Barry Kay in Hill Times: Tories, Libs trying to knock NDP off their ethical ‘high horse’ over free partisan mailings: pundits

Published June 9, 2014, in the Hill Times.

Dr. Barry Kay was mentioned in a Hill Times article which discusses how the federal Tories and Liberals are trying to knock NDP off their ethical ‘high horse’ over free partisan mailings. Full article can be round here.

Will fear trump loathing on election day?

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

“In a very real sense, a vote for Andrea Horwath is a vote for Tim Hudak” — Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, writing in the Toronto Star, June 8.

There, in a nutshell, is the issue that will, in my view, determine the outcome as the ugly Ontario election campaign — a wretched excuse for a democratic exercise — lurches to a finish this week. Someone will win on Thursday, although it can be argued that no one deserves to win.

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For the Liberals, who seem to have a bit of wind in their sails in the closing days, the key to success is fear — fear of what would happen to Ontario if Progressive Conservative Leader Hudak (the man with “The Plan”) comes to power. For Wynne, this fear is a tool to make sure her Liberal supporters turn out to vote. And the same fear is a weapon to persuade wavering New Democrats to jump to the Liberals or, failing that, to stay home on Thursday lest they split the anti-Hudak vote.

Wynne did not mince words as she addressed voters in her Toronto Star commentary: “Like you, I am convinced that if Tim Hudak is given the slightest opportunity, he will destroy and dismantle so much of what you and I care about in this province.”

Strong stuff that, but this has been an election scarred by negative emotions — loathing of the Liberal legacy of scandals pitted against fear of the Hudak alternative. From this vantage point, it seems that fear may trump loathing.

I think Hudak made two mistakes. He played the scandal card too hard and too long without managing to convince very many Ontarians that Kathleen Wynne was culpable for the scandals that occurred on Dalton McGuinty’s watch. People wearied of all the scandal talk. Second, Hudak bet his political future on his “million-jobs plan” — an economic plan that experts panned and that Hudak himself was never able to explain to anyone’s satisfaction. All that the average voter could see was that Hudak planned to fire 100,000 public-sector employees, reduce some essential services, cut taxes on corporations and somehow pay off the deficit. It made no economic or political sense.

The NDP’s Andrea Horwath also made two mistakes. Having joined forces with Hudak to defeat the Liberal budget, she did not have an exit strategy to disengage her party from the Tories once the campaign began; she found herself playing second fiddle to Hudak’s attacks on Liberal scandals. Second, and more important, she lost her political bearings. By moving to the right (traditionally barren ground for socialist parties), she allowed Wynne to take over the entire left and centre-left of the spectrum.

The pollsters and pundits remain confused. Most pundits, though not all, declared Hudak the winner of last week’s leaders’ debate. He and Horwath kept Wynne on the defensive throughout the 90-minute encounter. Hudak stayed on message and he performed better than most pundits had expected him to. But he did not come across as being as likable as the besieged Wynne or even the aggressive Horwath, who lived up to her “Steeltown Scrapper” nickname.

It wasn’t much of a debate, and it failed to address such important issues as health care. In the end, I thought Hudak lost. He played well to his base, but he did not broaden it. He failed to dispel the perception that he can hardly wait to start slashing and burning at Queen’s Park. Kathleen Wynne comes across as a more sympathetic political leader, and that’s worth something at the polls.

The opinion polls are still unclear. There seems, however, to be some movement — although not a stampede, to be sure — toward the Liberals. Seat projections suggest another Liberal minority with a majority government, perhaps, being within the realm of possibility. If enough voters agree that a vote for Horwath is the same as a vote for Hudak, Kathleen Wynne will have a very pleasant Thursday evening.

Barry Kay Appears on the Morning Show on Global

Published May 26, 2014, on Global News.

Associate Barry Kay makes an appearance on the Morning Show to talk about the 2014 Ontario election. More specifically, Dr. Kay breaks down the Ontario election numbers and how the debate will affect the election. Podcast can be viewed here.

