Tories bask in momentum and good luck

Published Feb. 2, 2015, in the Guelph Mercury.

Never write off the incumbent. Never underestimate the resiliency of the party in power or its willingness to employ the tools of office to drive a wedge into a divided opposition or to exploit the weakness or uncertainty of its opponents. Not least, never discount the ability of the people who sit in the driver’s seat to create their own luck. Opposition parties have to wait for the government to make mistakes; a government has the weapons to force opposition parties to make crippling mistakes.

We are seeing this in election year 2015. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is regarded by his opponents as being manipulative, cynical, hypocritical and unscrupulous (among other negative adjectives). He may be all of those things, but he is also very good at what he does best – playing no-prisoners politics. He is also lucky, very lucky. Continue reading

Less than two years ago, the Conservatives were in dire straits. They were desperately hanging onto second place in the polls, so behind the Liberals that they could barely see the taillights of Justin Trudeau’s vintage Mercedes. The question wasn’t whether the Liberals would win the election, but how badly the Tories would lose it. The question wasn’t whether Harper would survive as leader, but how soon he would depart.

Their twin planks, sound economic management and law and order, weren’t giving them any traction. The economy was recovering and the crime rate was declining, but neither helped the Conservatives’ numbers. And Harper remained deeply unpopular. He was not responsible for the collapse of world oil prices – we can blame the Saudis, if we wish – but the decline in the value of crude from more than $100 a barrel to less than $50 exposed the hollowness of the Harper claim to be building Canada into an energy super power.

So did the government’s inability to persuade the United States to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, despite nagging and mildly threatening the Obama administration. As the price of oil plunged, so did the government’s revenues. When the price was at $81 a barrel, it thought could still avoid running a deficit. When it reached $50, it didn’t know what to do. Rather than admit that, it postponed the budget until April or later, if only to give the chefs in the finance department time to cook the books enough to pass inspection by the electorate.

The Tories’ claim to be world-class financial managers may have been in tatters, but just when the picture seemed bleakest, Harper got a stroke of good luck. It seems indecent to suggest that the murder of Canadian servicemen in Ottawa and Quebec, the menace of ISIS and other international terrorists, including the savage beheading of hostages, represent good luck for anyone, but it did, politically for Harper. He played his law and order card as an anti-terrorism card, as he declared war on the “jihadis.”

Interestingly, he went to Richmond Hill, not Parliament Hill, to announce his new anti-terrorism measures – to a Tory-friendly, campaign-style rally last week. Veteran lawyers may suggest the new powers are not needed because there are already powers enough in the Criminal Code while civil liberties experts contend the legislation will place individual rights in jeopardy.

Harper was having none of that as he portrayed his critics as bleeding-heart fence-sitters: “This is really what we get from our opposition, that every time we talk about security, they suggest that somehow, our freedoms are threatened … I think Canadians understand that, more often than not, their freedom and security go hand in hand … We do not buy the argument that every time you protect Canadians you somehow take away their liberties.”

Harper is on a roll. New vote projections suggest he will win at least a minority government. Momentum and more good luck could carry him to a majority. But luck is fickle and momentum is transitory. Harper knows that. It’s why I think he will call an election this spring.

Tory is a ‘safe’ bet to win mayoral race

Published Oct. 20, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Back in 1972, when his Liberal government lost its majority in the election against Robert Stanfield’s Progressive Conservatives — coming within two seats of losing the government entirely — Justin Trudeau’s dad, Pierre, struck a pose of supreme unconcern, calmly reassuring his supporters that “the universe is unfolding as it should.”

Trudeau the Elder was quoting a fragment of a prose poem called “Desiderata,” by the American writer and lawyer Max Ehrmann, who wrote: “(And) whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

It is unlikely that today’s political leaders will be quoting “Desiderata” any time soon. The words convey a certain complacency that none of them can afford to feel as the country heads to a federal election a year from now.

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Trudeau the Younger finds his Liberal universe beginning to wobble after 18 months of relatively smooth unfolding. Stephen Harper, the master of all he surveys from Parliament Hill, is still trying, after almost nine years as prime minister, to figure out what he has to do to get the people to love him — or enough of them to hand him a fourth term. And NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair would find the universe a much more congenial place if he could translate parliamentary performance into points in the opinion polls (and, ultimately, electoral votes).

