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).

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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.

Harper needs to change campaign narrative

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

One of the surprises emerging from the federal election campaign’s early days has been Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s reluctance to shake up the status quo and introduce new ideas and themes to the electorate.

It is still early days in the election, of course, and the current period might be likened to “spring training” in this 11-week campaign where new approaches are being tried and test-marketed on a limited basis, to see what might work when the citizenry really starts paying attention later next month.

Still, so far the Conservatives seem to have been caught flat-footed, thinking they could successfully run again on the themes of fiscal competence and ethical accountability as they have in the past.

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Guelph NDP candidate target of another Conservative online ad

Published on Aug. 17, 2015, in the Guelph Mercury

The federal election campaign is not yet three weeks old but Guelph NDP candidate Andrew Seagram is already the target of two online attack ads by the national Conservatives, raising questions about the role a candidate’s digital past can play in their current campaign.

The first ad, posted on the official Conservative Facebook page on Aug. 10, lifts comments from Seagram’s personal Facebook page from 2007.

“This is all a consequence of the brave new social media world where everything is open,” he said, adding it’s interesting to see what gets a pass and what doesn’t.

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Élections fédérales: les conservateurs pourraient perdre des plumes au N.-B

Published on Aug. 14, 2015, in the Acadie Nouvelle

Si les élections fédérales avaient lieu aujourd’hui, le Parti conservateur du Canada au Nouveau-Brunswick en prendrait probablement pour son rhume, selon la projection de sièges du Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy.

Les conservateurs de Stephen Harper ont presque tout raflé au Nouveau-Brunswick en 2011 en ne laissant au Parti libéral et au Nouveau Parti démocratique qu’une circonscription chacun parmi les dix que compte la province.

Même s’il fera probablement mieux au Nouveau-Brunswcik qu’ailleurs en Atlantique, le parti du gouvernement sortant risque de perdre une partie de ses sièges lors du scrutin du 19 octobre.

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NDP lead continues to hold across Canada, according to latest seat projections

Published Aug. 13, 2015, in the Global News Toronto

It’s been a little over a week since the start of Canada’s federal election campaign and the latest seat projections continue to show a tight race with the NDP, led by Tom Mulcair, holding a small lead over Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

“Public opinion isn’t always changing dramatically. Now we have had two months where things haven’t changed,” said Barry Kay, a politics professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. “It’s really a pick in between the NDP and the Conservatives in terms of seats.”

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NDP gains across Canada but loses seats in Ontario, Quebec, according to latest seat projections

Published July 23, 2015, in the Global News Toronto

Tom Mulcair and the NDP are still projected to win a small minority government during the October election, according to the latest seat projections.

The numbers, provided to Global News by the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (LISPOP), suggest the NDP would win 10 more seats (129 in all) than the Conservatives, ending Stephen Harper’s 10-year career as Prime Minister, if an election were held today.

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The following projection is drawn from a blended sample of polls conducted between July 3 and 16 among approximately 7500 respondents, produced a seat distribution almost identical to that of the previous month among a completely different set of interviews. The similar totals masked a number of regional differences that largely offset each other. The New Democratic Party performance improved from June in Atlantic Canada and the West, particularly in British Columbia, but it diminished somewhat in Ontario and Quebec.

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More coverage here.

Prime Minister Tom Mulcair? New seat projections, poll show NDP surging across Canada

Published June 26, 2015, in the Global News Toronto.

If an election were held today, Tom Mulcair would be Canada’s next Prime Minister.

The latest seat projections taken from an aggregate of opinion polls suggest Mulcair’s New Democratic Party could win 130 seats in the House of Commons – 11 more than Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and 44 more than Justin Trudeau and the once-powerful Liberal party.

“Two months ago one couldn’t have imagined this,” Barry Kay, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University said about the seat projections.

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Four months of pure joy ahead for political junkies

Published June 22, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

It’s a long road that has no ash cans, as John Diefenbaker liked to remind his critics.

What precisely the old Chief may have meant by that profundity was no clearer then than it is today. A loose translation might be what goes around comes around or don’t count your votes before they are cast.

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Regardless of Dief’s semantic inexactitude, this is good advice as the country moves into the penultimate phase of a very long election campaign; it’s been going on ever since the ascension of Justin Trudeau as Liberal leader in 2013. Now it gets serious. Parliament is shuttered. MPs have gone away, not to return until after the vote on Oct. 19. The landscape changes from mostly politics most of the time to all politics all of the time.

For political junkies, the next four months will be pure joy. For non-junkies, it will be pure torture, to be endured as one of the prices of democracy.

