A CAQ government? Stranger things have happened

Published Apr. 7, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record. 

People may not recognize the name of Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, a 19th century French politician and revolutionary, but they will have heard of his famous comment: “There go my people, I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.”

It’s like that in Quebec today, provincial election day. The electorate is moving — the pollsters and pundits detect the movement — but where the people are heading, where they will end up, and who will lead them is almost anyone’s guess. The situation reminds me of the 2011 federal election and the New Democratic Party’s “Orange Wave,” led by the late Jack Layton. The NDP came of nowhere, literally, to capture 59 of Quebec’s 75 seats in Parliament (and 103 of 308 nationally).

A surge of that magnitude may not be in the cards today, but something is happening. To the extent that there is consensus, it is that the campaign has been all-round nasty and the governing Parti Québécois is in deep, deep trouble. Premier Pauline Marois has led the worst campaign, muddled and off-message, anyone has witnessed in many years. The tumbrels will roll for her if she fails to win a majority; they will roll even if she manages to cling to another minority. Her self-designated successor will have to wait a long time before he will be able to crown himself President Péladeau (or perhaps he would prefer Emperor Pierre Karl the First) of a sovereign Quebec.

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It is a reflection of the PQ’s disastrous campaign, that the polls seem to be pointing to a return of the Liberals, out of office for just 18 months, still scandal-plagued and now led by the thoroughly underwhelming Philippe Couillard (he makes the late Liberal premier Robert Bourassa seem charismatic by comparison). But no one has the faintest idea whether it would be a Liberal majority or minority.

The polls this past weekend are little or no help. A Léger Marketing survey, published Sunday morning, put the Liberals at 38 per cent, nine points ahead of the PQ. Given the way support is split among the other parties, those 38 points could produce a Liberal majority. (A new projection by ThreeHundredEight.com, a poll aggregator, gives the Liberals 69 of the 125 seats in the National Assembly.) Or it could give the Liberals a minority — or nothing.

The huge unknown is the young Coalition Avenir Québec, which occupies the centre-right of the spectrum — conservative on fiscal issues and liberal on social ones. Led by François Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister, the CAQ is the only party with any momentum. While the PQ and the Liberals have been frozen in place or slipping slightly, the CAQ has kept moving ahead. As of Sunday, it had reached 23 per cent, up eight points since the third week of March.

The trend is what has Quebec politicians excited — and worried. The CAQ could end up with just a dozen seats, or it could end up in power. (It won 19 seats in the 2012 election that brought Marois and the PQ to office.) In this election, it has managed to keep out of the mudslinging between the PQ and the Liberals; it has sensed the public mood by declaring a 10-year moratorium on referendums; and its leader, Legault, is seen to have out-performed his opponents in the televised leaders’ debates.

Written off early in the campaign, the CAQ has surged in the past two weeks. “When you look at polls, what’s important are trends,” Legault said the other day. “There is a possibility that we will form a majority government, the CAQ, according to the trends.”

The CAQ is certainly the spoiler in this election. But a CAQ government, majority or minority? An impossible dream? Perhaps. But perhaps not. But when the electorate starts to move, no one knows where it will stop. Let’s not forget Jack Layton and 2011.

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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Trudeau shouldn’t expect big boost from ‘star’ candidates

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.

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Trudeau’s Liberals have their eye on gold

Published Feb. 24, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There’s a theory that political junkies and sports fanatics are products of the same gene pool. As a broad generality, serious political fans are often serious sports fans, as well. It’s something about the game, the thrill of competition, the risk of failure and success, and the uncertainty of the outcome until the last second ticks away or the last ballot is counted.

For all I know, there may be some learned academic treatises on this sports/politics relationship, but if there are, I haven’t seen them. All I know, after too many years misspent while hanging around politicians and their gatherings, is that when they are not talking politics, they are frequently talking sports. (“Did you see that overtime goal?” “Why can’t the Jays land a starting pitcher?”)

So today let’s try a quick quiz to see if we can separate the sports nuts from the political groupies. How many of you got up early (very early west of Ontario) to watch the gold medal hockey game between Sweden and Canada in Sochi on Sunday? And how many of you remained glued to the final proceedings of the biennial convention in Montreal of the Liberal party of Canada? (That’s the party that, after disappointing with bronze in the 2011 electoral contest, is an early favourite for gold next time, in 2015.)

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It will take our scrutineers a few minutes to tally the votes, so let’s press ahead on the hypothesis that more Canadians are seized with the political games than the Olympic Games. You do agree, don’t you?