Meanwhile, in Canada’s largest city, Toronto, where the absurdly long municipal campaign will finally lurch to an end next Monday, nothing has unfolded the way it should, or the way it was meant to, or expected to, unfold. Back in the beginning, a year or so ago, the Toronto universe was poised for a battle royal between the “Ford Nation” with its beloved Rob Ford, the city’s druggie mayor, and just about anybody else.

Ford Nation would deliver perhaps 35 per cent of the popular vote to their populist hero. If most of the remaining vote went to one candidate, the Ford era would be over. That candidate would be Olivia Chow, who was the antithesis of Ford: female, urban, Chinese, progressive (a former NDP MP and widow of Jack Layton). Conventional wisdom had it that Chow would take the old city and enough of the suburbs to defeat Rob Ford handily.

That universe collapsed. Rob Ford got cancer and withdrew from the mayoral campaign (although he is still running for a city council seat). In his place, he substituted his even less charming older brother, Doug, to carry the Ford Nation flag. Meanwhile, a third mayoral candidate appeared — John Tory, a Conservative with an almost unblemished record of electoral failure (the mayoralty in 2003, Ontario provincial election in 2007 and, going back to his backroom days, the 1993 federal election when he ran Kim Campbell’s disastrous campaign against Jean Chrétien’s Liberals).

But Tory is going to win on Monday, for several reasons. He is going to win because he is not a Ford. He is going to win because he is a safe Conservative. He is going to win because there are a lot more Liberals in Toronto than New Democrats or Conservatives. And given a choice between a safe conservative and a socialist, most Liberals will go for the former.

For voters who still worry about such things (and there’s been enough racism in the campaign to make one wonder), he is a WASP through and through. He is not a visible minority, he does not speak English with an accent, and he is not female.

He is known to be a competent and experienced manager. He is no visionary; his ideas don’t always add up. His “SmartTrack” transit policy seems almost as flawed as his 2007 provincial election promise to extend full public funding to faith-based schools.

But maybe Torontonians are not looking for vision this year. Maybe getting rid of the Fords will be enough for now. They can worry about the vision thing the next time the universe unfolds.

Is Harper influenced by polls?

Published Aug. 18, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Pollsters are forever serving up useless information. But sometimes they come up with findings that, while devoid of practical value, are sort of interesting nonetheless.

For example, polling companies report periodically on the number of people who believe that Elvis is still alive. Why they ask this, I don’t know, but they do. A few years ago, the number stood consistently at 12 per cent to 13 per cent of adult Americans. While more recent polls put the figure at “only” 8 per cent, it means that roughly 16 million (delusional) Americans believe the King is still with us. (For the record, Elvis left the building in August 1977, or so we are told.)

In the category of useless but marginally interesting information, I would put a new poll by the firm Angus Reid Global, which asked 1,502 Canadians to choose adjectives to express what they thought of a selection of national leaders. Not surprisingly, United States President Barack Obama, who always polls better north of the border than south of it, did very well. Forty-six per cent of Canadians said he was “influential,” 33 per cent chose “compassionate,” 32 per cent “inspiring.” 29 per cent “credible,” and so on. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Canadians can’t vote in the mid-term elections in November.
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Also not surprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin fared badly. To 54 per cent of Canadians, he is “arrogant,” “corrupt” (52 per cent), “dishonest” (45 per cent), and “secretive” (41 per cent).

And how is Stephen Harper viewed by his own countrymen? Surprisingly (or perhaps not), he stands closer to Putin than to Obama. In terms of being “secretive,” he is right there with Putin, at 39 per cent to the Russian president’s 41. In terms of being “arrogant,” Harper trails Putin 37-54. Among other descriptions, Harper is seen as “dishonest” (31 per cent) and “boring” (26 per cent).

Who cares about any of this? Probably not Obama. Personal popularity is not a big concern when he is constitutionally precluded from seeking a third term. Certainly not Putin. He doesn’t need to court public support at home let alone among detractors like Canadians.

