Trudeau showing skeptics he’s no featherweight

Published on Nov. 23, 2015 in the Waterloo Region Record.

These are still very early days, but so far Justin Trudeau is demonstrating there is more steel in his spine than many Canadians had suspected.

Skeptics who had dismissed him as a featherweight with no particular commitment to anything have been forced to reconsider. Trudeau has established that he is a politician who says what he means and who means to carry through on his election pledges – and that’s a breath of fresh air in cynical Ottawa.

He says he stands for change, and so far he is delivering. He campaigned on the principle of gender parity – including a cabinet with equal representation of women and men – and he delivered. He promised a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women – an inquiry his predecessor had adamantly refused to consider – and that is being done. Continue reading

He promised he would withdraw Canada’s CF-18s from their combat role in Iraq and Syria while balancing that withdrawal with an increase in the number of Canadian military trainers working in a non-combat role. He went to Washington where he delivered this message to Barack Obama; the president did not seem perturbed.

Today, he is meeting with provincial premiers for a briefing by scientists on climate change, to be followed by a working dinner with the premiers in preparation for the Paris conference in a week’s time. To give an idea how much things have changed in less than three weeks, consider this:  scientists are a species that Stephen Harper did not trust to open their mouths, premiers are a group with whom he would not deign to meet, and climate change is an issue whose existence he barely acknowledged. Now his successor is working with scientists and the premiers to develop a unified Canadian approach on climate change to present to the world.

Tomorrow, the government is unveiling details of its plan to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada by the end of this year. The critics are out in force. Too ambitious, say some critics. That’s too many foreigners coming into Canada in a compressed time period, they argue. Where will they all be housed? Where will their children go to school? Too expensive, say others. Why not slow down and spread the cost over a period of years? Too risky, say still others for whom security worries will always trump humanitarian needs.

Trudeau will need his steel to forge ahead with his refuge plan. It will take a huge effort, but there are enough passenger aircraft available for charter to transport the refugees from Jordan to Canada; enough beds can be provided on military bases and in shuttered hospitals, schools, and other facilities; doctors and nurses can be recruited; translators can hired.

Time is the enemy. Can all this be done – and security concerns allayed – by New Year’s? The government says it can. If it can’t, I suspect the public would grant Trudeau some wiggle room.

If he can show by the end of the year that, say, half the 25,000 have arrived and been settled, with rest on the way within weeks, I suspect the public would say, mission accomplished.

With great challenges come great opportunities. Why not seize the opportunity to recruit young Canadians – that 18-24 year old demographic that was so good to Trudeau in the election – to assist the newcomers as they arrive, get settled and make the transition to Canadian life?

One of John F. Kennedy’s first actions when he became president was to embrace the idealism and energy of young Americans to create the Peace Corps. Could Justin Trudeau, with a similar appeal to the same demographic, not invite idealistic young Canadians to join what might amount to a domestic peace corps?

I suspect university students and recent graduates who are still searching for a career would flock to volunteer to serve for a year or two. They would work for a small wage or – even better – for forgiveness of their student loans.

True tests are yet to come for new government

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

The task of the journalist, as the late American columnist Walter Lippmann defined it, is to provide “a picture of reality on which the citizen can act.”

So what does reality look like now, after week one of the Justin Trudeau Liberal government?

Here are three impressions that emerged as this journalist watched events in the capital unfold last week. The first was the genuine excitement that greeted Trudeau and his cabinet when they were sworn in on Wednesday. The 3,500 people who crowded onto the grounds of Rideau Hall to watch the ceremony on large TV screens came to witness the turning of a page in Canadian political history, and they were not disappointed.

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The second was surprise at the quality and depth of Trudeau’s cabinet. Most journalists, including me, had not fully appreciated the calibre of the election candidates (male and female) recruited by the Liberals. Post-election, they gave Trudeau a deep talent pool from which to draw his ministry. He promised gender parity, and he delivered. What’s more, the 15 women he chose are every bit as impressive as his 15 male ministers. It is the most diverse and representative federal cabinet we have ever had.

