Friday, March 30, 2012

My 5 cents on the federal budget

For years the Liberals warned you of Stephen Harper's hidden agenda. Just wait until he gets a majority, and you won't recognize Canada.

For years, Conservatives quietly whispered to their base that they couldn't go as far as they wanted because of that damn minority government. The Liberals won't let us, the Senate won't let us!

So after waiting for nearly a decade, we finally got to see the long anticipated Harper majority budget. And what was the flagship change he needed a majority to bring in?

The elimination of the penny.

OK, so it wasn't exactly the "transformational" budget we'd long feared or hoped for, depending on our allegiances. But it does provide a good look at what kind of Prime Minister Stephen Harper truly wants to be.

This budget should tell us once and for all, that he's not a guy who wants to fundamentally change Canada. Sure, he's tossed a few symbolic gestures to the base, in the form of CBC budget cuts, the death of Katimavik, and a warning to environmental activists. But Harper remains the head of the biggest spending government in Canadian history, even after accounting for population growth and inflation.

The budget also shows us he's not hunting for a legacy, quite yet. There are some "big picture" reforms in this budget, but they're mostly fine tuning - a speedier immigration process, changes to the innovation agenda, pension reform. These are all worthy initiatives if they work, but they likely won't ever find their way into history textbooks. They're also the sort of things a Liberal government would do.

So, there you have the real Stephen Harper. A largely low key and pragmatic Prime Minister willing to toss symbolic gestures to his conservative base. A man whose greatest legacy at this point is the elimination of the penny.

Labels: , ,

Alberta Votes Day 5: This time, when we say "It's time", it really is time

A collection of random nuggets from the first week on the campaign trail...

1. The leader's debate has been set for 6:30 mountain time on Thursday, April 12th. Unless of course, the Flames make the playoffs and play that night, in which case the leaders will fall over each other to demand it get moved.

2. The Wildrose campaign slogan is "It's Time". You'll recall this slogan proved hugely successful for Kim Campbell in 1993 and the Alberta Grits in 2008.

3. The Wildrose Party has released its financial platform promising no deficits and few meaningful cuts. Oh, and they're giving out tax credits too! I know, I know - that raises some serious questions about costing. But don't worry - she consultant with noted economist Tim Hudak first.

4. If 4-way splits in Edmonton weren't enough for you, good luck trying to figure out Edmonton-Mill Woods, where former PC MLA Carl Benito is running as an indepedent. I look forward to Benito's concession speech on April 23rd, when he blames his wife for his defeat.

I posted my election primer, looked at the polls, and took issue with Alison Redford's attack on Danielle Smith...and Danielle Smith's attack on Alison Redford. Play nice.

Robert Vollman offers a humourous primer, and a recap of the campaign to date. LiberalVince talks about the Calgary Varsity PC candidate throwing Alison Redford under the bus over the no-pay committee. Hatrock wonders what "progressive" really means? Colby Cosh blogs about Danielle Smith's personality-advantage over Alison Redford. David Climenhaga longs for Ed Stelmach.

As always, daveberta is the go-to source for your Alberta political news. In addition to daily notes, Dave has put together a handy compilation of links, maps, and information about the election, as well as a complete candidate list.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Rest in Peace: Penny (1858-2012)


Alberta Votes Day 4: Danielle Smith comes out as the "anti-change" candidate

If you've been reading my Alberta political posts over the past few years, you've probably deduced that I'm a fan of Danielle Smith. Not in the sense that I'd vote for her (especially with socially regressive positions like this), but Smith is an impressive politician - smart, articulate, charismatic, thoughtful.

From that perspective, this is probably the least impressive Smith has been in the past two years:

Premier Alison Redford doesn’t like Alberta, says Wildrose leader Danielle Smith

Premier Alison Redford must not like Alberta because she says she wants to change it, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith told reporters near the Alberta Legislature Wednesday.

In a photo opportunity in front of a provincial building being renovated for MLA offices, Smith attacked the Conservative government’s priorities and wasteful spending, but she saved most of her venom for her main rival in the provincial election campaign.

With numerous polls showing the two parties neck and neck, Smith lashed out at Redford for saying in a speech to the Calgary Chamber that the province needed change.

“I think Ms. Redford doesn’t like Alberta all that much,” said Smith. “She doesn’t like who were are. She doesn’t like our character. She wants to change it. I think that’s going to be the ballot question. I think that’s the question what people are going to have to ask in the next election. Do we need to be changed. Do we need Ms. Redford to change us? Do we have anything to be embarrassed about. I think the answer is a resounding ‘no.’”

It shouldn't be too hard to figure out where this attack came from. The Wildrose campaign manager is none other than Tom Flanagan, and Paul Martin loved using the "Stephen Harper hates Canada" line against Stephen Harper back when Dr. Tom was managing the federal Tory campaigns.

I always cringed when Martin uttered that line - it's juvenile, baseless, and it demeans everyone who is running for public office. Just because Stephen Harper wants to change Canada, it doesn't mean he hates the country. Just because Alison Redford, or Raj Sherman, or Danielle Smith want to change Alberta, it doesn't mean they hate Alberta. These people are all running because they want to make a difference. Does anyone seriously think they would give their lives to serving a province and people they hate?

But what really baffles me about this attack is that it's incredibly stupid politics. Smith wants to replace a 40 year government and she's trying to define herself as the "anti-change" candidate? That completely blows my mind. After all, if you go to Danielle Smith's website, the very first words that greet your eyes are "It's Time for Change".

In one breath she's arguing the province needs to change governments and in the next she's arguing that change is "un-Albertan". I have a hard time believing voters will process the nuanced position that "change in the form of government cuts is good" but "change in the form of increased health care spending is bad".

