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.

Anything can happen in next five weeks of this campaign

Published on Sept. 12, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There’s never been an election like this one.

“The fact you’ve got three political parties so close, it’s something we’ve never experienced,” says Barry Kay, political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and an expert on voting behaviour in Canada.

“We’re going to see lots of (party) leaders” in the next few weeks.

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Three-way race seen in Brantford-Brant

Published on Sept. 10, 2015, in the Brantford Expositor.

The current party leanings of Brantford-Brant riding voters are “too close to call,” according to the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy.

Candidates who are particularly articulate and likeable can benefit but other factors such as just how many voters turn up or tune in also matter, Kay said.

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Liberal candidate Chris Brown apologizes for offensive booze-fuelled tweets

Published on Sept. 10, 2015, in the CBC News.

Liberal candidate Chris Brown has apologized for making profanity-laced remarks on Twitter, attributing them to booze-fuelled anger over the death of his partner in an accident involving a drunk driver.

Each party has vetting processes to screen candidates, but some background searches don’t turn up all the potentially damaging material. Usually, the goal of bringing it to light is not to discredit the individual candidate, but to damage the party brand, Perrella said.

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Bloc to be shut out in Quebec as NDP momentum continues

Published on Sept. 1, 2015, on Global News.

The NDP is still projected to form government on Oct. 19 but the latest seat projections from the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (LISPOP) show the overall numbers mask fluctuating regional support and the probable demise of the Bloc Quebecois.

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Is it another “Orange crush?” Anna Esselment comments

Appeared on Aug. 28, 2015, on 570 News.

LISPOP associate Anna Esselment appears on 570 News to comment on federal polls which show strengthening support for the New Democratic Party.

Listen here (interview begins at about the 20min, 30sec mark).

Guelph candidates taking ‘safer’ route in responding to campaign questions?

Appeared on Aug. 27, 2015, in the Guelph Mercury.

Obtaining an interview with a local federal election candidate can prove more difficult than it sounds during this campaign — even on a simple subject.

This week, the Mercury asked all four candidates in Guelph for a short in-person or over-the-phone interview to discuss the question or concern they’re hearing most from voters at the door.

Green party candidate Gord Miller responded quickly with an invitation to drop by his campaign headquarters for a chat.

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NDP solidifies lead in latest seat projections

Published on Aug. 25, 2015, in the Global News Toronto.

The NDP is solidifying its lead over the governing Conservatives according to the latest seat projections showing the party with an 18-seat lead.

Harper’s Conservatives have suffered a net loss of five seats over the last two weeks – one in Quebec, three in Ontario, and two in British Columbia (while picking up one in the prairies).

Read more. 

Vote-splitting not a concern for crowd at Mulcair’s Kitchener stop

Appeared on Aug. 25, 2015, on CTV News – Kitchener.

Thomas Mulcair became the first party leader to stop in Waterloo Region during the 2015 federal election campaign on Tuesday, when he helped open the office of Kitchener Centre candidate Susan Cadell.

“Do you want to help us replace the politics of fear and division with the politics of hope and optimism?” he asked the partisan crowd before launching into a speech about his party’s platform and key NDP issues like poverty among seniors and poor conditions on First Nations reserves.

Recent polls have suggested the possibility of an NDP minority government.

Projections released Monday night by the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy show… read more.

NDP support grows nationally and locally

Appeared on Aug. 25, 2015, in the Sault Online.

If you put faith in opinion polls the riding of Sault Ste. Marie could turn from blue to orange according to the latest polls released August 25.

The NDP now has a strong lead over the governing Conservatives and almost double that of the Liberals so says  The Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (Lispop) poll that gives a projection as of August 25 with the NDP winning 134 seats compared to the 116 seats for the Conservatives. The Liberals remain unchanged at 86 seats.

Locally, the NDP continue to have support of the majority of the voters polled.

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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!

Are Canada’s Liberals Doomed? A Guest Post from Dr. William Margulies

Not conclusively, but there’s a good chance 2015 will not go well for them.

The Liberal Party of Canada has not had a good 21st century. Once the natural party of government, it last had a parliamentary majority in 2004, last governed in 2006, and has been steadily losing votes and seats since then. In 2011, it suffered a catastrophic defeat at the polls, winning only 34 seats out of 308 – none of which belonged to party leader Michael Ignatieff – and fewer than 1 in 5 votes. The New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s social-democratic/labour option and long the country’s third party, became the official federal opposition for the first time.

The Liberals enjoyed a brief revival in the polls under their new leader, Justin Trudeau, the handsome scion of one of Canada’s most consequential prime ministers. But tactical errors, Trudeau’s perceived lack of gravitas and an NDP surge have left Canadians asking whether the Liberals will long survive the upcoming federal election, scheduled for this October.

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As a scholar of the liberal party family, I undertook a cross-national study of how liberal parties fare in competition with their rivals, especially conservative and social-democratic rivals. The purpose of this article is to apply these findings to the case of the Liberals, and try to answer two questions: 1) Will the Liberals do badly in October?, and; 2) Will they eventually go extinct? My research suggests that the answer to the first question is quite possibly yes, and the second is more likely no.

