And the Winner of the Quebec Provincial Election is… (Drum Roll Please)

The PQ with a minority government! Or at least that’s my official prediction. Yes, it flies in the face of the latest polls but: a) I have a gut feeling the PQ is going to win, either a minority, or maybe even a majority; and b) the rule of two: Quebecois seem to like to give their provincial governments two terms to govern.

I know, very unscientific, but mark my words, the PQ will romp (ok, maybe squeak out!) a win tomorrow night!

Dr. Barry Kay interviewed by Global News: Ontario likely to re-elect minority government

Published Apr. 4, 2014, in Global News.

Barry Kay interviewed by Global News on likelihood of Ontario electing another minority government, based on his latest seat projection. Full interview available here.

Why fixed election dates are unnecessary

Published Apr. 3, 2014, in The Ottawa Citizen.

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.

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Slumping Ontario needs strong leadership

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

If you are Kathleen Wynne, what do you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marois May Benefit from Tonight’s Debate in Quebec

It’s obvious the Parti Québécois has been shaken off message in the current provincial campaign. Recent polls from CROP and Ipsos show the PQ, which walked into the campaign with enough support to secure a majority, now lags behind the Liberals. The Liberal party has momentum, the PQ doesn’t, and the right-of-centre Coalition Avenir Québec appears to be draining voters away, to the benefit of the Liberals, while some bleeding appears to be happening from the PQ to the Québec Solidaire (which has a far less ambiguous position on sovereignty).

All these dynamics will come to a temporary standstill tonight as the party leaders face off in a televised debate. As usual, many believe the debate will be the “defining moment” of the campaign. I have noted in more than one occasion how televised debates rarely force a drastic change in the course of a campaign, with recent polling data from Leger confirming how the debate may not really matter much. Only 15 percent of voters plan to use the debate to help reach a vote decision. A good 40 percent will make their decision a couple of days before the April 7 election, suggesting tonight’s debate is just a single event in a much broader array of campaign activities.

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Tonight’s debate, then, might not matter a whole lot. Except for one little thing. Debates tend to raise and improve the profile of all participants. They get a lot of exposure on an unfiltered stage. Leaders can articulate and elaborate on policy positions and views, something they cannot easily accomplish with the “sound-bite” preoccupation of conventional media. Also, party leaders tend to perform rather well. They are successful politicians, having emerged to the top of their organizations. So they carry themselves reasonably well. Very rarely has a political leader screwed up badly in a debate. And even when that does happen, it may not matter (much) to the election outcome. In any case, leaders who are trailing behind can play catch up in a televised debate. Here, PQ Leader Pauline Marois may stand to gain. It is not to say that her campaign missteps will be instantly forgiven as if emerging from a confessional, but the televised debate may make her seem not as clumsy. It may give her a chance to clear the air on some issues that have dogged her, like her views on a possible future referendum (assuming such this controversy can be clarified). If her performance is superbly polished, it may boost her spirits, and, more importantly, get other PQ voters more energized. A strong performance may not necessarily convert a lot of voters, but it may get PQ supporters to the polls on election day.

On the other hand, in the unlikely event that she totally bombs, her already struggling campaign will continue to fail. It may or may not necessarily exacerbate the distance between the PQ or the Liberal, but a bad performance from Marois will certainly not help constrain the Liberal momentum.

Péladeau’s separatist talk bad for Marois

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conservative supporters are most open to Quebec secession

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.”

Continue to Toronto Star or click here for a more detailed version.

Politicians face tough times too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are tough times looming for Harper, too.

Tories forgetting who voted for them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perspective is Everything!

During Peter Kulchyski’s talk two weeks ago, he talked about his work with Indigenous groups in northern Manitoba who were negotiating with Manitoba Hydro to come to a fair development deal for a dam on their lands. One of the stories he told was about the contrast between the riches of the Hydro companies offices in downtown Winnipeg and the poverty among the many Indigenous groups who had signed supposedly beneficial agreements with the Hydro company.

It reminded me of the time I visited the offices of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Ontario several years ago. The office was beautiful, with expensive pieces of Aboriginal art and yards and yards of marble and rich wood everywhere. Very impressive! Several months later, the news was filled with pictures of poverty among northern Aboriginal communities in Ontario.