With the Wildrose Party soaring, the game plan should be simple: photo ops of Danielle Smith with cute animals, and talk about the good things she'd do as Premier.

If she continues with these petty childish attacks, voters are going to take her message that change is bad to heart.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ontario Budget 2012: McGuinty avoids war with Hudak and Horwath, by starting one with unions

During the minority government era in federal politics, we all grew accustomed to the annual spring budget dance - a popular budget full of election treats, and never ending speculation over whether or not it would trigger an election.

Yet Dalton McGuinty's first minority government budget felt different. Sure, Tim Hudak pushed out his chest and boldly declared he'd vote against it (despite not giving any kind of coherent explanation on how he'd balance the books). And yes, Andrea Horwath was not pleased and will now "consult" with Ontarians over what to do. But the reality is the NDP will support the budget, if only because none of the parties want - or can afford - an election.

The budget itself was decidedly "treat-free" - there's not a single ounce of sugar in it. Not even a Harper-esque tax credit for buying sunscreen. Rather, the Liberal story of the budget was about what the government didn't do - they didn't scrap all day kindergarten, they didn't cut Health Care, they didn't increase class sizes.

Of course, if the benchmark is the Drummond Report, then what the government didn't do, might be enough to help the public swallow this tough medicine budget. I feel like most Ontarians recognize tough decisions are needed, and the cutbacks and wage freezes McGuinty has proposed will be far less painful than Rae Days, tax hikes, or health care cuts.

Unless you're in a union, that is. A public sector wage freeze is easier said than done, so Ontario is in for a year of labour unrest.

While McGuinty's budget will ensure campaign signs stay locked up, it's time to pull out the strike signs.

Labels: ,

Alberta Votes Day 3: Time to bring back Ed?

In retrospect, maybe it wasn't such a good idea for Alison Redford to call the election after a month of wall-to-wall scandal and controversy.

Two more polls have been released today - let's start with the bad news for Alison Redford.

Leger Marketing confirms the statistical tie we saw in two polls Monday: PC 37%, WRP 34%, ALP 12%, NDP 11%. Keep in mind, Leger had the Tories leading by 37 points in January.

From the bad news, we move to the worse news. The Sun's Forum poll shows the Wildrose Party leading by 10 points. The tendency when many polls comes out at once is to gravitate to the most salacious results - when the opposite is likely more appropriate. So, as shocking as these numbers are, we're probably best to look at all four polls that have come out and conclude it's a dead heat between the PCs and the Wildrosers, with the Liberals and NDP far, far behind.

Which is bad news for Alison Redford - especially if you share my opinion that Danielle Smith is the superior politician, and is likely to "outplay" Redford during the campaign. That's already apparent from Monday's ThinkHQ poll which shows Smith's momentum score at +11 and Redford's at -20.

The good news for the PCs - if there is any - is that there's still plenty of time to counter punch. This is going to put a lot of scrutiny on Smith's team and platform. The analogy I like to use is of Mario Dumont, back when Mario Dumont was still cool. The ADQ was nothing more than a one-man show, and once it looked like he might actually win in 2007, Jean Charest was able to use the prospect of an ADQ government to recover. So warning to fringe Wildrose candidates - start prepping for media calls!

The question, of course, is whether Alison Redford is as deft a politician as Jean Charest. On that question, I have my doubts.

In other polling news, the Alberta Liberals have released their internal numbers. It's a long survey for a robo-poll so we need to look at the results with caution, but the vote numbers largely match what we've seen in the media, so we can likely take the numbers at face value.

Of course, the intent of the release is not to re-enforce bad horse race numbers, but to highlight the party's platform which tested relatively well. On that score, there's strong agreement with the ALP's Health Care and education policies, and their revenue generation plans to increase taxes on the richest Albertans and largest corporations.

Now, the real test of a policy is not so much whether voters agree with it, but whether it moves votes - after all, the most "popular" policy tested is one giving more power to MLAs, but I'm skeptical that will motivate voters. And the results when it comes to moving votes are rather underwhelming - after hearing the entire platform, 36% of respondents are more likely to vote Liberal and 32% are less likely to.

And if all of that wasn't enough polling data for you, Santos Sez has compiled the fascinating chart above of Alberta election polls over the past four years. Suffice to say, Redford's recent polling numbers are downright Stelmachian. So much for that honeymoon.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Alberta Votes Day 2: Polls and Prostitutes

We were treated to a pair of Alberta election polls last night - both showing the PCs and Wildrose in a statistical tie. Given previous 2012 polls have shown Redford between 5 and 37 points ahead, this comes as a bit of a shock - though it's not necessarily bad news for the PC campaign team, as it helps them frame the election as a two party race, and may prompt the media and voters to take a closer look at Smith's platform and team.

ThinkHQ (March 22-25, n = 1320 online)
PC 36%
WR 33%
NDP 13%
ALP 13%

Ipsos Reid (n = 890 online, March 20-25)
PC 38%
WR 38%
NDP 12%
ALP 11%

I talked about Redford targeting female voters yesterday and these numbers bear that out - the PCs lead by 12 among women, but trail by 8 among men. The Wildrosers hold a 7-8 point lead in Calgary, with the two parties tied in rural Alberta. The PCs still lead in Redmonton but, most surprisingly, the Wildrose Party has jumped to second place. I haven't seen much media commentary on that point, but that's really a shocking development that plunges Edmonton into an unpredictable vortex of 3 and 4-way races.

Speaking of unpredictability, who would have thought day 1 of the campaign would feature an attack against the far right wing Wildrose Party for being soft on prostitution? Yet, that's exactly what happened, when the PCs circulated a Danielle Smith column from 2003, in which she writes about the health, crime, and safety benefits a Calgary red light district would bring with it:

Even worse, one gets the impression that prostitutes are deemed unworthy of the same basic rights to protection the rest of us enjoy.