But Harper may care. His Conservatives face a federal general election in October 2015, and if Harper decides to seek a fourth term as prime minister, he will have to be concerned about the hardening negative perception that Canadians have of him and his leadership. According to the poll, positive impressions are much weaker than the negative ones. Only 19 per cent say they see him as a “strong” leader, 18 per cent say he is “influential,” 17 per cent “credible” and 13 per cent “honest.”

So here is the dilemma, if you happen to be Stephen Harper. By election time, you will have been Tory leader for 12 years; you will have fought four national elections (and won three of them); and you will have been prime minister for nine long years. The negatives revealed in the Angus Reid poll are not news to you. You have never gone out of your way to make yourself lovable, or even very interesting, to Canadians. Today your party trails so badly behind the Liberals that pundits are starting to speculate that the Conservatives could finish third behind both the Liberals and the NDP.

But if you want to win again, how do you persuade the public that its perception of you is wrong? How do you convince them that you are, in fact, what they believe you are not? How do you convince them that you are open, honest and compassionate? How do you, after all these years, compete with the freshness and vigour of a Justin Trudeau? Or can you bring yourself to you fold your tent and let your party move on without you?

In the end, maybe none of this matters. A poll is just a poll after all. This one may prove to be useless, but it is sort of interesting all the same.

Tories, Liberals unlikely to gain a majority in 2015 vote

Published July 24, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There has been substantial commentary about the implications of late June’s federal byelections on the next general election scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015.

One of the story lines raised by the media was which opposition party is most likely to challenge Stephen Harper’s Conservatives for the most parliamentary seats, and hence the ability to form a government. However, a fairly consistent pattern in public opinion polls has emerged over the past year putting the Liberals in first place since Justin Trudeau ascended to the party leadership.

Despite the New Democrats’ role as official Opposition, and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s dominant role in question period, it appears as if more Canadians see the Liberals returning to their historic role as the natural alternative to the Conservative party.

The particular set of constituencies contested in the recent byelections is in no way representative of the nation at large. Three of the four are safe party sinecures. While Alberta might be changing somewhat from the solid Conservative fortress it has been, that is most likely occurring in urban areas, not rural seats such as Macleod or boom towns such as Fort McMurray.

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Reforming Election Dates in Canada: Towards an Explanatory Framework

AuthorsChristopher Alcantara and Jason Roy

Published June 2014 in Canadian Public Administration.

Abstract: Since 2001, ten governments in Canada have passed fixed election date legislation. The typical assumption in the literature is that governments did so as a way to address public concerns about the undemocratic nature of calling and timing elections. This argument, however, does not explain the timing (that is, when the legislation was passed by each jurisdiction) of this policy change. We approach this puzzle deductively by applying the theoretical insights of multiple streams theory to the Canadian experiences. Our findings suggest that although all three streams were important, the political stream is crucial for explaining the timing of the legislation.

Here is also an op-ed that Dr. Alcantara wrote on the topic of fixed election dates.

Why Ukip matters in the Scottish independence referendum

Published April 29, 2014, on The Spectator.

There is now a significant chance that Ukip will top the European election poll in England. But while Ukip are also on course to win an MEP in Wales, if the results of new polling are borne out on 22 May, they would likely not win an MEP in Scotland. Such a result would highlight the political differences between the nations of Britain. The strength of Ukip’s popular support in England draws on something which even they appear not to have fully recognised: the extent to which the party has become the champion of an increasingly politicized sense of English identity.

The Ukip surge that appears in England – where almost one third of voters are intending to back the party in the 22 May elections – is largely absent in Scotland, where only the Liberal Democrats are likely to fare worse.  A new study by academics at Edinburgh and Cardiff universities and the think tank IPPR shows that Scots stand out.

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Dr. Barry Kay Appears on CFPL with Craig Needles

Broadcast May 13, 2014, on CFPL, London, ON.

Dr. Barry Kay appears on CFPL’s “Craig Needles Show” to discuss LISPOP’s most recent seat projection for the 2014 Ontario election. Click HERE for the audio podcast. Dr. Kay’s 10-minute segment begins at the 39-minute mark.

Dr. Barry Kay Appears on 610 CKTB with Tom McConnell

Broadcast May 14, 2014, on CKTB, St. Catharines, ON.