That said, it must also be said that the Montreal convention will not go down as one of the more stimulating political gatherings in history. I’ve never experienced a national political gathering when the moving expenses of a candidate for Parliament (retired General Andrew Leslie) was seen as a burning issue. Montreal was a singularly quiet convention. Even the Conservatives’ plans to disrupt the convention (if that was their intention) came to naught.

A quiet convention suited the Liberals just fine. Delegates had an opportunity to see, hear and evaluate their new leader, Justin Trudeau. Most seemed to like what they saw. His big speech on Saturday was warm and fuzzy. Although he invoked the memory of his father, Justin is no Pierre. I couldn’t help but think back to his father’s electrifying speech in April 1968 to the Liberal leadership convention in Ottawa.

But where Trudeau the Elder promised Canadians a “Just Society,” Trudeau the Younger settled for a more modest rhetoric. He promised all Canadians “a fair shot at success.” As poetry, it may fall short, but times change. When Pierre spoke in 1968, the Liberals were in power and were looking for a new leader to give it a shot of adrenalin to keep them there. Pierre did that. In 2014, Justin’s Liberals, although performing well in recent polls, are still a third-place party.

He has to overcome not one, but two, formidable opponents. In Stephen Harper, the Conservatives have a leader who has all the advantages and levers of power. He is resourceful, well-financed and determined, with a mean streak a yard wide (as his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, might attest). To get to Harper and the Tories, Justin Trudeau has to climb over Thomas Mulcair and the NDP. Opposition leader Mulcair is determined, too, and absolutely relentless, as he demonstrated in Parliament when he dismantled government evasions in the Senate expense scandal. While the Conservatives may have grown tired in government, Mulcair’s NDP is still vigorous in opposition.

There won’t be many easy seats for any party in October 2015. It shapes up as a riding-by-riding, take-no-prisoners battle where small mistakes can cause big very damage. It will be particularly difficult for the Liberals as they try to move from third to first, from bronze to gold. But, like Canada’s women’s and men’s hockey teams in Sochi, they can already smell the podium.

Dr. Cochrane Appears on CTV News: Trudeau Gaining Ground

Broadcasted February 10, 2014, on CTV News.

Latest poll by Ipsos Reid suggests Justin Trudeau is acquiring more support from Canadian voters. Should the conservative party be worried? LISPOP Associate Dr. Christopher Cochrane appears to discuss why Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party is ‘gaining ground’. You can watch the video by clicking here.

Pension reform may be a winner for Wynne

Published Dec. 24, 2013, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his fiscal enforcer, Jim Flaherty, may have handed Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne the keys to a magic kingdom.

But this is not some Disney fantasyland. Rather, it is the world of majority government in Ontario.

The two keys the federal Conservatives have given the minority Liberal premier are, first, a popular election issue and, second, a convincing enemy to stand against.

That enemy is the government in Ottawa. Wynne doesn’t owe the feds any favours. She is free to run with the issue they have given her, and she can ignore Tiny Tim Hudak, the Ontario Tory leader. She can run against the big guys, the villains from Ottawa.

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The issue is pension reform. Or, as the Wynne Liberals will position it (if they are smart), the right of greying Ontario baby boomers, and soon-to-be boomers, to retire with dignity and with adequate support from the Canada Pension Plan — to which they have contributed uncomplainingly throughout their working lives.

Partisan rhetoric aside, it’s a legitimate issue. More than half of Ontarians have no private or company pension plan. They rely on the Canada Pension, which pays a maximum of just over $12,000 a year, plus the means-related old age security and guaranteed income supplement, which can raise the total to a measly $16,000.

Although everyone agrees that is not enough, Wynne and other premiers are frustrated by Flaherty’s refusal to consider enriching the Canada Pension Plan. The federal minister blocked consensus at the finance ministers’ meeting at Meech Lake Dec. 16, and Wynne says Ontario is prepared to go it alone, or with other unhappy provinces.

Flaherty argues that although a return to surpluses is just around the corner in Ottawa, the economy is still too fragile to consider increasing Canada Pension Plan payroll taxes to support more generous benefits.

“Now is the time for fiscal discipline,” he said. Jobs must be created and budgets balanced before the needs of retirees can addressed.

Yes, “fiscal discipline” — just what retirees are longing to hear!

