A desire for change is in the air

Published on Aug. 24, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Everyone remembers the three big surprises of election night, May 2, 2011.

The first surprise: after three consecutive elections had produced minority governments (Liberal in 2004, Conservative in 2006 and 2008), voters in 2011 gave the Conservatives a majority with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote. Second: propelled by their “orange surge” in Quebec, the NDP won an astonishing 103 seats (to the Conservatives’ 166) and became the official opposition in Parliament. Third: the Liberal vote collapsed and the once-mighty party dropped like a stone into third place with just 34 seats and a meager 19 per cent of the popular vote.

A smart person would not bet on anything in this 2015 election other than this: there will be more surprises on Oct. 19.

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We are already three weeks into the election with eight long weeks stretching ahead – plenty of time for multiple surprises. On the surface, nothing much has happened in the first three weeks, aside from the daily drip-drip of the Mike Duffy trial. But below the surface, out of the sight of the television cameras, something is going on.

Politicians will attest that the most potent force in an election is the desire for change. Last week, Forum Research published a national poll that reported that 71 per cent of respondents want a change of government.

Seventy-one per cent! That’s astonishing. Is the poll wrong? Maybe, but probably not by too much. A desire for change has been in the political air for many months.

How do the Harper Conservatives cope with a force like that? How do they turn it around, or throttle it back? So far, they have been campaigning against the current, presenting themselves as the party of the status quo, the party that stands against significant change in all important matters, especially their twin issues – the need for a steady hand on the economy and emphasis on law, order and public security. More of the same is the Harper mantra.

The mantra is not helping much. The latest polls put the Conservatives at, or just below, 30 per cent – in the other words, about 10 points below their 2011 vote, and perhaps four points behind the New Democrats in this campaign, with the Liberals right on the Tories’ heels.

What happens on Oct.19 if an irresistible force (the desire for change) meets an immovable object (the status quo)? I would put my money on the irresistible force, but we have eight weeks to go and anything can happen. The Tories may be able to persuade voters that change is not worth the risk, an international or domestic crisis may intervene, or one or both of the principal opposition parties may make a ghastly error.

On the same day last week as the Forum Research poll, the Montreal newspaper La Presse published a new CROP poll that put Thomas Mulcair’s NDP at 47 per cent in Quebec, which the pollsters said would enable the party to exceed its 2011 results when, under the late Jack Layton, it surged from nowhere to 59 seats in the province.

If this Quebec momentum continues and if some of it spills over into Ontario – which is possible – the NDP could pull off the biggest surprise of Oct.19 by winning the election.

As for the Conservatives, they are counting on desire-for-change voters to split roughly evenly between the NDP and the Liberals, and thereby enable the Tories to eke out at least a minority government. But that may not happen. Voters who are serious about change may flock to whichever opposition party they feel offers the best chance of getting rid of the Harper party.

It is also possible, if 71 per cent want change, that both opposition parties could attract enough voters to finish ahead of the decidedly unpopular Tories. Like the Liberals of 2011, they could slide into third place. They would be another surprise to remember!

Campaign’s length may not make much difference

Published on Aug. 17, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the world was innocent and young Mike Duffy was a humble reporter dreaming of the Senate, everyone agreed that federal election campaigns were too long, far too long.

The norm in those days was 60-61 days. Campaign managers argued then that voters did not start paying attention until the last two weeks. So the early weeks were largely empty – given over to photo ops, posturing and feeding the maw of the news media, which grew desperate to find something, anything, that would make the election more interesting than it really was.

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Sixty days! I covered a bunch of those eight-week affairs. I remember listening to Pierre Trudeau make the same little speech at, if memory serves, 34 stops in one campaign. That was torture!

Eventually, legislation was introduced to abbreviate campaigns. The big change was the elimination of the door-to-door enumeration of electors. That system, in which officials would visit every household, made the Canadian voters’ list the most accurate in the world.

According to experts of the day, its replacement by the current registration system may have disenfranchised up to 10 per cent of otherwise eligible voters, but that was deemed an acceptable price to pay to get campaigns down to today’s norm of 36-37 days.

The norm until now. Following the lead of British Columbia, Stephen Harper’s government in 2007 introduced a fixed election law that stipulated federal elections be held every four years on the third Monday in October. But (loophole alert!) it left the prime minister free to call the election later or earlier (as he did in 2011).

The so-called Fair Elections Act of 2014 introduced another loophole. It enabled the government to extend the writ period and to raise the spending ceiling for parties and candidates. In a 37-day campaign, each party would be allowed to spend about $24 million. By doubling this year’s campaign to 78 days, Harper made it possible for the parties to spend roughly $50 million, a move that theoretically benefits the party with the deepest pockets – to wit, Harper’s Conservatives.

So while the prime minister is off on his campaign jet, far away from the Mike Duffy-Nigel Wright follies in Ottawa, his opponents are, figuratively, left rummaging for bus fare.

I’m not sure this imbalance will make much difference. Impertinent questions about the Senate scandal will follow Harper wherever he goes as long as the trial is in the news. His superior spending power is allowing him to recycle attacks on Liberal leader Justin Trudeau  (“He’s just not ready”), but my sense is they have lost their impact. These ads may help a bit to shore up the Tory base,  but there is no evidence they are winning back estranged soft Conservatives or attracting erstwhile Liberal or NDP voters.

The opinion polls paint a very close picture. The NDP may be one or two points ahead of the Conservatives in the popular vote, while seat projections put the Tories either ahead, or behind,  by a few seats out of  338 seats in the next Parliament. Either way, they are roughly 45 seats short of a majority government.

The Liberals are clearly the spoilers, especially in Ontario, where the electorate seems prepared to move. With redistribution, Ontario will have 121 seats (up from 106). The Liberals ran a very weak third in the province in the 2011 election. Now, pollsters agree, they have moved into second ahead of the NDP.

