Canadians concerned, but not panicked

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

Reflecting on the events in Ottawa last week, the most striking thing was not the violence that took the life of a young soldier, Nathan Cirillo, at the National War Memorial and that of his murderer in a shootout in Parliament’s Hall of Honour. The most striking thing was the response to that violence from politicians, the police, the press and the Canadian public.

True, there was some silly talk on the airwaves about how this “assault on the heart of Canadian democracy” would change Canada and Canadians forever. That was nonsense. For the most part, the response was measured, restrained and thoughtful. Concerned, yes. Panicked, no. Conspiracy theories did not attract enough oxygen to survive.

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There was a sense that we live in an age where unstable individuals — like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in Ottawa or Martin Couture-Rouleau, who killed warrant officer Patrice Vincent in Quebec — will sometimes live out their religious or other fantasies by resorting to violence. It has happened before and, the world being as it is, it will happen again.

Every time it happens, there is talk of a need for greater security, for tighter laws and increased enforcement. Some steps get taken, but nothing draconian. As Canadians, we value an open society, and we want to keep it that way.

We don’t like politicians who play partisan politics with security issues, as some U.S. politicians do. We don’t like media who, as some U.S. cable stations do, play the fear card, trying to build audiences by fanning panic on issues such as ISIL and Ebola.

We try to keep a sense of perspective, and I thought CBC in particular did an exemplary job of that last week — reporting the facts, sifting truth from rumour, avoiding speculation and refusing to jump to premature conclusions.

Perspective means remembering what has gone before. I was in the Centre Block on the day in May 1966, when Paul Joseph Chartier, an embittered and unemployed security guard from Toronto, blew himself up in a Commons washroom. He had gone there to light a bomb that he had made from 10 sticks of dynamite, determined to throw it into the chamber to kill as many politicians as possible. As we learned at the subsequent inquiry, he probably would have succeeded if the clerk from whom he bought the dynamite had not sold him a shorter fuse than the one he asked for.

Security was tightened a bit after that. Even so, I recall rushing to Parliament Hill on the night in October 1970 when the FLQ murdered Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte in Montreal. For some reason, all the lights were off in the Parliament Buildings. It was eerie. I was unchallenged as I ran down the darkened Hall of Honour — and smack into Bud Drury, a senior minister in the Pierre Trudeau cabinet. After we picked ourselves up and, being Canadian, apologized, Drury told me he was headed to an emergency cabinet meeting. So I followed him.

In late August 1973, about 1,800 striking railway workers from Montreal decided to carry their protest to Ottawa. Many of them, as I wrote that day, “had slaked their thirst with something stronger than lemonade on the bus trip.” On their arrival, after pausing to scuffle with a few Maoists, they decided to storm Parliament Hill.

Some of them rushed into the Centre Block, past the startled (and unarmed) security guards, and down the Hall of Honour to what they assumed was the Commons chamber. Instead, they found themselves at the entrance to the Parliamentary Library, where they came face to face, not with cabinet ministers, but with a large marble statue of Queen Victoria. As always, Victoria radiated disapproval. Utterly confused, the strikers beat a hasty retreat.

Now, no one would suggest Queen Victoria is an answer to security issues on the Hill. But her statute is still there, still disapproving, a reminder that even in troubled times, some things remain constant.

Some Races to Watch on Election Night

Municipal campaigns across the province have been in full swing for months now. Next Monday, however, the race will come to an end. There are thousands of candidates running for office across the province. Most of my academic research focuses on municipal government and politics, which is why I’ve been following some of the races quite closely. I thought it might be helpful to spotlight a few that I think will be interesting on election night. If you want to follow along, here are some worth watching:

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Toronto

Toronto is obviously garnering most of the media attention this election cycle. The race for mayor has provided a fair amount of interest, but it is likely it won’t be as close as some suspect. By this point, it is very likely John Tory will be Toronto’s next mayor. There are, however, some very interesting ward races worth watching.

First and foremost is Ward 2, where Rob Ford is running. He’s likely going to win, but challenger Andray Domise is providing some stiff competition. Much of the polling has shown Ford with a considerable lead, but Domise argues the race is closer than most think. The chances of a Ford-free council are slim, but Ward 2 is worth keeping an eye on.