Dr. Barry Kay was interviewed by Tom McConnell to discuss LISPOP’s most recent seat projection on the 2014 Ontario election. Click HERE for the audio podcast. Dr. Kay’s 13-minute segment begins at around the 1 minute mark.


Did Hudak just hand Wynne the election?

Published May 12, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Political parties, like sports teams, have a perverse knack of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. We won’t dwell today on the painful collapses of the Toronto Raptors and Maple Leafs. Let’s concentrate on Ontario politics instead.

In 2007, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives seemed poised to depose Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals when the PC leader of the day, John Tory, declared that if he became premier, he would extend public funding to religious or faith-based schools. That was the old ball game right there. The PCs lost the election. Tory lost in his own riding, to a virtually unknown Liberal named Kathleen Wynne. (Tory went on to retread himself as a radio host and now he’s running for mayor of Toronto, his principal asset being that he is not Rob Ford.)

Fast forward to 2014. The aforementioned Kathleen Wynne, now premier, calls a provincial election that common sense would suggest she cannot win. The Liberals have been in power too long (11 years). They need a spell in opposition to give the fumigators time to rid the party of the stench of the scandals of the McGuinty eras. Most of the opinion polls put the Tim Hudak’s Conservatives a few points ahead of the Liberals.
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Yet Wynne calls an election anyway — which is either really dumb or, just maybe, really smart. She has used the provincial budget to torque her party to the left of the NDP, and she has made some progress in shifting attention away from the Liberals’ scandals by adopting a tried-and-true provincial tactic: attack Ottawa and tie those villains to her own opponents. So “Smirking” Stephen Harper becomes the enemy of the Ontario state with Tim Hudak as his faithful local agent.

But savaging the feds, fun though it may be, only works up to a point. A real issue is required.

And when a political leader is lucky, her opponent hands her that issue, as Tory did for McGuinty back in 2007.

I think Hudak did that for Wynne last week when he pulled a Mike Harris. He promised to eliminate a whopping 100,000 jobs in the Ontario public sector. Yet he was already promising to add one million new jobs across the province. How one can subtract and add simultaneously is a question best put to the ideologues of the right.

But Hudak was not done. To his promise to get rid of 100,000 public-sector employees —— exempting only nurses, doctors and police officers, but pointedly not teachers (for whom the Conservatives seem to have a special hatred) — he added another gift for Kathleen Wynne. He announced that if elected he would make Ontario’s business taxes the lowest in North America by reducing the corporate taxes rate by 30 per cent. He says this would create 120,000 jobs; his critics contend it would turn Ontario into a poor-man’s Mexico.

It will be fascinating to see how the election plays out in the broad swath of southwestern Ontario from Guelph through Waterloo to London. Communities in this belt are hurting. Tens of thousands of traditional manufacturing jobs have disappeared and the downsizing at BlackBerry is evidence the tech sector is not immune.

How will voters in these communities respond to Hudak economics? As in the Harris era, public services will be cut almost across the board. Roads will be neglected. The poor will get less support. Fewer teachers mean larger classes, fewer extracurricular programs and diminished opportunities for special-needs students.

To see if Hudak economics has any resonance, I’ll be watching Kitchener-Waterloo a former Conservative seat that New Democrat Catherine Fife took in a 2012 byelection, and Kitchener Centre, held by Liberal John Milloy, who is retiring. The Tories ran second in both the last time around.

If Hudak’s approach turns off moderate voters, they will have to decide strategically which party offers the better opportunity to stop him, the Liberals or the New Democrats. I’d think Wynne’s Liberals, but I’ve been wrong before.

Globe and Mail Wipes Away Parliamentary Democracy with One Policy

The public editor of the Globe and Mail, Sylvia Stead, has written an explanation for why the newspaper will not refer to Premier Kathleen Wynne as “Premier” during the provincial election campaign.

The explanation is unfortunate and reflects the news media’s poor understanding of parliamentary government and an obsession with American-style presidential politics. Essentially, the Globe and Mail‘s argument boils down two facts. First, during a campaign, the premier is not primarily a head of government, but a politician, and second, not referring to the Premier as “Premier” gives an even field to opposition party leaders.