The projections indicate the Conservatives stand to lose 20 seats in Ontario, notwithstanding the addition of 15 new seats in the province. It is difficult to see where in the country the Conservatives could gain enough momentum to overcome their loss of seats in Ontario.

A minority government, Conservative, NDP or conceivably Liberal, seems inevitable. But these are very early days, only two weeks into an interminable 11-week election. At some point, the public will tune in.

Longtime Tories in an election quandary

Published on Aug. 9, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

A good many long-time Conservative voters find themselves in a quandary in this election: How can they support the policies of the Conservative government without endorsing the continued rule of Stephen Harper?

Many of these Tories are older and comfortable financially. They were reinvigorated in 2006 when their party ended the 13-year regime of the Liberal party. They approved of the general approach promised by the new administration: smaller government: lower taxes; incentives to business to stimulate growth; emphasis on law enforcement and national defence; and now income-splitting, which offers disproportionate financial benefit to taxpayers in higher brackets.

A reader in Kitchener, who asked that his name not be published, told me that he and his wife – he is retired and she is still working – have been able to build a very nice nest egg thanks to pension income-splitting and the increase (from $5,500 to $10,000) in the annual contribution limit for tax-free savings accounts (a “windfall,” as the reader calls it). “The Conservatives know that financially comfortable, articulate and well-informed seniors are both aware and appreciative of this benefit, and that this voter base will reward them with their loyalty at the polls,” he says. Continue reading

Even so, this voter is torn. He calls it a conundrum. He doesn’t like Harper and his style of politics. He worries about ethical issues: the way the Conservatives have abused election spending rules; the deliberate misleading of voters in the robocall scandal of the 2011 election; the ramming through of Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism legislation; the effort of the Prime Minister’s Office to cover up the Senate expense scandal in the Mike Duffy affair; and the cynical way the Conservative tried to buy votes by issuing fat retroactive child-care cheques on the eve of this election call.

Another Conservative reader,  in Guelph, who is a devoted admirer of the late John Diefenbaker, has similar concerns. “Stephen Harper is a nasty man,” he says.

Yet both of them will, I suspect, stick with the Conservatives on Oct. 19. “Critics would call me selfish – and that would be true!” says the Kitchener reader. “Perhaps even shallow, and maybe that’s true, but there is a strong temptation to be ‘all right, Jack!’  I remember the dubious moniker of  ‘greed is good’ from a late 1980’s movie.”  (He was referring to the 1987 film, Wall Street, directed by Oliver Stone.)

These readers reflect a softening of the edges of the Conservative base, a softening that has contributed to the Tories being eight to 10 points below their support in the 2011 election. Firming up the base is clearly job one for the PM, and Harper did a decent job on that front in the first election debate, staged by Maclean’s magazine last week.

A digression: I thought it was an excellent debate, infinitely superior to the Republican circus – I think of it as “Donald Trump and the 16 Stooges” – that aired the same night on American television. All four Canadian leaders performed well, in my view, including Harper who had to fend off three attackers. His only problem came when he tried to deny, then had to admit (more or less), that Canada is experiencing its second recession on his watch.

The failure, or inability, of the Harper government to keep its implied promise of a steady hand on the nation’s economic tiller, will probably hurt the Conservatives more with their party faithful than any other issue (including whatever Harper’s former chief of staff  Nigel Wright testifies at the Duffy trial this week). Those soft Conservatives who feel alienated from Harper will not be reassured by repeated banal assurances that Canada is out-performing other G-7 nations.

The reader in Kitchener is looking for a way of his “moral conundrum.” He says: “I think I will need to revise my charitable donations upward, as I may hold my nose when I vote in October.”  I suppose that’s one way out of the Tory quandary.

Spirit of community, responsibility needs restoration

Published Aug. 4, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Nothing much ever happens in Ottawa on a warm Sunday in midsummer. The political class either goes to sleep or abandons the capital for cottages or escapes to foreign climes. They roll up the streets on the annual Civic Holiday weekend.

Not this year. Two political events took over the town this past Sunday. In the morning, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper crossed Sussex Drive from his residence to pay his constitutionally mandated respects to Governor General David Johnston at Rideau Hall, there to secure the GG’s agreement to dissolve Parliament to launch the longest election campaign in modern Canadian history.

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Its length and record cost aside, this will not be an ordinary election. On Oct. 19, Canadian voters will render their verdict on the Harper era. You could regard it as the people’s judgment on the Conservative Revolution. Ever since coming to power in 2006, Harper has been remaking Canada’s political landscape, subtly and not-so subtly altering the balance between the government and Parliament, the cabinet and the courts, the political establishment and the aboriginal people, between Ottawa and the provinces, and between Canada and the rest of the world. This Unquiet Revolution has been the underlying text of Canadian politics for a decade now. Oct. 19 will determine whether the revolution is declared dead or given a new, indefinite lease on life.

The second event on Sunday was the gathering of mourners for the funeral of Flora MacDonald, 89, the woman who wanted to be prime minister but had to settle for supporting roles in the Tory governments of Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, as minister of foreign affairs, citizenship and immigration, and communications. As much as anyone from that era, Flora as she was known to all — came to represent the values of the progressive wing of the Progressive Conservative party, as it was then. They called themselves “Red Tories” in those days, and those who survive still do.

Although the Harper revolutionaries and the Red Tories have common political ancestry, they have precious little in common. It was revealing that Harper did not join the nearly 1,000 mourners — white-haired politicians, retired bureaucrats and foreign-aid workers — at Christ Church Anglican Cathedral on Sunday. He sent Kellie Leitch, his minister for the status of women. It was probably just as well. Flora never joined the Harper revolution; she made no secret of her distaste for confrontational politics, Harper style. Her later years, after leaving active politics, were devoted to humanitarian causes, in India, Africa, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

As the Conservative party moved right under Harper, Flora looked left, identifying with (and voting for) the New Democrats. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and his wife were in the front pew at the funeral alongside Joe Clark and Maureen McTeer. Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent was there, as was Paul Dewar, the Ottawa MP who is being touted as the next foreign minister if Mulcair wins on Oct. 19.