Ward 7 could see incumbent Giorgio Mammoliti defeated. Alex Mazer is a bright, young candidate who could topple incumbent Ana Bailao in Ward 18, while Ward 20 has a number of candidates competing for Adam Vaughan’s former council seat, including Joe Cressy, Sarah Thomson and Anshul Kapoor. Ward 30 should be interesting as well, as incumbent Paula Fletcher faces a stiff challenge from both the left and right in Jane Farrow and broadcaster Liz West.

Mississauga

Perhaps the most exciting race in Ontario is in Mississauga, where Hazel McCallion’s retirement has opened the door for a tight race between Councilor and former MP Bonnie Crombie and former MP and MPP Steve Mahoney. The race has seen both mayoral contenders run attack ads. The city’s political class has been lining up behind each as well, with endorsements coming almost daily for each candidate. Push polls have even made an appearance. Polling indicates the race is close, so keep your eye on this race as Mississauga voters prepare to elect only the fourth Mayor in the city’s 42-year history.

Southwestern Ontario

Across Ontario, a number of large cities will have a new mayor after October 27. In Windsor, Hamilton, Waterloo, Kitchener and London, incumbents are not running again, opening the door for new faces.

Keep an eye on Hamilton. The polls indicate the race will be tight, as former Mayor Fred Eisenberger faces off against current council members Brad Clark and Brian McHattie. Also in Hamilton, watch Wards 1, 3 and 13 where there is no incumbents running for re-election. In each, smart, young and ambitious candidates are running aggressive campaigns to make their way to council – keep an eye on Matt Green in Ward 3 and Aidan Johnson in Ward 1.

In London, young candidates also appear to be leading in two open wards. In Ward 3 and 7 incumbents have moved on. Watch Josh Morgan in Ward 7 and Mo Salih in Ward 3. Both look to be new faces on council. Also keep an eye on Jesse Helmer in Ward 4. He’s in a tough fight with incumbent Stephen Orser and just may force an upset on election night.

Further down the 401, watch the mayoral race in Windsor closely. Mayor Eddie Francis is not running again and a number of candidates are vying to replace him. Be sure to also watch Ward 10 closely, as incumbent Al Maghnieh has been embroiled in a spending scandal and is fighting for his political life. Will the power of incumbency pay off? We shall see.

Closer to home in Kitchener-Waterloo, some of the regional races should attract some interest. In the contest for Waterloo’s two regional councilors, popular former Waterloo City Councilor Karen Scian is challenging incumbents Jane Mitchell and Sean Strickland. Each is running an aggressive campaign. In Kitchener, regional councilors Tom Galloway and Geoff Lorentz are facing a similar challenge from Cameron Dearlove and former MPP Wayne Wettlaufer. Former MPs Andrew Telegdi and Karen Redman are also attempting political comebacks and running for seats on regional council from Waterloo and Kitchener respectively. Both are worth keeping an eye on.

Electoral slates

How will the slates fare? Municipal politics in Ontario is generally non-partisan. This election, however, has featured a number of slates. First, in Hamilton a slate named “The First 100 Days” has bound together a number of school board trustee candidates under a single platform. In Guelph, two separate slates have formed around candidates for Mayor and Council. On the right, “Grassroots Guelph” is opposing Mayor Karen Farbridge’s agenda and advocating for debt reductions and lower taxes. On the left-wing side of the political spectrum a group called “We Are Guelph” has endorsed the mayor and a group of aligned candidates for council. What affect (if any) these slates have will be interesting to watch.

Polling

Will the pollsters get it right? Two polling companies, in particular, have been active across the province: Forum and Mainstreet Technologies. Some of the larger firms are polling in Toronto as well, but not outside of the city. Polling done in local elections generally have smaller samples and have been criticized by some as inaccurate. We’ll have to wait until election night to see how accurate either firm is, but comparing the results should be interesting. You can find some of Forum’s results here and Mainstreet’s here.

Election Post-Mortem Discussion

After the election, drop by Wilfrid Laurier University for the election post-mortem event on November 5. We’re welcoming former candidate for Kitchener council Ward 9 Debra Chapman (who also teaches political science at Laurier), Gabriel Eidelman from the University of Toronto, and Western University’s Andrew Sancton. This panel will analyze the results from across the province and engage in a lively discussion. Details are here.

 

 

McGregor & Spicer: At City Hall, homeowners call the tune

Published Oct. 22, 2014, in the National Post.

In municipalities across Ontario, candidates for local office are doing everything they can to reach voters before Election Day on Oct. 27. The campaign, which officially kicked off in January, is in the home stretch. By this point, candidates have knocked on hundreds of doors, shaken hands at summer festivals and block parties and spoken at countless community meetings and debates.