The third impression was of relief that the Harper Conservative era is finally over. That relief is palpable in the public service. There was a sense of a cloud having been dispersed, or a weight lifted, when hundreds of public servants gathered on Friday at the Lester B. Pearson building, home of the Department of Foreign Affairs (soon to be officially renamed Global Affairs), where the new ministers had assembled for an orientation session.

Whatever their private inclinations, civil servants do not normally wear their political hearts on their non-partisan sleeves. Friday was different. They cheered Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay and Science Minister Kirsty Duncan. They cheered and hugged Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.They swarmed Trudeau and pushed in for selfies as he left.

He paused to say a few words: “I’m truly touched by the enthusiasm, by the support, because we’re going to have an awful lot of really hard work to do in the coming months, in the coming years, and we’re going to need every single one of you to give us – as you always do – your absolute best.” The crowd cheered again.

Stephen Harper would not have been amused by the scene. Of course, he would not be amused by most of things his successor is doing as he dismantles the more oppressive elements of the Harper legacy.

He has restored the freedom of speech to bureaucrats. He sent a letter to all heads of mission abroad freeing them from the Harper era obligation of reporting every public engagement – who they met and what they said – to Ottawa. Federal scientists are being told they are free again to discuss their work at conferences and in interviews with the media.

The message is clear: the new prime minister trusts the people who work for his government, just as he trusts the ministers who serve him to do their jobs and speak their minds without seeking the approval of the Prime Minister’s Office.

If the new picture of reality is a picture of openness, transparency and trust, no one will be happier than the journalists who write about the prime minister and the government. But this is very much the honeymoon phase. The test will come when things start to go wrong, as they inevitably will.

A few ministers will screw up; it always happens. They will get in trouble or their policies will go off the rails. Election promises will be abandoned. These failures will land at the prime minister’s door.

Leaders are judged not by how they handle success; Trudeau is doing fine on that score. They are judged by how they manage adversity. Only then will citizens be able to see Lippmann’s picture of reality on which they can act.

24 Sussex Drive

Published Nov. 2, 2015, in The Waterloo Region Record.

What do we want to do with Justin Trudeau’s childhood home, 24 Sussex Drive?

Although this will not be the most pressing issue facing the new prime minister when he and his cabinet are sworn in on Wednesday, it is one that has needed to be addressed for years – decades even. But successive prime ministers have shied away, fearful of being seen spending significant amounts of public money on their official residence. But it is an issue that cannot be delayed for long, not now that Trudeau has decided he will not move in with his family until something is done about the old dump.

Can it be rehabilitated and tarted up? Should it be given a total renovation? Or should it be razed and replaced with a completely new structure that would serve as a showplace for Canada’s green technology, as the Sierra Club suggests?

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Something needs to be done. There is no central air conditioning. Some rooms have window units that rattle like the units one might find in a cheap motel. The knob and tube wiring dates to the middle of the last century and is completely inadequate today. It is probably a fire hazard. There is asbestos that must be removed. There is no sprinkler system.

Seven years ago, the Auditor General reported on the state of 24 Sussex:

“Elements of the residence … are in poor or critical condition. The windows and caulking are cracked; and the tracks and windows are loose. These deficiencies cause extensive heat loss, increase the building’s heating costs, and greatly reduce the energy efficiency of the residence.

“The air conditioning units installed in the windows are nearing the end of their useful lives. They are noisy and inefficient; they weaken the windows in which they are installed. The house was wired for electricity some fifty years ago, and the electrical system is operating at nearly maximum capacity. It cannot meet increases in demand or new operational requirements. The plumbing system is deficient.

“This building, which functions as a reception area for distinguished national and international guests, does not have universal access for persons with reduced mobility. The service elevator dates back to the 1950s and cannot accommodate modern wheelchairs. Service areas such as the kitchen and the basement laundry are not functional. …The only element of the exterior at 24 Sussex that is in good condition is the roof, which was re-done in 1998. The other elements are in poor or fair condition.”

