NDP’s lack of traction puzzles pundits

Published Dec. 2, 2013, in The Guelph Mercury.

The chattering classes are puzzled. They can’t figure out what is happening in federal politics these days.

Perhaps I should explain. The term “chattering classes” was coined by the late Auberon Waugh — the acidic British writer with a talent for vituperation — and is applied, usually with a sneer, to that universe of pundits, commentators, political operatives and academics who venture to express views — from the left or right (it doesn’t matter which) — on matters of political import.

The chatterers are not used to being confused. They see NDP leader Thomas Mulcair performing brilliantly in the Commons on the Senate expenses scandal; he makes Prime Minister Stephen Harper look like a schoolboy caught stealing nickels from the church collection plate. They think Mulcair and his party should be reaping a reward in the polls.

But, no. NDP support, while solid, seems stuck, a few points below their 2011 election level.

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Instead, the reward is going to the Liberals, who have not earned it. The performance of their new leader, Justin Trudeau, has been unsteady at best. Yet the Liberals enjoy a lead of six to 10 points in some polls, enough to elect a minority government in 2015. It’s as though voters who want to get rid of the Harper Conservatives have concluded that the Liberals, although in third place in Parliament, offer the best chance of achieving that goal.

That the Conservatives are in deep doo-doo is a virtual given in the chattering class. A rising chorus of pundits, some of them normally of conservative ilk, is calling on the prime minister to resign before he drives his party off the cliff — and while he can still rescue his legacy.

Harper is likely to ignore that advice, whether it come from pundits or his own caucus. He’s pretty good at ignoring advice he doesn’t want to hear.

He’s been getting a lot of free advice in the wake of last week’s federal byelections. There were four of them and, when you get right down to it, nothing really happened. The Conservatives went in with two seats, both in Manitoba, and they came out with the same two. The Liberals held their two seats and the NDP was shut out. Yes, the Tories’ popular vote declined in all four ridings, but that is scarcely unusual in mid-term byelections.

The four byelections did not qualify as harbingers of change, although some byelections do. The NDP victory in the 2012 Kitchener-Waterloo provincial byelection effectively ended the regime of then premier Dalton McGuinty, just as John Tory’s loss in a 2009 byelection in Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock ended his leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives. Back in 1989, there was a federal byelection in Beaver River in Alberta that was won by Deborah Grey. Her victory heralded the arrival of the Reform party on Parliament Hill.

In the harbinger game, it is hard to beat Oct. 16, 1978. The Pierre Trudeau Liberal government was in trouble. It had to call no fewer than 15 federal byelections. On Oct. 16, the opposition Progressive Conservatives won 10 of the seats, six of them from the Liberals, who managed to retain only two seats (both in Quebec). Seven months later, the Liberals were ousted, and Joe Clark was prime minister.

We are not likely to get any harbingers on that scale before the next election. I don’t look for any dramatic breakthroughs. Federal politics has become a game for grinders not Gretzkys. Partly on the basis of polls on the Senate scandal, my sense is that people are psychologically ready to move on from the Harper era. Whether it will be to Trudeau or Mulcair remains to be seen.

Or they may not move at all. The economy remains Harper’s ace in the hole. His Tories also have more money and a stronger organization than their opponents. They will make Harper a formidable campaigner once again. Assuming, of course, he ignores the chatter and decides to hang around.

Come election time, canadians will only care about the economy

Published Nov. 18, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

This may be difficult, but please try to forget — for just a moment — all that lurid Rob Ford news exploding out of Toronto city hall. Can you do that?

And try to forget about the ugly Senate expenses scandal with the unprecedented ouster of erstwhile celebrities Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau. Stars no longer, they remain senators in name only.

Try to forget the Harper government’s attempt to persuade the Supreme Court of Canada that it actually has a viable prescription for Senate reform. It actually doesn’t. And try to forget Justin Trudeau’s ongoing demonstration that he is not yet ready for prime time. He sure isn’t.

Focus, instead, on Finance Minister Jim Flaherty who went out to Edmonton — the Commons was in recess and Alberta crowds are always friendly to Conservative ministers — to deliver his annual update on the economy last week. It was a happily upbeat message. All things considered, the economy is doing very nicely indeed. Jobless, underemployed and debt-laden Canadians might beg to differ, but the gnomes in Finance see the big picture.

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Thanks to the wise stewardship of the Harper Tories, the Great Recession is just about over. After a teeny deficit next year (smaller than Flaherty had anticipated), the economy will burst back into the promised land of surpluses; there will even be tax cuts. This will happen in fiscal 2015-16, the fiscal year in which, due to providence or good management, the federal election will take place, in October 2015.

It has been my contention for some time that the fate of the Conservative government is inextricably tied to the economy. If the economy is healthy — if Canadians feel they are no worse off than they were before the recession (or before Harper took office) and if they can see the economy is growing again — the Tories will get re-elected in 2015. If not, they won’t.