My analysis of the first question relies directly on my own research. My PhD focused on how liberal parties fare when their rivals move towards or away from them on the left-right issue scale. Liberal parties are often near the centre of this scale, and sensitive to such movements. My work drew on an article by Jack Nagel and Christopher Wlezien, which found that, in the postwar United Kingdom, the Liberals/Liberal Democrats were almost always between Labour and the Conservatives. The Liberals gained votes when the Conservatives moved away from them to the right, and when Labour moved away from them to the left. My work found that this was true for liberal parties cross-nationally, across 26 advanced democracies – including Canada.

Historically, Canada’s party system has not precisely tracked those of European democracies. In Europe, liberal parties suffered a long decline throughout the 20th century. Prior to this, they often formed the political left in an arena dominated by middle- and upper-class voters that excluded non-taxpayers or working-class voters. As the working classes gained the vote, they flocked mainly to labour or social-democratic parties. These mass parties usually came to dominate the political left, and the liberals, seen as less effective, bled middle-class voters either to the right (on class grounds) or to the left (on ideological grounds). To quote Ralph Miliband, one of the greatest historians of the British Labour Party, by 1924, “for those who did not want to vote Conservative, there was now no serious alternative to the Labour Party, just as there was no longer any serious alternative to the Conservative Party for those who would not vote Labour.”

The Canadian Liberals, however, did not experience this secular decline. Why? Brian Tanguay, writing in the 1990s, pointed out that Canada, unlike Europe (but like its southern neighbor), never witnessed “the dawn of class politics.” Patronage politics and Canada’s deep linguistic divide were always more important, so the Liberals remained the chief centre-left party, and the labour-allied NDP was relegated to the third place. So the dynamic was similar – a liberal party between a conservative and a social democratic party – but the relationship between the Liberals and the NDP was the reverse of the dynamic found elsewhere.

But that is no longer true. In 2011, the NDP won a landslide victory in Quebec, while the Liberals suffered a historic collapse. As such, the Liberals are now the third party between much larger conservative and social democratic rivals, more closely resembling the dynamic found in the United Kingdom (which Nagel and Wlezien studied) and other European countries.

Of course, this is only bad for the Liberals if its rivals move to the centre. But the NDP is in fact doing that. Its leader since 2012, Thomas Mulcair, is frequently defined as a centrist, and a major Canadian magazine even reported that he was courted by the Conservatives themselves. In terms of policy, though the NDP has proposed increases in the minimum wage and corporation tax, it has ruled out increases in personal income tax rates, and promised tax relief for small-business owners, “some of the hardest-working job creators in our economy.” My data predict this will hurt the Liberals – not necessarily catastrophically, but measurably. And in a first-past-the-post system, this may have the effect of encouraging left-wing voters to abandon the Liberals for the NDP.

So, suppose the Liberals are in trouble this year. Does that mean that they are in danger of disappearing or entering a terminal decline? Not necessarily. Even the rise of the working classes failed to kill off middle-class liberal parties entirely. The last several decades have seen liberal parties encounter widely varying fates. On the one hand, some liberal parties have suffered spectacular collapses. The British Liberal Democrats, having slowly recovered since the 1970s, peaked in the early 21st century, winning more than 20 percent of the vote in 2005 and 2010 and entering government after the 2010 election. The experience was disastrous; in the 2015 election they scored less than 8 percent of the vote and eight seats. The German Free Democrats suffered a similarly precipitous collapse after a stint in government between 2009 and 2013. The Irish Progressive Democrats did so badly in the 2007 general elections that they dissolved themselves two years later.

But these cases of collapse more reflect badly managed stints in coalition governments than they do a secular decline of liberal parties. In fact, many European states are seeing entirely new liberal parties emerge, as I detail here. Ciudadanos in Spain is an excellent example of a new and highly successful liberal party, as is Neos in Austria. Unlike social democratic parties, tied to specific institutions and class structures that are in decline, liberal parties have no such legacy commitments, and may be better placed to adapt to a more individualistic and fragmented social structure.

The Liberal Party of Canada does not look well placed to win the October 19th elections. However, whether that means it will never win another election after that is probably as much up to the party’s leaders and activists as it is to long-term trends in political science. The one lesson they can take from their liberal fellows is probably to avoid a coalition government.

Dr. William Benjamin Margulies received his PhD from University of Essex, and is currently at the University of Warwick. He writes about political parties and elections in Europe and elsewhere.

Polling industry going through changes

Published on Aug. 22, 2015 in the Waterloo Region Record.

Election campaigns are notoriously unpredictable but one thing is certain: Canadians will be bombarded with public opinion polls until the federal vote on Oct. 19.

But how accurate and representative are the data?

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Wynne defends campaigning for Trudeau

Published on Aug. 19, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has frequently waded into federal politics through clashes with Stephen Harper, but in the midst of a federal election campaign she isn’t easing off — she has jumped in with both feet.

“I’ve also been clear that I support Justin Trudeau, and I will continue to look for a partner at the federal level that is bringing forward polices that will make sense for the people of Ontario.”

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