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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Ontario’s Wynne jumps into federal campaign

Published on Aug. 19, 2015, in The Chronicle Herald. 

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.

Wynne has been actively campaigning for federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, but nearly as often as she promotes her federal counterpart she slams the prime minister, which could be seen as payback for Stephen Harper’s attacks against her in last year’s provincial election.

“She certainly wants to score points with the federal Liberal party and have Justin Trudeau owe her, and he will (if the Liberals win).”

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Federal Election 2015: Kathleen Wynne Wading Into Campaign

Published on Aug. 20, 2015, in the Huffington Post Canada.

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.

“Maybe the personal animosity between Wynne and Harper — whatever triggered it — is governing both their behaviours,” Kay said in an interview.

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Harper not the only one eager to criticize Wynne and Ontario’s pension plan as a ‘payroll tax hike’

Published on Aug. 11, 2015 in the National Post.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was so eager to lambaste Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s pension plan announcement Tuesday, he asked himself the question.

Opposition parties and interest groups were as quick as Harper to criticize Wynne’s plans, but Barry Kay, a professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University, isn’t so sure the ORPP will matter much on election day.


Premier Kathleen Wynne should take on the mantle of reconciliation

 Published June 15, 2015, in the Toronto Star.

Earlier this month, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne criticized the federal government for delivering a “disappointing” response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 recommendations. By doing so, Wynne was engaging in what has become an almost institutionalized form of doing politics in Canada. Like many premiers before her, she chose to criticize the prime minister and the federal government for inaction rather than taking action herself.

Although coverage of the report almost exclusively focused on the role of the federal government, a closer reading of the executive summary suggests that there is ample room for provincial and territorial governments to embark on reconciliation on their own. In other words, this issue doesn’t have to suffer the death of a thousand intergovernmental meetings like many other issues in the past.

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Forget Robert Munsch, kindergartners need skills training

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

Recently, the government of Ontario announced that it would be asking employers and industry groups to participate in a process designed to transform how universities are funded and operated in Ontario.

In many ways, this announcement is unsurprising in that it is simply the latest development in a long-term trend toward pushing universities to become places that focus more strongly on training students to meet the needs of the Canadian economy.

Universities, according to this vision, need to become sophisticated versions of community colleges, providing students with high-end skills and training to meet the current and future demands of the marketplace.

Predictably, this recent announcement has generated considerable opposition and disgust among my academic colleagues. I, on the other hand, applaud the government for taking this bold and visionary stance in provincial education policy.

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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.

Slumping Ontario needs strong leadership

Published Mar. 31, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

If you are Kathleen Wynne, what do you do?

You have been leader of the Ontario Liberals for 14 months and premier of the province for 13. For most of that time, you have been spinning your wheels. In the 2011 election, your party, then led by Dalton McGuinty, came within one seat of a majority in the 107-seat legislature. But resignations, retirements and byelection attrition have eroded your standing. Today, the Liberals hold 10 fewer seats than the combined opposition (48-58, with one vacancy).

If you are Wynne, you know this. You know you may face an election this spring. You also know that, although your personal popularity is OK, your party’s numbers aren’t. According to the poll aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com, the weighted average of Ontario political polls, as of March 24, had the Liberals tied — at 34 per cent — with Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives; Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats were nipping at your heels with 26 per cent.

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The experts say the Liberal vote is more “efficient” than the PC or NDP vote, because of the concentration of support in seat-rich Toronto. If they are right, you might eke out another minority government — if you are lucky.

You have survived for the past year by making nice to the NDP. You and Horwath agree on one thing: you don’t want Ontario to return to what you both regard as the Dark Ages of Mike Harris by making Hudak premier. (You may be right about the Dark Ages, but how do you persuade more Ontarians to buy into your Hudak aversion? Many voters see him as a friendly fellow, a good family man and new dad.)

So far, you have managed to secure Horwath’s support in exchange for a few shiny trinkets, such as a marginal reduction in car insurance rates or a minuscule increase in the minimum wage, but nothing very big or very costly. Nothing that engages the real issues and fundamental problems of the province.