When a prostitute is raped, beaten or even murdered, her assailant is seldom brought to justice. The book Serial Killers from A-Z contains a section on unsolved multiple murders, a shocking number of which are prostitute slayings. A 2001 study of prostitutes on Vancouver’s East Side, conducted by the Prostitution Alternatives Counselling Education Society, found that police misconduct and violence towards prostitutes is also rampant — allegations include sexual and physical assaults, theft, threats and attempted murder.

Moreover, when a customer refuses to pay for the services he’s received, a prostitute has no recourse to collect on the debt. If she works for a pimp, she has no ability to negotiate wages, benefits, hours of work or working conditions, or even leave the profession. There is no access to treatment for those addicted to drugs. A john has no idea when he picks up a “date” whether she is infected with a venereal disease or HIV.

The moral crusade against prostitution has had devastating unintended consequences. It’s no surprise sex-trade workers are the most vocal advocates for decriminalization. If the status quo is this bad, legalization can’t be worse. Many nations agree.

Redford attacked Smith for taking an "uncaring" and "simplistic" approach to the issue, but when you read the full article, it's clear Smith's position is anything but. She studied the issue, considered the health and safety of the individuals involved, and came to a perfectly reasonable conclusion - albeit a politically toxic one.

This won't be the last time an old article of Smith's is going to surface - especially if her poll numbers hold. As Michael Ignatieff learned last spring, thoughtful writings get distilled down to damaging soundbites during political campaigns.

The difference, I think, is that Smith appears to be a far more talented politician than Ignatieff, so she'll stand a better chance at fending off these attacks.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, March 26, 2012

Alberta Votes

The writ has been dropped, and Albertans will go to the polls on April 23. The past few years have been wildly turbulent, with shocking municipal votes, the rise of the Wildrose, parties desanctioned and founded, leadership races in nearly every party (2 for the Liberals), and floor crosings aplenty. Despite this, the PCs are expected to win a 12th consecutive majority government. It is, after all, still Alberta.

If the election has prompted you to look in on Alberta politics for the first time in a while, the following overview should give you the background you need to keep score at home.

Alison Redford and the PCs

Redford stunned everyone with her come-from-behind win in last Fall's PC leadership race, despite trailing Gary Marr 41% to 19% after the first round of voting. That leadership contest was triggered by Ed Stelmach's surprise resignation, when the Premier was gently pushed aside over concerns about his electability - Stelmach you'll recall, was only able to win 72 of 83 seats in his first election as party leader in 2008.

Redford is seen as being squarely on the left of the PC Party, and was once called a "feminist lawyer" by Rob Anders. her leadership campaign focused on health care and education, targeting female voters. It should therefore come as no surprise that the Alberta Liberals have taken a hit in the polls since Redford's ascension to power.

Redford has remained popular since winning the leadership, but has proven to be one of the least exciting Premier's in the province's history. Not so much in terms of personality (no one could match her predecessor there), but in terms of content. She kind of kept her fixed election date promise, by giving herself a three month election window. She kind of kept her promise to hold an independent judicial inquiry into the health care system, but limited the mandate. Her budget was popular, but painfully cautious. There have been a few missteps and scandlettes, but even they have been boring (Gary Mar's post-leadership fundraising letter mentioned his position as ambassador...zzzzzz....).

She might as well be running on a slogan of "Meh. Why not?".

Election Strategy: The PCs have used a tagline of "Danielle Smith: Not Worth the Risk" in early attack ads, promoting the stability offered by the PCs - after all, what's more stable than a 40 year old government?

This stalking horse also serves to frame the election as a Wildrose-PC showdown, in a bid to scare "Redford Liberals" into voting PC and making disgruntled conservatives think twice about casting a protest vote for the Wildrose. Expect reports aplenty of "anonymous Conservatives" worried about a Wildrose victory - even if they're comfortably ahead in the polls.

Policy: I wouldn't hold my breath expecting anything bold from Redford. No new taxes, a little bit of money for Health Care, a little bit of money for feel good programs, and a little bit of...hey look over there at the Wildrose Party!

Danielle Smith and the Wildrose Party

Danielle Smith was the golden girl of Alberta politics for a two year stretch, starting in the summer of 2009. She was the subject of countless "hey, let's see if anything interesting is happening in Alberta" political profiles by the national press, and the local media treated her like she walked on water. Then Alison Redford came along and now the only time the media talks about Smith is when they're chuckling over her bus.

Even if Smith can't lead the Wildrose Party to the promised land, the mere fact that we're talking about this possibility is quite the accomplishment. Dozens of right wing parties have come and gone in Alberta over the years, but none have ever moved beyond fringe status. While some of the Wildrose's success is no doubt due to the shortcomings of the PCs, I suspect at least half their votes are driven by Smith herself.

Strategy: The biggest asset the Wildrose Party has is Danielle Smith. If I were running the campaign, I'd make the election all about her and use a lot of flowery language about "change" and the "potential of Alberta". Instead, my suspicion is campaign manager Tom Flanagan is planing a nasty campaign which will be all about Alison Redford. I recognize there's a need to define your opponent, but I think there's a greater need to define Smith as something more than an angry outsider.

That said, if you're going to attack Redford, the best issue to go at her on is probably the revelation that PC MLAs were paid thousands to sit on a government committee which never met. It's a simple message anyone can understand, and it speaks to government entitlement and waste - a good wedge issue for the Wildrosers.

Just don't go overboard on it. Like I said - the focus should be on Danielle.

