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.

Support for Quebec Sovereignty… Outside of Quebec

With the sovereignty flames being fanned up again in Quebec, it is not premature to contemplate the rest of Canada’s posture on the national unity front. In particular, is there a willingness to fight for a unified Canada, or has that appetite long faded with Canadians more prepared to see Quebec go?

It’s a valid question as the prospects look favourable for a sovereignist victory in a possible near-future referendum. CROP reported back in December that about 44 percent of Quebecers support sovereignty, the same level as during the 1994 election campaign that brought the Parti Québécois back into power, a year before the razor-thin result of the 1995 referendum. Given what we’ve been witnessing from Quebec, the signs are quite present that we are now in a “pre-campaign” period of that future referendum.

Analysis presented here is based on the 2011 Federal Election online exit poll administered by Ipsos Reid (and donated to Wilfrid Laurier University). The survey has a sample of nearly 40,000 Canadian voters from the 2011 federal election. All of them were asked whether they “want Quebec to become sovereign, that is, no longer part of the Canadian federation.”

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While the vast majority of Canadians outside Quebec certainly do not want Quebec to leave, a sizable proportion has no problem with that scenario. Among the approximately 28,000 respondents from outside of Quebec, nearly 5000 (18 percent) want to see Quebec separate from Canada.

Who are these people? Are they randomly distributed, or are there some common attributes to them? In particular, are they more likely to support any particular federal party? Do they reside mainly in certain regions? Are they of any particular ideological persuasion? These will be looked at here with the available data.

Party supporters

A future Quebec referendum on sovereignty will naturally animate the main federal party leaders, particularly whichever one controls the government. It is worthwhile, then, to see if there is any partisan pattern among those who in the rest of Canada support Quebec sovereignty.

As it turns out, some interesting patterns do emerge. Table 1 reports how this breaks down across party lines. Among the 4674 respondents outside Quebec who favour Quebec sovereignty, nearly 2700 of them, 60 percent, voted Conservative in 2011. The NDP is in second place at 27 percent. The Liberals and Greens drew the fewest number of pro-Quebec sovereignty supports outside Quebec, but this may simply reflect the fact that the Liberal vote in 2011 was historically low, and the Green party typically captures a small percentage of voters.

When looked at a different perspective, the Conservative party still seems to hold a higher proportion of voters who wish to see Quebec leave the federation. The far-right column of Table 1 reverses the axes to illustrate how voters for the various parties distribute across the sovereignty question. Here, we see 22 percent of Conservative voters favours Quebec sovereignty. This is nearly three times that of Liberal voters. NDP and Green Party voters occupy a middle ground, with 16 and 17 percent of its voters favouring Quebec sovereignty.

It should be noted that the Quebec sovereignty question offered four possible answers: Strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, and strongly disagree. As shown in Table 2, the parties distinguish themselves here, too. For instance, 12 percent of Conservative voters “strongly agree” with the idea of Quebec separating from Canada. This is nine percentage points above that for the Liberals (3%), and four to five percentage points above that of the NDP and Green Party. At the other extreme, nearly 70 percent of Conservative voters are strongly opposed to the idea of Quebec separating, which is 14 percentage points below that of the Liberals, and about five points below that of the other two parties.

Blog Quebec Table 2

Relatively high level of support for Quebec independence within Conservative ranks is not a big surprise. The contemporary Conservative party has roots in the Reform party, which drew voters known for their anti-Quebec stances. There may remain some lingering and durable anti-Quebec sentiments among a sizable proportion of Conservative supporters.

Region

As shown in Table 3, there is some evidence that shows support for sovereignty is higher within in regions that typically vote Conservative. Almost 30 percent of voters in Alberta favour Quebec sovereignty. British Columbia and Saskatchewan are not too far behind, at 20 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

Blog Quebec Table 3

However, “second place” here is given to Newfoundland and Labrador, with nearly a quarter of respondents from this province favouring Quebec sovereignty. It should be noted that while Newfoundland and Labrador is not normally friendly to the federal Conservative party, the province has had strained relations with Quebec over hydro-electricity development. Strong feelings get aroused at the mere mention of “Churchill Falls.” Apart from Newfoundland and Labrador, the remaining three Atlantic provinces show the lowest level of support for Quebec sovereignty, along with Ontario and Manitoba.

Ideology

One question in the survey simply asks respondents whether they consider themselves to be “left, right or centre.” Most, nearly 56 percent, reported being in the “centre,” while 23 percent were on the “left,” and 22 percent on the “right.” Within each of these three general ideological groups, the highest proportion of pro-Quebec sovereignists is found in the “right,” with 23 percent of them showing support for Quebec independence. This, too, is not totally surprising as Quebec has acted as a proponent for progressive discourse in Canada, and thus, those on the right are also likely to reject not only the ideas of the “left,” but the social democratic model that Quebec sovereignists try to project. Those on the “left” show the smallest level of support, 10 percent, for Quebec sovereignty, while those in the centre are, as it turns out appropriately enough, in the middle, at 15 percent.

Access to the data can be obtained from LISPOP’s data portal.

