The elephant in the Conservatives’ closet

Published Mar. 10, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record. 

The Senate expenses scandal may seem to be in abeyance. It no longer dominates question period in Parliament, leads the TV news or makes newspaper front pages on a daily basis.  But the scandal is far from over; it is destined to bite the Conservative government again before the election in October next year.

This elephant in the Tory closet was on display on the weekend when CBC-TV’s fifth estate program aired a documentary called “The Rise and Fall of Mike Duffy.” It brought back many questions.

Why did the Harper Conservatives decide to turn “Old Duff,” a popular and likeable television news host, into a Tory shill (one who soon developed a taste for $3,000 suits)? Why did the government tell Duffy it was okay to accept a Prince Edward Island Senate seat when he actually lived in Ottawa and had for decades? Why did Duffy claim $90,000 in expenses for living in his own home in Ottawa? Why did the Senate agree to let him claim them?

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Why did the Prime Minister’s Office make such strenuous efforts to cover up the affair instead of letting Duffy dig his own way out of the mess? Why did it (up to the PM himself, allegedly) agree to allow the Conservative party to buy Duffy’s silence by paying his expense debt (then believed to be only $32,000)? Is it credible that Harper was not aware of what a number of others in the PMO clearly did know: that his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had personally put up $90,000 in hush money in a failed attempt to make the scandal go away?

Why, when this came out and Wright resigned, did Harper initially express much regret and praise for Wright, only to turn around and declare that Wright was a scoundrel who had deceived him? Is  it possible that someone, a lawyer maybe, advised the PM  that if what Wright and Duffy had done was illegal (offering and accepting a bribe, perhaps), then Harper might be seen as an accomplice to the crime – an accusation that could end his political career if he did not quickly distance himself from the pair?

In monetary terms, the Senate scandal is relatively small potatoes. It cannot compete in dollars with the Liberals’ sponsorship scandal of a dozen years ago, or the more recent scandals in Ontario over Ornge ambulance or the costly relocation of hydro plants.

But the Senate affair matters for at least three reasons. First, because the clumsy cover-up has left so many questions unanswered. Second, because the Senate scandal, like the Airbus scandal of the Mulroney era, reaches into the highest office of the land where it raises grave issues of ethics, integrity and accountability. Third, with so many investigators poking around (Senate-appointed auditors, the Auditor General of Canada, and the RCMP), the affair is bound to make news for many months to come. And if Nigel Wright, who has been silent to date, has an opportunity to tell his story, he has the potential to blow the cover off the cover-up.

There’s another issue, a very political one that is beyond the reach of the various investigations. It’s the way the government works these days. Retired Progressive Conservative Senator Lowell Murray, who served in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet and has had more experience inside the corridors of power than just about anyone else, was interviewed by Linden MacIntyre on that fifth estate program the other day. Murray (who is no fan of Stephen Harper) talked about the “instinct to control everything” at the centre, in the Prime Minister’s Office.

No matter how hard he may try, no prime minister can control everything in a modern government. Some things are bound to get away. Harper could have left the Senate expenses mess to the upper house and its members to deal with. But he had to try to control it, and it got away. A lesson learned?

Harper’s Mideast trip promotes ‘strong and decisive’ image

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

If you ask people who run political campaigns at the highest levels, they will tell you that one of their essential tools is a plan.

The leader must be able to declare to voters: “Elect me and this is what I will do. Guaranteed.” The plan doesn’t have to be elaborate or detailed — simpler is better — but campaign strategists say electors are more inclined to support a party with a plan, even if they don’t agree with much of it, over a party that grapples with subtleties and complexities and lacks a clear vision. In other words, black and white works; grey doesn’t.

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I’m wending my way to Stephen Harper and Israel. But, first, some other examples. Brian Mulroney won the 1988 federal election by promising free trade with the United States. That policy was not popular, according to polls, and most voters probably had, at best, only a vague idea of what free trade might entail, but they voted for Mulroney and free trade in preference to whatever it was John Turner and the Liberals were offering (who remembers?).

In 1993, Jean Chrétien stumped the country waving his “Red Book” of Liberal commitments. The contents of the book — a mystery to even many Liberals — didn’t matter. The fact of the book and the image of the plan it represented carried Chrétien to a majority government.

To work, a plan needs to seem to be simple and clear. Then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion confused everyone, including his own followers, in the 2008 election with his environmental “green shift.” Earlier, in 1974, Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield promised to combat inflation with a temporary wage and price freeze, but the Tories could never really explain how their controls would work. Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals laughed them off the hustings — “Zap! You’re frozen!” Trudeau cried.

Trudeau himself had come to power six years earlier by stumping the country promising to make Canada a “Just Society.” Whatever that slogan meant, it seemed clear enough to voters, and powerful, and Trudeau won in a walk. A triumph for black and white politics.