If Harper had been there, he would have had to sit through tributes from former ministers David MacDonald and Lowell Murray, as well as Clark, about Flora’s compassion and humanitarianism. He would have heard accounts of her leadership in helping to rescue the American diplomats in Tehran and how she made it possible for 60,000 refugees — the boat people — to come to Canada after the Vietnam War.

Harper would surely not have joined in the applause that swept through the cathedral after Joe Clark said, pointedly: “Part of the reason she is so admired is because she represents a spirit of community and responsibility which many Canadians believe represents the best qualities of Canada and which many of us feel is on the wane, and deeply needs to be restored.”

And why are these qualities on the wane and need to be restored? If Harper had been there, the old Tories who admired Flora’s ethics and her compassion and commitment to others, might have told him. He would not have been amused.

Flora MacDonald was an exceptional Canadian

Published July 27, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Please forgive me if today’s column becomes personal.

A great woman, a great Canadian and a great figure in Canadian public life died early Sunday morning. Flora Isabel MacDonald – “Flora” to millions of Canadians even if they had never met her – died early Sunday morning in Ottawa. She was 89 and had suffered from multiple illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, in recent years.

Flora and I worked together to write her memoirs, which for a variety of reasons we were not quite able to finish. Hers is quite a story – quite a life.

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Born and raised in Cape Breton, Flora was the daughter of a Western Union telegrapher, Fred MacDonald, who decoded top-secret messages sent by cable between London and Washington during the Second World War. There was no money to send Flora to university, so after high school she went to business college.

I first encountered Flora in the 1960s when she was working as a secretary at Progressive Conservative headquarters in Ottawa. She had become the liaison between rank and file Tories across the county and the party’s headquarters and leadership. She knew everyone. The grassroots loved her, the leader – John Diefenbaker – not so much. He fired Flora (for suspected disloyalty), which may have been the worst mistake he ever made.

Her dismissal was the flashpoint that ignited a “dump Diefenbaker” movement. A canny Scot, she took a copy of the party membership list with her when she left headquarters and delivered it to Dalton Camp, the party’s national president who would lead the movement to choose a new leader. The drama played out at the PC national conference in Ottawa in the fall of 1966. Camp won re-election as party president, delegates voted to hold a leadership convention – and Flora was elected national secretary of the party.

She went to work to help make Bob Stanfield, then premier of Nova Scotia, national leader in September 1967. Flora took an administrative job at Queen’s University; in 1972, she won the Conservative nomination and was elected to Parliament in the Liberal seat of Kingston and the Islands.

It’s hard to realize today, but she was the only woman in a Tory caucus of 100-plus MPs. As she wrote in her memoirs: “Politics was then (and to a considerable degree still is) a man’s world. Women were tolerated as candidates and as members of Parliament, but the encouragement they received from their male peers was often half-hearted. … [T]hey did not see any compelling reason to go out of their way to enlist more female players.”

The promotion of women in all walks of public life became one of Flora’s passions. In 1976, following Stanfield’s resignation, she decided to run for the leadership herself.

She knew she faced three obstacles. The first was her gender. Although Margaret Thatcher had become Conservative leader in Britain the year before, most Canadian Tories had never contemplated being led by a woman. Second, she did not have what she called a “conventional political résumé.” She was not a lawyer, businessman or professor; she did not even have a university degree. Third, she was a “Red Tory, and proud of it.” She campaigned against capital punishment ; on abortion, she championed a woman’s right to choose – both radical positions to most Conservatives in the 1970s.

Flora did not win the leadership. After the second ballot, she threw her support to the other Red Tory, Joe Clark, who made her his foreign affairs minister when he became prime minister in 1979. Later, she served in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet as, among other things, immigration minister. Her signal accomplishment in that post was persuading a reluctant Conservative cabinet to admit tens of thousands of Southeast Asian boat people to Canada following the Vietnam War.

That grand humanitarian gesture was perhaps Flora finest moment. Yes, she could be stubborn – and she needed to be in the man’s world she set out to conquer. We have lost an exceptional Canadian.

Do Canadians care about right or wrong?

Published July 20, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The Jean Chrétien Liberal government, to its credit, made a belated, but genuine, attempt to create a level field for all players in federal elections by creating barriers to prevent Canadian campaigns from sliding into the cesspool of money and special interests that dominate U.S. elections.

The Stephen Harper Conservative government, to its discredit, is striking down those barriers to give advantage to the players who are most proficient at raising money and most devious at fiddling their way around the legal limits on campaign spending.

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Canada’s Election Expenses Act dates to 1974. A pioneering piece of legislation, it imposed limits on the size of political contributions, required public disclosure of the identities of contributors, set limits on the amounts that parties and candidates could legally spend, and reimbursed them for some of their election costs.

Although it was revolutionary for its time, the Election Expenses Act (now incorporated in the Canada Elections Act) was not perfect.

Not long before he left the stage in 2003, Chrétien moved to make the playing field even more level. He tightened the rules on contributions, and he introduced a new subsidy — an annual allowance paid to parties on the basis of their share of the popular vote in the previous election. It was this allowance or subsidy that enabled the Green party to set itself up as a national party.

The allowance is gone now, abolished by the Harper government. Harper did something else last year. His so-called Fair Elections Act (“so-called” because among other things it made it more difficult for students to cast ballots) created a new spending loophole.

One of the weaknesses of the law since 1974 has been that the spending controls apply only during the “writ period” — that is the period, now generally 35-37 days, between the formal dissolution of Parliament and voting day. The exact limit or ceiling is calculated on the basis of the number of registered voters; this year it will work out to roughly $24 million for each national party.