Policy: Think of the early Reform Party - a lot of talk about reducing spending, a splash of democratic reform, and avoid talking about social issues as much as possible. Given Alberta's flirtations with private health care over the years, it will be interesting to see if Smith dares go down that road. Either way, Health Care will be a dicey issue for her, since it's nearly impossible for the Wildrose Party to meet its targeted spending cuts without axing something from the Health Care budget.

Raj Sherman and the Alberta Liberal Party

The PCs are led by a woman many have accused of being a "closet Liberal". The Liberals? They have a former PC in charge.

Sherman's story is an odd one. After being elected as a PC in 2008 and named Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Health, Sherman was fired in 2010 after sending off a late night e-mail to his entire address book, blasting Ed Stelmach's performance on the Health Care file. Since then, he has raised shocking claims about inefficiency, intimidation, and corruption in the Health system. Depending on who you ask, he's either a Health Care crusader or a crazy person.

Strategy: If the election gets framed as a Smith/Redford showdown, the Liberals are going to get squeezed down to a handful of ridings. And truth be told, there's probably not much they can do to prevent that at this point.

My advice would be to make the election all about Health Care - it's the one area where Sherman and the ALP have credibility and it's an important issue to voters. The Liberals may be fighting for media attention this campaign so they need to be focused, and Health Care is the smartest issue for them to be talking about.

Although they've now signed a deal, it likely helps that the Alberta Medical Association spent much of the past month running newspaper ads criticizing Redford's Health Care record.

Policy: The Liberals have released a relatively bold platform, funded by a proposed tax increase on the richest Albertans and businesses. Among their promises is a move towards free tuition, which should help the party hold their University ridings.

Brian Mason and the NDP

The NDP passed the Liberals federally in Alberta in 2008, and beat them by a 2:1 ratio there in 2011. Those results, coupled with positive polling numbers lead many to believe the NDP can vault ahead of the provincial Grits this campaign.

Somewhat surprisingly, Mason is the only leader back from the 2008 election. Despite the mustache, no one will mistake him for Jack Layton, but Mason is an underrated politician, capable of staying on message and delivering a good sound byte.

Strategy: NDP support remains concentrated in Edmonton, so that's where they'll spend the bulk of their time. Their message will likely be from the traditional NDP "kitchen table" cookbook.

Policy: With the Alberta Green Party desanctioned, the NDP have "gone green", right down to the colour palette on their website. Their four priorities include a "green energy plan" and "full value royalties", so they aren't afraid to go after big oil.

Glen Taylor and the Alberta Party

A year ago, the Alberta Party was making waves inside the political bubble - their messaging was solid, many of their key organizers had tasty victory with the Nenshi campaign, and they'd lured over ex-Liberal MLA Dave Taylor. However, like most internet fads, this one has faded, never really catching on with the public.

The Alberta Party will run around 30-40 candidates, with Taylor their only realistic hope (Glen that is, Dave isn't running). I'd put the over/under on their province-wide support at around 2%.

Strategy: Getting into the debates would be a huge boost for the Alberta Party, but this seems unlikely. Without that exposure, they'll need to rely on their strong online presence to get their message out.

Policy: They're big on #listening. You can check out their platform here.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mulcair Triumphs

Thomas Mulcair is the second ever NDP leader of the opposition after a four ballot victory yesterday morning...and afternoon...and evening.

Although Brian Topp was seen as the establishment candidate and was hyped as the early favourite, we shouldn't be surprised that Mulcair came out on top. Since his Outremont by election win in 2007, everyone has assumed Mulcair would succeed Layton. Although he hemmed and hawed at the start of this leadership race, he was the best politician in the field, he ran a good campaign, and avoided the pratfalls that usually plague frontrunners. As a result, he was able to grow his support on each subsequent ballot - more so than Topp in fact.

As a Liberal, it's easy to scoff after the fact and say Mulcair is beatable. Many Liberals will point to his flaws, especially after watching a very unimpressive victory speech. However, I wrote before the vote that Mulcair was the most dangerous candidate for the Liberals and that remains the case. The NDP have squarely aimed their sights on the centre of the political spectrum, and they have a polished politician to lead them there.

Labels: ,

Friday, March 23, 2012

Final NDP Power Rankings

The NDP crowns its next leader tomorrow, and the best we can do at this point is narrow the field down to 5 possible winners. That's a far cry from September when the Brian Topp juggernaut was described as Martinesque.

I made my "secret Liberal memo" endorsements earlier this month, and my opinion hasn't changed since then - I feel Mulcair is the strongest candidate, and as a partisan Liberal I'll be rooting for Peggy Nash or Brian Topp. Or maybe Nathan Cullen, because he's the most interesting candidate. Or maybe Paul Dewar, because that's how I'd likely vote if my blood ran orange. Or maybe Martin Singh, because I'd sure love to see what commercial the NDP prepared for him.

As for who will win, I don't know how many membership forms each camp sold so my best guess is nothing more than a wild guess. But here goes: I'll predict Mulcair comes in around 30%, with Cullen in second around 20%, and Nash, Dewar, and Topp hot on his heels. Mulcair over Nash on the final ballot.

To help size the race up, here's an update on the NDP Power Rankings - how the candidates fare in terms of fundraising, social media, endorsements, and buzz. (click for full size)

The "average share" column is simply an average of each candidate's share of the pie on these 9 indicators. It's by no means intended to be a predictor of first ballot support but, that said, I wouldn't be shocked to see numbers similar to this on Saturday:

Mulcair 26%
Nash 17%
Topp 17%
Cullen 16%
Dewar 15%
Ashton 6%
Singh 3%

The momentum numbers show how these pie slices have changed over the past week and the past month - in both instances, Mulcair and Cullen are gaining the most ground. Mulcair's gains have been primarily due to increased media attention, while Cullen has benefited from some very real gains in donations and social media support.