Which brings me to the title of this post. I’m sure the department didn’t decorate their offices in this way purposely. But anyone who has spent time in Indigenous communities in northern Canada would have felt as uncomfortable as I did when I visited those offices that day.

Merit Pay and Evaluating Teachers

Two days ago, the Globe and Mail opinion page called for performance based merit pay for elementary and high school teachers in Canada.

Yesterday, two current teachers wrote letters to the editor criticizing the editorial. Among the reasons they gave for why merit pay for teachers is bad, are:

1) “How do you determine who is a “better” teacher?” And “The mechanism for evaluating teacher performance … is fraught with problems”.

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No question that a perennial problem for any type of study or evaluation is measurement. But I find it troubling that these two teachers would dismiss the idea of merit pay so quickly simply on the basis of measurement difficulties. How do teachers, for instance, evaluate student performance in any given subject area? How do principals and vice-principals make determinations about which teacher to hire when they fill a position? Do these teachers and administrators just throw up their hands and say, darn, the measurement tools we have are imperfect so let’s just give everyone the same grade? And, let’s just hire everyone who has a teaching degree in the field?

I agree that there are significant challenges in finding the right measurement tool for evaluating teacher performance. But I don’t think it impossible. The solution is probably a battery of measurement tools that take into account different aspects of teacher performance.

But even if you accept this point, you might object by saying:

2) “School administrators are already overworked just keeping the school running and do not have the time needed to evaluate staff thoroughly.”

Again, this is true but: a) teachers already go through an evaluation process every five years and so it would be a matter of changing that to a yearly evaluation; b) yes it would be more resource intensive but there may be ways to get around this issue by creating, dare I say it, more bureaucracy dedicated to this task or farming it out to a private company; and c) if merit pay does create meaningful incentives to improve teacher performance, then the benefits stemming from the program may outweigh the administrative costs.

But wait! You might object by saying:

3) “Once teachers start to compete for whatever criteria are selected to determine merit …. the sharing of resources and lesson plans will be sabotaged.” Yet “Most teachers are motivated by far less tangible rewards. This is the nature of a profession that deals with the growth of young people.”

First, a merit pay system does not automatically lead to a cutthroat environment. In fact, the opposite can occur. I happen to be a slightly productive scholar and have been experimenting with a variety of teaching techniques, and so I actively seek co-authorship with other productive scholars and other professors interested in teaching innovation. And which is? Are teachers going to sabotage lesson plans for money? Or are they motivated by far less tangible rewards? The answer is teachers are motivated by both material and non-material goals. So why not create a system that maximizes both goals in hopes of generating increased teaching performance?

A political pundit’s hunches for 2014

Published Dec. 30, 2013, in the Waterloo Region Record

In 2013, the political universe did not unfold as the savants and the players themselves thought it would. Far from it.

A year ago, who would have predicted that the biggest political stories of 2013 year would be a penny-ante Senate expense scandal (abetted by a clumsy cover-up by the Prime Minister’s Office) and an astonishing crack cocaine scandal starring the mayor of Toronto?

Who would have foreseen the second coming of the federal Liberal party under the untested Justin Trudeau, as the party rose in 2013 from third-party irrelevance to first place in the polls? Who would have thought the provincial Liberals would retain power in British Columbia? And who could have anticipated the southern Alberta floods last summer or the ice storm that gripped southern Ontario this month — too much water and too much ice each pushing political news out of public consciousness?

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Only a foolhardy pundit would predict anything for 2014. That said, let us proceed with extreme caution, starting with what we know for sure. First, we know the Toronto Maple Leafs will not win the Stanley Cup. I have been making this same prediction for 40 years, and I haven’t been wrong yet. My unblemished record is the envy of pundits everywhere, and surely it will be recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records. If the Leafs need to find a way to lose, they will find it, as they did in 2013.