I don’t really know where to begin demolishing this nonsense, but let’s start here. First, whoever is premier is always a politician, whether they are governing or not. By working on the assumption that politics ends when the campaign ends, the news media perpetuate the belief that government decisions are somehow free of politics. I’m glad that we have politicians running the government, and not administrators or technical experts. Politicians are in the business of winning the consent of the people. Administrators and technicians are in the business of getting things done. Ultimately, I know who I want wielding executive authority.
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Second,this entire argument perpetuates the assumption that the business of the campaign is to elect a premier ‒ whom the Globe and Mail falsely terms as the “head of the province.” As an aside, the premier of the province is not the “head of the province;” she is the head of the government. In fact, no one is really the head of the province.

Regardless, this view of what this campaign is about is premised on the belief that we are operating in a presidential system of government, where the winner of the most votes wins the right to wield executive authority. But we do not have a presidential system of government; we have a parliamentary system of government, where people elect a legislature and the executive is appointed based on whether they can maintain the majority of the people’s elected representatives.

Some commentators find the way that political scientists and constitutional experts obsess about this distinction to be invalid in an era of mass democratic politics, where the system functions mostly as if elections were about determining the head of government and that politicians ignore this at their peril. Mostly they are right. Usually, the party who wins the most votes, gets the most seats and the person who leads that party becomes the premier. So the widespread perception that this campaign is primarily about the position of premier is not to be discounted.

But the principles of parliamentary government are set up in such a way that they do not mesh easily with presidential rules whereby whichever candidate gets the most votes becomes the head of the government.

The two views can clash badly in certain situations and when they do, it is incumbent on the news media to inform voters about the nature of the conflict. In 2008, just after Canadians returned a parliament where the Conservatives had a plurality of seats, the parties representing the majority of the seats launched an effort to form a new government ‒ backed by a majority of elected representatives and a majority of voters ‒ and replace the Conservative government. The Conservative government and the news media were scandalized that this could even be possible. But they were scandalized because they were operating on the assumption that our system of government is presidential, not parliamentary, and that only the voters can choose the executive. The net effect of this was to completely demonize the notion of a coalition of parties to provide a stable executive backed by a majority of elected representatives following an election. We are still dealing with the consequences of this and you can see how delicately the NDP and the Liberals address the issue of what might happen should neither party win a majority of seats after the next election.

It is even more frustrating to see this mistake peddled in the current situation because there is a very real possibility that the outcome of the provincial election could be some combination of the Progressive Conservatives winning the popular vote, but finishing second in seats, and either the Liberals or the NDP winning more seats, but less votes, and thus having to find an arrangement with another party. This would be a delicate situation, but one that is perfectly acceptable in a parliamentary government.

What is worse, though, and even a little embarrassing for the Globe and Mail is that this entire election could only have happened in a parliamentary system, where the people choose the parliament, but not the executive. This election wasn’t scheduled, as is the case in presidential election; it became inevitable when it was apparent that the executive lacked the support of the majority of the people’s representatives.

People often look at presidential systems as somehow more democratic because they see a more direct, unmediated relationship between voters and the chief executive and because the executive has no opportunity to ever avoid an election. The Globe and Mail reflects this desire. But by doing so, they are unwittingly obscuring and ignoring the ways in which parliamentary democracy is more democratic than presidential systems. It’s true that presidents never get to dictate the time of the next election. But the downside of that is that when a president becomes deeply unpopular, like, say when a president embroils a country in two complicated, expensive and risky regional wars, voters are effectively stuck with the president until the next election, no matter how much they want to get rid of him.

The beauty of the parliamentary system is that the executive’s position lasts only as long a majority of the legislature is willing to support it. To paraphrase the great Prime Minister James Hacker, of “Yes, Prime Minister,” voters can only vote against the PM (or president for that matter) every four years. Backbenchers can vote against him next week. And the week after that. And the week after that. And that’s exactly what happened here, and with Dalton McGuinty.

Of course, these kinds of pushbacks usually only happen when there is a minority parliament. But not always. Look at what happened in Alberta this year. Despite a solid majority of the Alberta Legislature, Premier Redford was essentially forced to resign by her own party and caucus because of her deep unpopularity. Moreover, behind the scenes, there is a lot more parliamentary participation within the executive and mechanisms for accountability than is often given credit for. It’s just that those affairs are quiet and complicated to understand, thus difficult for journalists to turn into news.