If you are a homeowner, however, your local candidates have likely been paying special attention to you. The reason for this is simple: Data from the General Social Survey, conducted annually by Statistics Canada, show that homeowners vote at much higher rates in municipal elections than renters. The gap is significant even after controlling for a variety of other factors known to influence voter turnout, including age, income and education. While the difference also exists in federal and provincial elections, it is particularly acute at the municipal level.

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Rob Ford’s spectre haunts Toronto mayor’s race

Published Oct. 21, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

A casual observer of the Toronto municipal election scene might be misled into thinking that the mayoral contest would itself determine the city’s future policy decisions.

Certainly, media coverage of the race has focused almost exclusively upon the position of mayor, largely ignoring the other 44 council members. This absence of coverage forgets the fact that the city has a “weak mayor” system, with limited power of independent policy action for that position beyond appointing an executive committee.

On matters ranging from the revision of Rob Ford’s budget proposal, the rejection of his transit plan, his policy on plastic bags and then ultimately the removal of most of his powers when scandal broke, the council was in no way under the mayor’s thumb.

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Tory is a ‘safe’ bet to win mayoral race

Published Oct. 20, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Back in 1972, when his Liberal government lost its majority in the election against Robert Stanfield’s Progressive Conservatives — coming within two seats of losing the government entirely — Justin Trudeau’s dad, Pierre, struck a pose of supreme unconcern, calmly reassuring his supporters that “the universe is unfolding as it should.”

Trudeau the Elder was quoting a fragment of a prose poem called “Desiderata,” by the American writer and lawyer Max Ehrmann, who wrote: “(And) whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

It is unlikely that today’s political leaders will be quoting “Desiderata” any time soon. The words convey a certain complacency that none of them can afford to feel as the country heads to a federal election a year from now.

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Trudeau the Younger finds his Liberal universe beginning to wobble after 18 months of relatively smooth unfolding. Stephen Harper, the master of all he surveys from Parliament Hill, is still trying, after almost nine years as prime minister, to figure out what he has to do to get the people to love him — or enough of them to hand him a fourth term. And NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair would find the universe a much more congenial place if he could translate parliamentary performance into points in the opinion polls (and, ultimately, electoral votes).

Meanwhile, in Canada’s largest city, Toronto, where the absurdly long municipal campaign will finally lurch to an end next Monday, nothing has unfolded the way it should, or the way it was meant to, or expected to, unfold. Back in the beginning, a year or so ago, the Toronto universe was poised for a battle royal between the “Ford Nation” with its beloved Rob Ford, the city’s druggie mayor, and just about anybody else.

Ford Nation would deliver perhaps 35 per cent of the popular vote to their populist hero. If most of the remaining vote went to one candidate, the Ford era would be over. That candidate would be Olivia Chow, who was the antithesis of Ford: female, urban, Chinese, progressive (a former NDP MP and widow of Jack Layton). Conventional wisdom had it that Chow would take the old city and enough of the suburbs to defeat Rob Ford handily.

That universe collapsed. Rob Ford got cancer and withdrew from the mayoral campaign (although he is still running for a city council seat). In his place, he substituted his even less charming older brother, Doug, to carry the Ford Nation flag. Meanwhile, a third mayoral candidate appeared — John Tory, a Conservative with an almost unblemished record of electoral failure (the mayoralty in 2003, Ontario provincial election in 2007 and, going back to his backroom days, the 1993 federal election when he ran Kim Campbell’s disastrous campaign against Jean Chrétien’s Liberals).

But Tory is going to win on Monday, for several reasons. He is going to win because he is not a Ford. He is going to win because he is a safe Conservative. He is going to win because there are a lot more Liberals in Toronto than New Democrats or Conservatives. And given a choice between a safe conservative and a socialist, most Liberals will go for the former.

For voters who still worry about such things (and there’s been enough racism in the campaign to make one wonder), he is a WASP through and through. He is not a visible minority, he does not speak English with an accent, and he is not female.

He is known to be a competent and experienced manager. He is no visionary; his ideas don’t always add up. His “SmartTrack” transit policy seems almost as flawed as his 2007 provincial election promise to extend full public funding to faith-based schools.

But maybe Torontonians are not looking for vision this year. Maybe getting rid of the Fords will be enough for now. They can worry about the vision thing the next time the universe unfolds.