Barry Kay mentioned on CBC News

Published May 22, 2014, on CBC News.

Associate Barry Kay is interviewed on CBC Kitchener-Waterloo to discuss the importance of the Kitchener Centre riding in the 2014 Ontario Election. The Kitchener Centre riding is almost always on the side of the party that wins Ontario, both federally and provincially. Full article can be accessed here.

Building a Supreme Court with the ‘right’ view

Published May 26, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record.

When someone comes to write the history of the Harper government, he or she will have to save a chapter for the strange saga of Stephen Harper’s clumsy attempt to pack the Supreme Court of Canada with conservative-minded jurists. Or, you might say, to turn the Supremes into a choir of the right.

I am indebted to Sean Fine, the very good justice reporter at the Globe and Mail, for pulling aside the curtain that normally shields the judicial-selection process from public scrutiny. Working with sources independent of the Supreme Court – no leaks there! – Fine uncovered two crucial lists.

One was the long list, prepared by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Justice Department, of six potential candidates for a Supreme Court vacancy from Quebec. Early last summer, that list went to a five-member selection panel of parliamentarians – three Conservative MPs, one New Democrat and one Liberal. The panel did its due diligence, consulting with Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, studying judgments written by the six jurists, and traveling to Montreal to seek the advice of leaders of the Quebec bench and bar.
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The panel then trimmed the long list to a second short list of three names to be placed before the prime minister.

It was the second time in less than a year that the panel had been through this routine. The first time was relatively easy because there was a consensus choice, Justice Richard Wagner, a well-regarded, conservative-minded jurist from the Quebec Court of Appeal, and Harper appointed him.

This time, PMO/Justice looking for someone who could be counted on to support their anti-crime agenda, were unable to find a reliable prospect among the judges of the Quebec bench or in the ranks of the province’s senior lawyers. The most impressive candidate from the Court of Appeal was Justice Marie-France Bich, a former law professor, who was valued for her strong judgments and her streak of independent thinking. But was she sufficiently conservative?

The strategists at PMO/Justice could not ignore Judge Bich. They put her on their long list, but made possible for Harper not to appoint her by loading their long list with the names of no fewer than four members of the Ottawa-based, government-friendly Federal Court of Canada. This meant that when the selection panel cut the long list of six to their short list of three, there would have to be at least one candidate from the ranks of Federal Court.

And that’s how it played out. Judge Bich made it to the short list, along with two judges from the Federal Court of Appeal. One of them was Justice Marc Nadon, an expert in maritime law. Although the prime minister is not obligated to choose from the short list, convention dictates that he should. He bypassed Judge Bich to choose the semi-retired Judge Nadon.

The Constitution guarantees Quebec three seats on the nine-member Supreme Court. The Supreme Court Act accommodates the need for expertise in Quebec civil law by setting out special qualifications for these three. It was not at all clear last summer that judges from the Federal Court were even eligible for the Supreme Court; as it turned out, they were not.

When Chief Justice McLachlin saw the long list with its names of four Federal Court judges, she anticipated the problem. Following protocol, she contacted Justice Minister Peter MacKay. She did not, as Conservative MPs have alleged, lobby against Judge Nadon. Rather, she warned MacKay that four of his six candidates might be ineligible.

What MacKay should have done was to halt the process, tell the PM that their devious court-packing scheme hadn’t worked, and advise him either to appoint Marie-France Bich (the only eligible name left on the short list) or start the selection over again, thereby leaving the Supreme Court short-handed for another year or so.

But Harper would not have been amused at being told it was beyond his power to make the Supremes sing right.

Barry Kay appears on Global News

Published May 23, 2014, on Global News.

Barry Kay appears on Global News to discuss the Ontario election and how scattered the polls have been in the first few weeks of the election campaign. Podcast is available here.

LISPOP mentioned in the Waterloo Region Record

Published May 20, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record.

The Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (LISPOP) was mentioned in an article related to the 2014 Ontario Election. Full article can be accessed here.

Public is conflicted, pollsters are bewildered

Published May 12, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record.

The Ontario election on June 12 is one of the most unpleasant — and unpredictable — contests in recent memory.

There is no excitement in this campaign, no sense that a brighter future lies ahead. The emotions generated by the three principal parties are negative. There is disgust with the Liberals — disgust both with the scandals of the previous Dalton McGuinty regime and with the lack of contrition displayed by the Liberals currently clinging to power under Kathleen Wynne. Why can’t they say they are sorry, tell us how much their malfeasance has actually cost Ontario, and ask forgiveness for treating public funds with such contempt?

Disgust with the Liberals is matched by fear of Tim Hudak and his merry band of Tory slashers who would return Ontario to the days of Mike Harris — the era of cutbacks that produced the Walkerton tainted water tragedy, along with decaying infrastructure, hospital closures, shortages of nurses and doctors and the layoff of teachers at a time when what the province’s schools needed most was more teachers. No one — not even hardcore Progressive Conservatives — believes Hudak can create the 1 million new jobs he promises. But everyone fears he will do his darndest to eliminate 100,000 public servants, regardless of who gets hurt in the process.
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To disgust with the Liberals and fear of Hudak, add nervousness and incomprehension about Andrea Horwath and her New Democrats. We used to think we knew what that party, as social democrats, stood for. Not any longer. In a seeming fit of political insanity, Horwath rejected a Liberal budget that was skewed so far to the left that it could have been dictated by NDP Central. What was Horwath thinking? Did she want to make Tim Hudak premier? Surely, she didn’t think she could win Queen’s Park herself.

We know Hudak has staked out the hard right. Having experienced Mike Harris, we can anticipate what to expect if Hudak wins — a Conservative administration wedded to austerity and minimal government. We have seen Wynne seize the progressive left, offering activist Liberal government more than willing to intervene in the economy. And Horwath and the NDP? They are now somewhere in the murky middle.

If the public is conflicted, the pollsters are bewildered. They are chasing their tails all over the electoral map.

Three major polls were published last week. At midweek, Forum Research reported that the Liberals had jumped ahead of the Tories (38 per cent to 35), apparently a reaction to Hudak’s promise (or threat) the week before to rid the province of those 100,000 civil servants. But a second polling company, Ipsos Reid, must have been talking to different Ontarians, because the next day it reported that the PCs were on the cusp of a majority, with 40 per cent to the Liberals’ 33 per cent.

On Saturday, however, a third pollster, Ekos Research, reported that the Liberals had opened a seven-point lead over the Conservatives — 37 per cent to 30. Ekos found that the Liberals had significant leads among baby boomers and among women voters while the Tories continued to hold an edge among pre-boomers (age 65-plus) and among male voters.

The various pollsters agreed on one thing: the NDP is out of the race. “Horwath’s party has cratered,” says Frank Graves, president of Ekos.

So if the race is down to two parties, how tight is it? Eric Grenier, the analyst who runs a poll aggregator called ThreeHundredEight.com, says when the three new polls and others are merged, they show a dead heat in popular vote with the Tories and Liberals both at 36 per cent, followed by the NDP at 22 per cent. Grenier’s seat projection, based on the regional distribution of this support, gives the Liberals 49 of the Legislature’s 107 seats, to 44 for the Conservatives and 14 for the NDP.

With the electorate so uncertain, the leaders’ debate on June 3 — nine days before the vote — assumes unprecedented importance.

Barry Kay appears on Global News

Published May 14, 2014, in Global News.

In an interview with Global News’ James ArmstrongLISPOP associate Dr. Barry Kay talks about the 2014 Ontario election campaign strategies. The full article is available here

Hudak makes himself the focus

Published May 16, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record.

There is an adage in elections that governments are defeated, not elected.