The new loophole courtesy of the Fair Elections Act? If a campaign is longer than 37 days, each political party will be allowed to spend above the ceiling a daily amount equal to one-37th of the $24 million limit — or roughly $650,000 a day seven days a week. For an election on Oct. 19, the writ period would normally start on Sept 12. But Harper could stretch the campaign period out by issuing the writ on, say, Aug. 12, for the Oct. 19 vote. That would add 30 days to the campaign — and nearly $20 million to the spending ceiling.

The Conservatives can surely afford an advertising-intensive $44-million campaign; the Liberals and New Democrats surely cannot.

In a piece last week, Conservative columnist John Ivison of the National Post, who has a pipeline to and from Tory central, describes this as a “cunning plan” by the Conservatives “to drain the resources of their relatively impoverished opponents.”

Not being privy to the “cunning plan,” I can only report what I hear. This is that if the first televised debate, to be presented by Maclean’s magazine in Calgary on Aug. 6, goes well for Harper, he would take a few quick polls, then ask the governor general to dissolve Parliament. His schedule is clear; he has already cancelled his annual August tour of the North. If the debate goes badly, he waits.

But isn’t this twisting of the election law unethical? Doesn’t it amount to trying to steal the election?

I might say it does. But I’m not sure the public cares. There was no public uproar when the Harper government pumped millions of taxpayers’ dollars into thinly veiled partisan advertising this season. They escaped damage in the robocall scandal in the last election and in the advertising in-and-out scandal in the election before that.

The laws are weak. The lust for victory is strong. Who cares about right or wrong? Ethics are for losers.

A campaign of confusion thus far

Published on July 13, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

There is only one word to describe our infant federal election campaign. The word is confusion.

There is confusion over the leaders’ debates – how many there will ultimately be, what the rules will be, who will be invited to participate, and who will show up and who will not.

There is confusion over the polls. They muddy the water more than they clarify it with layers of seat projections, predictions,  forecasts, scenarios and now – a new wrinkle – “Monte Carlo’ simulations, based, it seems, on algebraic logarithms (a torture most of us hoped we had left behind in high school math).

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Finally, there is confusion over when the election will actually be held. The fixed-election law says Oct. 19, but the prime minister has the power to change that. The rumour in Ottawa last week was that Stephen Harper, worried about sagging Conservative poll numbers, an economy that has gone into recession, and the appearance of Nigel Wright as the first witness when the Mike Duffy trial resumes on August 11, will reschedule it for just after Labour Day – meaning most of the campaign would be in August when voters might not be paying much attention.

Let’s start with the debates. The main ones, sponsored by the television networks are scheduled for Oct. 7 (French) and Oct. 8 (English) – assuming the election has not already happened by then. The prime minister has said he will not participate. Whether that’s because of his distaste for the CBC or his disinclination to be a punching bag for the other leaders so close to the election is an open question.

So, it seems, is the participation of NDP leader Thomas Mulcair. The NDP has agreed in principle to the English and French debates, but has not confirmed their leader’s presence. If Harper is not there, the New Democrats are not at all sure they want Mulcair, the perceived front runner, to become a surrogate punching bag for Justin Trudeau, Elizabeth May and (in the French debate) Gilles Duceppe.

Harper may yet change his mind and agree to debate, but if neither he nor Mulcair is there, why bother?

Both leaders say they plan to take part in an early debate to be organized by Maclean’s magazine on Aug. 6. How that debate goes will, I suspect, help determine whether other projected debates, to be hosted the Globe and Mail, the Munk Debates and by the private French network TVA, get off the ground.

Next, the polls. About all that can safely be said is that the race looks desperately close – a three-way race in which the NDP is slightly ahead of, or slightly behind, the Conservatives, with the Liberals still within challenging distance.

Everyone is trying to get into the act with projections, predictions and forecasts. Last week, the Globe and Mail unveiled what it called, “an interactive election-forecasting tool that analyzes polling data and helps make sense of it all.”

Sense to some perhaps, but not so much to me. After feeding polling data into a computer, the newspaper’s guru, Paul Fairie, a political scientist at University of Calgary, ran “simulated elections” in all 338 ridings. This is where the “Monte Carlo” factor apparently comes in.  The outcome: a 51.9 per cent probability of an NDP win with a 0.9 per cent probability of a majority government. The paper published six “random examples” – three NDP minorities and three Conservative minorities. Two of the NDP minorities had the Liberals as the official opposition; the third had a Tory opposition.

New simulations published on the newspaper’s website yesterday, showed the Conservatives winning by seven seats, the NDP winning by 34 (with the Tories and Liberals tied for second) and the NDP winning by two seats over the Conservatives.

We will have to hope Stephen Harper is up on his algebraic logarithms and Monte Carlo simulations when he decides whether to have the election at Labour Day or to wait until Oct. 19.

Fixing our broken Senate

Published June 29, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Three weeks ago, I wrote a column about everyone’s favourite subject: the Senate of Canada. Well, perhaps not quite everyone’s. Stephen Harper’s fondest wish is that the upper house go quietly away and take Mike Duffy with it.

In the column, I suggested the time has come for definitive action – either by blowing the place up (to take a page from Guy Fawkes’ venture in 1605), or by holding a national referendum to abolish it (perhaps in conjunction with the general election this October).

Let’s be candid, reader response to my humble, but helpful suggestions was underwhelming.

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For one thing, it appears there are laws against setting off barrels of gunpowder in the basement of the Centre Block. Who knew? And a referendum on abolition is easier to advocate than to make happen.

Our constitutional straitjacket of 1867 makes the Senate virtually immune to fundamental change. Abolition would require the approval of all provincial legislatures plus the House of Commons and the Senate itself. Given the mood of the country these days, it is conceivable that a referendum to abolish would be approved by popular vote nationally. But unless it were approved by voters in each province and territory, it is almost certain that some legislatures would balk. (I’m thinking primarily of Quebec, which has precious little use for the red chamber, but is its devoted defender for reasons we need not go into here.)