Something Old or Something New? Territorial Development and Influence within the Canadian Federation

9781553392071

 

 

 

 

 

Authors: George Braden, Christopher Alcantara, and Michael Morden.

Published in Canada: The State of the Federation, 2011, edited by Nadia Verrelli.

Publisher: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Description: Copy of chapter available here.

Learning to School: An Interview with Author Jennifer Wallner

9781442615892

Dr. Jennifer Wallner is assistant professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. She has published articles in many of the discipline’s leading journals, such as Publius: The Journal of Federalism, Comparative Political Studies, the Peabody Journal of Education, and Canadian Journal of Political Science. Her new book, Learning to School: Federalism and Public Schooling in Canada, was recently published by University of Toronto Press and explains how and why the Canadian provinces have achieved a remarkably coherent system of elementary and secondary education, without the intervention of the federal government.

Below is an interview I conducted with Dr. Wallner about her new book via email in 2014.
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Alcantara: Why did you decide to write a book on this topic?

Wallner: Well, as you know, one big practical motivator for writing a book is the fact that we need to publish to get tenure! But, more substantively, this book evolved from my PhD dissertation. A student of federalism and public policy, I wanted to understand the ways in which the constituent members of a federation manage to craft coherent yet differentiated policy systems despite institutional fragmentation and societal diversity. I picked the education sector because it is critical to the success of any state and one of the most important services it delivers. What is more, in federations, the responsibility for schooling falls to the substate governments – or provinces in the Canadian context. This institutional design creates, on the one hand, unique opportunities for policy experimentation but, on the other hand, also ushers in the potential for incoherent and unequal schooling systems to emerge as the provinces pursue different practices. As I PhD student, I wanted to understand the evolution and management of the provincial elementary and secondary schooling systems.

Alcantara: So how different or similar are educational policy systems across provinces and territories?

Wallner: Before answering that question, I have to clarify something. Because of major differences in the respective institutional and economic capacities of the provinces and territories – let alone their historical independence and autonomy from the federal government – I decided to focus on explaining and understanding the evolution of the provincial systems alone. So – if we look at the provinces, in the main, the core components of their respective education systems demonstrate far more similarity than difference. I show this in three ways. I track the relative investments that are made, the achievements realized, and the substantive content of the policies themselves. To unpack the content, I break the schooling sector into five dimensions (administration, finance, curriculum, assessment, and the teaching profession) and detail what each province is doing. This is not to suggest that the are exact replicas or copies of one another – obvious differences include separate Catholic school boards in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario and the unique transition years between secondary and post-secondary schooling in Quebec, known as CEGEP. But – taking a broad view, the schooling systems are remarkably similar across the federation.

Alcantara: That is really surprising! As you know, the old school federalism literature talks about how federal systems are advantageous because they permit policy experimentation and so it’s somewhat surprising to hear how similar the provincial education systems are. So is this a case where the systems have always been similar right from the beginning? Or did the systems evolve and converge through policy experimentation and learning?

 Wallner: I was definitely surprised by the results! Once it was clear that there was convergence, I wanted to see if provincial similarity was a more recent phenomenon driven by such things as globalization or US influence. So, I decided to take a long view and adopt an historical approach and went all the way back to the 1840s when then-colonial governments of British North America began to enact policies for public schooling. It turns out that at first some interesting differences appeared among the colonies – and what would later become the provinces – as officials in the different areas pursued different options. However, following Confederation, provincial officials were keenly aware of the fact that they needed to meet and exchange information on their different education arrangements and so formed the Dominion Education Association. Teachers and school board officials also got into the mix by the 1920s and created their own associations that brought together representatives from coast to coast. This activity set down a tradition of dedicated information exchanges that helped facilitate what public policy people like to call ‘policy oriented learning’. And so – by 1945, many of the differences that had originally marked the provinces were already disappearing thanks to experts and officials learning from one another and adapting practices to fit within their respective jurisdictions.

Alcantara: How did these policy learning processes and networking exchanges become so permanent and robust and resistant to differentiation and the forces of change (e.g. economic shocks, international and local/regional labour trends, and the like)? Were they institutionalized in some manner?