The writ won’t come down until about Labour Day, but no one is waiting for that official starting gun. The Conservatives will run two simultaneous campaigns. One, bearing the imprimatur of the Government of Canada and wholly funded by taxpayer dollars in the pre-writ period, will continue to remind voters of all the great and good things the Tories have done over the past decade – including those exciting things they might have done if they had obtained parliamentary approval before shuttering the place last week.

Their other campaign, financed from taxpayer-subsidized party funds, will attack the opposition parties. Justin Trudeau will continue to be portrayed as a latter day Ethelred the Unready. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair can expect to be painted by Conservatives as the most reckless ash can to roll down that long road since, well, Pierre Trudeau.

The New Democrats and Liberals will call for change, present alternative policies, and attack each other. But mainly they will denounce the Conservatives as old, tired, out of touch, patronage-ridden and arrogant, and Stephen Harper as the nation-wrecking Darth Vader of Parliament Hill.

As entertainment, the campaign will have its fun moments. As an exercise in democracy, not so much.

This is one election which, as it begins, no one – absolutely no one – knows how it may end. The stats-obsessed gurus who labour in the political backrooms don’t know. Nor do the pollsters, or the seat-projectionists, or all the media pundits who will strive to appear all-knowing whenever the TV cameras are turned on. But they won’t know either.

All that can be safely said as the campaign begins is that the NDP has made some inroads of late. Some polls put them a bit ahead of the Conservatives. But whether that lead is real or ephemeral is anyone’s guess. The NDP probably got a boost from the party’s victory in the Alberta provincial election, but that bit of momentum may dissolve as the Alberta election fades in memory and as Rachel Notley’s administration inevitably gets bogged down in the day-to-day slog of governing.

The polls put the Tories at about 30 per cent or roughly 10 points less than they polled when they won a majority in 2011. But incumbency gives them the advantages of recognition, experience and money – lots and lots of money – to invest to retain power.

The Liberals have been struggling of late as they went from first to third in the polls. But they are addressing an area of weakness – a shortage of policy, especially on the economic front. And in Justin Trudeau they have a young, attractive – some say, charismatic – leader who appeals to younger voters (if only he can get them to turn out at the polls). He is rated as the most likeable of the leaders, and likeability is no small asset for a politicians.

The bottom line: I have no idea what Oct. 19 will bring, but I suspect we will discover a few ash cans along the road.

Canada needs a leader with a bold vision

Published Mar. 23, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

As Canada lurches unsteadily toward a general election, something important is missing. That “something” is a sense of national purpose – or vision – from any of the three major parties. How do the Conservatives, the New Democrats or the Liberals envisage the future of the country they aspire to lead for (let us say) the next decade or beyond?

We know, broadly, where they are coming from. But do they have a roadmap? How do they see the Canada of 2025 or 2040? Will we still be a moderately liberal society, committed to equality of treatment and opportunity for all citizens? Will we still welcome immigrants? Will we still embrace the values of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (or will we let the charter be reduced to a relic of a bygone era)? Will we still respect the supremacy of Parliament and the Supreme Court? And looking beyond Canada’s borders, will we be content to play a modest, if useful, role in a world dominated by bigger powers and their agendas? Continue reading

Of course, all three parties are dedicated (or say they are) to the service of the “middle class,” however they define it. But accommodating the middle class does not a vision make. It’s as though the leaders of the parties are so busy struggling with minutiae of the present (what should Muslim women wear on their heads; should rural dwellers be encouraged to keep guns by their beds; is income-splitting a good or bad idea) that they lose sight of the bigger picture. They become preoccupied with politics on the margins, slicing and dicing the electorate into interest groups where they hope to gain electoral advantage.

Elections should be an opportunity, for bold thinking, for big ideas. You can say what you will about John Diefenbaker, but he was not afraid to proclaim his vision (he even called it a vision) for Canada, based on northern development. So many Canadians embraced his vision that his Progressive Conservatives won the largest majority in Canadian history in 1958. A decade later, Pierre Trudeau led the Liberals back to a majority with his vision of a Just Society.

Judging from the polls, Canadians are confused. They have elected Stephen Harper three times, but they still don’t love him or trust him very much; his poll numbers reflect that. The people like Thomas Mulcair, as long as he is leading the opposition. They would like to like Justin Trudeau, and they told pollsters that for two years; now they are not so sure.

As of early last week, the online poll aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com had the Liberals and Conservatives in a statistical dead heat. Later in the week, however, a new poll by EKOS Research showed an apparent four-point shift from the Tories to the Liberals, putting the Trudeau party ahead of the Harper party by 32 per cent to 30, with the NDP holding at 21.