The election of a New Democratic Party government under Thomas Mulcair – the only party leader calling for abolition – would give the cause a leg up, but it would not satisfy the constitutional requirement for unanimity. But with the Conservatives and Liberals both talking about the need for reform, there is a chance this year to make some of the most significant changes since 1965 when Lester Pearson’s Liberal government was able to establish a retirement age – 75 – for senators.

The two most needed changes are to eliminate partisanship (every appointment made by the Harper government since it came to office in 2006 has been a Conservative) and to remove the government’s iron control over the upper house. There are various ways these changes could be made. The Constitution mandates that senators be appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the prime minister. But there is nothing in the Constitution to preclude the prime minister from delegating his authority to provincial governments or legislatures. They could choose the people they think would best represent their regions, present those names to the prime minister who would appoint them (as happens now with special senate nominee elections in Alberta).

Some provinces might prefer to divorce the selection process from politics entirely. They could create panels of non-politicians to seek out and screen prospective senators from all walks of life, to be presented to the PM for appointment. We might get a few poets as well as pipefitters.

Once senators stop being appointed on the basis of service to their party and their loyalty (and usefulness) to the prime minister, it becomes a fairly straightforward matter to eliminate partisanship. Like the Commons, the Senate is master of its own rules. It would not require a constitutional amendment to abolish party caucuses and party whips in the upper house (as the Liberals, under Justin Trudeau, have already done), or to eliminate the position of government leader in the Senate – a position the government uses to control the Senate agenda.

Finally, senators could change their seating arrangements. They could eliminate the centre aisle that separates government senators from opposition senators. With no government senators and no opposition senators, there would be no reason (aside from hoary tradition) for the aisle. The red chamber could be reconfigured to seat members in rows, United Nations-style.

These non-constitutional reforms would not transform the place from the political scrapyard it is today to the chamber of sober second thought that it was meant to be. But they would be a start.

Four months of pure joy ahead for political junkies

Published June 22, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

It’s a long road that has no ash cans, as John Diefenbaker liked to remind his critics.

What precisely the old Chief may have meant by that profundity was no clearer then than it is today. A loose translation might be what goes around comes around or don’t count your votes before they are cast.

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Regardless of Dief’s semantic inexactitude, this is good advice as the country moves into the penultimate phase of a very long election campaign; it’s been going on ever since the ascension of Justin Trudeau as Liberal leader in 2013. Now it gets serious. Parliament is shuttered. MPs have gone away, not to return until after the vote on Oct. 19. The landscape changes from mostly politics most of the time to all politics all of the time.

For political junkies, the next four months will be pure joy. For non-junkies, it will be pure torture, to be endured as one of the prices of democracy.

The writ won’t come down until about Labour Day, but no one is waiting for that official starting gun. The Conservatives will run two simultaneous campaigns. One, bearing the imprimatur of the Government of Canada and wholly funded by taxpayer dollars in the pre-writ period, will continue to remind voters of all the great and good things the Tories have done over the past decade – including those exciting things they might have done if they had obtained parliamentary approval before shuttering the place last week.

Their other campaign, financed from taxpayer-subsidized party funds, will attack the opposition parties. Justin Trudeau will continue to be portrayed as a latter day Ethelred the Unready. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair can expect to be painted by Conservatives as the most reckless ash can to roll down that long road since, well, Pierre Trudeau.

The New Democrats and Liberals will call for change, present alternative policies, and attack each other. But mainly they will denounce the Conservatives as old, tired, out of touch, patronage-ridden and arrogant, and Stephen Harper as the nation-wrecking Darth Vader of Parliament Hill.

As entertainment, the campaign will have its fun moments. As an exercise in democracy, not so much.

This is one election which, as it begins, no one – absolutely no one – knows how it may end. The stats-obsessed gurus who labour in the political backrooms don’t know. Nor do the pollsters, or the seat-projectionists, or all the media pundits who will strive to appear all-knowing whenever the TV cameras are turned on. But they won’t know either.

All that can be safely said as the campaign begins is that the NDP has made some inroads of late. Some polls put them a bit ahead of the Conservatives. But whether that lead is real or ephemeral is anyone’s guess. The NDP probably got a boost from the party’s victory in the Alberta provincial election, but that bit of momentum may dissolve as the Alberta election fades in memory and as Rachel Notley’s administration inevitably gets bogged down in the day-to-day slog of governing.

The polls put the Tories at about 30 per cent or roughly 10 points less than they polled when they won a majority in 2011. But incumbency gives them the advantages of recognition, experience and money – lots and lots of money – to invest to retain power.

The Liberals have been struggling of late as they went from first to third in the polls. But they are addressing an area of weakness – a shortage of policy, especially on the economic front. And in Justin Trudeau they have a young, attractive – some say, charismatic – leader who appeals to younger voters (if only he can get them to turn out at the polls). He is rated as the most likeable of the leaders, and likeability is no small asset for a politicians.

The bottom line: I have no idea what Oct. 19 will bring, but I suspect we will discover a few ash cans along the road.

Ten years in, Harper is fighting with his back to the wall

Published June 15, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

This will be difficult, I know, but try to imagine you are Stephen Harper.

You are prime minister of Canada. You are approaching your 10th anniversary in that high position. You have won three consecutive general elections and are looking to make it four in a row on Oct. 19. With your majority in Parliament, you have more power and control today than an American president. You rank among the most successful political leaders in Canadian history.

Yet something is wrong.

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Success does not translate into affection and admiration. You are successful, but you are not loved. Schoolchildren do not squeal with delight when they see you. Their fathers do not hoist them on their shoulders for a better view. Their mothers do not rush home to tell neighbours they have touched the garment of the prime minister of Canada. For all the sense of moment you generate, you might be an ordinary MP or a school trustee.

It’s not your fault. It’s the way you are. Popularity has never been your shtick. You don’t make friends easily. You are actually better at making enemies than friends. After a decade in government, you are still a Reform-style opposition politician at heart. You need enemies more than friends to make your style of politics work. You would rather attack than defend and explain.