Peripheral issues will drop away. Canadians don’t like senators who fiddle their expenses, but they don’t really care a hoot about the institution. They’d be content if it went away (or were reformed) but they don’t value it enough to be worth a protracted battle with the provinces to change it.

Disgusting Rob Ford is simply a distraction who gives politics and politicians a bad name. Toronto will recover from being the laughing stock of American talk shows. Ford himself will go away, by resignation, removal or electoral defeat. He will not be mayor a year from now, and Toronto the Good will be good again.

Stephen Harper himself will become a peripheral issue, if the economy performs as Flaherty forecasts. Who really cares whether the prime minister is closed, arrogant, secretive, controlling or contemptuous of Parliament, if the sun has broken through after seven years of dark economic clouds for many Canadian families?

A good job with an adequate paycheque and the prospect of advancement, plus lower taxes, decent health care and opportunities for the children — what more could the average Canadian voter ask for in 2015?

That’s a question that could very well be facing both Liberal leader Trudeau and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair as each battles to establish his party as the champion of the middle class. Four federal byelections are being held on Nov. 25, but they won’t tell us much.

Bourassa in Montreal and Toronto Centre are both Liberal seats and should stay that way, although the NDP is making serious noise in Toronto Centre. It looks as though the Manitoba seat of Brandon-Souris could slip from the Conservative to the Liberals, while Provencher, also in Manitoba, which was vacated by former cabinet minister Vic Toews, should stay Tory.

Meanwhile, Trudeau’s Liberals hold a lead nationally of about six points over the Conservatives in recent polls. That’s a lead that, as Liberals well know, could melt like ice cubes on a hot summer day if the Conservatives can take credit for a stronger, healthier, recovered economy in 2015.


Christopher Cochrane in Postmedia News: Thoughts on the Federal By-Elections

Published Oct. 20, 2013 in Postmedia News

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced four federal by-elections taking place in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec on November 25. What does this mean for the Liberal Party and New Democratic Party, both of which are under new leaders? Dr. Cochrane shares this thoughts in this article.

Hudak will survive September, but his days are numbered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wynne still trying to shake off McGuinty’s legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Byelections draw Liberals, NDP closer

Published Aug. 3, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

As bad as the results of Thursday’s Ontario byelections were for Premier Kathleen Wynne, they could have been much worse.

Her Liberal party can hardly be happy at losing three of five seats they had previously taken by margins of 10 per cent to 20 per cent in the 2011 provincial election. Nonetheless, it could be argued that it was even harsher news for Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, whose party took only one seat when expectations suggested they would be competitive in four.

The Liberal vote was down across the board, but in many cases it was the New Democratic Party that was seen as the beneficiary of disdain for the Liberals, despite their third-party status. Wynne’s luck was exemplified by the Liberals being able to retain the riding of Scarborough-Guildwood, despite a 15 per cent decline in support, because the other two parties split the remaining vote almost evenly.

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Byelections a chance to dump McGuinty albatross

Published July 8, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

Byelections can be a really big deal — or they can be small potatoes. They can mean everything, or nothing. They can be a harbinger, or a footnote.

Readers of a certain age will remember Oct. 16, 1978. That’s the day when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals fought no fewer than 15 federal byelections, from British Columbia to Newfoundland — with disastrous results. The Liberals had been planning to call a general election earlier in 1978. But Trudeau had been in power for 10 years, the land was restless, and the polls were bleak. So Trudeau stalled and stalled. Finally, with 15 empty seats in the Commons, he had to call the byelections.

The outcome was a harbinger of events to come. The Liberals managed to win just two of the byelections, both in their fortress Quebec. The three opposition parties took the other 13, with the Progressive Conservatives, under Joe Clark, winning 10. Seven months later, Trudeau was out and Clark was prime minister (albeit briefly in both cases).

To move from the archives to the near-present, the Ontario provincial byelection in Kitchener-Waterloo on Sept. 6, 2012, was also a really big deal. Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals had gone into the provincial election the year before with a majority government. They came out of it one seat shy of a third consecutive majority. McGuinty was suddenly vulnerable.

But then Elizabeth Witmer, the long-serving Conservative member for Kitchener-Waterloo, resigned to accept a patronage appointment from McGuinty. The ensuing byelection was a big potato. Had the Liberals won, they would have gained the seat they desperately needed to recover their majority, and McGuinty could have revived his political life. Chances are he would still be premier today.

It was not to be. New Democrat Catherine Fife won the seat handily as enthusiastic NDP volunteers flooded the riding. The Liberal candidate finished a distant third. One month later, McGuinty announced his retirement, and four months after that Kathleen Wynne was premier of Ontario.

Now Wynne faces her own byelection challenges with five vacancies to be filled across the province, from Windsor to Ottawa, on Aug. 1. I think these are five small potatoes. To start with, all five seats were held by Liberals in the 2011 election. If Wynne wins all five, she will still have a minority government. If she loses all five, she will still have her minority. Either way, she will govern at the pleasure of Andrea Horwath and the NDP.