This means the focus of most contests is upon the governing rather than the opposition parties. If the latter perform their role appropriately, they will criticize the incumbent administration and hope to gain the support of those who have become disenchanted with the way things are being run.

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak seems to have turned this kind of logic on its head, with his promise not only to create one million new jobs, but more controversially to cut public funding for 100,000 pre-existing positions in education and the bureaucracy, well over 10 per cent of the total.

Without getting into the merits or failings of a Mike Harris-like policy of austerity, Hudak has turned himself and his party into the focus, and potentially the target of public attention.

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With Trudeau on the rise, will Harper stick around?

Published Apr. 21, 2014, in The Guelph Mercury and Waterloo Region Record.

Justin Trudeau has been leader of the federal Liberal party for one year.

How is he doing?

Somewhat better, I think, than most people had anticipated. Although he has not taken the country by storm, neither has he wilted in the glare of public and party expectations. Like all politicians, he has made minor mistakes, but he has demonstrated the quickness of foot to acknowledge his errors, to apologize, to correct course and to carry on. The public has been forgiving.

After one year, he has raised his battered party from third place to first in the polls. Pollsters project he would become prime minister at the head of a minority Liberal government, if an election were held today (which, of course, it won’t be). Based on today’s numbers, LISPOP (Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy) projects a wafer-thin margin: 127 Liberal seats, 120 Conservative and 81 New Democrat.
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Time will tell. What has impressed the political community for many months is the durability of the Liberal revival. It has gone long past the honeymoon phase. Eric Grénier, the poll aggregator and an analyst at ThreeHundredEight.com, puts Liberal popular support at 36 per cent. That’s not terrific, but it’s eight points higher than Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, who remain mired at 28 points.

In an article for the Globe and Mail, Grénier reports that the Liberals have consistently led in the national polls for the past 12 months “The Liberals are up five points on where they stood a year ago, eight points on where they were in the month before naming their new leader, and 14 points compared to the support the Liberals enjoyed in September 2012, just before Mr. Trudeau announced his intentions to run for the leadership,” Grénier writes.

The Liberals have a huge lead in Atlantic Canada, have moved ahead of the NDP in Quebec and stand at 40 per cent in battleground Ontario, up 13 points from their pre-Trudeau level. They have gained ground, but still trail the Tories in the West.

Not all of this improvement is Trudeau’s doing, of course. In Canada, as in other democracies, opposition parties seldom win elections; they become the beneficiaries when governments defeat themselves. That certainly what happened in 2004-2006 when the Liberals defeated themselves over the Sponsorship scandal, bringing Harper’s Conservatives to power.

But Trudeau seems to wear well. He is no longer seen as a kid with a good name and a slender resume. He has established himself as a serious politician. He is also a genuinely likeable politician, and likeability is a significant asset in politics. Bill Davis and Peter Lougheed had it. So did Jean Chrétien in the early years. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair comes across too hard-edged to be truly likeable. And likeability is simply not part of Stephen Harper political wiring.

Ask yourself, if you were inviting a national leader over for a beer and a burger in your backyard, who would you ask? You would choose someone who is interesting and fun. Harper? No way. Mulcair? Probably not. Elizabeth May? Yeah, maybe. Trudeau? For sure. That likeability is reflected in renewed Liberal popularity, especially among young voters and female voters.

Eric Grénier notes that the Liberals’ year-long lead in the polls is the longest stretch that the Harper government has trailed in second since their election in 2006. “The last time a majority government trailed in the polls for as long as the Conservatives have was in the last years of Brian Mulroney’s tenure,” Grénier observes. That was back in 1992-93. Mulroney hung on. Kim Campbell eventually replaced him. And the mighty Tories won just two seats in the 1993 election.

No one is predicting obliteration on that scale for Harper’s Tories. But the question on Ottawa lips (it has passed the sotto voce stage) is: will Harper stay on if he is not pretty darned sure he will retain his majority? The smart money says No.

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.