Thursday, May 24, 2012

Mulcair Takes on the West

What started out as musings on the health of Ontario's manufacturing sector has quickly escalated into a full fledged war of words between Tom Mulcair and the western Premiers. It's an important shift in the dialogue, because going to war with the West is a lot different than going to war with the oilsands - after all, you won't find many "save our oilsands" protests in front of Libby Davies' Vancouver East constituency office.

Mulcair picking a fight with Premiers Clark, Redford, and Wall has led to his first patch of negative press since winning the NDP leadership - and rightly so. Calling Premiers who stick up for local industry "messengers of Stephen Harper" (in a tone that makes them sound like a swarm of Nazgul) brings him down to the level of Jim Flaherty, who routinely plays the role of Ontario's leader of the opposition.

I think we can all agree Mulcair shouldn't be disparaging the Premiers on this issue, but it's less clear whether or not this is a shrewd tactical move, or another case of Mulcair not thinking before opening his mouth.

The first thing to consider is the popularity of the people Mulcair is attacking. We know Brad Wall is more popular than God and Alison Redford just pulled off a small miracle in Alberta. However, the third member of this trinity has seen better days and now trails the provincial NDP by 27 points - so it's hard to fault Mulcair for alligning himself with the BC Dippers. Even in Saskatchewan, the fallout from attacking Wall might be minimal, as the provincial and federal NDP received similar shares of the popular vote during elections there last year. Just as there are many western voters who share Mulcair's disdain for the oilsands, there are many western voters who nodded in agreement as Mulcair criticized their premiers.

In the broader picture, the trade-off between votes in the East and votes in the West might explain Mulcair's gambit. To form government, the NDP will need to pick up at least 30-50 more seats next election. Of the 50 ridings the NDP came closest to winning in 2011, just 16 are in Western Canada - moreover, there are only four seats in Western Canada the party won by less than 10% last election, suggesting it will take more than a Twitter feud with Brad Wall to bring Mulcair down.

So there's an argument to be made for concentrating on eastern voters, if you buy that the NDP's road to 24 Sussex bypasses the West. If that's the case, Mulcair's salvo on the oilsands might not be the gaffe its being portrayed as, and it won't be the last time he picks a fight with the western provinces.

Of course, Western Canada will be gaining new seats in 2015, and there's the long game to think about. On that front, Mulcair would be well served learning from the party he hopes to replace. For years the Liberals won elections by scapegoating the West and, in particular, the oil industry. This electoral math equation usually paid off, but in the long run it has left Western Canada a charred dust-bowl for the Liberals, with nothing more than 4 specs of red west of Ontario left on the map.

Even if Mulcair can score a few extra seats in 2015 by playing the regions against each other, it's not a strategy that is likely to pay off for the NDP in the long run.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How a Bill Becomes a Law

“At the end of the day, in my opinion, they’ve made up their mind and this is how we’re going to vote. One person is not going to make a difference, one MP is not going to make a difference.”

In some respects, I feel bad for David Wilks. The video that will ultimately destroy his political career doesn't involve bigoted comments, cocaine, or underage girls - it's a candid discussion with 30 constituents about how Ottawa works.

In it, Wilks voices his displeasure with his party's budget, while lamenting that a whiped vote means he has no choice but to support it.

Wilks could easily have blown off this roundtable, recognizing no one attending was ever going to vote Conservative. There are certainly more enjoyable ways to spend a sunny morning in Kootenay-Columbia than walking into a room full of discontents. Instead, Wilks listened and interacted with the people he represents, and he should be applauded for that.

That said, the man has no one to blame for this controversy other than himself. If he truly supports the budget - as he now claims to do - he should have thanked his constituents for their feedback, said he'd consider what they said, then explained to them why he supported the budget.

If he truly opposes the budget - as he said he did yesterday - he should vote against it. Wilks is wrong when he says one MP can't make a difference. John Nunziata and Bill Casey brought more attention to the budgets they opposed than they ever would have by meekly supporting them. Michael Chong's opposition to the Quebec Nation resolution may have prevented Harper from going further down that road. I also like to think that the more acts of defiance we get, the more likely we are to see an attitudinal change in Ottawa that gives a greater say to individual MPs. Some may disagree with me, but I think that would be a welcome shift.

And while it should never be the primary reason for opposing your own government, Nunziata, Casey, and Chong all made names for themselves, were heralded for their decisions, and were rewarded by their constituents at the ballot box.