Expectations are manageable. Everyone anticipates the Liberals will lose former finance minister Dwight Duncan’s seat, Windsor-Tecumseh; the NDP is probably too strong there. My hunch is the Liberals will hold three of the remaining four (including Ottawa South, McGuinty’s old seat, and Etobicoke-Lakeshore, where the Conservative candidacy of Toronto’s deputy mayor, Doug Holyday, is being heavily hyped).

The possible exception is London West, the seat held by Liberal energy minister Chris Bentley. The Liberals seem to have messed up their nomination, and the Tories can taste an upset. But watch the NDP’s Peggy Sattler, a school trustee. The New Democrats doubled their vote in the 2011 election, while the other parties were treading water, and they appear to have momentum as the byelection begins.

The popular vote will be as revealing as the wins and losses in the five races. If the opinion polls are any guide (and one would want to be wary after Alberta and British Columbia), Ontarians are slowly responding to Wynne’s cautious, non-ideological approach to public policy and issues, while Tory leader Tim Hudak comes across as a prisoner of his own too-strident rhetoric. (He would be so much more appealing if he could chill a little.)

Wynne’s albatross continues to be Dalton McGuinty and his hydro plants and other scandals. The five byelections will not slay the albatross (it would take a general election to do that), but they could diminish the beast by underscoring that McGuinty is gone and Wynne is in charge in Ontario.

Byelections can have surprising results, what will happen this time?

Author: Geoffrey Stevens

Published August 20, 2012, in Waterloo Region Record.

It’s been nearly two weeks since Dalton McGuinty called provincial byelections for Kitchener-Waterloo and for Vaughan. At this stage, no one, frankly, can predict what is going to happen. Continue reading

That’s par for the course. We are in the dog days of summer and voters are more interested in their cottages and their barbecues, and in getting the kids ready to return to school, than they are in whether McGuinty’s Liberals regain their majority on Sept. 6 — or in such local issues as whether the widening of Highway 7 between Kitchener and Guelph, already 31 years in the planning, will ever happen.

Drowsy, inattentive voters always make summer campaigns hard to call, even for experienced pollsters. The sheer unpredictability of voters in byelections simply magnifies the problem. Voters can do almost anything in a byelection. Historical voting patterns may count for nothing. Byelection voters find themselves liberated. They can throw off their shackles and vote any way they darned well please.

Sometimes the result can be startling. Flash back to October 1978, to Newfoundland. Pierre Trudeau was in power, and his Liberals regarded Newfoundland as their fief, except for those occasions when the Tories borrowed a few seats. Newfoundlanders had never sent a New Democrat (or CCFer) to Ottawa. Suddenly, out of nowhere, in a federal byelection that October, an NDP candidate with the improbable name of Alphonsus E. Faour (known as “Fonse” to his friends) captured the riding of Humber-Port au Port-St. Barbe. Even New Democrats were dumbfounded.

(Fonse Faour was an MP for 490 days before losing the seat to a Liberal in the 1980 federal election. He went on to serve briefly as the provincial NDP leader and today sits as a trial division judge on the Newfoundland Supreme Court.)

In Ontario, back in 1969, a provincial byelection produced an equally unexpected result. The riding was Middlesex South, on the edge of London, which was the political fortress of the Conservative premier of the day, John Robarts. In the case of Middlesex South, the byelection served as a surrogate for a major political battle. Premier Robarts had held Ontario out of medicare when the national health insurance plan came into force in the country in 1968. Robarts denounced medicare as a “Machiavellian plot.” (What he meant was never entirely clear, but his opposition to medicare was shared, if not inspired, by the insurance industry in London.)

The NDP was determined to take the medicare fight to Robarts, on his home turf. They blanketed Middlesex South, sending high-profile canvassers from Toronto and beyond to knock on farm doors. Their unknown candidate, Kenneth Bolton, an Anglican archdeacon, won. The Conservatives got the message, and Ontario joined medicare. (Ken Bolton lost the seat at the first available opportunity, as Middlesex South returned to the Tory fold in the 1971 provincial election. Meanwhile, Robarts retired and Bill Davis became premier.)

Closer to home, there was a federal byelection in the riding of Waterloo South (now Cambridge) in 1964. The Conservatives owned the seat or thought they did. In the 1964 byelection, however, they were upset by New Democrat Max Saltsman, a local dry cleaner, who went on to get re-elected four times and proved to be a popular and effective member for 15 years in the House of Commons. The NDP hasn’t done much in the region since Saltsman’s day.

Over the years, byelections have produced some notable results. By my count no fewer than five future or former prime ministers have used the byelection route: Lester Pearson, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark (in 2000, on his second time around as Tory leader) and Stephen Harper (in his Canadian Alliance days).

Then there’s Thomas Mulcair (2007 byelection), Bob Rae (both federally and provincially), Stéphane Dion, Tommy Douglas (twice), Robert Stanfield, Paul Hellyer, John Crosbie, David Crombie and Sheila Copps. At Queen’s Park, byelections have produced Christine Elliott, John Tory and Andrea Horwath, among others.

What will Sept. 6 produce?