When I teach parliamentary government, I often tell students that the most democratic thing about parliamentary government is not elections; it’s that every day, every sitting, every session, the executive must always be courting the support of the majority of the parliament and is always held to account. This is no doubt easier for the executive in a majority parliament, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen and it doesn’t mean that it’s not important.

And it is this constant earning of the support of the legislature’s majority that the Globe and Mail is denying by not referring to Wynne as the premier. By purporting to create an open playing field for the three “candidates for premier,” the Globe and Mail is actually obscuring the fact that Wynne is the leader of the party that has formed the government since 2007 and whose elected representatives have supported all the popular and unpopular decisions that have been taken since then. By not referring to her as “Premier,” the Globe is somehow wiping away the Liberal record and pretending that this is just a free, open contest by three people for one position. In its attempt to cover this election in a presidential fashion, the Globe and Mail is obscuring the most democratic feature of parliamentary government.

With Trudeau on the rise, will Harper stick around?

Published Apr. 21, 2014, in The Guelph Mercury and Waterloo Region Record.

Justin Trudeau has been leader of the federal Liberal party for one year.

How is he doing?

Somewhat better, I think, than most people had anticipated. Although he has not taken the country by storm, neither has he wilted in the glare of public and party expectations. Like all politicians, he has made minor mistakes, but he has demonstrated the quickness of foot to acknowledge his errors, to apologize, to correct course and to carry on. The public has been forgiving.

After one year, he has raised his battered party from third place to first in the polls. Pollsters project he would become prime minister at the head of a minority Liberal government, if an election were held today (which, of course, it won’t be). Based on today’s numbers, LISPOP (Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy) projects a wafer-thin margin: 127 Liberal seats, 120 Conservative and 81 New Democrat.
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Time will tell. What has impressed the political community for many months is the durability of the Liberal revival. It has gone long past the honeymoon phase. Eric Grénier, the poll aggregator and an analyst at, puts Liberal popular support at 36 per cent. That’s not terrific, but it’s eight points higher than Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, who remain mired at 28 points.

In an article for the Globe and Mail, Grénier reports that the Liberals have consistently led in the national polls for the past 12 months “The Liberals are up five points on where they stood a year ago, eight points on where they were in the month before naming their new leader, and 14 points compared to the support the Liberals enjoyed in September 2012, just before Mr. Trudeau announced his intentions to run for the leadership,” Grénier writes.

The Liberals have a huge lead in Atlantic Canada, have moved ahead of the NDP in Quebec and stand at 40 per cent in battleground Ontario, up 13 points from their pre-Trudeau level. They have gained ground, but still trail the Tories in the West.

Not all of this improvement is Trudeau’s doing, of course. In Canada, as in other democracies, opposition parties seldom win elections; they become the beneficiaries when governments defeat themselves. That certainly what happened in 2004-2006 when the Liberals defeated themselves over the Sponsorship scandal, bringing Harper’s Conservatives to power.

But Trudeau seems to wear well. He is no longer seen as a kid with a good name and a slender resume. He has established himself as a serious politician. He is also a genuinely likeable politician, and likeability is a significant asset in politics. Bill Davis and Peter Lougheed had it. So did Jean Chrétien in the early years. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair comes across too hard-edged to be truly likeable. And likeability is simply not part of Stephen Harper political wiring.

Ask yourself, if you were inviting a national leader over for a beer and a burger in your backyard, who would you ask? You would choose someone who is interesting and fun. Harper? No way. Mulcair? Probably not. Elizabeth May? Yeah, maybe. Trudeau? For sure. That likeability is reflected in renewed Liberal popularity, especially among young voters and female voters.

Eric Grénier notes that the Liberals’ year-long lead in the polls is the longest stretch that the Harper government has trailed in second since their election in 2006. “The last time a majority government trailed in the polls for as long as the Conservatives have was in the last years of Brian Mulroney’s tenure,” Grénier observes. That was back in 1992-93. Mulroney hung on. Kim Campbell eventually replaced him. And the mighty Tories won just two seats in the 1993 election.