Built by an early lumber baron, the building has not had a full renovation since 1951 when the government bought it and the prime minister of the day, Louis St. Laurent, reluctantly agreed to move in.

The place is too hot in summer and too cold in winter. When Jean Chrétien was prime minister, he and his wife put electric heaters in the bedroom, but they overloaded the electrical system, leaving the house in darkness. Some prime ministers have used sheets of transparent plastic to seal windows to keep the cold winds from the Ottawa River out of the residence. Paul Martin’s wife used towels on the sills to soak up the water that leaked in.

Margaret Trudeau says when she lived there in the 1970s, the building’s infrastructure already needed a complete overhaul. Maureen McTeer, wife of former Prime Minister Joe Clark, lived there briefly in 1979 and later wrote a book about official residences. She says 24 Sussex should be torn down.

That’s not likely happen, but whatever does happen is bound to be expensive. In 2008, the National Capital Commission estimated it would cost about $10 million and take 12 to 15 months to renovate 24 Sussex. The price is bound to be higher today and, Ottawa being Ottawa, the work will take longer than estimated. Meanwhile, Justin Trudeau and his family will be comfortable across the street in Rideau Cottage where at least the plumbing works and the roof doesn’t leak.

Electoral reform could put an end to polling discrepancies

Published Oct. 28, 2015, in The Waterloo Region Record

One observation to be drawn from last week’s election results is that the pollsters’ estimates of the national vote were actually very good.

What wasn’t quite as accurate were some of the regional splits contained within them. Most notably, perhaps, in Quebec, where the late pre-election polls suggested a one-per-cent Liberal lead over the NDP, while the actual result was a 10-per-cent differential there.

Similarly in Atlantic Canada, the aggregated pre-election polls showed a substantial 30-per-cent Liberal lead over the Conservatives and New Democrats, when the actual results provided an even more dramatic 40-per-cent lead. Lesser, but significant disparities could also be found in the Western regions.

This is a major consideration in explaining the relatively poor performance of the seat projections, which almost uniformly pointed to a Liberal minority government. The Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (LISPOP) numbers suggested 140 Liberal seats, and was typical of most other projection websites. The discrepancies in Quebec and the Atlantic region alone account for two thirds of the projection’s underestimate of the actual Liberal seat count.

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Opinion: Trudeau must move quickly on his promises

Published Oct. 21, 2015 in the Waterloo Region Record.

In business, it is said, a new CEO is strongest on day he or she takes over. The early days are the best time to shake up personnel, chop deadwood and impose new corporate objectives and strategies.

It’s like that in politics, too, although Justin Trudeau, with a majority government, enjoys a larger window than most incoming corporate bosses. Still, he must move quickly to put his personal imprint on his administration and to start implementing the sort of change he promised in the campaign.  The longer he waits, the harder it will get as the federal bureaucracy, congenitally resistant to abrupt shifts, finds a multitude of arguments as to why the new prime minister cannot or should not do what he says he wants to do. Continue reading

The process of change will begin with the appointment of the cabinet. Trudeau has said he wants a smaller cabinet than Stephen Harper’s with equal representation of women and men. The new Liberal caucus will have 50 women MPs, among whom he will be able to choose about a dozen for a cabinet in the range of 24 or 25 ministers.

Some of the changes will have to wait for the new Parliament to act. These include the promised repeal of Bill C-24, the new law that impowers the citizenship minister to strip dual nationals of their Canadian citizenship if convicted of terrorism-related crimes, as well as the amendment of Bill C-51, the anti- terrorism law. The Liberals will want to limit the power of the police under C-51 to arrest people without warrants and to provide greater civilian oversight of security forces.