Frank Graves, the head of EKOS, suggested the movement, which he found significant, could partly be blowback over Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terrorism bill. “The more likely explanation, however, is that the security and culture narrative is beginning to lose strength as the threat of a stagnant and eroding economy takes root in voters’ minds,” Graves reported.

The federal budget is due in the next month. But if the economy is struggling – and if the fear card is losing its potency – the Conservatives will be in trouble this spring.

Trouble for the government generally spells opportunity for the opposition. But for which opposition party? Talk of an NDP-Liberal coalition is very much in the wind. It may be the moment for a bold idea – say, a joint announcement by Mulcair and Trudeau that if (as seems likely) no party wins a majority of the 338 seats, their two parties have agreed to join forces to replace the Conservatives.

A risky idea and maybe dangerous, but its very boldness would make for an exciting election.

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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What does history teach us about politics?

Published June 23, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The deep thinkers who serve the various political parties in Ottawa have been scratching their heads over the same question: what does the election of Kathleen Wynne’s majority Liberal government in Ontario imply for the federal election, scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015?

The short, easy answer is, “probably not much.” The election is 16 months away. One week can be an eternity in politics; to travel 16 months into the political future requires a time machine rather than a calendar. Anything can happen in 16 months, and almost certainly will.

Who would have predicted 16 months before the June 1968 election that Lester Pearson would resign as Liberal leader and prime minister, that he would be succeeded by a new recruit, Pierre Trudeau, and that a strange phenomenon, dubbed Trudeaumania, would propel the Liberals to a majority government? Who would have predicted 16 months before the stunning October 1993 election that Canada would gain its first female PM and lose her almost immediately as the majority Progressive Conservative government disintegrated, retaining only two seats in the whole country as a separatist party became the official opposition, just a pair of seats ahead of a new protest party, Reform, which replaced the Tories as the voice of the West?
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Who would have predicted 16 months before the May 2011 election that an “orange wave” would sweep Jack Layton’s NDP into the position of official opposition, reduce the Liberals to third place and, in the process, hand Stephen Harper and his Conservatives a majority government? And, finally, who would have predicted 16 months ago, when Justin Trudeau was elected leader of the Liberals, that he would lead them to the top of the opinion polls and keep them there for 14 unbroken months, right up to the present?

If history teaches us nothing else about politics, it is that the only safe response when contemplating events many months in the future is: “I don’t know.” But political thinkers and practitioners, such as pollsters and pundits, hate those three little words. Have you ever heard Stephen Harper admit, “I don’t know?” I thought not. Doubt has no place when it comes to political forecasting.

That said, we all look for threads or clues to reveal the future. Some analysts probing the Ontario election results have noted the tendency of voters in the province to play a balancing game. When the Liberals are in power in Ottawa, they like to balance the scale with Conservatives at Queen’s Park. And vice versa. This balance-of-power theory suggests Wynne’s victory bodes well for Harper’s Tories, especially in the Greater Toronto Area, while it bodes ill for Trudeau’s Liberals.

Other analysts see in the Ontario vote a rejection of Tim Hudak’s right-wing agenda and an embrace of Wynne’s centre-left approach. If that sentiment carries over to the federal election, it would to play to Trudeau’s advantage and to Harper’s disadvantage in the province where national elections tend to be won and lost.

Having already admitted I don’t know, permit me to offer a couple of observations. First, there is growing arrogance in Harper’s Ottawa — a my-way-or-the-highway attitude — that I don’t think sits well with the sort of Ontarians who voted for Kathleen Wynne. Second, Wynne didn’t win just because she positioned her Liberals as the only choice on the progressive side of the ledger. I think she won because she projected an air of authenticity that neither of her opponents could rival. Hudak seemed driven by narrow political expediency, while Andrea Horwath, the NDP leader, tried to transition from social democracy to conservative populism. Neither worked.

By comparison, Wynne came across as the real goods. When she talked about equity, she did so with conviction and passion. She was believable. Voters are pretty good when it come to spotting the unbelievable. At least, they are in Ontario.

Will this have any bearing on the 2015 federal election? Perhaps not. Sixteen months is more than an eternity in political time.

Cristopher Cochrane in the Globe and Mail: Ontario takes pride that gay premier’s win taken in stride

Published June 13, 2014, in the Globe and Mail.

Associate Christopher Cochrane was quoted in an article on the Globe and Mail which discusses the Ontario’s first elected openly gay premier, Kathleen Wynne. Full article available here.