And this momentum is part of the reason I've predicted Cullen to finish second on the first ballot (that and the large number of BC NDP members). Although Cullen lags far behind on endorsements and his fundraising numbers aren't anything to write home about, he has now matched Mulcair when it comes to the total number of donors, and leads the Facebook "like" race.

February's Dewar poll and HosertoHoosier's analysis of the online preferential ballot, both suggest that Cullen's growth potential is limited, likely due to the divisiveness of his "co-operation" plan. But I expect him to raise some eyebrows when the first ballot results are read off at 10 am Saturday.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Redford in Dire Straits Over Money for Nothing Controversy

In 1993, the Alberta PCs were on the ropes, and many felt Lawrence Decore would end their 22 year reign in power. When the issue of MLA pensions bubbled to the surface, their newly elected leader Ralph Klein walked into caucus, laid down the law, and retroactively scrapped the gold-plated pension plan. He may not have made friends within caucus, but it was perhaps the most crucial decision he ever made as Premier, as it avoided a controversy that could very well have cost him the election.

Alison Redford now finds herself facing a similar controversy, but her response has been much weaker.

If you're not familiar with this story, Alberta MLAs are paid $1,000 a month for their committee work...or in this case, lack of work. You see, the Standing Committee on Privileges, Elections, Standing Orders and Printing hasn't met since a barn burner 14 minute meeting in 2008 (and 4 of those minutes were spent just reading off the committee name). In fairness, four years isn't a lot of time in Alberta politics when de facto terms in office run 30 or 40 years - but even if we do some "dog year math" and divide that inaction time by 7, we're still talking about about a lot of money for nothing.

It should be noted this issue isn't a new story. Former Liberal leader David Swann has been donating his committee cheque to charity for years, and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation raised the issue back in January. Still, Redford can be forgiven for not proactively moving on this since, as her office commented when reminded she used to sit on the committee, "when she says she didn’t remember it is probably because it never met". Fair enough.

However, the story gained new life on March 7th when the Taxpayer's Federation presented the committee with a mock waste award, and the past two weeks have been a textbook case of how not to manage controversy.

Initially, Redford tried to stay out of it, letting it be known that each MLA would need to decide what to do with their pay. Of course, this left MLAs scrambling in twelve directions to justify themselves, without any coherent or consistent message:
[PC MLA Gennia] Leskiw said she doesn't know how many committees she sits on and she couldn't explain what the standing committee of privileges and elections actually does. When asked by reporters to explain the committee's work, Leskiw was literally at a loss for words for almost five seconds before blurting out, "No comment."

No comment?

Asked if she was going to keep the $1,000 a month - or give it to charity as Liberal MLA David Swann does - she paused again before responding, "No comment."

Asked if the committee should be scrapped because it's not doing any work, she paused and said, "I have no opinion on that."

And this, I should point out, was Leskiw's second interview on the subject with reporters, after she had time to reflect on the subject and get briefed by staff.

Opposition MLAs had their share of stumbles out of the gate too but, before long, they one by one agreed to return the money. Two days after the story broke, Liberal leader and former PC MLA Raj Sherman returned over $40,000 in back pay - interest included.

Redford called these gestures "a stunt", accusing her opponents of grandstanding - all the while freezing committee pay and hinting that PC MLAs who did not return the money would be "held accountable in the election". She had somehow managed to hang her MLAs out to dry, while appearing to the public like she saw nothing wrong with the "pay for no work" committee.

Finally, two weeks after the story broke, Redford relented, forcing PC MLAs to return the money they had received since she became Premier - roughly 12% of their money-for-nothing pay. Her messaging didn't exactly convey a sense of Redford acting decisively to do the right thing; the caucus chair abruptly announced he wouldn't run again and Redford lamented that she couldn't "change the past". PC whip Robin Campbell was equally unconvincing:
“We understand that our system is complex and it’s pretty hard in 45 seconds or a minute to explain it, so we thought in the best interests of all Albertans that we would give the money back.”

In short - voters are too dumb to understand, and we just want this issue to go away.

The thing is, this is the sort of issue voters can understand. In addition to being a catchy song, "money for nothing" is an easy concept to grasp, and this story can be explained in 5 seconds. It strikes right to the "entitled to my entitlements" attitude voters loathe - especially from governments that have been in power for a long time.

That's something Ralph Klein understood, but Redford has been slow to grasp.


This Week in Alberta - The Wheels on the Bus

With an Alberta election call possible as soon as next week, the province is gearing up for the campaign. Of course, rather than talk of scandals or policies, most of the attention this week was on the Wildrose Party's unfortunately designed campaign bus wrap.

Which prompted this tongue and cheek response:

Monday, March 19, 2012

New Tory Ad Blitz

The Tories have launched a pair of ads which they assure us will get plenty of air time. That's probably true since, after all, they've got heaps of money and no election to spend it on.

Garnering the most media attention has been the following Bob Rae attack ad:

The content is about what you'd expect from a Bob Rae attack ad, so the speculation has centered primarily on why Harper would bother attacking the interim Liberal leader three years before an election?

My suspicion is this ad will receive very limited airtime, and is intended mainly to stir things up online. It re-opens the question of whether or not Rae will run for permanent leader, and leads to a very uncomfortable question for many Liberals - should they spend party funds to defend the interim leader? My answer would be an unequivocal "no", but others will disagree, and anytime Liberals are squabbling internally, Stephen Harper is smiling.

After being reminded that the economic downturn of the early 90s was all Bob Rae's fault, we learn that the current economic downturn shows us what a strong leader Stephen Harper has been. Uh-huh. This is the ad that will get the most airtime, for the reasons Paul Wells gets into here.