This brings us, circuitously, to Prime Minister Harper and the Middle East. When Harper played his Israel card last week, there was no grey area, no qualifications, no discreet reservations as he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conferred best-friend status on each other. Middle East politics is incredibly complex and in the years (pre-Harper) when Canada had a measure of influence there, Canadian diplomats did their best to pick their way through the minefield of conflicting Arab-Israeli interests.

No longer. In the Harper era, Israel is good. Israel is a democracy surrounded by enemies. Canada stands four-square with Israel. Let others worry those Israeli settlements. Let someone else come up with a peace plan. Canada has Israel’s back.

Harper’s professions of friendship seem to be sincere. He probably believes most or all what he said in Israel. But his real audience was here not ever there. The Conservatives are in trouble in the polls. They are running 10 to 12 points below their election 2011 level, keeping their heads above the NDP but trailing the Liberals by about six points. Harper’s personal approval has been sliding throughout the Senate expense scandal.

The Jewish vote is one of his party’s better hopes. As in the 2011 election, Conservatives will be targeting a half-dozen ridings in Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg where the Jewish vote could be decisive. According to exit polls, 53 per cent of the Jewish vote, so long in the Liberal fold, went Tory in 2011. They’d like to make that percentage even higher in 2015.

Last week has to help. Harper had a very good week. His visit will not have any lasting influence in the Middle East. But he shone among friends in Israel. He looked strong and decisive. And his message contained a clear, simple plan everyone could understand: unconditional support for Israel.

NDP’s lack of traction puzzles pundits

Published Dec. 2, 2013, in The Guelph Mercury.

The chattering classes are puzzled. They can’t figure out what is happening in federal politics these days.

Perhaps I should explain. The term “chattering classes” was coined by the late Auberon Waugh — the acidic British writer with a talent for vituperation — and is applied, usually with a sneer, to that universe of pundits, commentators, political operatives and academics who venture to express views — from the left or right (it doesn’t matter which) — on matters of political import.

The chatterers are not used to being confused. They see NDP leader Thomas Mulcair performing brilliantly in the Commons on the Senate expenses scandal; he makes Prime Minister Stephen Harper look like a schoolboy caught stealing nickels from the church collection plate. They think Mulcair and his party should be reaping a reward in the polls.

But, no. NDP support, while solid, seems stuck, a few points below their 2011 election level.

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Instead, the reward is going to the Liberals, who have not earned it. The performance of their new leader, Justin Trudeau, has been unsteady at best. Yet the Liberals enjoy a lead of six to 10 points in some polls, enough to elect a minority government in 2015. It’s as though voters who want to get rid of the Harper Conservatives have concluded that the Liberals, although in third place in Parliament, offer the best chance of achieving that goal.

That the Conservatives are in deep doo-doo is a virtual given in the chattering class. A rising chorus of pundits, some of them normally of conservative ilk, is calling on the prime minister to resign before he drives his party off the cliff — and while he can still rescue his legacy.

Harper is likely to ignore that advice, whether it come from pundits or his own caucus. He’s pretty good at ignoring advice he doesn’t want to hear.

He’s been getting a lot of free advice in the wake of last week’s federal byelections. There were four of them and, when you get right down to it, nothing really happened. The Conservatives went in with two seats, both in Manitoba, and they came out with the same two. The Liberals held their two seats and the NDP was shut out. Yes, the Tories’ popular vote declined in all four ridings, but that is scarcely unusual in mid-term byelections.

The four byelections did not qualify as harbingers of change, although some byelections do. The NDP victory in the 2012 Kitchener-Waterloo provincial byelection effectively ended the regime of then premier Dalton McGuinty, just as John Tory’s loss in a 2009 byelection in Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock ended his leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives. Back in 1989, there was a federal byelection in Beaver River in Alberta that was won by Deborah Grey. Her victory heralded the arrival of the Reform party on Parliament Hill.

In the harbinger game, it is hard to beat Oct. 16, 1978. The Pierre Trudeau Liberal government was in trouble. It had to call no fewer than 15 federal byelections. On Oct. 16, the opposition Progressive Conservatives won 10 of the seats, six of them from the Liberals, who managed to retain only two seats (both in Quebec). Seven months later, the Liberals were ousted, and Joe Clark was prime minister.

We are not likely to get any harbingers on that scale before the next election. I don’t look for any dramatic breakthroughs. Federal politics has become a game for grinders not Gretzkys. Partly on the basis of polls on the Senate scandal, my sense is that people are psychologically ready to move on from the Harper era. Whether it will be to Trudeau or Mulcair remains to be seen.

Or they may not move at all. The economy remains Harper’s ace in the hole. His Tories also have more money and a stronger organization than their opponents. They will make Harper a formidable campaigner once again. Assuming, of course, he ignores the chatter and decides to hang around.