Parliamentary intervention, however, will not be required to move on other fronts. There is nothing to prevent the new government from establishing a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. There is nothing to prevent Trudeau from instructing the Justice department to abandon its efforts to ban the wearing of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. There is nothing to prevent the new government from scrapping the Harper government’s plan to spend $46 billion on 65 F-35 fighter jets that Canada neither needs nor can afford.

There is nothing to prevent Trudeau from reinstating the long-form census, which Harper scrapped. Nor is there anything to stop him from removing the gag with which Harper silenced government scientists and to permit them once again to explain their research and their findings to the public.

Now that it is under new proprietorship, Ottawa is free to work with, not against, the provinces. It is long past time to resume the tradition of federal-provincial first ministers’ conferences on the big issues of the day. Trudeau and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne are political allies; they should be able agree to enhance the Canada Pension Plan, as Wynne proposed and Harper refused.

Not least, there is no reason why the new prime minister cannot get along with the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. He’s a friendly fellow; she’s a smart woman, and they share a passion for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which his father introduced.

The Paris conference on the environment, to be held from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 in the French capital, will give Justin Trudeau an opportunity to restore Canada’s reputation on the climate change front. Stephen Harper, in thrall to the petroleum industry, simply didn’t believe in climate change. His government did nothing except to withdraw from the Kyoto accord. Trudeau does believe in global warming. As leader of a country that is a major polluter, he is in a position to take a leadership role in a global effort to reduce emissions and, ultimately, to save the planet.

In the process, he could begin to enhance Canada’s part on the world stage and, over time, give his country a voice worth listening to again in international forums.

He has momentum. Now is the time to use it.

Polling increasingly difficult numbers game

Published Oct. 20, 2015, on Yahoo News.

What you expected to happen on election night depended entirely on who you asked and when you asked.

The NDP was within reach of forming government; or there was a dead heat; or the Conservatives were pulling ahead; or the Liberals were surging.

The numbers game is an increasingly difficult one for pollsters who try and gauge voter intentions.

So tough, in fact, that the granddaddy of political polling – Gallup – called it quits earlier this month,announcing it will not conduct any horse-race polling for the U.S. presidential campaign for the first time in eight decades.

It was embarrassingly off on its 2012 election predictions and publicly called to the carpet by Barack Obama’s campaign team.

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As Election Day unfolds, exhausted political organizers move from changing minds to moving bodies

Published on Oct. 18, 2015, in the National Post

Early in his career, former Ontario premier Ernie Eves won an election by just six votes and the nickname “Landslide Ernie” stuck with him, despite decades of electoral success that followed. The only person more annoyed by that narrow margin was his challenger who lost.

Landslide Ernie is often noted among Conservatives preparing for the frenzy of Election Day — the finale of a campaign where everything is laid bare and every vote is wrestled and fought for, not so much by changing minds, but by moving bodies.

It is the day when the political parties unleash their machinery to motivate their supporters to close the deal and actually cast a ballot.

Every major party has their Landslide Ernie.

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Minority government almost guaranteed, say experts

Published on Oct. 18, 2015, on Global News.

As the longest federal election campaign in recent memory draws to a close, experts say a minority government in Ottawa is almost guaranteed come Monday night.

Barry Kay of the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Polling has been churning out seat projections in the final weeks of the race, and told The West Block‘s Tom Clark that the growth in support for the Liberals has been substantial, but seems to have slowed as the parties approach the finish line.

“The Liberals have stopped growing in Ontario,” Kay said.

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Liberals slip slightly, maintain clear lead in seat projections

Published on Oct. 17, 2015, on Global News.

The latest seat projections suggest there’s a strong probability that Canada will have a minority Liberal government when the ballots are tallied on Monday, Oct. 19.

After overtaking the Conservatives in seat projections last week, the Liberals are now projected to win 138 seats to the Tories’ 115. That’s a drop of four seats for the Liberals since Thursday and an increase of three for the Conservatives.

The NDP gains two seats in the latest projection while the Bloc Quebecois slips from four seats to three. The Green Party is projected to win one seat in B.C.