Ontario is in a slump. The former engine of Confederation is running on just half of its cylinders. It needs growth and it needs skilled jobs of the high-wage, high-tech variety, not the part-time, minimum-wage kind. It needs real jobs, real careers, for university graduates.

To get there, Ontario needs renewed leadership, leadership with a vision for the future. It is not likely to get that vision from Hudak, as long as he looks back to the Harris era for inspiration, and Horwath does not project a sense of bold leadership; she seems too preoccupied with jockeying for position in the next election.

A year ago, I would have said Wynne could provide the leadership Ontario needs. I’m not so sure now. The battle for survival has taken its toll. Her government is still struggling to eliminate its deficit by 2018, leaving the province about three years behind better-heeled Ottawa in that important effort.

She has been unable escape from the nightmares of the McGuinty past. The hydro plant outrage occurred on his watch, not hers; but last week’s news that the police are investigating the scrubbing of computer files in the premier’s office during transition from McGuinty to Wynne moves the scandal dangerously close to her doorstep.

And all Ontarians had a right to be appalled when the annual “sunshine list” of top earners in the provincial employ was published last week; they could see how province-owned outfits, especially in the energy sector, have been hiring mediocre executives, paying them far more than they are worth in salaries and bonuses, then handing them severance packages in the six- and even seven-figure range when they fire them.

That largesse is not corruption. It is simple bad management. Ontarians don’t expect miracles (or even excitement) from Queen’s Park. But they do expect their affairs to be competently managed with proper respect for the taxpayer dollar. Can Wynne instil that image of competence and fiscal respect at Queen’s Park?

Politicians face tough times too

Published Feb. 18, 2014, in the Guelph Mercury.

Anyone who harbours the delusion that politicians lead a soft existence might take a look at the dilemmas that some leading political figures are facing.

Let’s start with Quebec where Premier Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois, clinging to a weak minority since September 2012 — and having procrastinated as long as possible — will bring down a budget on Thursday. The budget is widely expected to open the door to a general election this spring. That would be a real gamble. When Marois won in 2012, she did so with just 32 per cent of the popular vote, down three per cent from the previous election, when the PQ lost to the Liberals. But the way the vote split in 2012, she actually gained seven seats, to 54 in the 125-seat National Assembly.

While recent polls suggest Marois is within reach of a majority, if she falls short — if she loses or returns with a second minority — her leadership days would surely be over. But if she gets her majority, life will not be so comfortable in Ottawa. Quebec would be back on the national agenda.

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Let’s move on to Ontario, skipping lightly over Toronto, where Mayor Rob Ford will continue to be a national embarrassment until the people throw him out next fall. At Queen’s Park, Premier Kathleen Wynne and her minority Liberals are in trouble as all signs point to an Ontario election this spring.

Unable to shed the baggage of the Dalton McGuinty years, she has lost whatever momentum she enjoyed in the early months of her leadership. She has failed to demonstrate that she leads a party with new ideas and new priorities. Her government has become almost indistinguishable from the McGuinty Liberals who led the province for a decade, growing old and tired (and careless) in the process.

No one expected Wynne to win two byelections last week, in Niagara Falls and Thornhill, and the Liberals did run poorly in both, including Niagara Falls, a former Liberal seat. Tory leader Tim Hudak saved a bit of face by hanging onto Thornhill in suburban Toronto, but NDP leader Andrea Horwath emerged as the only winner by capturing blue-collar Niagara Falls.

Now — lest anyone think it is only politicians in power who confront dilemmas — Horwath, the leader of the third party, has to decide whether she will continue to prop up the minority Liberals or to force an election that she almost certainly can’t win. Another Liberal minority would be one outcome — so no change. A second outcome, even worse from the NDP perspective (but possible, the polls say) would be the election of a right-wing Conservative government headed by Hudak, a mini-Mike Harris. Howarth will be stewing over that dilemma until the Queen’s Park budget comes down.