Second, there will be no federal election in 2014. That’s because the next election is already scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015. Conceivably, Prime Minister Harper could find a pretext for going early (he’s done it before), but would he? Would you, if your party was running 10 points below its accustomed support in the polls and if pollsters were telling you Canadians now believe Trudeau would make a better prime minister than you? Harper may be an odd duck, but he’s not crazy. So no federal election in 2014.

Let’s move from what we know to what we suspect. Rob Ford will probably not be mayor of Toronto after the municipal election in October. There will probably be a provincial election in Ontario, in the fall if not sooner, as Premier Kathleen Wynne finds minority government increasingly untenable. Someone will win that election. To predict who that someone might be is to venture too far into the unknown.

Although Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives lead in the polls, their support is piled too deeply in rural/small town Ontario where there are relatively few seats. Pollsters tell us the Liberals’ strength in urban areas is more “efficient” — that is, fewer votes will yield more seats. This is treacherous terrain and I’ll give it a pass. To repeat, someone will win.

The question on many voters’ lips is: Whither Harper? Will he still be Conservative leader by this time next year? Harper himself says he intends to lead his party into the election scheduled for October 2015. But he would say that, wouldn’t he, even if he had already booked a getaway to Tasmania?

I don’t know the answer and I don’t know anyone who does. It seems to me Harper faces two challenges. The first is to regain control of the public agenda — to stop people talking about the Senate scandal (which will be difficult with the auditor-general’s investigation and possible RCMP charges still to come) and other awkward issues — and to get them talking instead about the economy, where the Conservatives feel they have the high ground.

The second challenge is to find a way to stop Justin Trudeau and the Liberals. Attack ads may work with the Conservative base, but not so well with the 70 per cent of the electorate that is disinclined to support the Harper party.

My hunch is that if the present trend persists — if by late 2014 another Tory majority appears out of reach — Harper will call it quits. That’s a hunch, not a prediction.

Will Ford Nation prevail or fizzle in 2014?

Published Dec. 13, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

After pushing Toronto into the international media spotlight for some months, most of us have difficulty fathoming what motivates Mayor Rob Ford, or what sustains his bond with the apocryphally named “Ford Nation.”

Presumably it was coined as an ego-driven public relations gesture to simulate some ongoing affinity with the masses, as with “Maple Leaf Nation” or “Red Sox Nation.”

Without intending to linger obsessively upon the absurdly self-destructive and uncontrollable impulses of this man-child, whose emotional maturity suffers even in comparison with Justin Bieber or Charlie Sheen, he acts as if he can compensate for his blatant absence of remorse with multiple insincere apologies.

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Open Government and Accountability?

A few weeks ago Premier Kathleen Wynne announced a new policy of “Open Government”. I read it with interest, but remain highly skeptical of, well, it. On its face, the policy seems to be composed of the appointment of a team of leaders from business, politics and the public sector. There are no trade union representatives, although perhaps one should not be too surprised by this in today’s age. There is one self-identified Conservative, one self-identified Liberal and none that I can identify from the NDP, although one person did work with the Mayor of Vancouver, who once sat as an NDP MLA in BC, so, who knows.

I raise this because the rhetoric of “openness” is premised on the notion of policy without politics: The engagement team is “just listening” and “engaging”; but if the ideological composition of the team is made up of one particular segment of the spectrum, well, politics seems fairly embedded into the process from the start, but without the advantage of clarity about the perspectives people represent. Thus, this attempt at non-partisan, open engagement, perversely, is highly opaque, rather than transparent. My colleague, Dr. Alcantara, made a similar point regarding the formal non-partisanship of territorial legislatures, here.

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This team is mandated to tour the province, “engaging people” to find out new ways of “engaging, innovating and collaborating”.

I find the rhetoric of “open government” and “transparency” and “accountability” fascinating; it has popped up routinely in Canadian politics, with the demise of the Meech Lake Accord serving as an important dividing line. You recall, was negotiated by 11 white men in suits (each of whom who had managed to win a majority of seats in their legislatures in the most recent election, but in today’s world, that doesn’t seem to count for much.) The exclusivity of that negotiating process led to a different, much more open and transparent and participatory process of the Charlottetown Accord, which, when put to a referendum of the citizenry as a whole, was defeated.