The short of it is that Harper has long been able to play the downturn into an advantage under the simple line that "Canada is better off than the rest of the world". That's an argument most people can get behind when they're reading stories about the US economy circling the drain, but what happens when we get more and more stories about the US recovery outperforming the Canadian recovery? Frustration is going to set in, and voters will be looking for someone to blame - so why not blame the guy who has tied himself to Canada's "strong, stable economic recovery"?

And that, is likely the largest risk Harper faces in 2015, more so than Robocon or any of the dozen other scandals we'll all jump up and down about over the next three years.

Labels: ,

Meanwhile, South of the Border

Despite a pair of humiliating set-backs in Alabama and Mississippi last week, Mitt Romney is still on course to stumble over the finish line in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Despite an overwhelming desire to find anyone else up to the job, the Anybody But Romney options have imploded one by one - first Bachman, then Perry, then Cain, then Gingrich. When Rick Santorum is the only alternative left standing, you know you're scraping the bottom of the barrel. So it's no surprise that the delegate math is still heavily in Romney's favour, and that the election stock markets still peg him as an 89% favourite to win the nomination.

But his odds of taking the White House are far less than that, despite Obama's lackluster approval ratings. Although Romney is routinely described as the most "electable" Republican in the field, he has two glaring flaws that should ensure Obama's re-election.

Flaw 1. Romney reminds me of John Kerry v 2.0 - he flips, he flops, he lacks convictions. Voters want a leader who stands for something and, unlike the rest of the Republican field, it's unclear what Romney believes in. Just as Kerry's past made it difficult for him to attack Bush on Iraq, Romney's past makes it difficult for him to criticize Obamacare. It's going to be very difficult to attack Obama's Health Care model during debates, when Obama just needs to smile and thank Mitt for providing the Massachusetts model it was based on.

Romney's wishy washineness has allowed him to get pulled into issues that are better left dormant. The only thing making contraception a major election issue accomplishes, is energizing Democrats who were otherwise indifferent to this election after being let down by Obama.

Flaw 2. The one issue Romney may be able to ride to the White House is the economy, but Romney's business background only highlights his second fatal flaw - his inability to relate. Say what you will about them, but the one thing Barack Obama, George W Bush, and Bill Clinton were all able to do was connect with voters. So while Obama is sinking three pointers and cracking jokes this fall, expect more awkwardness from Romney, in line with his "$10,000 bet", "I'm not concerned about the very poor" and "some of my friends own NASCAR teams" Richie Rich moments.

If Obama wants to take on Wall Street and the top 1% this election, he couldn't have designed a better opponent. After all, you can't spell Romney without "money".

So while Democrats may be hoping for divine intervention to deliver them a Santorum nomination, they really should be counting their blessings that Romney will be the nominee. He may look like a formidable opponent, but Romney is the perfect foil for Obama to be up against.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, March 15, 2012

NDP Leadership Power Rankings

Last month I looked at how NDP leadership candidates stacked up on various metrics, in a mostly futile attempt to handicap the race. With the Dippers' vote a week away, here are the updated Power Rankings (click to view):

MPs: Despite losing an MP to Brian Topp this week, Mulcair continues to dominate with 43 MP endorsements - 10 more than the rest of the field combined.

Endorsements: These are the 308 endorsement numbers, which tell a different tale than the MP endorsements, due to Topp's establishment support. Mulcair still leads at 27.9%, but Topp (26.9%) and Nash (23.9%) are on his tail, with Dewar (13.2%) and Cullen (5.2%) lagging behind.

Donations, Donors, Direct Donors: These numbers come via Pundits Guide and show Mulcair leading with 242k in donations, followed by Topp at 215k, then Dewar, Nash, and Cullen bunched together about 50k behind. The "direct donors" numbers is likely more relevant than the "donors" indicator, since the later includes "pass the hat" fundraisers and, let's be frank, any indicator that shows Martin Singh with six times Mulcair's support is bogus.

Poll: Numbers from the Dewar and Mulcair internal polls released last month. Given the source and the time lag, these numbers should be looked at with caution. Still, in past leadership races, polls of members have tended to be the best predictor of the outcome.

Media Mentions: The number of articles mentioning each candidate. Despite his fall to the second tier, Brian Topp is still being talked about by the media nearly as much as Mulcair.

Social Media: Cullen and Nash have the strongest Facebook presences, while Paul Dewar leads on Twitter followers. The "Twitter Mentions" column comes from a MediaMiser study released today, showing that Cullen and Mulcair have been the most talked about candidates on Twitter. Who knows what that means, but it's interesting to see Cullen generating more buzz on Twitter than with the mainstream media.

Average Share: This is, simply enough, the average share of the candidates across these 10 indicators:

Mulcair 23%, Topp 16%, Nash 16%, Cullen 15%, Dewar 15%, Singh 8%, Ashton 5%

It is by no means a prediction of their first ballot support. Still, it matches the narrative we're hearing, of Mulcair well in front of a tightly bunched pack of four candidates.

Momentum: Shows how each candidate's share has shifted since last month, confirming Cullen's surge:

Cullen +1.9%, Dewar +0.3%, Mulcair -0.1%, Nash -0.4%, Ashton -0.4%, Singh -0.5%, Topp -0.7%

Paul Dewar has quietly generated some positive momentum as well, with Brian Topp losing ground. Despite, or perhaps because of, his new frontrunner status, Mulcair has held steady across these indicators.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Alberta Poll Soup

The expectation in Alberta is that Alison Redford's first budget will pass by March 21, with the writ dropped March 26 for an April 23 vote.