In comparison, all Wilks' weak-kneed approach ensures is that he will never make it to Cabinet, and that he now has a reputation of placing his party ahead of his conscience and his constituents.

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Friday, May 18, 2012

Rematch in Etobicoke Centre

Despite all the close votes over the years, this is a first:

Election result in Toronto riding thrown out by judge

Conservative MP Ted Opitz's 2011 federal election win last year in Etobicoke Centre was declared null and void today in a challenge by former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj.

Opitz won the May 2011 election by 26 votes, but Wrzesnewskyj challenged the results over voting irregularities.

Justice Thomas Lederer's decision Friday in Toronto, if appealed, would be immediately heard by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Wrzesnewskyj's lawyer argued up to 181 ballots were in dispute.

We can safely assume this will be appealed, but if the ruling is upheld, Harper would have 6 months to call a by-election - and you can make the case he'd be morally obliged to call it ASAP, given the circumstances. While the stakes won't be as high as in Kitchener-Waterloo, a Wrzesnewskyj-Opitz rematch would still be must-see TV.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Third Way

The latest Ipsos poll paints a rather dreary picture of Liberal fortunes, with what was once the natural governing party languishing more than 15 points behind both the NDP and the Conservatives.

Of course, the NDP are in their post-leadership honeymoon, the Liberals don't have a permanent leader, and a horse race poll when politics is the farthest thing from the electorate's mind won't tell you a lot. But I think we can safely assume the Liberals are a distant third, trailing two parties who are both intent on hugging the centre of the road, making it almost impossible to pass them. So what's a centrist party to do?

I agree with Rae's message of staying to the middle of the spectrum, but the days of finding sunny compromises between the NDP and Conservative extremes on every single issue are numbered. When you're the third place party you need to give people a reason to vote for you, and a milquetoast platform topped with some language about the "extremist" positions of two very non-extremist parties isn't going to be convincing.

Faced with this new reality, the challenge is standing out and being noticed. That likely means on occasion passing the two parties ahead of you on the right, and on occasion passing them on the left. So maybe the Liberals adopt a few "right wing" economic policies even the Conservatives dare not touch, like the abolishment of supply management. Maybe it means "out-NDPing" the NDP by proposing a national pharmacare program.

Of course, the entire concept of a left-right political spectrum is somewhat arbitrary when you think about it. Is democratic reform a right wing or a left wing issue? Either way, parties talk a lot less about it the closer they get to power, so there may be an opening there for the Liberals who are decidedly nowhere near power. There's certainly an opening on the "Quebec question", given the PQ may be in power a year from now, and both the Tories and NDP have spent long nights flirting with the separatists in recent years.

The other thing to consider is the dirty little secret that most voters aren’t reading through party platforms and casting their vote based on policy. Did Jack Layton leap from third to second because voters found his policies that much more compelling than Ignatieff's? Most voters would be hard pressed to identify a single area of cleavage between the two party platforms.

Now, I’m not saying the Liberals are one leadership change away from power. As I’ve written before, there’s a lot of structural work to be done, and even if voters didn’t know the intricacies of the Liberal and NDP platforms last election, they had a clear impression of party brands, and an overall sense of party values. But a party’s leader does matter, and it’s just as important to have a leader who can differentiate himself or herself from Mulcair and Harper, as it is to have policies that can be differentiated from the NDP and CPC platforms. That doesn’t mean the Liberals should search for the anti-Mulcair or shy away from an experienced and polished politician like Harper – only that there needs to be some kind of “value add” that makes their leader stand out. The brilliance of Jack was that he always smiled and could connect with voters – that’s an ability Michael Ignatieff lacked completely, and one both Harper and Mulcair struggle with.

In the past, all the Liberals needed to do to get elected was wedge themselves squarely between the extremes. There are still many issues for which that strategy makes sense from both an ideological and political perspective. But adopting that knee-jerk approach on every issue and failing to stand out is a sure fire path to irrelevance.


Tuesday, May 08, 2012

An update on all the people MAYBE running for Liberal leadership

The expectation is that rules for the Liberal leadership race will come down in June, setting the stage for a summer of getting to know the men and women wanting to lead Canada's third party.

But while we won't know the rules of the race for another month or two, that hasn't limited speculation in the interim...or speculation about the interim leader, for that matter.

Back in January, I looked at the ten most commonly rumoured Liberal leadership candidates...and 18 fun longshots - the Naheed Nenshis and Amanda Langs of the world. Today, an update on the names that were most on the lips of delegates at the Liberal Party of Canada (Ontario) convention in Toronto this past weekend.