Tories have much work to do before next election

Published Oct. 21, 2013, in The Waterloo Regional Record

According to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Canada-Europe trade agreement he signed in Brussels last week is “the biggest deal our country has ever made.”

Even if that’s true — even if, as he went on to proclaim, the agreement in principle, “is a historic win for Canada” — will it be enough to save his Conservative government?

This is not 1988. The Canada-EU pact is not a political wedge issue the way free trade — Canada-U.S., followed by Canada-U.S.-Mexico — was a generation ago. The European deal will have broad support among parties in Parliament when the details become available.

Even the New Democrats, who are inclined to snap reflexively at the mention of free trade, won’t stand in the way. The next election (in October 2015) will not be fought over EU free trade. Voters are sophisticated enough to know that the Brussels agreement would look about the same, regardless of which party in Ottawa negotiated it.

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After seven-plus years in power, the Conservatives desperately need an issue to take to the people — an issue that reveals vision, energy, direction and commitment. It does not have to be an issue that will set the Gatineau Hills afire, or cause Tory delegates to cheer themselves hoarse at their national convention in Calgary at the end of this month.

But it does have to be an issue that the Conservatives can sell as proof that Harper is back, that his political skills are still intact, that he can reverse the party’s decline since the 2011 election, and that he has the ideas to fuel a successful 2015 election — and to bury Justin Trudeau.

If the European trade is not the big issue Harper needs — and I don’t think it is — where can he turn?

Not to the Speech from the Throne. That platitude-laden document landed with a “splat” in the Senate chamber last week. Its 7,240 words made it the longest in Canadian history, almost three times the length of Harper’s first throne speech in 2006, with roughly one-third the useful content.

Senate reform is not a serious initiative. It’s become a cover for the government’s evasions and mishandling of Senate expenses.

Suspending three senators without pay — without even waiting for the various investigations ordered by the Senate to be complete — is just a clumsy attempt to shove an embarrassing mess into a black hole. It won’t fool even the truly loyal Tories who will gather in Calgary on Halloween.

Trudeau is doing much too well for Conservative comfort. The Liberals moved ahead in the polls when Trudeau became leader and, defying conventional expectations, they are still there six months later.

The latest national polls show the Liberals leading by about 10 points, with the NDP in third, nipping at the Conservatives’ heels.

An EKOS Research poll for iPolitics last week put Liberal support at 36 per cent, with the Tories at 26 and the NDP at 25. That 36 per cent would give the Liberals a minority government; poll analyst Eric Grenier projects 141 Liberals, 103 Conservatives and 87 New Democrats in the enlarged 338-seat House of Commons.

Tories believe — and I think they are correct — that Liberal support, so quickly acquired after their leadership change is soft, vulnerable to the Conservatives on the right and to the NDP on the left.

So the Harper party needs to do three things.

First, it needs to rally its flagging base; many rank-and-file Tories believe the party has lost its reforming zeal and abandoned its true-blue credentials during its years in power.

Second, it needs to encourage (and stage-manage) battles between the Liberals and New Democrats to keep the centre-left vote as divided as possible.

Third, it needs to come up with ways to attract swing voters away from the other two parties.

If the party can somehow do all three things, the author of the strategy will have earned the ultimate Ottawa reward: a seat in that much-maligned and beleaguered Senate.

Long pre-election phase portends a minority

Published Sep. 16, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

Visitors to Ottawa can be excused for being bewildered these days. They arrive expecting to find a bustling, vibrant national capital, filled with eager politicians seized with the great issues of the moment. Instead, they find a Potemkin village, a cardboard capital in which, if you exclude a few groundskeepers and lunch-bound deputy ministers, nothing moves.

Where are all the elected members? Shouldn’t they be raising Cain and rushing off to emergency debates on chemical weapons in Syria, or the national debt, or Quebec’s charter of values, or the melting of the Arctic ice cap? Where are all the opposition leaders? Shouldn’t they be roasting the prime minister over a pyre of Senate expense reports?

Where are they? Well, they are back home (again). When they last met, in mid-June, they decided they deserved a proper summer holiday: 86 days. Then last week the prime minister, motivated solely by concern for members’ wellbeing, of course, decided they needed more R&R; so he prorogued Parliament (again) and extended the summer break by 34 days, for a total of 120 days. Even a university professor would be envious.
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MPs are now due to reassemble on Oct. 16. By then, they will have been absent so long that some may need a GPS to locate Parliament Hill.

In truth, Parliament is not Stephen Harper’s favorite place. Given his druthers, he would govern without it. He’s not alone in feeling that way. Most of his predecessors as PM lost their affection for the institution about six weeks after they moved over from the opposition benches.