As for the expected outcome, the polls are predicting...well...who knows? Five companies (ThinkHQ, Forum, ROI, Abacus, Leger) have released polls in 2012, with the following ranges for each party:

PCs: 34% to 53%
Wildrose: 16% to 30%
Liberals: 11% to 18%
NDP: 13% to 14%

The PC lead is somewhere between 5 points and 37 points, plus or minus a few percent on the margin of error. Sure, we know where the NDP are at, but everything else is a crapshot.

Which shouldn't be surprising given the three other parties all enter this campaign with rookie leaders. Voters have likely heard of Danielle Smith and know Alison Redford is the Premier, but that's about all they know.

Toss in the fact that the second place party has basically risen from nothingness over the last two years, and you have the makings of a very unpredictable election, in a province which rarely sees unpredictable election.

Labels: ,

Time for a Full Inquiry, for Dean's Sake

Dean Del Mastro, March 1: "We learned that Joe Volpe paid over $25,000 to Prime Contact, a calling company with offices in North Dakota. These calls were made on behalf of the Liberal party. I see that they used this company quite a bit. It seems that they were robodialing quite a number of people on behalf of the Liberal party."

Dean Del Mastro, March 5: "It's ... clear that the Liberal Party spent millions of dollars to contact hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of homes right across this country. It appears they had given them some incorrect information but the Liberal leader is sitting on all of this information while he makes unsubstantiated smears."

Dean Del Mastro, March 12: "We now know that the member for Guelph, Mr. Speaker, in fact paid for illegal robocalls that concealed the fact that the calls came from his Liberal campaign. They used a bogus number, Mr. Speaker, a fictitious character, they broke the CRTC regulations, they broke Elections Canada laws."

Listening to Del Mastro's daily tirades in the House of Commons, it's clear the Liberal Party orchestrated Robocon, as part of an elaborate plot to suppress their vote. And, given how few Liberals voted on May 2nd, this plan appears to have been wildly successful.

I therefore trust that Dean will join the growing demands for a full public inquiry and/or Royal Commission to get to the bottom of the robodial scandal. Only then can the good name of the Conservative Party be cleared, and these duplicitous Liberals brought to justice.

Labels: ,

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The First Look at Redford's Playbook

That sound you hear is the unofficial starting gun on Alberta's 2012 election, as the PCs launch their first round of negative ads, under the familiar "Danielle Smith: Not Worth the Risk" tagline.

The immediate reaction by most has been similar to Don Braid's:

In my prehistoric memory, the Tories haven’t done anything like this in all the long years since they were first elected on Aug. 30, 1971.

They clearly feel challenged, especially in Calgary, the only place where the ad will run at the beginning.

“It proves they see the Wildrose as a real threat,” says Mount Royal University political expert David Taras.

“Negative campaigns don’t come out of nowhere. They appear when a party has got a problem.”

I'm not so convinced this is a sign of problems for the PCs at all - to me it looks like the table setter of a very sound election strategy.

For starters, this is about as tame as attack ads get. It highlights a legitimate policy difference - one the Wildrose have turned into an election issue, and one the PCs need to get their message out on if we believe the Wildrosers when they claim two thirds of Albertans are against the law. Be they 5 points or 50 points ahead in the polls, it would be foolish of the PCs not to respond, and a limited radio ad buy in Calgary is a fairly timid response.

No, the real story here shouldn't be the ad, but the strategy it's setting up. The "Not Worth the Risk" message plays to the exact same "stability" theme that 6 governments rode to re-election last year. More importantly, this ad is a clear sign Redford wants to position the election as a Wildrose-PC showdown. And who can blame her? That narrative will scare Redford Liberals into voting PC, and it will make disaffected PCs view a vote for the Wildrose as a vote for a possible government, rather than a mere protest vote.

If that's the strategy behind these ads - and I suspect it is - then the media response that the PCs are "in danger" and "worried about the Wildrose" is the exact reaction Redford's team was hoping for. It wouldn't at all surprise me if we hear whispers from "senior PC insiders" throughout the campaign that they're worried they could lose, or that their internal polls have the race much closer than it looks.

In that respect, this ad has little to do with drunk driving and everything to do with framing the next election. The fact that it's an attack ad isn't at all a sign of desperation - much as the PCs might like us to believe it is.

Labels: ,

Extra! Extra! No New Taxes!

With an election call expected within weeks, the Alberta PCs are blanketing the airwaves with advertising touting their pledge to not raise taxes. Well, let me rephrase that - the Alberta government is blanketing the airwaves with advertising touting their plan to not raise taxes:

The Redford government is under attack from opposition members over spending more than $1.3 million of taxpayers' money on advertising campaigns - including $425,000 promoting the 2012 budget - just weeks before an election call.

Wildrose MLA Guy Boutilier charged Tuesday that many of the advertisements constitute blatant political electioneering that should be paid for by the Progressive Conservative party rather than taxpayers.

Boutilier drew attention to a new campaign to assure Albertans there are no new taxes coming this year.

"This government ad isn't about a new program or project," Boutilier told the legislature. "It's not a public service announcement. It's a purely political ad using Albertans' hard-earned tax dollars."

He said the campaign contains lines like: "No new taxes means you can keep spending money on things that matter to you."

This, of course, isn't new. Governments of all political stripes do this (case in point). There's nothing wrong with informing citizens about new services or tax credits - this is often essential to make sure programs are taken advantage of.

But informing people their taxes aren't going up? That borders on absurd.

I look forward to future government funded ad campaigns entitled "we haven't blown up any hospitals in over a decade" and "hey, just letting you know we'd be against a new NEP program if anyone tried to bring it in".


Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Dean Del Mastro: Knower of Everything

On previous episodes of Dean Del Mastro: Knower of Everything, Dean didn't trust the survey results in a Peterborough newspaper poll, so he commissioned his own robo-push poll, in an effort to "protect democracy". Then, last week Dean argued the Liberals used a US call centre and the Tories never did, despite Evan Solomon presenting him with irrefutable evidence showing the exact opposite of what Dean was saying.