Politicians face tough times too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are tough times looming for Harper, too.

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.

Open Government and Accountability?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

Hudak will survive September, but his days are numbered

Published Aug. 12, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

Tim Hudak is discovering the uncomfortable facts of Tory life, facts that earlier Conservative leaders, federal and provincial, had to learn, painfully, in their day.

Out of power, Tories are less a political party than a dysfunctional rabble, seething with individual ambitions and personal agendas. They are not bound together by group values. They are not united by a common commitment to a set of social and political goals, as NDP members are. Nor are they held together by the discipline that comes from power or the proximate prospect of power, as Liberals tend to be.

Ask any political reporter of the pre-Harper era. They would tell you they would much rather cover the Conservatives than the Liberals or New Democrats. Why? Because the Tories were more interesting. They were news waiting to happen. We never knew what might occur next, which accident-prone Tory might shoot himself (and his colleagues) in the foot, and when the wheels might fall off the party’s campaign. They were fun.

At the federal level, John Diefenbaker battled, and was eventually overcome by “termites” — his name for party members who didn’t really care who was leader so long as it was not the “Chief.” Robert Stanfield spent much of his leadership fighting off the right-wing yahoos, western alienationists and bilingualism-deniers who were attracted to the Conservative party likes flies to honey. And Joe Clark was done in by a remorseless campaign led by his old friend and comrade, the slickly ambitious Brian Mulroney.
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At the Ontario provincial level, then leader John Tory, after his defeat in the 2007 election, had to fight off activists from the party’s evangelical wing, the leader of which was (and is) MPP Frank Klees. Klees is consistent in his ambition. He challenged Tory for the leadership in 2004 and placed third. He finished second to Hudak in the 2009 leadership convention. Now he is positioning himself for a third try, allying himself with a group of dissidents who seek to force a leadership vote at the party’s policy conference next month.

Although most of the identifiable dissidents appear to be from the London area, they have attracted support from elements of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s political machine. Rob Ford’s brother Doug, a Toronto city councillor, is rumoured to have provincial leadership ambitions of his own.

The anti-Hudak campaign is not likely to succeed this time around. It is too soon to dump the leader, even for Tories. True, he lost the 2011 general election, which he probably should have won. True, he lost the crucial Kitchener-Waterloo byelection a year ago. True, he won only one of the five provincial byelections earlier this month.

In Hudak’s defence, all five byelections were in Liberal-held seats. Not only did Hudak gain one seat (Etobicoke-Lakeshore), he gained it in Toronto where the Conservatives had had no seats at all. In the process, although they came away with just one seat, the Tories’ total popular vote in the five contests was greater than that of any other party.

Hudak will survive in September — partly because Klees is less popular in the party than Hudak and partly because Conservatives realize that Kathleen Wynne’s minority Liberal government could fall at any time. The last thing a party wants is to be caught changing leaders when an election is called.

That said, Hudak’s days as leader are probably numbered. He has been a disappointment. He doesn’t resonate with the public. He has lost when he should have won. He has been relentlessly negative at time when the electorate is weary of attack, attack, attack. He plays to the party’s right wing when he needs to broaden its appeal. The NDP and Liberals are, or are becoming, modern political parties. The Tories are not. They are mired in the past, in the Mike Harris era.

Internal feuding and dissension over the leadership will cripple the party. Left unchecked, they will prevent Hudak from becoming premier of Ontario.

Wynne still trying to shake off McGuinty’s legacy

Published Aug. 6, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

The jury is still out on Ontario’s Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne. That much, at least, seems clear from last week’s provincial byelections. The Liberals went into the fray with five seats, all held by former cabinet ministers; they came out with just two.

When she became leader and premier early this year, Wynne faced two challenges. The first was to make a clean break from her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, with his administration (of which she had been a part) and with the legacy of mismanagement and scandal he left behind. The second was to demonstrate that she and her administration represent a new game in town.

She has done a fair job on the second front, setting a new tone for the government: kinder, gentler, more progressive and more inclusive. This success is reflected in Wynne’s personal popularity in the polls. But the first challenge, breaking with the McGuinty past, is proving more difficult than even she probably anticipated. The trio of McGuinty-era albatrosses — hydro generating plants, Ornge ambulance and the earlier eHealth misspending — still hang around her neck. There is no sign that they are going to go away any time soon.
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The five byelections did not add up to a game-changer, the way last fall’s Kitchener-Waterloo byelection (won by New Democrat Catherine Fife) did; Kitchener and Waterloo denied the McGuinty Liberals a majority government. Last week, the McGuinty record played a part but, as is often the case in byelections, high-profile candidates and strong local campaigns made the difference.

The Liberals knew they were going to lose Windsor-Tecumseh to the NDP’s Percy Hatfield, a popular city councillor and former CBC broadcaster, and they hoped to contain the damage to that one seat. My guess had been that they would lose two — Windsor-Tecumseh and either London West (where the NDP had a powerful candidate in Peggy Sattler) or Etobicoke-Lakeshore (where the Conservatives fielded Toronto’s deputy mayor, Doug Holyday). As it turned out, they lost all three, retaining only Scarborough-Guildwood (with civic activist Mitzie Hunter) and Dalton McGuinty’s old seat, Ottawa South (where McGuinty’s longtime constituency assistant, John Fraser, parlayed his intimate knowledge of the riding and its voters into a victory for the Liberals).