Prorogation means the government loses the bills it had MPs working on before the summer recess. They will have to start over again, but the government does not seem concerned. When Parliament reconvenes next month, the Conservatives will have moved into a new phase. Legislation will take a back seat to election preparation.

With the next general election not due until October 2015, it seems awfully early to be getting ready, but these days in Canada, as in the United States, campaigns seem to be a seamless continuum. The Tories know that after seven years of Harper government they look tired and shopworn. Lacking the capacity to inspire or excite the electorate, they face two years of uphill slogging to get back to majority-government territory.

The polls suggest they need to start slogging. Although it may be abating somewhat now, the Justin Trudeau tide has lifted the Liberal boat enough to scare the Conservatives. The polls show the Liberals are slightly ahead of, or slightly behind, the Conservatives, with the NDP running a strong third. It looks as though the federal landscape is returning to its pre-2011 configuration. The difference is the New Democrats are eight or nine points stronger than they used to be, while the Conservatives and Liberals are correspondingly weaker.

At this early point, seat projections suggest a minority government, probably a weak one. With 338 seats in the enlarged Commons, a party will need 170 seats for a bare working majority (assuming the speaker is elected from government ranks). Professor Barry Kay, in a projection published last week by the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy, reported that no party is remotely close to majority status. His model showed the Conservatives with a minority government at 126 seats, with the Liberals at 121. (If so, it would be the closest federal election since 1972 when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals defeated Robert Stanfield’s Progressive Conservatives by two seats.) Kay put the NDP at 83 seats, the Bloc Québécois at seven, with Elizabeth May retaining the Greens’ single seat.

Poking around in the poll and seat projection numbers, it seems to me the public is still unsure about Justin Trudeau. It has come to regard NDP leader Thomas Mulcair as more Ed Broadbent (solid, responsible, intelligent) than Jack Layton (charismatic, exciting). And Stephen Harper is, well, Stephen Harper (familiar but not comfortable).

Byelections draw Liberals, NDP closer

Published Aug. 3, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

As bad as the results of Thursday’s Ontario byelections were for Premier Kathleen Wynne, they could have been much worse.

Her Liberal party can hardly be happy at losing three of five seats they had previously taken by margins of 10 per cent to 20 per cent in the 2011 provincial election. Nonetheless, it could be argued that it was even harsher news for Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, whose party took only one seat when expectations suggested they would be competitive in four.

The Liberal vote was down across the board, but in many cases it was the New Democratic Party that was seen as the beneficiary of disdain for the Liberals, despite their third-party status. Wynne’s luck was exemplified by the Liberals being able to retain the riding of Scarborough-Guildwood, despite a 15 per cent decline in support, because the other two parties split the remaining vote almost evenly.

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LISPOP Seat Projection Appears in Maclean’s Magazine

Published April 29, 2013, in Maclean’s Magazine. 

In an article titled Trudeau’s other opponent, LISPOP’s federal seat projection was referenced in relation to Justin Trudeau and his opponent Thomas Mulcair.

You can find the article here.

 

Mid-Term Review: Electoral Trends since 2011

Two years passed since the spectacular 2011 election, leaving Canada with a very new electoral dynamic. The Conservative party emerged as the new dominant political force; the Liberal party was reduced to third-party status; and the NDP rose to official opposition and acquired a more confident posture about crossing over to the governing benches. Now, at the mid-way point of this government’s mandate, we take a look at how things have evolved. As it turns out, much has changed.

Two years’ worth of seat projections computed by LISPOP associate Barry Kay is summarized in Figure 1. These are based on publicly available polls, catalogued by LISPOP. One obvious change over this time is the renewed popularity of the Liberal party.

Source: Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (lispop.ca)

With Justin Trudeau as its new leader, the Liberals now seem far less like the deceased political entity many claimed it to be. The Liberals, which governed with a rather weak base in the Western provinces, and, since the early 1980s, without Quebec offering solid support, appears to have reversed much of its misfortune. The Liberals gained strength early on since 2011. The very first seat projection since the last general election nearly doubled the Liberal seat count in Parliament. The party broke through the 100-seat mark in spring, 2013, where it took the lead, nationally. It pushed further ahead in June to 166 seats, although our most recent projection (July 9, 2013) suggests the Liberals lost some ground. Overall, though, the party’s gains appear to have come at the expense of both the NDP and Conservatives.
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But the real story is not in national numbers, which could easily be skewed by polls that over sample the more populous areas. As we all know, electoral politics in Canada is fought at the regional level. On this score, too, much has changed.

In British Columbia, the Liberals languished in a distant third place behind the Conservatives and NDP (see Figure 2). However, the Liberals have come from way behind and now there is far less space separating the three major parties. Currently, the LISPOP projection gives the Conservative and NDP each 15 seats, and the Liberals 11.