I can see the Liberal and NDP ads now. “Santa” Flaherty handing out “fiscal discipline” vouchers on street corners to pensioners, along with a kindly lecture about how they should have saved more during their working years, and how, now that they are old, they should thank Stephen Harper for the vouchers to take to the food bank to swap for something to eat.

The Harper Conservatives usually manage to make trouble for themselves (to wit, the Senate scandal coverup). This time they are undermining their allies in Ontario, the most important chunk of political real estate in the country. What’s more, they are exposing their base — the 25 or 30 per cent who can be relied on to vote Tory — to assault from their opponents.

The demographics of the Harper nation tend to middle income, grey hair and retirement planning — just the sort of folks who would suffer under Flaherty’s “fiscal discipline” regime. If these people face a polling-booth choice between better pensions and loyalty to the party, the Tories might be not be happy with the result.

The pension issue also serves to reinforce the image of Conservatives, especially the federal variety, as being indifferent to the needs of ordinary Canadian families. It’s an image that was further reinforced recently when Industry Minister James Moore, supposedly a humane Tory, mused aloud, “Is it the government’s job, my job, to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so” — a gaffe (or a lapse into candour) for which he later apologized.

Then there’s Harper’s man at Canada Post, Deepak Chopra, who revealed the secret rationale behind the shift from home delivery to community mailboxes — that is, to give seniors more exercise.

I can see the scene now — hordes of happy seniors chanting the praises of Chairman Harper as they race their walkers and wheelchairs through ice and snow to retrieve their mail. The Conservatives will surely have cameras there to capture the festive scene for next election’s commercials.

Is Harper looking for the exit sign?

Published Dec. 9, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has often repeated his intention to lead the Conservative party into the next federal election, and it might be so.

But that is the kind of assertion political figures must make in the light of political realities at the time, not as a distant goal.

Whatever the party leader’s aspirations, 2013 has not been kind, and supporters must wonder if the jig for the prime minister is not coming to an end. He has served in the role for almost eight years, and could manage another couple before the next election, should he choose to play out the string afforded by his majority government status. One can question, however, if that really in the party’s best interests?

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Come election time, canadians will only care about the economy

Published Nov. 18, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

This may be difficult, but please try to forget — for just a moment — all that lurid Rob Ford news exploding out of Toronto city hall. Can you do that?

And try to forget about the ugly Senate expenses scandal with the unprecedented ouster of erstwhile celebrities Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau. Stars no longer, they remain senators in name only.

Try to forget the Harper government’s attempt to persuade the Supreme Court of Canada that it actually has a viable prescription for Senate reform. It actually doesn’t. And try to forget Justin Trudeau’s ongoing demonstration that he is not yet ready for prime time. He sure isn’t.

Focus, instead, on Finance Minister Jim Flaherty who went out to Edmonton — the Commons was in recess and Alberta crowds are always friendly to Conservative ministers — to deliver his annual update on the economy last week. It was a happily upbeat message. All things considered, the economy is doing very nicely indeed. Jobless, underemployed and debt-laden Canadians might beg to differ, but the gnomes in Finance see the big picture.

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Thanks to the wise stewardship of the Harper Tories, the Great Recession is just about over. After a teeny deficit next year (smaller than Flaherty had anticipated), the economy will burst back into the promised land of surpluses; there will even be tax cuts. This will happen in fiscal 2015-16, the fiscal year in which, due to providence or good management, the federal election will take place, in October 2015.

It has been my contention for some time that the fate of the Conservative government is inextricably tied to the economy. If the economy is healthy — if Canadians feel they are no worse off than they were before the recession (or before Harper took office) and if they can see the economy is growing again — the Tories will get re-elected in 2015. If not, they won’t.

Peripheral issues will drop away. Canadians don’t like senators who fiddle their expenses, but they don’t really care a hoot about the institution. They’d be content if it went away (or were reformed) but they don’t value it enough to be worth a protracted battle with the provinces to change it.

Disgusting Rob Ford is simply a distraction who gives politics and politicians a bad name. Toronto will recover from being the laughing stock of American talk shows. Ford himself will go away, by resignation, removal or electoral defeat. He will not be mayor a year from now, and Toronto the Good will be good again.

Stephen Harper himself will become a peripheral issue, if the economy performs as Flaherty forecasts. Who really cares whether the prime minister is closed, arrogant, secretive, controlling or contemptuous of Parliament, if the sun has broken through after seven years of dark economic clouds for many Canadian families?

A good job with an adequate paycheque and the prospect of advancement, plus lower taxes, decent health care and opportunities for the children — what more could the average Canadian voter ask for in 2015?