In Ottawa, Stephen Harper doesn’t have to fret about an election just now, but he does have worries. After 20 years in politics, 10 as Conservative leader and eight as prime minister, he finds himself leading a government that has grown old, tired and increasingly arrogant. It is going the way of the Pierre Trudeau Liberal government of three decades ago. And it seems at times unable to cope, incapable of making decisions on such practical issues as the ordering of military hardware — search-and-rescue aircraft, new fighter jets, Arctic patrol ships, an icebreaker, naval resupply ships and maritime helicopters.

It tabled a budget last week that landed with a dull thump, destined to be remembered only for the rift it exposed within the cabinet and caucus over family income-splitting for tax purposes.

Worse, a new poll last week had some terrible numbers for the Tories. Nanos Research reported that 55 per cent of Canadians would not consider voting Conservative. The 36 per cent who said, yes, they would consider voting Tory, left the Harper party well behind the leading Liberals and the NDP, although still ahead of the Green party’s 27 per cent.

There are tough times looming for Harper, too.

Open Government and Accountability?

A few weeks ago Premier Kathleen Wynne announced a new policy of “Open Government”. I read it with interest, but remain highly skeptical of, well, it. On its face, the policy seems to be composed of the appointment of a team of leaders from business, politics and the public sector. There are no trade union representatives, although perhaps one should not be too surprised by this in today’s age. There is one self-identified Conservative, one self-identified Liberal and none that I can identify from the NDP, although one person did work with the Mayor of Vancouver, who once sat as an NDP MLA in BC, so, who knows.

I raise this because the rhetoric of “openness” is premised on the notion of policy without politics: The engagement team is “just listening” and “engaging”; but if the ideological composition of the team is made up of one particular segment of the spectrum, well, politics seems fairly embedded into the process from the start, but without the advantage of clarity about the perspectives people represent. Thus, this attempt at non-partisan, open engagement, perversely, is highly opaque, rather than transparent. My colleague, Dr. Alcantara, made a similar point regarding the formal non-partisanship of territorial legislatures, here.

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This team is mandated to tour the province, “engaging people” to find out new ways of “engaging, innovating and collaborating”.

I find the rhetoric of “open government” and “transparency” and “accountability” fascinating; it has popped up routinely in Canadian politics, with the demise of the Meech Lake Accord serving as an important dividing line. You recall, was negotiated by 11 white men in suits (each of whom who had managed to win a majority of seats in their legislatures in the most recent election, but in today’s world, that doesn’t seem to count for much.) The exclusivity of that negotiating process led to a different, much more open and transparent and participatory process of the Charlottetown Accord, which, when put to a referendum of the citizenry as a whole, was defeated.

There are strong parallels between the situation in which the Wynne government finds itself and the situation that the Klein government found itself in 1992; and these parallels are instructive as to how common it is for Canadian governments to resort to this kind of rhetoric to secure their election and how often it fails. In 1992, the Progressive Conservatives of Alberta were long in the tooth, having been in power since 1971 (In the same way that one dog year is equal to about seven human years, one year in power for non-Alberta governments is equivalent to about 10 years for the governing party in Alberta). More importantly, it was struggling with the consequences of a policy whereby the provincial government was guaranteeing loans to private sector companies in a attempt to diversify the economy. One loan to a cell phone manufacturing company (!?) went bad when the company declared bankruptcy and the taxpayers were in the hook for about $500 million. People were mad, not just about the lack of funds, but also about the lack of transparency, openness and accountability in provincial decision-making. Alberta was ground-zero for the post-Meech Lake hostility to representative democracy and political parties and fed the growth of the populist, anti-party Reform Party at the time.

Enter Ralph Klein. The populist politician, par excellence, became Premier in 1993 and one of the first memos his government issued inside the government emphasized the need for a new dialogue with Albertans. His government quickly branded itself as one that “listened to Albertans”. His deputy premier and major backer, Ken Kowalski, wrote in an internal memo on the day Klein was sworn in:

The election of a new Premier creates significant opportunity to demonstrate a new openness in government communications and a new consultative approach in dealing with Albertans.