Don't count on it

From that January list of ten "buzz" candidates, we can likely scratch off Scott Brison and Dominic Leblanc. While their names still get floated in most newspaper articles, the Liberals I know who would be first in line to support them aren't expecting either Maritimer to toss their cap into the ring.

Which is a shame, because both represent the kind of generational change the party needs - and both are highly engaging and entertaining speakers, with pleasant demeanors that would contrast nicely with the gruff angry man personas of Harper and Mulcair.

The Big Names

While this is very much anybody's race to win, in my mind there are three candidates who would instantly vault to frontrunner status if they ran.

Trudeau. McGuinty. Rae.

All three are political superstars with the name recognition and organizations that would make them very difficult to beat.

While Justin Trudeau has done his best Chris Christie impersonation by repeatedly denying he has any interest in running, there have been new rumblings about his potential candidacy in recent months - and they haven't just been fueled by his TKO of Senator Brazeau, or idle media speculation.

The word on the street is that Justin is listening to the calls for him to run, though I'm still skeptical he'll move beyond the listening stage. The man has shown remarkable restraint thus far in his political career, so the smart money is on him waiting until next time. That said, if the Liberals make the wrong choice there may not be a "next time".

The reaction to Dalton McGuinty at January's convention was electric, and he would enter the race with a formidable track record and political machine behind him. But given he's fighting tooth and nail to tip the scales in Ontario to a majority, I seriously doubt he'd resign his own seat and plunge the OLP into a leadership race. There's also the harsh reality that, for perhaps the first time since confederation, leading the Ontario Liberal Party is a more glamorous job than leading the federal Liberal Party.

Of course, if big brother isn't interested, perhaps little brother will be. David McGuinty was one of the first candidates to openly muse about a leadership bid, but he's never acted like someone coveting the top job. The man rarely leaves his own riding and was a no-show in Toronto this weekend.

So what about Bob? One year ago, Rae categorically ruled it out, solemnly swearing he would not seek the top job, saying it was time for "a new generation of leadership". Now? He says a decision hasn't been made, and he's waiting on the rules. It's a politician's answer, and even his most ardent critics agree Rae may be one of the greatest politicians of his time. For this reason, many would follow him without hesitation if he runs - but others are so dead set against Rae they'd sooner back Alfonso Gagliano.

Seriously considering a run

Martha Hall Findlay sounds like the most serious of the "maybe" candidates. She's been sending out newsletters, holding events, and getting herself in front of cameras - Findlay herself acknowledges it's "not a secret" she's thinking about it. While Martha was the plucky underdog the last time she ran for leader, she's definitely in it to win it this go around.

Also from the class of 2006 is Gerard Kennedy, who has openly mused about running. Kennedy was ahead of his time with his "renewal" themed campaign, back when Liberals assumed everything could be fixed with a new leader. He has continued to beat that drum of late, holding renewal roundtables, renewal BBQs, and renewal pub nights. The real key for Kennedy will be how many renewal french lessons he's taken in the past few years.

One of the guests at Gerard's Political Renewal Fair a few weeks back was Kirsty Duncan. Duncan would be a great addition to the race, as an intelligent well spoken woman. If she runs, expect a strong focus on Health Care and the environment from her campaign, as she has written books on these topics.

Envisagent sérieusement de briguer le poste de chef

If you buy into the alternance theory of Liberal leadership, it's time for a francophone leader, and there are certainly plenty of candidates from La Belle Province making noise.

The loudest has been Marc Garneau. Like Ken Dryden in 2006, Garneau has plenty of star power, but the question comes down to whether or not he has the right stuff to lead. I hope he runs, if only because I have a dozen out of this world astronaut puns that will go to waste if he takes a pass.

Even though Martin Cauchon and Denis Coderre have never run for Liberal Party leadership, they've each spent more than a decade thinking about it. I suspect Coderre's future lies in provincial or municipal politics, though he will undoubtedly be a major asset for whichever campaign he winds up backing this go round.

Cauchon held a hospitality suite at the national convention and attended the LPCO convention this weekend - a clear signal he'd like to take on Thomas Mulcair not just in Outremont, but on the national stage. Believe it or not, he'll only turn 50 this summer, but in some ways going with Cauchon would feel like a throwback to the Chretien era. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I'm not sure that's the mood of the membership.