“Momentum for the Liberal party in Ontario seems to have finally abated, but in the last three weeks the party has turned around a one percentage-point deficit to the Conservative party in the province to an 11-point lead,” Wilfrid Laurier University politics professor Barry Kay said.

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Ottawa Centre: Elevating our Politics

An old friend of mine, Catherine McKenna, is running in this election, for the seat in Ottawa Centre. I have a clear interest in the outcome of this particular race, and I don’t want to use our LISPOP blog to stump for my favoured candidate. Instead I want to reflect on what this riding teaches us, this time around, about how our politics could be so much better. Continue reading

Ottawa Centre has seem some media attention late in the campaign, as McKenna has mounted a formidable challenge to the incumbent, Paul Dewar. Dewar has enjoyed strong support among voters since he first won the seat in 2006. Before that, the seat was briefly held by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, who won a by-election to replace long-time Liberal incumbent Mac Harb (yes, that Mac Harb) .

The media doesn’t quite know what to make of the current race, as witnessed by this coverage:

Liberals campaign to unseat NDP’s Paul Dewar in Ottawa Centre

What strikes me here is the banter at the beginning, about “why the Liberals were running a high-profile candidate against Dewar.”

This is, of course, how we often think of party politics in Canada—or at least, this is how the media often has us think about our politics. Parties full of intrigues, with young turks and old masters with long memories, powerful players behind the scenes, treating federal political campaigns as a vast chess game of ridings and candidates, some whom are rooks and bishops, others faithful knights and loyal pawns.

To see what I mean, recall how Michael Ignatieff made his triumphant if ultimately ill-fated return to Canada, parachuted by Liberal party apparatchiks into a safe riding. Or, for that matter, think of how the NDP took Ottawa Centre from the Liberals to begin with, bringing their former leader out of retirement to challenge Paul Martin’s candidate, Richard Mahoney, after Harb took up Chretien’s offer of an appointment to the senate.

These are the great battles of Canadian politics, fought in key battlegrounds and party conventions, cabinet meetings and hushed backroom conversations, while knights and pawns are sacrificed in hopeless ridings … or so this popular media narrative goes.

What is striking about the current race in Ottawa Centre is how poorly it fits that popular narrative.

Both of the leading candidates, McKenna and Dewar, have strong backgrounds in public service, and both are committed parents and longtime residents of the riding. Dewar is a former school teacher who has done volunteer aid work in the Americas, and before entering politics was an active community organizer and labour advocate. McKenna, a human rights lawyer, advised the United Nations peacekeeping mission in East Timor and cofounded an international legal NGO. She too has been an active community volunteer.

What’s more, the campaigns run by both candidates have been unrelentingly civil and constructive. Neither has resorted to personal attacks or diversionary tactics, and both have shown how candidates win ridings: by being sincere, committed, and creative about both canvassing and policy initiatives.

Perhaps there are party elites who imagine that Ottawa Centre is part of their grand strategy, a riding where they are running a ‘star candidate’. In reality, however, Catherine McKenna is a longtime resident of the riding, and decided to run for public office. Yes, she is an absolutely superb candidate, but she is not a “Liberal Star Candidate”. She is a fantastic candidate who is deeply committed to her community and country, who happens to be Liberal. The same should be said of Paul Dewar: an excellent local candidate, who happens to be in the NDP. Neither are chess pieces on the set of elite party politics.

Obviously there are important partisan and personal differences between these two extraordinarily talented residents of Ottawa Centre. Their debates have highlighted some of these contrasts, although again, in sometimes-passionate but always civil and respectful exchanges.

This is not business as usual: Ottawa Centre is showing the rest of the country, and especially the current party elites, how we can elevate our politics from the gutter we’ve been dragged into over the past decade, and the tired old backroom strategizing and patronage that have arguably plagued us since Confederation.

Change indeed.

Whatever the outcome on October 19th, let’s look to Catherine McKenna and Paul Dewar as an inspiring example of how our politics could be.