So yes, we shouldn't expect logic to be in abundant supply when Dean Del Mastro opens his mouth. But still, today's spin from Dean is priceless:

Del Mastro, the prime minister's parliamentary secretary and the lead Tory on the file, demanded again that the Liberals release their phone records to prove they weren't behind the misleading phone calls.

"It's ... clear that the Liberal Party spent millions of dollars to contact hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of homes right across this country. It appears they had given them some incorrect information but the Liberal leader is sitting on all of this information while he makes unsubstantiated smears," Del Mastro said.

Speaking to reporters after question period, Del Mastro denied making any allegations.

"No, in fact I haven’t made any allegations," he said. "The Liberal Party has made … allegations about our party that we in fact contacted Liberal supporters. We did no such thing."

The Conservative Party doesn't need to provide its own records, he said "because obviously our party is not behind these calls, we know that."

So we have Del Mastro making allegations then saying he hasn't made allegations an hour later - but that's par for the course in politics. The gem in this article is Dean's claim that the Conservatives don't need to provide their phone records because he knows they are not behind these calls. All the while demanding the Liberals release their records.

Peter Goldring tried that line of logic when he refused to blow a breathalyzer last year, and it didn't work out so well for him - "officer, I don't need to blow because I know I'm under the legal limit...go pull over that driver and test him".

At first, I thought the PMO made a tactical error placing Del Mastro as the point man on Robocon, but it's clear no one else in the party would be able to regurgitate these talking points with a straight face. When it comes to spouting nonsense and believing it, Del Mastro is the maestro.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Dippers Vote

Ballots have arrived to thousands of NDP members, who now have until March 24th to vote for a leader.

Originally, the field reminded me a lot of the 2006 Liberal leadership race, with the role of the establishment front runner lacking elected experience played by Brian Topp, the polished veteran who wore different colours provincially played by Thomas Mulcair, the bushy haired do-gooder with weak French played by Paul Dewar, and the party stalwart and consensus candidate played by Peggy Nash.

Since then, the race has morphed into something completely different, with most indicators suggesting a pack of four candidates are chasing down Thomas Mulcair.

For an NDP member's take on the field, the Jurist profiles the candidates here, and places Brian Topp atop his ballot. For an outsider's take and Liberal perspective, I offer my thoughts below:

The Most Electable Candidate

If the end goal of the NDP is to form government, Thomas Mulcair is likely the Dipper for the job. He stands the best chance of holding Quebec and, more importantly, is the only candidate who has seriously talked about putting the NDP through the kind of New Labour transformation that is needed to squeeze the Liberals out of existence and form government. Mulcair has criticized Topp's "tax the rich" platform, and has vowed to reduce the influence of unions within the NDP. When was the last time you heard an NDP leadership candidate bragging about how he "said no" to unions?

Mulcair also stands out in the debates as the best politician and best communicator in the field. He's far from perfect - he's arrogant, has been known to mispeak, is supposedly disliked by many in the party, and lacks the good natured charm of Layton. Still, if I were an NDP member with my eyes set on 24 Sussex, I'd vote for Mulcair.

Of course, if I wanted power at all costs, I'm not sure why I'd be in the NDP. So putting on my "idealistic NDPer" hat and realizing I don't want my beloved party to "become the Liberals", I'd probably cast my vote for Paul Dewar. His weak French would likely mean defeat for a good chunk of their Quebec caucus, but Dewar strikes me as the candidate most able to connect with voters - he's not as smooth as Mulcair, but maybe that's a good thing.

My Selfish Partisan Endorsement

As a Liberal partisan hoping to see the Liberals pass the NDP next election, I'd wholeheartedly encourage my NDP friends to vote for Peggy Nash. Based on her background and the language she uses, Nash comes across as the candidate most rooted in the traditional NDP mould. That's good news for her when it comes to winning the race, but not when it comes to expanding the NDP base in a general election. I've also found her performance during the debates and on camera to be rather underwhelming.

Equally underwhelming has been Brian Topp, so I wouldn't at all be disappointed to see him win. Despite being heralded as an "unbeatable juggernaut" within minutes of Layton's death, Topp has shown himself to be a political rookie lacking both Mulcair's polish and Dewar's charm. At every opportunity, Topp has staked out traditional NDP turf, promising to tax the rich and attacking Mulcair as a "Blairite" ready to "sell out NDP principles".

The Most Interesting Outcome

As a political junkie, there's always a part of me rooting for the most interesting outcome. Did I want Ted Morton to become the Alberta PC leader? No...but it would have been interesting. Was I glad that George Bush beat John Kerry in 2004? No...but it made the next four years a lot more interesting.

In this race, the most interesting candidate is Nathan Cullen, who has refused to back down from his proposal to work with the Liberals and Greens in some ridings. While this idea originally sounded like a hail Mary from a long shot candidate, Cullen has performed well in the debates and is the only candidate from BC - a province with 30% of all NDP members. So don't write him off yet.

A win by Cullen would put the question of co-operation with the Liberals back on the table for both parties, lobbing a landmine into next year's Liberal leadership race. I'm far from sold on Cullen's idea, but it would sure would spice up the political landscape.

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, March 02, 2012

Damage Control

It remains to be seen just how involved the Conservative Party was in Robocon, but it certainly doesn't help that they can't keep their story straight. It was all Michael Sona, it was rogue third parties, it was the Liberals, the Tories had "absolutely, definitely" nothing to do with it...yet they're reviewing the tapes.

The clip below shows Dean Del Mastro being taken to task for spreading misinformation in the House. For anyone who enjoys watching Del Mastro squirm, this is must-see-TV.