It doesn't take a lot to start a leadership rumour, so the fact that Mauril Belanger quit the official languages committee and then showed up in Toronto this weekend was enough to get people talking. Of course, being an Ontario MP, you'd expect him to be at an LPCO convention. And of all the things holding Mauril back from a run for Liberal leadership, I really don't think his spot on the official languages committee was very high on the list. But such is life in politics, where a new pair of glasses is taken as a sign of leadership aspirations.

People you've never heard of

The candidates making the most noise about running at this point are the ones with no chance of winning. After all, given enough time, a politician can delude himself into thinking he has a chance at winning anything. Moreover, Martha Hall Findlay and Martin Singh’s longshot campaigns did wonders to raise their profiles, so it’s not even always about winning in the conventional sense.

The most credible of the “no names” appears to be defeated candidate David Bertschi, a persistent worker who ran a strong campaign in Ottawa Orleans last spring. Bertschi is assembling a team, has a website, and has launched a teaser video that tells us a lot about Canada's potential as a country...but little about Bertschi's potential as a candidate. Bertschi is a dynamic speaker one-on-one, and everyone who talked to him at the LPCO convention, myself include, left impressed.

Also making the rounds at the Sheraton this weekend was Toronto businessman George Takach. While he lacks elected experience, he'll have no trouble raising money and, in the end, the amount of coin you bring in is the deciding factor in how long you can stay in the race.

Another name being floated is David Merner, the president of the BC wing of the federal Liberal Party. I've never met Merner, but this race needs a western voice or two, and to date Joyce Murray is the only MP west of Etobicoke making any noise about running.

Monday, May 07, 2012

The Race for Third

Back in February I asked readers of this blog who they thought would run for Liberal leader, and who they'd consider voting for. Admittedly, this is as far from a scientific poll as you'll ever get, and I won't pretend that the 500+ voters in this straw poll are all Liberals. But we're not going to see anything resembling a credible Liberal leadership poll for close to a year, so let's have a little fun with what we've got.

Before that, one other thing. It looks like a group of Borys Wrzesnewskyj supporters swarmed the poll late, so I've excluded Borys from my recap below. Mind you, the fact that he appears to be the only candidate with supporters dedicated enough to freep a web poll at this stage should likely tell you there are people out there who would like him to run. Which is more than can be said for a lot of the names I floated.

Likely to Run?
Bob Rae 52%
Dominic LeBlanc 42%
Marc Garneau 38%
David McGuinty 34%
Gerard Kennedy 24%
Martha Hall Findlay 24%
Martin Cauchon 21%
Denis Coderre 21%
Scott Brison 18%
Mark Holland 14%

Who Would Consider Supporting?
Bob Rae 31%
Dominic LeBlanc 26%
Justin Trudeau 19%
Gerard Kennedy 19%
Scott Brison 19%
Mark Carney 17%
Marc Garneau 17%
Martha Hall Findlay 16%
Dalton McGuinty 16%
Naheed Nenshi 15%

Rae is seen as the most likely to run and has the largest support base, which tells you all the talk about him being the frontrunner isn't misplaced. My man from 2008, Dominic LeBlanc, is the only candidate within striking distance of Rae on the support poll, though 11 other names earned between 11% and 19% so there are plenty of viable candidates out there.

I've plotted the 16 candidates who scored at least 10% on either poll below. You can see that Trudeau, Carney, Dalton, Nenshi, Goodale, and Lang all have more people who like them than than expect them to run, leaving them as the most probable candidates for a genuine "Draft" movement.

The reverse is true for the other McGuinty, Cauchon, Garneau, and Coderre but, in fairness, I suspect that Quebecers are seriously under represented on this poll.

None of this means a heck of a lot when we don't even have the rules yet. But it shows there's nothing even remotely resembling a consensus on who will be running, never mind who will win.

Tomorrow, I'll speculate a bit about who might be running, so if you're hearing any rumours, by all means float names my way.


Friday, May 04, 2012

The premier Premier

The Institute for Research on Public Policy ranks Peter Lougheed as Canada's best Premier from the last 40 years. Rounding out the top 5:

1. Peter Lougheed
2. William Davis
3. Allan Blakeney
4. Frank McKenna
5. Robert Bourassa

I ran a similar "best Premier" contest among blog readers back in 2007, March-Madness Style. Lougheed came out on top of that one as well, edging out Oliver Mowat in the final.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Happy Anniversary!

One year ago today, Stephen Harper turned an "unwanted election" into his first majority government, Jack Layton and the NDP soared to never before seen heights, and Liberals spent the evening curled up in a fetal position sobbing in the corner.