You have already assembled an impressive enemies list for the election campaign. Heading the list is the chief justice of Canada and her infuriating Supreme Court. The court keeps saying “no” to you. “No” to mandatory minimum prison sentences, “no” to appointing supreme court judges who don’t meet eligibility requirements, “no” to abolishing or reforming the Senate without provincial consent, “no” to federal anti-prostitution laws, “no” to banning doctor-assisted suicide and, most recently, “no” to your government’s efforts to stamp out the medical use of marijuana.

You upped the ante in your war with the court last week when your health minister, Rona Ambrose, declaring that she was “outraged” by that ruling, accused the court of steering young people toward marijuana use, just like, she said, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau who proposes decriminalizing possession of pot.

An election that pits the government against the Supreme Court would be an appalling precedent. But it’s not as though Harper doesn’t have other enemies to choose among. There’s also the Senate — his own Senate — which cannot control the wastrels in its membership. There are all those terrorists in our midst who must be put down by Bill C-51, the new anti-terrorism law. There are those annoying scientists and environmentalists who keep insisting climate change is real.

And there is Vladimir Putin. Bashing Putin must be good domestic politics, because Harper was back in Europe again last week, stamping his foot and demanding the Russian leader get out of Ukraine. If Putin noticed, he has not responded, but he will have other opportunities to yield to Harper’s demand before the polls close here on Oct. 19.

This shapes up as a singularly nasty election. Ten years in, Harper is fighting with his back to the wall. His Conservatives have lost 10 percentage points in popular support since the last election in 2011. At first, the threat came from the Liberals under their new leader Trudeau. But while the Conservatives were concentrating their fire on Trudeau, momentum began to shift to Thomas Mulcair and his New Democrats. Today, they are even with the Tories, or marginally ahead. Another majority seems out of the Conservatives’ reach. If the Liberal collapse continues, even a minority could be a stretch.

Mulcair has been able to build on the federal support base assembled by the late Jack Layton. He has also benefited from Rachel Notley’s victory in Alberta. If Albertans are not afraid of the NDP, why should other Canadians dread Mulcair and his party?

Watch for Harper and his attack team to try to answer that question, frequently, between now and October.

Public is ready for drastic action on Senate

Published June 8, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

What are we going to do with the dear old Senate?

The appointed upper house has graduated from being a political anachronism to a national embarrassment. Under attack by the auditor general and investigation by the RCMP – and abandoned by their patron, the prime minister – senators now expend their energy trying to cover their sorry butts.

It would be tempting to say, just blow the place up. Although the public might applaud, I fear this extreme solution would not sit well with the RCMP, which takes a dim view of explosions on Parliament Hill. Nor would it commend itself to scholars who would doubtless argue that it would be an intolerable violation of the Constitution of Canada to blow the place up unless all provinces and territories agreed to hold the match. Continue reading

We can blame a succession of prime ministers who have used the Senate either as a political scrap yard or a comfy refuge for party loyalists, or both. Stephen Harper is only the most recent offender. Now that the Senate expenses scandal has blown up in his government’s face, he is trying to flee the scene. Don’t blame me, he says, washing his hands; blame the Senate; it’s responsible for members’ expense accounts. Sure. This is the all-controlling prime minister who has larded the upper house with 59 appointees, every single one a Conservative, and whose office mounted an unprecedented campaign of denial and cover-up in the Mike Duffy affair, before throwing the embarrassing senator under the Tory bus.

We can blame the ludicrously loose Senate expense rules. We can blame the Senate leadership for fostering an anything-goes culture in the use of taxpayer dollars. And we can blame the opposition parties for wringing every drop of partisan advantage out the scandal without offering a constructive remedy.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair says he would abolish the Senate, even if he doesn’t know how he could circumvent the provincial-consent strictures laid down by the Supreme Court. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau kicks his party’s senators out of the Liberal caucus and calls it reform. Harper blames the Supreme Court for his inaction and stops appointing new senators; with 20 of the 105 seats now vacant, perhaps he hopes the survivors will eventually die of neglect.

It seems to me that this year offers an ideal opportunity to do something definitive about the red chamber. The expenses scandal has made the public receptive, I believe, to drastic action. The general election scheduled for Oct. 19 offers an avenue to tap into that public will.

Any party that campaigned on a promise to hold, within its first year in office, a national referendum to abolish the Senate would draw broad electoral support. If the referendum carried, the new government could take the next three years to introduce the required constitutional amendments and bring the provinces on side. If some provinces balked, making it impossible to scrap the upper house, the government could move to Plan B – a comprehensive package of reform measures to place before the electorate in the ensuing federal election. If they can’t blow the place up, at least they could clean it up.

The Senate was created to give voice to the regions in the councils of Ottawa. Strong, outspoken provincial governments render that function redundant. It was also meant to be a chamber of sober second thought – to act as a brake on a headstrong, popularly elected lower house.

But majority governments don’t listen to the Senate because they don’t need to. The upper house becomes an extension of the government caucus and a tool of the prime minister and cabinet. With majority government, sober second thought becomes a rubber stamp.

At the very least, the power of appointment should be taken out of the hands of the prime minister. If we must have a Senate, it should be populated with distinguished Canadians and given useful work to do. But better, surely, to put the place out of its misery.

MacKay exiting politics – for now

Published on June 1, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

Peter MacKay made Stephen Harper prime minister. He’s the man who drove a stake into the heart of his party, the Progressive Conservatives, broke his word to his supporters, and turned his dwindling band of moderates and Red Tories over to Harper and his ascendant army of unreconstructed Reformers.

That was back in 2003. Twelve years later, MacKay, the justice minister, is like a lonely Nova Scotia lighthouse – one of the last progressives still standing in Harperland. Now he is leaving Parliament, which is not the same as giving up political ambition. MacKay made that clear last week, carefully leaving the door ajar to return at a later date.