Source: Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (lispop.ca)

The regional flip-side of Canada, the Atlantic provinces, shows a flip-side of trends (see Figure 3). The 2011 election left the three parties relatively close by to each other. The Conservatives, which led the region two years ago, saw its strength halved, with our latest seat projections allocating six seats to the party. The NDP, while hardly a formidable force back in 2011, has weakened a tad more. But the Liberals, which won 12 seats in 2011, is now allocated nearly twice that.

Source: Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (lispop.ca)

Source: Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (lispop.ca)

In Quebec, the NDP – which in 2011 displaced the Bloc Québécois as the dominant party in the province – has lost much ground to the Liberals. Our most recent allocation gives the Liberal 39 seats, with 26 to the NDP (see Figure 4). The Conservatives, which always struggled in Quebec, have remain way behind. Our seat projections rarely gave the party anything more than single-digit allocations. Our most recent projection gives the Conservatives five seats. Meanwhile, the Bloc, which suffered a near-death experience in 2011, could be said to remain on life support. Our seat projections gave the BQ its best allocation of 20 seats in March of 2012, but since then the party’s numbers rarely exceeded the low teens. Our latest projection gives the Bloc eight seats.

Source: Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (lispop.ca)

Source: Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (lispop.ca)

In Ontario, the Liberals are effectively tied with the Conservatives (see Figure 5). The Liberals spent much of 2012 tied with the NDP for a distant second place. But since the winter of 2013, the Liberals broke away from that pattern to now tie with the Conservatives.

Source: Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (lispop.ca)

Source: Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (lispop.ca)

It is only in the three Prairie provinces where things remain relatively unchanged over the last two years. The Conservatives continue to dominate in Alberta, with the opposition parties are allocated only three seats in our latest projection. The opposition parties have made more of an improvement in the other two provinces, but the Conservatives remain still very much on top.

It should be cautioned that all of this is a premature analysis of trends. The next election is not until two years, and a great deal can happen in politics in a very short period of time. Perhaps that is the motivation behind yesterday’s cabinet shuffle. Also, new electoral boundaries are not yet set in stone, so our projections are based on assumptions that may very well need to be modified. In sum, the present situation could easily juggle into another dynamic or return to the polarized scenario of 2011. There is no telling what a campaign could do to “restore” Canada to the political order established two years ago, or even to shake it up further into yet a new and unexpected equilibrium.

For a complete list of LISPOP’s federal seat projections, visit: http://lispop.ca/seatprojections.html

Byelections a chance to dump McGuinty albatross

Published July 8, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

Byelections can be a really big deal — or they can be small potatoes. They can mean everything, or nothing. They can be a harbinger, or a footnote.

Readers of a certain age will remember Oct. 16, 1978. That’s the day when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals fought no fewer than 15 federal byelections, from British Columbia to Newfoundland — with disastrous results. The Liberals had been planning to call a general election earlier in 1978. But Trudeau had been in power for 10 years, the land was restless, and the polls were bleak. So Trudeau stalled and stalled. Finally, with 15 empty seats in the Commons, he had to call the byelections.

The outcome was a harbinger of events to come. The Liberals managed to win just two of the byelections, both in their fortress Quebec. The three opposition parties took the other 13, with the Progressive Conservatives, under Joe Clark, winning 10. Seven months later, Trudeau was out and Clark was prime minister (albeit briefly in both cases).

To move from the archives to the near-present, the Ontario provincial byelection in Kitchener-Waterloo on Sept. 6, 2012, was also a really big deal. Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals had gone into the provincial election the year before with a majority government. They came out of it one seat shy of a third consecutive majority. McGuinty was suddenly vulnerable.

But then Elizabeth Witmer, the long-serving Conservative member for Kitchener-Waterloo, resigned to accept a patronage appointment from McGuinty. The ensuing byelection was a big potato. Had the Liberals won, they would have gained the seat they desperately needed to recover their majority, and McGuinty could have revived his political life. Chances are he would still be premier today.

It was not to be. New Democrat Catherine Fife won the seat handily as enthusiastic NDP volunteers flooded the riding. The Liberal candidate finished a distant third. One month later, McGuinty announced his retirement, and four months after that Kathleen Wynne was premier of Ontario.

Now Wynne faces her own byelection challenges with five vacancies to be filled across the province, from Windsor to Ottawa, on Aug. 1. I think these are five small potatoes. To start with, all five seats were held by Liberals in the 2011 election. If Wynne wins all five, she will still have a minority government. If she loses all five, she will still have her minority. Either way, she will govern at the pleasure of Andrea Horwath and the NDP.

Expectations are manageable. Everyone anticipates the Liberals will lose former finance minister Dwight Duncan’s seat, Windsor-Tecumseh; the NDP is probably too strong there. My hunch is the Liberals will hold three of the remaining four (including Ottawa South, McGuinty’s old seat, and Etobicoke-Lakeshore, where the Conservative candidacy of Toronto’s deputy mayor, Doug Holyday, is being heavily hyped).