There are strong parallels between the situation in which the Wynne government finds itself and the situation that the Klein government found itself in 1992; and these parallels are instructive as to how common it is for Canadian governments to resort to this kind of rhetoric to secure their election and how often it fails. In 1992, the Progressive Conservatives of Alberta were long in the tooth, having been in power since 1971 (In the same way that one dog year is equal to about seven human years, one year in power for non-Alberta governments is equivalent to about 10 years for the governing party in Alberta). More importantly, it was struggling with the consequences of a policy whereby the provincial government was guaranteeing loans to private sector companies in a attempt to diversify the economy. One loan to a cell phone manufacturing company (!?) went bad when the company declared bankruptcy and the taxpayers were in the hook for about $500 million. People were mad, not just about the lack of funds, but also about the lack of transparency, openness and accountability in provincial decision-making. Alberta was ground-zero for the post-Meech Lake hostility to representative democracy and political parties and fed the growth of the populist, anti-party Reform Party at the time.

Enter Ralph Klein. The populist politician, par excellence, became Premier in 1993 and one of the first memos his government issued inside the government emphasized the need for a new dialogue with Albertans. His government quickly branded itself as one that “listened to Albertans”. His deputy premier and major backer, Ken Kowalski, wrote in an internal memo on the day Klein was sworn in:

The election of a new Premier creates significant opportunity to demonstrate a new openness in government communications and a new consultative approach in dealing with Albertans.

The Klein government made all kinds of ridiculous consultations: Klein was always on the radio, “talking to Albertans”; the government commissioned mailback surveys from the electorate about what the budget priorities should be, without any consideration of problems like self-selection bias; they commissioned expert summits to discuss issues, without thinking through potential problems of how people were selected or how problems were framed that were presented to summits; they passed Freedom of Information Legislation, and then promptly ensured that PR staff inside departments would monitor

There’s no wonder that the Wynne government is pursuing a strategy that shares the same premise, but has different manifestations. For one thing, it’s a lot cheaper for politicians to promise to be “open” and “accountable” than it is to, say, promise to raise the minimum wage, or address shortages in long-term care for seniors. For another thing, this demand for openness in government is rooted in a deep cultural suspicion of bureaucracies, particularly political parties.

This shift is fine; I welcome it even. But there are trade-offs, and one of the trade-offs with this cultural shift is that we lose the appreciation for the efficiency and accountability that actually are inherently built in to hierarchical and bureaucratic systems. The more that citizens continue to express this suspicion without acknowledging the merits built into bureaucracy, the more politicians will be happy to distract them with cheap promises of “openness”, “accountability” and “transparency” using them to win elections in a system that is built on and requires the bureaucracy of political parties and hierarchical public administration. More often than not, this kind of rhetoric distracts and enables the reelection of governments that probably don’t deserve it on other issues, rather than enhances citizen control over their governments.

The Appeal of Rob Ford or Why Sometimes We Elites Just Don’t Get It!

So let me engage in some punditry here.  There’s been a lot of hand wringing and puzzlement in the media and among my colleagues in the profession over why Rob Ford’s popularity remains relatively strong despite his many personal missteps.

I have no empirical evidence here and I don’t know the literature on this topic as well (so any of you municipal scholars who are reading this, send me your thoughts!) but it strikes me that perhaps some of it has to come down to image.

Put simply, Rob Ford appeals to a segment of voters who like the fact that Ford isn’t morally or intellectually superior to them.  Anecdotally, I get a sense that Rob Ford voters don’t like leaders like Stephanie Dion or Michael Ignatieff, and even to a lesser extent Stephan Harper. These individuals are former university professors or academics and perhaps some citizens simply don’t like leaders who come off as intellectually smug or superior.  I’m not saying that Dion or Ignatieff or even Harper believe they are smug or superior or even behave in that way.  Instead, it’s this image they project, which has been constructed perhaps by the media or some other third party.

So, despite Rob Ford’s missteps, he continues to be popular and may win re-election in 2015.  Why? Because public actually likes a mayor who isn’t intellectually or morally superior to them.  Is Rob Ford a symptom of the decline of deference?