 Wallner: I should clarify something – it is not as if in 1945 all policy experimentation stopped and all the provinces looked alike with the education systems as we know them today. In some ways I wish it had been that simple. Instead, some provinces always continued to experiment often in response to many of those factors you mentioned above like economic shocks and labour trends. When new practices popped up in one province, the others could watch to see if they worked – like university-led teacher education programs, that started in Alberta and then spread across the rest of the country. So, what contributed to the permanence and robustness of the learning network? One of the major things that contributed to this was the creation of the Council for Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) in 1967. This is an organization for education ministers and their senior deputies alone. They have regularly scheduled meetings and a permanent secretariat based in Toronto that helps keep things going – even as governments change hands across the provinces after elections. I am not saying that everything is channeled through CMEC – but the Council helped to institutionalize the learning network and offers a focal point for information exchanges thus facilitating the necessary communication from coast to coast.

Alcantara: So what are the implications of your research findings in terms of a) what we should expect to see from provincial education policy in the future; and b) what policymakers might learn from your work?

 Wallner: Great questions! For many people, one issue that is already getting considerable coverage is the declining math scores in all provinces, except Quebec. I hope that officials are going to capitalize on Canada’s comparative advantage and draw lessons from Quebec to help improve things in the rest of the jurisdictions. Moving beyond what I covered in my book – another issue that receives considerably less attention but is one that needs to be addressed is the quality of schooling for Aboriginal children, and the new autonomy that the territories have over schooling in their respective regions and what that will mean for provincial and territorial cooperation in education.

On the lessons learned – I hope that three things come out from the book. First, and this is something we did not have a chance to get into here but schooling systems are in fact a collection of policies and practices that are often developed in isolation from one another. For example, some area of the bureaucracy will specialize in curriculum while another focuses on administration. Decisions in administration, however, can influence things in curriculum and so it is important to recognize the interconnections among the different dimensions of education policy. Second, interprovincial communication is critical and must happen regularly. It is only through actively exchanging ideas that we learn from one other and make overall improvements to our schooling systems. Third and most importantly is that provincial policy makers can build remarkably effective policy systems – like education – without the direct intervention of the federal government and without expecting each province to do exactly the same thing.

Alcantara: Now that this book is done, what are you hoping to write about next?

Wallner: I am turning my attention to other Anglo-American federations – Australia and the US – to unpack the different trajectories of the schooling systems in those two other countries. Both cases are fascinating in and of themselves and in comparison with Canada. Did you know, for example, that more than 30 percent of Australians attend private schools that are supported by public funds? Or that many US governors have little authority over schooling policy in their states? Both countries are also in the throws of considering some major changes to the way that schooling is managed, specifically with respect to the role that should be played by the Commonwealth and Washington respectively. Bottom line: this makes great fodder for political science and public policy research!

Combat could be game changer in next vote

Published Oct. 14, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

Whenever an election appears on the horizon, political strategists attempt to frame a “ballot question” to offer voters a bite-sized synopsis of the key issue, as the strategists see it.

For Conservatives planning next October’s federal campaign, the ballot question has been the economy and the Harper government’s wise management thereof since the crash of 2008. A federal surplus is within reach, the economy is growing again (at least a bit), interest rates are low and a brighter future lies ahead, or so it can be argued. Why risk everything by changing horses now?

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For the opposition parties, the ballot question is a hoary one – time for a change. The New Democrats and Liberals will put different spins on the question, but the bottom line is essentially the same: after nine years, it is time to get rid of the aloof, insensitive prime minister and his arrogant Tories who care only about winning and not about the needs, hopes and dreams of ordinary Canadians.

This is pretty predictable stuff. Now, however, there is a new element – two elements, actually. First, will the war against ISIS and Canada’s involvement be what they call a “game changer?” Will it change the way Canadians look at their political leaders and their parties? Will it change their vote next October?

In one scenario, the air war goes well; ISIS is quickly contained, if not obliterated; and Canada is seen to have made a useful contribution. In this scenario, Prime Minister Harper and his Conservatives accept the credit for sound leadership and roll to victory in October.

In a second scenario – call it the Vietnam syndrome – the air war drags on with no end in sight. ISIS warriors take shelter among the civilian population and it becomes apparent it is going to take allied boots on the ground, including Canadian boots, for an indefinite period. Having bought into the U.S.-led coalition, could Canada realistically back out when the going gets tough?

But would the Canadian electorate accept an extended commitment to a war effort in which there is no evident exit strategy? And what happens if Canadian soldiers are killed or taken prisoner, or held hostage and paraded on internet videos? That would be a worst-case scenario for the Tories and could mean a ticket back to opposition.

This is why all parties are hedging their bets. The Conservatives say they signed on to the air war for six months only – a trial period that seems artificial and unrealistic. How do you fight a war with your eyes glued on the exit? The opposition parties are in a similar dilemma. They say they are opposed to joining the air war, but might change their mind later, depending on how things go. It’s a position built on quicksand, betraying both expediency and lack of commitment.