The possible exception is London West, the seat held by Liberal energy minister Chris Bentley. The Liberals seem to have messed up their nomination, and the Tories can taste an upset. But watch the NDP’s Peggy Sattler, a school trustee. The New Democrats doubled their vote in the 2011 election, while the other parties were treading water, and they appear to have momentum as the byelection begins.

The popular vote will be as revealing as the wins and losses in the five races. If the opinion polls are any guide (and one would want to be wary after Alberta and British Columbia), Ontarians are slowly responding to Wynne’s cautious, non-ideological approach to public policy and issues, while Tory leader Tim Hudak comes across as a prisoner of his own too-strident rhetoric. (He would be so much more appealing if he could chill a little.)

Wynne’s albatross continues to be Dalton McGuinty and his hydro plants and other scandals. The five byelections will not slay the albatross (it would take a general election to do that), but they could diminish the beast by underscoring that McGuinty is gone and Wynne is in charge in Ontario.

What does the future hold for Bob Rae?

Published June 24, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

There are some politicians — not many, but a few — who command near-universal respect, admiration and, yes, affection, even among their opponents. Bob Rae is one of that rare species. He is resigning his seat (Toronto Centre) in the Commons, and Parliament and the Liberal party will be the poorer for his departure.

He departs with a moving van full of honours and accomplishments, yet he remains one of the might-have-beens of Canadian political history. What if Gerard Kennedy had thrown his support to him, rather than to Stéphane Dion, on the third ballot of the federal Liberal leadership convention in December, 2006? Rae would have led the Liberals into the 2008 election against Stephen Harper and his minority Conservative government. Would he have won that election? Perhaps not, but it hard to imagine that the Liberals would have run a worse campaign with Rae than they did with Dion. As it was, Harper won a second minority in 2008.
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Back it up to 1990, when Rae, then NDP leader in Ontario, won a surprise victory, defeating David Peterson’s Liberals, to become the first (and only) NDP premier of the province. What if Ontario had not fallen into jaws of the recession of the early 1990s? There would have been no need for the much-mocked “Rae Days.” His government might have been successful; if so, Rae could have won a second term in the 1995 provincial election, and Mike Harris might never have become premier of Ontario.

Although fate and timing controlled much of what Bob Rae was able to achieve, they could not blunt the qualities the man brought to whatever task he set for himself in his public life. I covered him in Ottawa in the 1970s when, as the youthful NDP finance critic, he introduced the confidence motion that brought down Joe Clark’s minority Conservative government in 1979. A decade later, he kindly let me share his office at Massey College in Toronto while we were both writing books. More recently, I observed his commitment to students during his term as the popular chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University.

He brought — “brings,” actually, because he is not done yet — wisdom, passion and civility to everything he does, a dedication to social justice (dating to his days as an Oxford student working with squatters in London) and an abiding interest in aboriginal rights (his current preoccupation).

He brought (brings) eloquence (perhaps the best debater in Parliament), spontaneity, humour and a quite remarkable ability to multi-task without ever seeming to be too busy to listen.

Two things set him apart. One is reticence bordering on shyness, his thoughtfulness making him the antithesis of a stereotypical hail-fellow-well-met politician. The other is his wit. I recall a memorable evening years ago at Hart House in Toronto when Rae debated his friend and fellow lawyer Julian Porter, a pink Tory. At this point, Rae was out of office, his NDP government having been defeated by the Harris Conservatives. The topic of the debate was: “Be it resolved that Ontario needs a Bob Rae government.”

The twist: Porter argued the affirmative and Rae the negative, arguing that the very last thing Ontario needed then (or ever) was another Bob Rae government. It was a hoot. If anyone had been keeping score, Rae would have won easily. He told the affluent Hart House crowd of the miseries they could expect from a socialist government — higher taxes, fewer entitlements for themselves and their families, greater power for the trade unions in their companies, and so on.

So what does the future hold for Rae? For now, he will work with the First Nations of Northern Ontario. But down the road? He’s turning 65 in August and has another decade or more for public service. He could be an ambassador, a high court judge, a representative to an important international agency.

Or he could be governor general. Stranger things have happened.

Harper Tories evoking laughter and anger

Published May 21, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.” — Retired House of Commons law clerk Rob Walsh, on the Mike Duffy/Nigel Wright Senate expenses uproar, CBC-TV, May 17.

Politicians don’t like it when people get really mad at them. Anger creates political damage. But they like it far less when people start laughing at them. Humour can destroy politicians and their careers. Witness former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, an honourable man who never recovered after Stephen Harper (with significant help from Mike Duffy, then a broadcaster) got the country laughing at him in the 2008 election.