He wanted to be prime minister a dozen years ago and by all accounts he still does. His problem is to find a way to get there. There’s a general election scheduled for Oct. 19 and MacKay, although already nominated, will not be a candidate. Continue reading

Why leave now? There are two explanations. First, if the Conservatives were to lose the election – or return with a minority (which would amount to the same thing in this scenario) – Harper would be toast. If MacKay were still there, he would be caught up in a nasty leadership battle he could not win; the right would prevail and chances are its champion, Jason Kenney, would take control.

Second – ironically, even worse for MacKay – the Conservatives could win another majority government, meaning Harper would be around for another four, five or maybe 10 years. MacKay would go from lonely lighthouse to parliamentary artifact. I can hear the tour guides showing schoolkids the House of Commons:

“Do you see that old fellow to the prime minister’s left? He’s a bit wizened. He’s been around forever, since he was first elected away back in 1997. That’s Peter MacKay, the last leader of the Progressive Conservative party. You may have learned about the PCs in history class. You’d never know it now, but Peter was once voted sexiest MP and most eligible bachelor on Parliament Hill. He had a succession of glamorous girl friends. He married one of them and raised a beautiful family. He’s been minister of foreign affairs, defence and justice, but he really wants to be prime minister, so he keeps running and running while he waits for Mr. Harper to pass on.”

In fairness, MacKay says his reason for leaving is his desire to spend more time with his family. Many politicians say that when they leave for any number of other reasons, but in MacKay’s case there is probably an element of truth. He got into politics early and marriage late; he’s 49 now with one son, a two-year-old, and another child on the way. On the other hand, if the leadership were available, and if he thought he had a realistic shot at it, he would be sticking around.

As it is, this is a good time to take a sabbatical from politics. At his age, he can afford to go away for five or six years while the Conservatives sort out their direction. This could take more than one election. Do they want to be the voice of the 25 per cent of the electorate that exists on the hard right? Or do they want to reposition themselves closer to the middle? If they want a leader to woo progressives and former Red Tories back from the Liberals and NDP, MacKay could be the ticket.

He plans to retain his Nova Scotia seat until closer to the election. Speculation in Ottawa has it that Harper will make him ambassador to Washington, a post held by Gary Doer, the former premier of Manitoba, since late 2009.

Washington would be a convenient perch, visible but uninvolved, from which to reboot while sitting out the political wars at home. Harper owes this final favour to the man who made it possible for him to become prime minister all those years ago.

Leaders’ debates breathe life into elections

Published May 25, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

Let’s talk today about the flapdoodle in Ottawa over the election debate(s).

Q: Do leaders’ debates really matter?

A: Yes, I think they do. We saw that most recently in the Alberta provincial election where the television debate helped turn the tide to Rachel Notley and her New Democrats.

Politicians of all persuasion complain about the lessening of public engagement in the political process. They find it difficult to attract campaign workers and to woo voters to the polls. The leaders’ debate is the one event that breathes real life into a federal election. As many as 10 million Canadians usually tune into the English debate and perhaps 4 million to the French debate. Continue reading

Q: So why is Prime Minister Harper making such a fuss and refusing to participate in any debate that will be organized by the usual suspects – a consortium of national broadcasters?

A: This is complicated, and there are several explanations. It’s partly a question of control. The broadcasters get to control the format, the topics and the selection of questioners. The Conservative government doesn’t – and, as some people may have noticed, control is a pretty big deal to Stephen Harper.

It’s also partly a product of Conservative paranoia about CBC, which is the dominant player in the broadcast consortium. The Tories are convinced the public broadcaster is irredeemably liberal and Liberal – a notion that former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien might find amusingly quaint; the fact is, all prime ministers of whatever stripe, come to dislike the CBC. It’s the nature of the beast.

Lastly, it is not necessarily in the government’s partisan interest to engage in debates (one in each language) that might create so much interest as to drive up voter participation. Low turnouts generally benefit parties in power while high turnouts work to the advantage of opposition parties as fence-sitters come down on the side of change.

Q: Harper says he favours up to five debates (so long as none is organized by the consortium). Does he really mean it?

A:  No and yes. Given his druthers, Harper  would almost certainly opt for no debates at all. But if he has to debate, the more the merrier. About 20 supplicants have expressed interest in hosting the extra debates, the principal ones being Maclean’s, Globe and Mail, the Munk Debates and the private French network, TVA.

Increasing the number of debates would reduce the impact of gaffes in any single debate. Ten million Canadians might watch one English debate. But how many would care enough to watch four or five? How many would watch a consortium-sponsored debate without the prime minister? Audience fragmentation might play into the Tory low-participation game plan.

Conservatives say Harper is relishing the opportunity to take on Justin Trudeau, because he believes he can make mincemeat of the Liberal leader every time they debate. Maybe he can, but underestimating one’s opponent is dangerous in politics. And what about the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair? He is the most proficient debater of the bunch. Does Harper really want to face off against him four or five times? I seriously doubt it.

For the moment, the parties are playing a silly game of political football.  What they should be doing is looking for a better way to institutionalize and organize debates. Since 1987, the United States has had a Commission on Presidential Debates that has the legal authority to run presidential and vice-presidential debates. Non-profit and supposedly non-partisan – it is jointly controlled by the Republican and Democratic parties – it has taken much of the political gamesmanship put of the debates system.

It is one model Canada could look at. It would make some sense to establish an all-party committee of Parliament to find a better way to organize debates here, to recommend a body to administer them and to write the new rules into the Canada Elections Act where they would be out of easy reach of broadcasters and election-bent politicians alike.

Harper’s Conservatives running out of steam

Published May 19, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the Harper Conservative era?

The opinion polls — yes, they must be viewed with extreme care — would suggest the end is nigh, as those old religious billboards used to declare. With precisely five months to go before Oct. 19, the scheduled election date, polls are showing the three principal parties in a virtual tie; all are at, or very close to, 30 per cent. A couple of the most recent polls put the New Democrats in second place, a tad behind the Tories and a hair ahead of the Liberals.