That’s a question that could very well be facing both Liberal leader Trudeau and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair as each battles to establish his party as the champion of the middle class. Four federal byelections are being held on Nov. 25, but they won’t tell us much.

Bourassa in Montreal and Toronto Centre are both Liberal seats and should stay that way, although the NDP is making serious noise in Toronto Centre. It looks as though the Manitoba seat of Brandon-Souris could slip from the Conservative to the Liberals, while Provencher, also in Manitoba, which was vacated by former cabinet minister Vic Toews, should stay Tory.

Meanwhile, Trudeau’s Liberals hold a lead nationally of about six points over the Conservatives in recent polls. That’s a lead that, as Liberals well know, could melt like ice cubes on a hot summer day if the Conservatives can take credit for a stronger, healthier, recovered economy in 2015.


Interview with Dr. Barry Kay on 570 News

Broadcasted May. 23, 2013, on 570 News

Dr. Barry Kay appears on The Gary Doyle Show to discuss our most recent federal seat projection. Dr. Kay discusses how the Liberal Party of Canada has enough support to displace the Federal Conservatives.

You can hear what Dr. Kay had to say by listening here approximately at the 17-minute mark. 

Attack ads and mixed martial arts

Published Apr. 22, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

Out in computerland, they talk a lot about “hitting the reset button.”

This implies getting rid of all the bad stuff that went before, correcting mistakes and starting over again. A new beginning, you might say.

The expression has crept into politics. The Harper government promised to “hit the reset button” on plans to spend — what? — $40 or $50 billion on F-35 fighter aircraft. The government has not said what, if anything, has happened in the months since it ostensibly hit the reset button. Perhaps the bright lights in the Department of National Defence are still labouring 24/7 to wrap their heads around the awkward concept that there are more suitable aircraft available at a (much) more reasonable cost.

Perhaps the government will tell us before the next election (in October 2015) what it is up to. It may be hung up on a dilemma: how to launch a new beginning without admitting past mistakes on the F-35 file. But let’s leave the Conservatives to rationalize their way out of that dilemma and move on.

This seems to be an opportune moment to hit a few other reset buttons. Continue reading

With the election still 30 months away, there is time to plan new beginnings and present them to the electorate. With Thomas Mulcair of the NDP, Daniel Paillé of the Bloc Québécois and now Justin Trudeau of the Liberals, there are three party leaders in Ottawa who were not there in the 2011 election. Conditions exist for new approaches.

The first reset button to hit is whatever button controls the temperature in the capital. There is a meanness, even viciousness, that did not always characterize federal politics. Without wishing to wallow in nostalgia, things were different in the first Trudeau era. Pierre Trudeau was never lovable. He was tough and often aloof, but he commanded respect and loyalty. Robert Stanfield, the Tory leader, was intelligent, moderate and every inch a gentleman. NDP leader Tommy Douglas was the soul of integrity; he’s sometimes described as the “last honest politician in Canada.”

The past is gone, but the present can be changed and the future improved. Let’s start with an all-party commitment to eliminate attack ads. Just because American politicians wallow in them, it doesn’t mean we have to indulge in them in Canada. They may or may not work — and I have grave reservations about the efficacy of Conservatives’ current attacks on Justin Trudeau — but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they lower the level of politics for all participants. They squeeze out reasoned argument. They turn politics into a form of mixed martial arts.

As the level of discourse sinks, electors conclude that none of the combatants is worthy of their support, and voting turnout declines. The elimination of attack ads would help restore respect to politics as an honourable profession.

Another reset button is the transparency button. All politicians preach the gospel of openness. In opposition, Stephen Harper was an ardent advocate of open government. A Conservative government, he promised, would be an open book. Its policies and procedures would be transparent to all. Its ministers and officials would be held accountable for everything they did.

It hasn’t turned out quite that way. Today’s government is the least open since the Second World War (when there were grounds for opacity). Transparency is becoming a fiction (witness the deterioration of the Access to Information Act). And accountability is a joke (ministerial responsibility these days means ministers not doing anything that would embarrass the prime minister or his government).

Would it do any good to hit that transparency reset button? Sure. Let’s start with the F-35. The government could take the people into its confidence. After all, it’s taxpayers’ money. Why do we need new fighters? What role(s) would they be expected to fill? What planes has the government considered? Why did it choose the one it did? Not least, how much, honestly, will the darned machine really, truly cost?