Today, it seems to me, the Harper government is in peril of being dragged across that line between anger and laughter. The anger is real and it is not confined to the Ottawa bubble. It is everywhere. Just read the letters to the editor, listen to the hotline shows, follow the blogs and other traffic on the internet, or simply ask folks at Tims.
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People are angry, and rightly so. A Conservative party that was elected to clean up the mess in Ottawa after the Liberal sponsorship scandal has made matters worse. A party that was supposed to be good managers, if nothing else, has managed to combine bureaucratic ineptitude, partisan insensitivity, bullying tactics and what York University political scientist Ian Greene calls the “arrogance of office” to turn Ottawa into a toxic waste dump, politically speaking.

Harper’s approach to problems is not to meet them head on and to fix them promptly, which is what astute prime ministers do. Rather he denies the problems exist, attacks the opposition or the media, runs ads, or prorogues Parliament, then deflects blame from himself by throwing someone else under the bus. In Harper’s Ottawa, the prime minister takes credit for everything good, but responsibility for nothing bad. To my recollection, the words, “It was my fault,” or “I was wrong,” have never passed his lips.

Now that Senators Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau, plus the Prime Minister’s Office chief of staff Nigel Wright, have joined discarded former ministers Bev Oda, Helena Guergis, Peter Penashue and John Duncan, it must be getting crowded under the Harper bus.

There is a certain dark humour in this. A prime minister who was elected on a promise to reform the Senate turns it into a cesspool of Conservative patronage. Every single senator he has appointed in seven years has been a Tory; each one has been required to swear fealty to the Harper program.

Although there are hordes of Conservatives out there who would jump at the chance to earn $132,000 a year, Harper found ones who either don’t know where they live or don’t understand the simple words, “principal residence.” They run up expenses like an out-of-control bullion train, ostensibly not grasping the fact that if they go forth to campaign for the Conservative party, they should not be claiming to be on Senate business. That’s called double-dipping and it is frowned on by the conflict-of-interest people, the Senate ethics committee and probably by Canada Revenue.

Mike Duffy got caught claiming a senatorial housing allowance to which he was not entitled and was ordered to repay $90,000. Did he pay it? Nope. Pleading poverty, he went to Nigel Wright in the Prime Minister’s Office, who wrote him a personal cheque for the $90,000.

By all accounts, Wright is a good (rich) man. He wanted to help poor “Duff.” He may also have wanted to make the Duffy problem go away before it did more damage to the Harper brand. But being wiser in the ways of business than of politics, he may not have understood the ethical implications when a senior figure in the Prime Minister’s Office makes a large gift to a parliamentarian whose support the prime minister counts on.

Back in 1982, Allan Fotheringham wrote a satirical book about the Trudeau Liberals entitled, Malice in Blunderland. I wish he hadn’t written it. We could use the title today for the Harper Tories.

Ontario’s Liberals, NDP must seek a delicate balance

Published Feb. 4, 2013, The Waterloo Region Record

Surely everyone has heard of the ancient Chinese curse that translated loosely says, “May you live in interesting times.”

In fact, the curse may actually be of English, not Chinese, origin and it may have started out as a proverb rather than a curse. But no matter. Everyone has heard of it — certainly everyone at Queen’s Park these days.

Ontario politics have a reputation for being somewhat predictable. Some might describe them as an especially boring shade of grey. But no longer. No one — not the players or the pundits — has the faintest idea how the next few weeks and months may unfold. Any day could bring a surprise.

Interesting? More like fascinating.

All we can say with confidence is that Ontario is under new management. Kathleen Wynne will be sworn in as premier next Monday. She will appoint a cabinet. They will meet the Legislature eight days later, on Feb. 19. What will happen then is anyone’s guess.
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It seems reasonable to assume that Wynne, as leader of a minority government, will be anxious to avoid an early election. There’s not much polling data yet to draw on, but what there is suggests her personal popularity is high, higher than Andrea Horwath of the NDP (who places second) or Tim Hudak of the Progressive Conservatives (in third) — and higher, certainly, than the popularity of her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty.

Wynne’s popularity may be fleeting — about what one would expect for any new leader emerging from a highly publicized leadership convention. So far, her popularity does not seem to be translating into public support for her Liberals. One poll suggests the party under Wynne is still in third place (with the Tories in first) while another poll puts the three parties duking it out within the margin of error.

To avoid an election, Wynne will have look to Horwath and the NDP. To complicate matters, the two leaders are simultaneously natural allies and natural rivals. They are natural allies to the extent that both are at home in the centre-left of the political spectrum. But they are also rivals who must fish in the same pool of moderate or progressive voters.

Their dance will be a delicately calibrated minuet. Horwath will have to calculate how far she can push Wynne for concessions without pushing her into an election that could bring Hudak to power. For her part, Wynne will have to calculate how much she can afford to give Horwath without losing her own claim to be the voice of the moderate left.