If ISIS is one potential game changer, Justin Trudeau is another. Chosen Liberal leader 18 months ago, Trudeau has enjoyed an astonishingly easy run to the top of the polls. His thin resume and meager arsenal of policies did not hinder his ascent. He has the Trudeau name – if not the steel-trap mind and icy determination of his father – and he generates genuine excitement among younger voters.

Here is an attractive young leader who wants to be prime minister, who seems impervious to Conservative attack ads, who has been forgiven assorted gaffes over the months, and who – importantly – is not Stephen Harper. What’s not to like?

The answer may have begun to emerge last week. The Commons held a debate on Canadian involvement in the ISIS war, the most important debate in the Commons in many months. It was a time for national leaders to step up. Harper and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair stepped up, leading their parties in the debate. Trudeau did not. He left the heavy lifting to other Liberals, and he made matters worse with sophomoric sexual innuendo about fighter aircraft, an attempt at humour that was inappropriate and unfunny in a serious situation.

If Trudeau wants to lead the nation, he is going to have to prove he has what it takes.

Health system needs federal leadership

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

Every once in awhile, politics produces a story that manages to be both profoundly sad, yet instructive. Such is the story of Herb Gray.

Herb — I will call him by his first name because that’s how I knew him in my years in Ottawa — was first elected to the Commons in 1962 and was re-elected 12 times in his Windsor riding. He was there for the introduction of medicare and the Canadian flag, for the entry of Pierre Trudeau on the political scene, and the rise of Stephen Harper. When he retired in 2002, after 40 years on the Hill, he was the longest continuously serving MP in Canadian history.

He was the first Jewish federal cabinet minister, held almost a dozen cabinet posts in Liberal administrations, and served as deputy prime minister under Jean Chrétien. He was named the “Right Honourable” Herb Gray, a designation normally reserved for governors general, prime ministers and chief justices of the Supreme Court of Canada.

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In retirement, he served as chancellor of Carleton University and Canadian co-chair of the International Joint Commission that deals with boundary matters between Canada and the United States. There is a parkway named after him in his hometown of Windsor.

A bit more about Herb. He was not, let us say, the most colourful politician on the Ottawa scene. Charisma was not his thing. Among reporters, he was known, affectionately or despairingly, as Grey Herb. He had a particular ability to render almost any subject impenetrable by smothering it in verbiage — a talent that served him well on occasion in question period. Yet there was more to Grey Herb than met the eye. It turned out he was a huge fan of rock ‘n’ roll, especially of the American group Hootie & the Blowfish.

Herb died last April. He was 82 and had suffered from various ailments in his later years. One was Parkinson’s disease, which affected his balance. From time to time he fell, injured himself and required hospitalization.

Just how difficult his life became was revealed last week when his widow, Sharon Sholzberg-Gray, went public in a letter to the Globe and Mail, followed by interviews with the Ottawa Citizen and CBC Radio. The Rt. Hon. Herb Gray, former deputy prime minister of Canada, dean of the Commons, was a victim of the same crisis of hospital wait times that makes life miserable for so many Canadians.

On a number of occasions he was taken by ambulance to hospital in Ottawa, there to wait on a gurney in the emergency department in the hope that a bed would open up. The wait might be 48 hours, or even 72 hours. Herb never complained. He never dreamed of pulling rank to move to the front of the queue. He was proud of medicare and of being a member of the Parliament that created it. “He always thought we had a wonderful health-care system,” his wife said. He would tell people, just think what it was like before medicare.

Like her husband, Sholzberg-Gray would not use her position to obtain preferential treatment. A lawyer, she was president of the Canadian Healthcare Association. Because her husband was a prominent Liberal and a cabinet minister, she was scrupulously non-partisan in her advocacy of publicly funded care.

Now, however, she notes that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in his nearly nine years as prime minister, has never once met with provincial leaders to discuss the health-care system. This despite the fact that medicare always ranks at or near the top of lists of Canadians’ concerns. The system, Sholzberg-Gray says, needs federal leadership and a transfusion of money to meet the treatment needs of elderly patients, both in hospital and in their own homes — “The real question is: Should frail, elderly people lie behind a curtain for 48 hours? No.”

No one should have to lie behind a curtain for 48 hours. Not Herb Gray. Not any elderly Canadian.

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.