Keep your eye on the election ball Monday

Published Oct. 17, 2015, in The Waterloo Region Record.

What a wonderful month this October is!

As sports enthusiasts, we are excited by our first baseball pennant race in 22 years as the Toronto Blue Jays — now “Canada’s team” — are moving deep into the playoffs. Is there anyone who was not thrilled by the Jays come-from-behind series-clinching victory over the Texas Rangers on Wednesday?

Meanwhile, as political aficionados we revel in the high drama of the first federal election in a decade that offers a real prospect of a change of government in Ottawa.

Will Justin Trudeau, who has exceeded all expectations during the 11-week campaign, emerge on Monday night as our new prime minister? Will it be the end of the road for Stephen Harper?

And what will we, the public, be doing on Monday night? Will we, as responsible and concerned citizens, be glued to the election results on television? Or will we, as success-starved sports fans, be cheering our lungs out as “Joey Bats” and the Jays take on the Kansas City Royals in game three of the American League Championship Series?

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Will Waterloo Region remain a federal bellwether?

Published Oct. 16, 2015, in The Waterloo Region Record.

WATERLOO REGION — As goes Waterloo Region, so goes the rest of Ontario.

Pollsters and politicians have been paying close attention to the mood of voters in Waterloo Region’s five ridings for weeks, knowing the region’s track record as a key bellwether area in provincial and federal elections.

After a prolonged 11-week campaign, one veteran political observer is predicting there could be multiple Liberal victories Monday night in a region that has been exclusively Conservative territory since 2008.

With polls suggesting the Grits are widening their lead in Ontario, Barry Kay is expecting support to swing in Kitchener-Waterloo and Kitchener Centre, where MPs Stephen Woodworth and Peter Braid are in dogfights to keep their jobs.

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Kitchener Centre a true bellwether

Published on Oct. 16, 2015, in The Waterloo Region Record

KITCHENER — If you want to know how Ontario is likely to vote in next Monday’s federal election, all you have to do is look at Kitchener Centre.

“Kitchener Centre is the best bellwether riding in the province,” declares Barry Kay, a political-science professor and member of Lispop, the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy.

For the past nine federal and provincial elections, Kitchener Centre has been the only riding in the province to consistently back the party that won the most Ontario seats. “That usually means it backs the winning party in the country, too,” Kay said. The only recent exception was in 2006, when Liberal Karen Redman won the riding, the Liberals won the most Ontario seats, but the Conservatives won nationally.

The riding’s tendency to reflect the provincial trend means that incumbent Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth, who has held the riding since 2008, is working hard to retain the seat. While polls aren’t as accurate as they used to be, the clear trend in Ontario is a move toward the Liberals, and polls suggest the Liberals could Kitchener Centre.

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Will Gagnier’s resignation hurt the Liberals?

Published on Oct. 15, 2015 on Global News.

Liberal campaign co-chair Dan Gagnier resigned this week after giving advice to TransCanada on how to lobby a future – possibly Liberal – government on oil and energy policy.

In a press conference Thursday, party leader Justin Trudeau said Gagnier’s actions were inappropriate and he supports the resignation.

From revelation to resignation, the scandal lasted about seven hours.

That’s one reason why Memorial University politics professor Alex Marland thinks it won’t have much of an impact on the vote.

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Brantford-Brant a sprint to the finish

Published on Oct. 15, 2015, in Brant News.

The final days of the federal election campaign in Brantford-Brant have come down to a fierce two-way race.

Between incumbent Conservative Phil McColeman and which challenger, depends on who you ask.

“My campaign is in a tight two-way race with the Conservatives for Brantford-Brant. We will need every single Liberal supporter to come out and vote,” said Liberal Danielle Takacs.

“We have internal polls that show it’s a two-way race, that we’re neck and neck,” said the NDP’s Marc Laferriere.

None of the candidates was willing to share inside polling data, however.

The Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Polling (LISPOP), which released new seat projections on Tuesday, listed Brantford-Brant as too close to call.

Read more.