On one level, these interesting times will be more predictable for Tim Hudak. He has the right side of the spectrum to himself. He can be expected to oppose anything Wynne or Wynne/Horwath try to do. His single objective is an election.

He will be operating on two assumptions. First, that the people of Ontario are so fed up with the Liberals that they will welcome the opportunity to complete the housecleaning they began in October 2011. Second, that the Conservative lead in the polls will convert into votes and seats in an election.

Hudak, however, may find both assumptions to be fallacious. I’m reminded of Ottawa in December 1979 when the minority Tory government of Joe Clark made two fatal miscalculations. They assumed the small Social Credit caucus was so terrified of an election that it would not dare to vote with the Liberals and NDP against Finance Minister John Crosbie’s budget. That proved wrong. The Tories also assumed that if the new government fell, the public would be so outraged that it would punish the Liberals by electing a majority Conservative government. Instead, the voters went back to the Liberals (who seemed competent if not lovable) and handed Pierre Trudeau a majority.

Those were interesting times in Ottawa, just as these promise to be interesting times at Queen’s Park. Interesting for all the anxious political players, not to mention the confused corps of political pundits.

Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne: class, conviction and courage

Published Jan. 28, 2013, The Waterloo Region Record

There’s an old saying in politics that new leaders are never stronger than on the day they take over. If they are going to make changes, they should make them quickly, while the goodwill lasts and before their opponents get dug in.

Kathleen Wynne understands. Fresh from her victory at the Ontario Liberal leadership convention, she announced she will recall the Legislature, prorogued since last fall, on Feb. 19. Between now and then, she will appoint a cabinet, prepare a throne speech and meet with the opposition party leaders in the hope of winning their cooperation to avoid an election this spring.

That done, she will have to tackle some of the detritus left behind by Dalton McGuinty – the Ornge Ambulance and hydro-plant spending scandals; a provincial deficit now estimated at $12 billion this year; and a poisoned relationship between the provincial government and organized labour, especially the teachers and the other public sector unions. She has to do all this with a minority in the Legislature where at least some of her opponents hunger for an early opportunity to bring her down.

The next six weeks should give Ontarians a reasonably clear picture of what to expect from the Wynne government. They should also reveal where on the political spectrum she intends to position her party.
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Ever since Mike Harris moved the Progressive Conservatives to the Reform right, the Liberals have straddled the middle. McGuinty was particularly adept at moving the Liberals to the right to pick off Red Tory voters when the Conservatives threatened, or to the left to recapture soft Liberals when the threat came from the other direction. The Liberals knew they could win elections so long as they held the NDP below 20 per cent of the popular vote.

Wynne’s dilemma can be seen in a poll published on the eve of the convention. It put the Liberals in third place, about eight percentage points behind the first-place New Democrats and five points behind the Tories.

She knows three things. First, election-weary Ontario voters do not want another trip to the polls. Second, they want politicians to tone down the rhetoric and get back to work. Third, the route to avoid an election and to get the Legislature back to work goes through the NDP.

Conservative leader Tim Hudak, it is assumed, would trade his grandmother for a ticket to the polls; he knows the next election may be his last chance at the brass ring. NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Wynne come from a similar direction. Neither, for her own reasons, wants an election any time soon. As long as she can extract enough goodies at strategic intervals, Horwath will prop up the Liberals, perhaps through the end of this year, if not longer. For her part, Wynne made it clear in her speeches at the convention and in her press conference afterward that she is prepared to deal.

To my mind, the speeches made by Wynne and her principal rival, Sandra Pupatello, before the voting on Saturday were most interesting parts of the convention. Pupatello, the perceived front-runner, made a fine, but traditional, political speech, impassioned and partisan; no one doubted that she meant it when she said she would bring the opposition parties to their knees.

Wynne seemed more conciliatory, more disposed than Pupatello to work with the opposition. Wynne’s was one of the best convention speeches I have heard in years. It had class, conviction and courage, especially when she took on the “elephant in the room” – the issue of her lesbianism. She was absolutely convincing. Her words may have alienated some skittish delegates, but I think her powerful candor made it virtually impossible for moderate delegates who had been supporting Charles Sousa and Gerard Kennedy not to move to Wynne on the final ballot.

Now, Wynne has a chance to turn her Liberals into a progressive presence on the provincial scene. If she succeeds, the NDP will be the loser.

LISPOP Associate discusses biggest challenge facing the federal Liberals?

Published Jan. 20, 2013, on CTV News.

LISPOP Associate Chris Cochrane discusses the first of five Liberal leadership debates. He discusses the challenges for the Liberal candidates and the party. One of the biggest questions to ask is how the less dominant Liberal party will position themselves against the Conservatives in the future.

Watch Here