On political anniversaries, it's tempting to give each party a thumbs up or thumbs down, but the past year has been less clear cut, as the major parties try to figure out where they fit in Canada's new political dynamic.

The Conservatives

It feels like a "Harper majority" was hyped longer than the Phantom Menace – and the end result was just as much of a letdown. After years of being told by both the right and left that a Harper majority would mean an unrecognizable country, it turns out a Harper majority looks a lot like a Harper minority. I hardly think when people warned of his “hidden agenda”, abolishing the penny is what they had in mind.

So if the past year has proven anything, it’s that Stephen Harper has always been and always will be an incrementalist. He has made some changes - goodbye gun registry, so long Katimavik...CBC and Statscan, you can stay, but we’ll make your job a bit harder, in the hope the public begins to question your value. These are bigger changes than he made during the minority years, but the man isn’t reshaping Canada as we know it.

While none of those moves prompted a large backlash, there are storm clouds on the horizon. The F-35 fiasco could tarnish his reputation as a strong financial manager. A stagnant economy would speak directly against the ballot question he was elected on. Robocon could blow up in his face. Bev Oda is still in Cabinet, so that alone guarantees us a few hilarious screw ups.

Outlook: Harper survived year one of the majority unscathed, but he survived with Nicole Turmel as leader of the opposition. The next year will be harder than the last.


The past 13 months have been the most turbulent in this “new” party’s long history, filled with highs, lows...and voting delays.

Jack Layton’s death was tragic, but life has gone on for the Dippers. Their leadership race may not have generated the excitement they hoped it would, but they came out of it with the only leader who has a realistic shot at ever living at 24 Sussex, so that’s a point in their column.

With the exception of a few easily forgotten floor crossings, their rookie caucus hasn’t been the embarrassment we thought it would be, so that’s another point for the boys in orange.

Outlook: Mulcair is in the midst of his leadership honeymoon, but he’s been treated to the kid gloves by the Conservatives so far. That’s going to change if Harper ever decides Mulcair is a legitimate threat.

The Liberals

On March 31st, Justin Trudeau knocked out Tory Senator Patrick Brazeau. There haven’t been many highlights over the other 365 days since election night.

That’s not to say Liberal rebuilding hasn’t gone on behind the scenes. The party picked a new president with a lot of good ideas. Today, the Liberals became Canada’s most open party by letting supporters register to vote for the leader. Liberals finally get that the party needs fixing, and I’ve been surprised at the number of new faces I’ve seen at events over the past year – people who joined the party after May 2nd, because they wanted to save it.

In front of the scenes, Rae has performed well in the interim leader’s role, but the “will he or won’t he” saga around his leadership has been a distraction.

Outlook: The next year will be all about leadership, as the Liberals pick the man or woman who will either oversee the party’s death or its return to relevance. No pressure, though.

The Bloc

Can’t say I miss them.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

McGuinty's Majority Move

As I wrote on election night last fall, the line between majority and minority isn’t as rigid as it’s often made out to be. When the margin is this thin, one case of appendicitis can tip the scales and change the course of history.

On Friday, Dalton McGuinty proved how fluid that majority line is, by appointing veteran PC MLA Elizabeth Witmer as the chair of the WSIB, setting the stage for an “all in” by election in Kitchener-Waterloo, and hundreds of “battle of Waterloo” metaphors.

It’s hard to see this move as anything other than a minority masterstroke by McGuinty. Witmer is respected and more than qualified for the position he is appointing her to, so there’s little risk of  backlash. It undermines Hudak’s leadership and, most importantly, opens up a winnable by election seat for the Liberals. Here’s the KW vote totals from October:

Elizabeth Witmer (PC)  43%
Eric Davis (Lib)  36%
Isabel Cisterna (NDP)  17%
 JD McGuire (Green)  3%

An MPP with over 20 years in office has to be worth at least 5 points at the ballot box, making Witmer's old seat very much a toss up. It’s a riding Andrew Telegdi won handily for the federal Liberals as recently as 2006, before razor-thin losses in 2008 and 2011.

While there’s no doubt a temptation to strike early and call a snap by election, McGuinty has the cover of the NDP budget deal to get him through the spring session, so there’s no immediate rush. After all, it’s a student riding, so there’s something to be said for a fall by election, when thousands Waterloo and Laurier students notice a cool 30% reduction on their tuition bills.

Regardless on timing, the election is going to be all about whether voters want a majority or a minority government. For the next few months, the eyes of the province will be on Kitchener-Waterloo.