No one is predicting obliteration on that scale for Harper’s Tories. But the question on Ottawa lips (it has passed the sotto voce stage) is: will Harper stay on if he is not pretty darned sure he will retain his majority? The smart money says No.

A CAQ government? Stranger things have happened

Published Apr. 7, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record. 

People may not recognize the name of Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, a 19th century French politician and revolutionary, but they will have heard of his famous comment: “There go my people, I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.”

It’s like that in Quebec today, provincial election day. The electorate is moving — the pollsters and pundits detect the movement — but where the people are heading, where they will end up, and who will lead them is almost anyone’s guess. The situation reminds me of the 2011 federal election and the New Democratic Party’s “Orange Wave,” led by the late Jack Layton. The NDP came of nowhere, literally, to capture 59 of Quebec’s 75 seats in Parliament (and 103 of 308 nationally).

A surge of that magnitude may not be in the cards today, but something is happening. To the extent that there is consensus, it is that the campaign has been all-round nasty and the governing Parti Québécois is in deep, deep trouble. Premier Pauline Marois has led the worst campaign, muddled and off-message, anyone has witnessed in many years. The tumbrels will roll for her if she fails to win a majority; they will roll even if she manages to cling to another minority. Her self-designated successor will have to wait a long time before he will be able to crown himself President Péladeau (or perhaps he would prefer Emperor Pierre Karl the First) of a sovereign Quebec.

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It is a reflection of the PQ’s disastrous campaign, that the polls seem to be pointing to a return of the Liberals, out of office for just 18 months, still scandal-plagued and now led by the thoroughly underwhelming Philippe Couillard (he makes the late Liberal premier Robert Bourassa seem charismatic by comparison). But no one has the faintest idea whether it would be a Liberal majority or minority.

The polls this past weekend are little or no help. A Léger Marketing survey, published Sunday morning, put the Liberals at 38 per cent, nine points ahead of the PQ. Given the way support is split among the other parties, those 38 points could produce a Liberal majority. (A new projection by, a poll aggregator, gives the Liberals 69 of the 125 seats in the National Assembly.) Or it could give the Liberals a minority — or nothing.

The huge unknown is the young Coalition Avenir Québec, which occupies the centre-right of the spectrum — conservative on fiscal issues and liberal on social ones. Led by François Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister, the CAQ is the only party with any momentum. While the PQ and the Liberals have been frozen in place or slipping slightly, the CAQ has kept moving ahead. As of Sunday, it had reached 23 per cent, up eight points since the third week of March.

The trend is what has Quebec politicians excited — and worried. The CAQ could end up with just a dozen seats, or it could end up in power. (It won 19 seats in the 2012 election that brought Marois and the PQ to office.) In this election, it has managed to keep out of the mudslinging between the PQ and the Liberals; it has sensed the public mood by declaring a 10-year moratorium on referendums; and its leader, Legault, is seen to have out-performed his opponents in the televised leaders’ debates.

Written off early in the campaign, the CAQ has surged in the past two weeks. “When you look at polls, what’s important are trends,” Legault said the other day. “There is a possibility that we will form a majority government, the CAQ, according to the trends.”

The CAQ is certainly the spoiler in this election. But a CAQ government, majority or minority? An impossible dream? Perhaps. But perhaps not. But when the electorate starts to move, no one knows where it will stop. Let’s not forget Jack Layton and 2011.

Why fixed election dates are unnecessary

Published Apr. 3, 2014, in The Ottawa Citizen.

In the rest of Canada, much of the coverage of the Quebec provincial election has focused on the possibility of a PQ majority government and the spectre of another referendum.

Lost in this coverage, however, is the fact that in 2013, the PQ government passed a fixed election date law that set the next provincial election to occur on Oct. 3, 2016. Similar to what the Stephen Harper government did in 2008, the PQ “violated” or at least circumvented this law by calling a spring election to coincide with favourable polling numbers. According to some observers, this was problematic because such a strategy supposedly and unfairly improves the re-election chances of the incumbent government.

Political experts have long argued that the election-timing power gives prime ministers and provincial premiers a powerful advantage at election time. The solution, they argue, is fixed election-date legislation, and indeed, the federal government and almost every provincial government across Canada, with the exception of Nova Scotia, has passed this type of legislation.

