water, housing, and health services, among other things.
Earlier this year, a story surfaced about a house fire on a reserve in northern Saskatchewan. Commentators noted how a lack of financial support from the federal government for proper training and equipment had directly contributed to the death of two young boys. As a result of that tragedy, First Nations’ leaders have called for the federal government to increase funding to on-reserve communities for proper fire protection services.
In many ways, these demands make sense. Aboriginal governments frequently lack the fiscal tools to raise sufficient revenue to pay for these services, and so federal and provincial money is crucial to building healthy and safe aboriginal communities.
Published Mar. 15, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.
Recently, the news has been filled with stories about Bitcoin, a type of open-source digital currency that basically functions like money, but without any of the usual regulatory strings attached to regular currency.
Bitcoin is not managed by any government or central bank, but instead is controlled by all of its users in the marketplace. Much like regular money, the value of Bitcoin depends on a number of factors, including supply and demand, and the security of the currency and of the market.
Digital currency offers a number of important advantages. The primary one is that transactions occur directly between purchasers and sellers without having to go through a third party. As such, digital currency transactions are fast and cost substantially less in terms of processing charges and fees.
Recently, the Oglala Lakota Tribe in the United States became the first aboriginal group in North America to launch its own digital currency, the MazaCoin. Much like Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, MazaCoins can be owned by anyone and can be used to purchase goods and services from any person or business that is willing to accept MazaCoin as payment.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
Published Feb. 26, 2014, in the Toronto Star.
As Quebec raises the volume on talk of another referendum on sovereignty, now is a good time to look at how the rest of Canada might respond to the revival of this possible constitutional conflict. Is there a willingness to fight for a unified Canada, or has that appetite faded with Canadians more prepared to see Quebec go?
It’s a valid question as the prospects look favourable for a sovereignist victory in a possible near-future referendum. CROP reported in December that about 44 per cent of Quebecers support sovereignty, the same level as during the 1994 election campaign that brought the Parti Québécois back into power, a year before the razor-thin result of the 1995 referendum. Given what we’ve been witnessing from Quebec, the signs are quite present that we are now in a “pre-campaign” period of that future referendum.
To look forward, let’s look back a bit. During the May 2, 2011, general election, Ipsos Reid administered an online poll of approximately 40,000 Canadian voters. All were asked whether they “want Quebec to become sovereign, that is, no longer part of the Canadian federation.”