Two out of five is not good enough for Wynne. Her minority government is more at risk this week than it was last week. The prospect that she might make it through to 2014 before having to call, or be forced into, a provincial election, is fading. An election this fall appears increasingly likely. She won’t be able to win it unless she manages to change the channel — to make voters stop thinking about the problems of the McGuinty past and start thinking about the promise of the Wynne future. It won’t be easy.

On the other side of the Queen’s Park coin, two out of five is spectacular news for NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. Victory in London and Windsor gives her momentum going into the fall session of the legislature. Her price for continued support of Wynne’s Liberals has suddenly gone up, perhaps dramatically.

But pity poor Tim Hudak. The Progressive Conservative leader performed disappointingly in the 2011 election. It was his to lose, and he lost it. A year ago, the Tories were blown out in the byelection in Kitchener-Waterloo, a supposedly safe Tory seat. With five seats up for grabs last week, Hudak desperately needed to bring home some goodies. The Conservatives talked boldly about London West, Ottawa South and even Scarborough-Guildwood, but all they could bring home was Etobicoke-Lakeshore.

That win did give the provincial Tories their first seat since 1999 in the city of Toronto. But that is scant consolidation. They did not win the seat because of Hudak, but rather because they had the celebrity candidate in Doug Holyday, with campaign assistance from Mayor Rob Ford, the India rubber ball of municipal politics.

Although Hudak’s job is not in immediate jeopardy, the voters did put him on notice last week.

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

Youthful enthusiasm will only take Trudeau so far

Published July 15, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

The Justin Trudeau honeymoon is over. The surprise is not that the romance has cooled. It’s that it was so intense, lasted as long as it did, had such an uplifting effect on sagging Liberal fortunes and, in the process, re-ordered the balance among federal parties.

In the year since Trudeau’s name first surfaced as a serious leadership possibility — he announced his candidacy last October and was elected leader this past April, just three months ago — the Liberals, who had been presumed dead by many commentators, have risen from their third-place grave. They are back in first, back where they had parked themselves, smugly, for most of the last century. They are a bit ahead of the Conservatives, who have conspicuously failed in seven years in power to seize the golden opportunity to broaden their base or to widen their appeal. Meanwhile, the air has gone out of the NDP balloon as the party, minus Jack Layton, has fallen into its traditional spot in third place.

These generalities are based in part on a flurry of new opinion polls released since early June. Political polls — as pollsters are quick to tell us whenever they are wrong — are not predictions. They are just snapshots, presumed to be an accurate portrait of voter intentions the moment they are taken, but not to be relied on when voters wake up the next morning. But the value of polls — albeit limited in my view — is that their snapshots can reveal a trend and reflect movement within the electorate.

There is no doubt that Trudeau has created movement. He has given moderate voters who cannot warm to Stephen Harper a credible alternative. He has given all those Liberals who switched to Layton and the NDP in the 2011 election — or who decided not to vote at all — an invitation to come home. He has made it exciting to be a Liberal again.

The honeymoon may be over but the relationship survives. Eric Grenier is a respected poll aggregator who runs a website called threehundredeight.com (because currently there are 308 Commons seats, about to be raised to 338 for the next election). He reported last Thursday that an average of seven polls in June, with more than 9,000 respondents, put the Liberals at 34.4 per cent nationally, the Conservatives at 28.9 and the NDP at 23.8. The trend: Liberals down 5.6 points from May to June; Conservatives, up 1.3 points; NDP, up 0.5 points.

In other words, the Tories and New Democrats are essentially treading water, while the Liberals are sinking somewhat. Some Liberal support, a couple of points, appears to have moved to the Greens, from whence it may have come during the Trudeau honeymoon.

In May, the Trudeau Liberals seemed (astonishingly) within reach of a majority government. In the June numbers, a Liberal minority seems more likely. Grenier projects 134 Liberal seats, 120 Conservative and 80 NDP, plus two apiece for the Greens and Bloc Québécois. Political science Professor Barry Kay, in a projection for the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy, is in the same ballpark: Liberals, 131; Tories, 126; NDP, 70; Bloc, 8; Green, 1.

With a federal election still 27 months away, no one would want to take any seat projection to the bank. Who among us foresaw the NDP orange wave in 2011, or Allison Redford’s recovery in Alberta or Christy Clark’s in British Columbia? The pollsters didn’t see it, but they were busy taking snapshots, not video.

About all we can say with any confidence is that Harper has some heavy lifting to do if he wants to win another Tory majority. The NDP’s Thomas Mulcair needs to rekindle the flame of 2011. And Justin Trudeau needs to realize that image and youthful enthusiasm will not carry him back 24 Sussex Drive, where he spent his childhood years while his father was prime minister.

It’s time for some substance, Mr. Trudeau. Substance!

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.