The Klein government made all kinds of ridiculous consultations: Klein was always on the radio, “talking to Albertans”; the government commissioned mailback surveys from the electorate about what the budget priorities should be, without any consideration of problems like self-selection bias; they commissioned expert summits to discuss issues, without thinking through potential problems of how people were selected or how problems were framed that were presented to summits; they passed Freedom of Information Legislation, and then promptly ensured that PR staff inside departments would monitor

There’s no wonder that the Wynne government is pursuing a strategy that shares the same premise, but has different manifestations. For one thing, it’s a lot cheaper for politicians to promise to be “open” and “accountable” than it is to, say, promise to raise the minimum wage, or address shortages in long-term care for seniors. For another thing, this demand for openness in government is rooted in a deep cultural suspicion of bureaucracies, particularly political parties.

This shift is fine; I welcome it even. But there are trade-offs, and one of the trade-offs with this cultural shift is that we lose the appreciation for the efficiency and accountability that actually are inherently built in to hierarchical and bureaucratic systems. The more that citizens continue to express this suspicion without acknowledging the merits built into bureaucracy, the more politicians will be happy to distract them with cheap promises of “openness”, “accountability” and “transparency” using them to win elections in a system that is built on and requires the bureaucracy of political parties and hierarchical public administration. More often than not, this kind of rhetoric distracts and enables the reelection of governments that probably don’t deserve it on other issues, rather than enhances citizen control over their governments.

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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Accepting NDP ideas could create Wynne-win situation

Published May 13, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

This is how it is supposed to work in a parliamentary democracy, isn’t it?

Party leaders and their confederates present competing visions (or, more prosaically, platforms) for the electorate to consider. But once the election is over, smart winners don’t simply impose their visions.

They remember that elections are not decided by partisans (Tim Hudak take note). Core supporters are important, but elections are won or lost on the votes of “loose fish” — uncommitted or lightly affiliated voters — who swim around at election time. More important, smart winners understand that they have not been elected solely to cater to their core; they understand that people who did not (and might never) vote for them are entitled to the same consideration from the government as its partisans.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is a smart leader. She understands this. (The same cannot be said of the ideologues in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, or in the Republican party in the United States, but let us not go there today.)
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Because she is a smart leader, Wynne is suppressing the frustration she surely feels as NDP Leader Andrea Horwath keeps coming back for more, ratcheting up the price of her party’s support for the minority Liberal government’s budget. The latest demand: creation of a financial accountability office, patterned after the parliamentary budget office in Ottawa.

Horwath has already snagged some notable concessions, including reduced car insurance rates, more money for home-care and a youth jobs strategy. Now she wants an independent accountability officer, who would report to the speaker of the legislature, not to the government, to provide oversight of government spending.

Although Conservatives (and undoubtedly some Liberals, too) think Horwath has moved beyond poker to a different game — to wit, blackmail — what’s so wrong with that? If there had been a system of independent oversight earlier, some of the more egregious spending scandals of the Dalton McGuinty era might never have happened or been nipped in the bud: eHealth, Ornge ambulance, gas-plant relocations, to mention just three. As long as the government itself oversees government spending, bad stuff tends to slip through. A parliamentary or legislative budget officer is not a panacea, but the position does introduce an element of transparency and, one hopes, caution and restraint.

It’s worth noting that in Ottawa the parliamentary budget office was created in the wake of the Liberals’ sponsorship scandal by the first Harper minority government, then in its pro-accountability days. The Conservatives got much more than they bargained for as the budget officer, Kevin Page, shone a searchlight on government spending — on the war in Afghanistan, prisons and fighter jets, among other things. His term expired in March. He was denied an extension and the office remains vacant while the Tories conduct a leisurely search for a less vigilant watchdog.

At Queen’s Park, Wynne is trying to distance herself from McGuinty’s legacy. Her government still looks and acts too much like his. She needs new faces and new ideas. The spending watchdog is one idea whose time has come. Its projected cost, $2.5 million a year, is almost nothing next to the hundreds of millions wasted in the gas-plant fiasco alone.

So why does Wynne hesitate? Why doesn’t she thank Horwath effusively and grab this shiny new idea? For one thing, she knows that watchdogs have a habit of biting the hand that appoints them. For another, she knows that the more ideas she accepts from the NDP the more she enhances the credibility of a party that is fishing in the same pool of progressive voters.