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Trudeau shouldn’t expect big boost from ‘star’ candidates

Published Wed. Mar 26, 2014, in The Star.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s move to block the nomination of Christine Innes in the Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina has filled the political news recently. He took the step, according to Ontario campaign co-chair David MacNaugton, because the Innes campaign was using “intimidation and bullying on young volunteers.”

More specifically, according to some party officials and critics, Trudeau’s decision was really about protecting star candidate Chrystia Freeland, a celebrated author and journalist, who last year beat NDP and fellow star candidate Linda McQuaig in the by-election for the riding of Toronto Centre.

Leaders and party strategists have long recruited and protected star candidates for a variety of reasons. They assume, for instance, that these individuals make excellent cabinet or shadow cabinet ministers. They also assume that star candidates attract all sorts of positive attention from the media. But the main reason why leaders and strategists are so attracted to these individuals is because they assume that these candidates can significantly increase their party’s vote share at election time.

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Trudeau’s Liberals have their eye on gold

Published Feb. 24, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There’s a theory that political junkies and sports fanatics are products of the same gene pool. As a broad generality, serious political fans are often serious sports fans, as well. It’s something about the game, the thrill of competition, the risk of failure and success, and the uncertainty of the outcome until the last second ticks away or the last ballot is counted.

For all I know, there may be some learned academic treatises on this sports/politics relationship, but if there are, I haven’t seen them. All I know, after too many years misspent while hanging around politicians and their gatherings, is that when they are not talking politics, they are frequently talking sports. (“Did you see that overtime goal?” “Why can’t the Jays land a starting pitcher?”)

So today let’s try a quick quiz to see if we can separate the sports nuts from the political groupies. How many of you got up early (very early west of Ontario) to watch the gold medal hockey game between Sweden and Canada in Sochi on Sunday? And how many of you remained glued to the final proceedings of the biennial convention in Montreal of the Liberal party of Canada? (That’s the party that, after disappointing with bronze in the 2011 electoral contest, is an early favourite for gold next time, in 2015.)

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It will take our scrutineers a few minutes to tally the votes, so let’s press ahead on the hypothesis that more Canadians are seized with the political games than the Olympic Games. You do agree, don’t you?

That said, it must also be said that the Montreal convention will not go down as one of the more stimulating political gatherings in history. I’ve never experienced a national political gathering when the moving expenses of a candidate for Parliament (retired General Andrew Leslie) was seen as a burning issue. Montreal was a singularly quiet convention. Even the Conservatives’ plans to disrupt the convention (if that was their intention) came to naught.

A quiet convention suited the Liberals just fine. Delegates had an opportunity to see, hear and evaluate their new leader, Justin Trudeau. Most seemed to like what they saw. His big speech on Saturday was warm and fuzzy. Although he invoked the memory of his father, Justin is no Pierre. I couldn’t help but think back to his father’s electrifying speech in April 1968 to the Liberal leadership convention in Ottawa.

But where Trudeau the Elder promised Canadians a “Just Society,” Trudeau the Younger settled for a more modest rhetoric. He promised all Canadians “a fair shot at success.” As poetry, it may fall short, but times change. When Pierre spoke in 1968, the Liberals were in power and were looking for a new leader to give it a shot of adrenalin to keep them there. Pierre did that. In 2014, Justin’s Liberals, although performing well in recent polls, are still a third-place party.

He has to overcome not one, but two, formidable opponents. In Stephen Harper, the Conservatives have a leader who has all the advantages and levers of power. He is resourceful, well-financed and determined, with a mean streak a yard wide (as his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, might attest). To get to Harper and the Tories, Justin Trudeau has to climb over Thomas Mulcair and the NDP. Opposition leader Mulcair is determined, too, and absolutely relentless, as he demonstrated in Parliament when he dismantled government evasions in the Senate expense scandal. While the Conservatives may have grown tired in government, Mulcair’s NDP is still vigorous in opposition.

There won’t be many easy seats for any party in October 2015. It shapes up as a riding-by-riding, take-no-prisoners battle where small mistakes can cause big very damage. It will be particularly difficult for the Liberals as they try to move from third to first, from bronze to gold. But, like Canada’s women’s and men’s hockey teams in Sochi, they can already smell the podium.