Pension reform may be a winner for Wynne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Dr. Barry Kay Appears on 570 News

Broadcasted Apr. 30, 2013, in 570 News

Dr. Barry Kay appears on The Gary Doyle Show to discuss our most recent Ontario seat projection. At this moment, Dr. Kay sees a minority government in the future as no party has a significant lead.

You can hear what Dr. Kay had to say by listening here

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

Broadcasted April 14, 2013, on CTV News

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

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Ontario’s Liberals, NDP must seek a delicate balance

Published Feb. 4, 2013, The Waterloo Region Record

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

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

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

Interesting? More like fascinating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leadership race or a sleepwalking contest?

Published Jan. 14, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

This Ontario Liberal leadership contest is a curious affair.

You would think it would be an exciting, even thrilling competition. After all, the winner will become premier of Ontario, making her or him the second most powerful leader in the land, next to Prime Minister Harper.

Six candidates covet the job (down from seven with the withdrawal of Glen Murray last week). You would think they would be scrapping furiously as each tries to gain an edge, to demonstrate that he or she is the most competent, has the brightest ideas or the most compelling personality, and is the best bet to lead the Liberals back to the promised land of majority government.

But where’s the excitement? Where’s the drama? The last time the Ontario Grits chose a leader, it was won by a candidate, Dalton McGuinty, who came from fourth place on the early ballots. Now that was exciting!

This time, with only two weeks to go, we have (at the risk of sounding uncharitable) six zombies sleepwalking to the finish line. The policy differences among them are so minuscule as be indiscernible. If they bring any passion to their candidacies, they do a fine job of hiding it. If they possess any charisma, they are careful not to display it. If they would lead Ontario in a direction different from McGuinty’s, it is not apparent from their public utterances.

You might think that after 17 years of McGuinty leadership, 10 of them in charge at Queen’s Park, the Liberals would be ready for something new, for someone who would appeal to all those Ontarians to have come of voting age since the Liberals last changed leaders in 1996 (when the youngest members of this year’s electorate were in diapers).

But no. Dalton McGuinty is 57 years old. The candidates to succeed him are all from his generation. They range in age from 50 (Sandra Pupatello) to 62 (Harinder Takhar). Where are the 30-year-olds who burn with idealism and could inspire students on campuses across Ontario? Where, for that matter, are the energetic 40-year-olds with an urge to change the government and shake up the province? Why are they all AWOL?

Out there, somewhere, is lost generation of Liberals. They may vote for the party, or they may not, but they not interested in the game of political leadership.

There are reasons, of course, for this limited interest. It’s not going to be a whole lot of fun being Liberal leader or premier in 2013.

Whoever wins is going to have to face the mess at Queen’s Park where the Legislature has been prorogued since October. Prorogation hasn’t made the provincial deficit go away; it’s $14 billion and counting. Nor has it made the opposition go away. The Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats still have voting control. No matter how accommodating the new leader may try to be, he or she will be a wounded deer in the opposition’s sights. They will bring the government down whenever it suits them.

The new leader will go into the election at the helm of a party that has lost its credibility to govern. That loss was evident in the 2011 election results, in the crucial Kitchener-Waterloo by-election last fall (when the NDP won and the Liberals ran third), and in the opinion polls that put the Tories first and the Liberals third or, at best, a weak second.

Insiders predict the new leader will be one of the two women candidates, either Kathleen Wynne, whose strength is in Toronto, or Sandra Pupatello, from Windsor, who is favoured by much of party establishment and by delegates from ROO (rest of Ontario).

It came down to that back in 1996 when the candidate from ROO (Ottawa’s McGuinty) won a fifth-ballot victory over Toronto’s Gerard Kennedy, who, yes, is running again, 17 years later.

Meanwhile, outsiders wonder how whoever wins this sleepwalking contest will be able to breathe new life into Ontario’s Liberals.