But to flip that coin over, the risk is just as real for Horwath. The more ideas she insists the Liberals steal, the greater the attraction Wynne’s Liberals will have for her own NDP voters. Why stay true to Andrea Howarth when New Democrats can enjoy the same policies, and have a government to boot, by voting for Kathleen Wynne?

Such is democracy at work.

Geoffrey Stevens on CTV’s Province Wide

Broadcasted May 5, 2013, on CTV Province Wide

Geoffrey Stevens talks about what the future holds for Premier Kathleen Wynne and an Ontario election. Stevens believes that Wynne will be in good shape through the summer but notes that it will be interesting to see what happens in the Fall. There is a 50/50 chance that we will have an election in the Fall and a 100 percent chance that we will have an election at this time, next year.

You can watch the video by clicking here.

Tales of three political battles

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

Who says Canadian politics is dull?

In this neck of the woods, we are witnessing three fascinating political battles. At Queen’s Park, Premier Kathleen Wynne is fighting for survival. Last week’s budget bought her Liberals some time, enough to get through the summer, I think, and probably the fall. My guess is she won’t make it – or want to make it – past next spring’s budget.

In Ottawa, the Liberal party, perceived to be moribund following three general election defeats, is struggling to return to life under Justin Trudeau, its fifth leader (including interim Bob Rae) in seven years. It’s beginning to look as though the Liberals will manage to self-resuscitate. A Harris-Decima poll for Canadian Press last week put them a surprising seven percentage points ahead of the Conservatives and 13 points ahead of the sagging New Democrats. These are early, honeymoon days, but those numbers aren’t at all shabby for a Liberal party that is running on charisma alone. Hope has returned to Liberal-land.
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Meanwhile, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, master of all he surveyed for the past seven years, is struggling to reassert control. His caucus is restive. Some MPs resent the discipline he imposes on them in Parliament; others refuse to distribute the ugly anti-Liberal propaganda produced by Tory party central. Among the public, there appears to be a growing sense that the Tories are going too far with their television attack ads.

Toughness is a quality that Canadian accept, even admire, in their politicians; meanness is not. The Conservative attack ads on Justin Trudeau cross that line. The Harper people don’t seem to care that some of their “facts” are distorted while some are simply untrue. Stephen Harper is becoming seen as Stephen McNasty, who plays politics hard and dirty.

He also needs to regain control over his legislative agenda. Whatever else they may be, the Harper Conservatives use to pride themselves on being competent managers. But no longer. Not with the F-35 debacle, the cabinet’s inability to organize the purchase of new search and rescue aircraft, and now there’s a report that the fleet of Arctic patrol ships the government plans to buy are not suitable for use in Arctic waters.

Not least, there is the “missing” $3.1 billion that Parliament approved for anti-terrorism security. The money is not technically lost; it’s just that the government’s financial wizards can’t find it. (Perhaps Treasury Board President Tony Clement hid it in one of his gazebos.)

But back to Kathleen Wynne, Andrea Horwath and the soap opera at Queen’s Park. The facts are simple. Premier Wynne and her finance minister had to bring in a budget. Being a minority government, they didn’t have enough votes to get it through the Legislature. The Conservatives had their feet planted in cement, but NDP leader Horwath was willing to deal. She presented a number of demands. Wynne accepted all the important ones.

“Thank you, Kathleen,” Horwath might have said. “Bless you. You are saint.” And she could have told her party, “Hey, we won! We won! Break out the soda water” (or whatever New Democrats uncork to toast a triumph).

But no. Hearing whispers of dissent, Horwath declared the deal was not yet a done deal. She decided she wanted to consult the people, so she opened a phone line and a website. She plans to meet the premier, probably this week, to seek assurances that the Liberals will change their spots and become more accountable in the future than they have been in the past. Good luck to her!

The NDP is playing with fire. If Howarth reneges, Wynne would not even have to wait to be defeated in the house. She would be within her rights to march down the hall to the lieutenant-governor, tell him the situation is untenable, ask for dissolution and call a snap election. She could win a Liberal majority on back of the faithless New Democrats.

Nothing dull about that, is there?