The Conservatives have lost nine points since the 2011 election, in which they won a majority with 39.6 per cent of the vote. The Liberals, back on their feet with Justin Trudeau, have regained nine points since 2011, when they plummeted into third place. Under Thomas Mulcair, the NDP has recovered enough mojo to climb back to the level they reached under Jack Layton in 2011.

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The federal landscape is not experiencing a tsunami or earthquake (or even a 2011-style orange surge), but the political plates do seem to have moved and to be moving still. The May 5 provincial election in Alberta, in which the New Democrats registered a stunning majority victory, is part of it — although perhaps less in Alberta itself, where the federal Tories continue to enjoy a commanding lead, than in the more important (electorally) provinces of Quebec and Ontario.

It may be that the desire for change that was expressed so emphatically in Alberta two weeks ago is being felt in the big provinces as well. The NDP has taken a solid lead in Quebec, according to polls, and has turned Ontario into a three-way competition.

Some of the Conservatives’ old tricks aren’t working. Their attack ads failed to blow Justin Trudeau out of the water after he became Liberal leader; their “fear card” is not working as public support continues to erode for Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism legislation that the government is ramming through Parliament; the latest manifestation of its tired “economic action plan” is generating more questions about the cost of political propaganda than support for the measures to be found buried in its omnibus budget bill.

The central dilemma for the Conservatives is that they have been in office for more than nine years — the full life of two normal Parliaments — without undergoing any renewal of personnel or policies. The Harper team is a tired team. Its policies are increasingly threadbare. It has depleted its shallow well of ideas.

Afraid to face change, it tries to control everything within its reach. It doesn’t trust the people enough to share information with them — whether it is the stone wall in question period, the arbitrary denial of Access to Information requests, suppression of the long-form census, or the silencing of government scientists who are no longer allowed to speak about their research or discoveries. It is control for control’s sake, not for any valid or constructive purpose. Sometimes it overreaches, as it did in its attempts to control the Senate expenses scandal; does anyone really believe the PMO’s clumsy coverup in the Mike Duffy affair?

When Barack Obama was elected U.S. president in 2008, his campaign mantra was, “Yes, we can.” As Stephen Harper moves into his fifth general election campaign, his mantra is “No, we won’t (and we won’t tell you why not).”

When their support is down to 30 per cent, the old strategy of reinforcing the base while ignoring most of the rest will not work any longer. The Conservatives cannot count on a divided opposition to re-elect them — or to prop them up if they fall short of a majority — any more than Jim Prentice could count on his divided opposition to save him in Alberta.

After nine years, the Conservatives need new ideas, new direction, new faces and, yes, new leadership. Otherwise, the end will indeed be nigh.

Political landscape changing course

Published May. 11, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Who do you suppose is the happiest politician in Canada today?

Would it be Rachel Notley who achieved something Albertans thought they would never see in a million years: the election of a (majority!) New Democratic Party government? True blue Alberta painted NDP orange? Pinch yourself!

Or would it be Kathleen Wynne, the Liberal premier of Ontario, who probably could not believe her astonishingly good fortune as her principal opponents, the Progressive Conservatives, opted for the Tea Party route, choosing a new leader to carry them out of the political mainstream. Never have the Liberals had so much room in which to pitch their big red tent.

The happiest politician would not, alas, be Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who sees his road to reelection strewn with new landmines, some of his own devising.

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Let’s start with Alberta. The pollsters got it right. They detected the surge to the NDP and the collapse of the Tories. The tricky thing, when the electorate starts to move, as it did last Tuesday, is to anticipate how far its momentum will take it. It went a long way, giving the NDP 50 new seats and dumping the PCs, after 44 years in office, into third place.

With the right-wing Wildrose party as her official opposition and the Tories reduced to irrelevance, Notley has four years in which to establish the NDP’s command of the centre-left. She’s already started, reaching out to the oil industry and to erstwhile Tory supporters.

The election-night contrast between Notley and her PC predecessor, Jim Prentice, was striking. She was gracious in victory, conciliatory and not triumphal; her speech touched all the right bases. Prentice was a study in bad grace. He not only announced his resignation as party leader, as would be expected, but he also resigned his seat in the legislature to which he had been reelected just minutes before, leaving the province facing a byelection. So much for dignity or commitment to service.

In Ontario, the PCs rejected their deputy leader, Christine Elliott, a mainstream Tory (and widow of former federal finance minister Jim Flaherty) in favour of an obscure federal backbencher, Patrick Brown, a social conservative MP from Barrie who might have been more at home at Queen’s Park in 1955 than 2015.

He is too conservative even for the taste of the Harper Conservatives.  He is anti-abortion, against gay marriage, and opposed to sex education in the schools, which is the hot issue in provincial politics these days. Central casting could not have come up with a more perfect opponent for Kathleen Wynne.

Brown won by selling far more party memberships than Elliott. Whether he can sell the public on his extreme conservatism is a different proposition. “He is fundamentally a radical Tea Party individual who is far outside the mainstream,” says Liberal cabinet minister Steven Del Duca.

As for Stephen Harper, the past few weeks have not been kind. His government’s long-awaited balanced budget landed with something of a splat, generating little goodwill for the federal Conservatives.

He is on the wrong side of history in the case of Omar Khadr, the former child soldier, now free on bail in Edmonton pending appeal. The government’s determination to get him back behind bars smacks more of persecution than pursuit of justice.

The Mike Duffy trial is going better for the suspended senator than for the prime minister. It now appears that Harper may have violated the Constitution when he appointed Duffy to a senate seat in Prince Edward Island, where he was not legally resident.

Testimony has revealed that the PM’s agents were up to their elbows in efforts (ultimately successful) to rewrite an early auditor’s report on Duffy’s expenses. And now the PMO is trying to suppress another auditor’s report – the suspicion being that the government’s case against Duffy would be weakened if the court were informed that other senators have similar expenses issues.

The trial is adjourned, but only until June 1.