Dr. Barry Kay discusses the future after Trudeau for Kitchener-Waterloo Ridings

Broadcasted April 14, 2013, on CTV News

Dr. Barry Kay appears on CTV News to talk about what the future holds for our local ridings in Kitchener and Kitchener/Waterloo. He expects the Liberals to be very competitive in our already competitive local ridings. Dr. Kay states, “Justin Trudeau will be help the liberal party, especially for younger voters…”

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How much longer until someone else takes Conservative party torch?

Published Apr. 15, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record 

One of the most iconic scenes in American cinema comes from the 1955 Billy Wilder film, The Seven Year Itch. It shows Marilyn Monroe, the love interest in the film, standing on a Lexington Avenue subway grate, trying to hold down the billowing skirt of her sexy white dress.

What does this have to do with Stephen Harper, you may ask? Well, maybe a bit.

In the film, the male lead, played by Tom Ewell, finds his eye wandering after seven years of monogamous marriage. (Enter the tempting Ms. Monroe.) It just so happens that Prime Minister Harper recently (in February) celebrated his seventh anniversary in 24 Sussex, and it is no secret that the affections of some members of his uncommonly faithful caucus are beginning to wander. The pre-Easter flap over abortion is one indication of caucus restlessness, and we are bound to experience more of that in the coming months.

How much longer? MPs wonder. How much longer will the ambitious among them have to wait for the leader to depart and give them a chance at the brass ring?

Ottawa pundits, weary of Harper, are asking the same questions, to the point of suggesting that the prime minister has some sort of obligation to inform his party whether he intends to hang around to lead into the next election, scheduled for October 2015. If he is going to leave, or so say the pundits, he should tell his followers now so that they can plan an orderly succession.

(Don’t pay too much attention to the pundits. The last thing Ottawa journalists really desire is an orderly transition. That’s boring. A wide open scramble among inflated egos makes much better copy, especially if the scramble spills a bit of political blood.)

There is no reason to suspect Harper cares about any of this gratuitous advice. The job of his Conservative MPs is to show up and vote the way they are told before lapsing back into silence. And Harper has never paid any attention to the opinions of the media; there is no reason to think he will start now.

But the polls are interesting. As might be expected, Harper leads when respondents are asked which of the party leaders has the best experience to lead the country, but he trails Justin Trudeau when they are asked to name the most inspiring leader. A Nanos poll last week gave the Liberal party a four-point lead nationally over Harper’s Tories. Given the hype surrounding Trudeau and the Liberal convention, that’s not particularly surprising, either.

Of potentially greater significance is the decline of the NDP, the official Opposition in Parliament, into third place on most indicators. The Orange Revolution seems to be over. For the moment, it appears that Trudeau is retrieving the youth and soft Liberal votes that went to the NDP in 2011. It’s not so much that Thomas Mulcair has been an inadequate leader. He’s done and been everything the NDP could realistically have expected. In the beginning, he suffered by not being Jack Layton; now he suffers by not being Justin Trudeau. But, hey, no one ever said politics was fair.

The competition changes as of this week. Now that Trudeau is officially the Liberal leader, he will be vulnerable to attack from both the left and especially the right.

He knows the attacks are coming and claims he will be ready for them. But he says he will not indulge in the negativity that characterizes Tory politics under Harper.

“The biggest difference between a party led by me and one by Stephen Harper will be one of tone, one of respect for Canadians and their intelligence,” Trudeau says. “We don’t have to play by his rules.”

There’s a meanness, a nastiness, in federal politics these days, but no one is forcing anyone to play by Harper’s rules. After seven years, perhaps it’s time to scratch that itch.

Netanyahu must turn to domestic concerns

Published Jan. 26, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

Those familiar with Israel’s electoral system will know that identification of the leading party and the prime minister-designate in a parliamentary election like the one held Tuesday is only the beginning of a long, arduous negotiating process to determine the shape of the new government, something that can take weeks.

While incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu is effectively the only plausible choice for prime minister after this week’s voting, his Likud party and its partner Israel Beteinu dropped from 42 seats in the previous Knesset (parliament) to just 31, barely halfway to forming even a bare majority in the 120-seat legislature, and it would require a substantially larger coalition to have any stability.

Most of Netanyahu’s decline was taken up by a new more conservative party, Bayit Yehudah. Of even greater consequence, however, is that the overall aggregation of right-wing and religious parties that sustained him in the past fell from 65 seats to 61, effectively insufficient to form a government on their own.

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