Friday, August 07, 2015

BrieflyNotBriefly, the deal with all that referendum talk last night

You could have been forgiven for tuning in to last night’s debate and being bewildered by the exchange between Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair about the threshold for accepting a yes vote in a sovereignty referendum. So, as briefly as possible, here’s what’s up with that.

In the 1995 Quebec referendum, the No side eked out a bare win with 50.58 per cent of the vote. The question set by the Parti Quebecois government was widely considered confusing and unclear. There were rampant reports of voter fraud by the Yes side. A younger Tom Mulcair called for an inquiry. “This was an orchestrated, manipulated electoral fraud,” Mulcair said

The Liberal government of Jean Chretien recruited Stephane Dion to cabinet and responded in two major ways. The first was a reference to the Supreme Court of Canada that asked the court to answer three questions: can the government of any province separate unilaterally, would that be allowed by international law, and in a  conflict between domestic and international law, which would take precedence?

Nine of 10 justices ruled that unilateral succession is not legal, but the Government of Canada would have to negotiate with the provincial government if a clear will to separate was expressed by the populace. The court confirmed the Federal Government could decide if the question was fair or not, and it opted to not state the vote threshold necessary, simply requiring a “clear majority.”

Chretien and Dion followed up the Court reference by introducing The Clarity Act, which formalized the terms under which a province could seek to separate in the future. It stated the Government of Canada would only open negotiations on separation following a clear majority staying a desire to do so on a clear question, and the Government of Canada would decide what is a clear question, and what is a clear majority following the results.

The bill was popular in English Canada, scared by the near referendum loss and wanting, well, clarity. It was deeply unpopular in much of Quebec, obviously with sovereigntists, but also with the federalist political elite that favoured more of an appeasement approach.

OK, so that’s the background. But, you say, support for sovereignty is at all-time lows in Quebec, so why are we talking about this? Fair question. Here’s why.

In 2005, NDP members passed the Sherbrooke Declaration as its official policy on a sovereignty referendum. It repudiated the Clarity Act, saying it is up to the legislative assembly alone to set the question and an NDP government will accept a vote of 50 per cent plus one. That position, which would require the Clarity Act to be repealed, went largely unnoticed and unchallenged as, at the time, the NDP wasn’t seen as a likely candidate for government.

This position was regularly affirmed as official NDP over the next decade, including by Mulcair several times in the last few months, including in Quebec in June on the eve of FĂȘte Nationale. And in 2013, NDP MP Craig Scott introduced a private member’s bill that sought to repeal the Clarity Act and legalize 50 plus one as the threshold for a sovereignty referendum. 

So we’re talking about this because it is part of the NDP platform, because the NDP is talking about it, because the NDP wants a mandate to do this if they form a government, and because the polls show that’s a realistic proposition.

Alright, fair enough you say, but why are they both so eager to whack each other over it?

Mulcair has a Quebec base to protect, and keeping it means keeping all those soft nationalist voters that abandoned the Bloc Quebecois. His position on the Clarity Act is decidedly in the mainstream in Quebec. Outside of what I’ll call the Dion federalists, most Quebecers agree with Mulcair and the NDP on this.

Trudeau and the Liberals have always viewed themselves as the champions of a united Canada. And Trudeau’s position is very popular everywhere but Quebec. The Clarity Act just makes sense to most Canadians. And in Quebec, frankly, the Liberal vote has been limited for many years, and those Dion federalists are not an insubstantial voting block – Liberals increased their seat count there with Dion in 2008.

Will this issue actually move votes though, in Quebec or anywhere else? Who can say. 

OK you say, I get it now, but I gotta ask, why didn’t the Court just spell out a number? And why wouldn’t Trudeau last night?

The Court didn’t forget to set a number; it very deliberately decided to use the phrase clear majority. The NDP has contended 50 per cent + 1 is a clear majority. Liberals counter if the court meant a majority, they’d have said majority, but they said clear majority, and if 50+1 is a clear majority, what’s an unclear majority?

A number wasn’t set because a clear majority depends on a number of factors. What was the turnout? Was there voter fraud that could put the margin in question, as Mulcair raised the warning about in 1995? What was the geographic distribution? These are just a few of the questions I’d want to consider in determining if it was a clear majority or not. And you can’t put a number on that in advance; it’s impossible and would be irresponsible. In short, to channel Chretien, a clear majority is a clear majority, and when you have a clear majority it will be clear.

Alright, enough, this is no longer a brief explanation you complain. But lastly, what about Harper? He stayed above the fray last night. Where is he on all this?

As exasperated as the rest of us that the NDP has left us no choice but to be talking about this. But his position on the Clarity Act is clear and on the record: he supports it, and Reformers have often claimed the idea was stolen from their policy chief – one Stephen Harper.

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Sunday, August 02, 2015

Election ad review: Ready (and repeating vs busting the narrative)

After months of the Conservatives carpet-bombing the air waves with an ad declaring Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau just not ready, the Liberals finally responded with an ad of their own yesterday: Ready.

While many initially dismissed the Conservative ad as lame and ineffective (as they have every ad they've released for a decade, only to later concede they were devastatingly effective) I immediately saw it as a very effective piece because it zeroed it on a doubt most Canadians already have: is Trudeau ready to be Prime Minister? Very smart was the line at the end -- I'm not saying no forever, but now now -- which acknowledged many Canadians do like the guy so a hard negative attack wouldn't work. The goal was to plant doubts he was ready to govern -- at least right now. Hard not to argue they were successful.

The Liberal response ad was released Saturday, the day before the writ is expected to drop:


It's not a bad ad -- I'd subtitle it "not ready my ass." Trudeau looks comfortable and confident, and talks about what actually matters to middle class Canadians: pocket book issues around jobs and the economy, which is where our laser focus needs to be as this campaign begins. It's a decent ad, but it left me wanting a little more. I'd have liked to have seen it months ago, and I hope it's a big buy because releasing it as the writ drops minimizes any free media coverage.

Now, on Twitter many Conservatives and one other quickly lept up to gleefully to accuse Liberals of breaking the first rule of crisis communications: never repeat the opponent's message. And that is a rule. If someone asks  if you're a crook, you don't answer "I'm not a crook" and proceed to tell them why. I think they're off base here though, and I'll tell you why.

Is Justin ready IS the question many Canadians have about Trudeau. Is Justin ready to lead a G7 country is the question many have had since he was elected Liberal leader. He has high name recognition -- people feel like they grew up with him -- and high likability. I've maintained from the start though, even through those high polls, that at some point Canadians would ask OK, I like the guy, but is he ready to be PM?

Getting over that hump has been his challenge from the start. The Conservative ads were effective because they recognized that feeling was out there, and they stoked it. So whether or not those ads existed, Trudeau at some point needed to address this issue and convince Canadians that yes, he is ready. The carpet bombing made it necessary to take it on even more directly, rather than just trying to show it with words and deeds.

Some have said Trudeau's response should have simply been, in short, Harper sucks. That wouldn't address the problem though. There are definitely votes to peel off Harper, but right now most of them aren't coming to us. Liberals need to again become the default not-Harper choice; right now we're not. Just pulling votes off Harper is a waste of time until enough Canadians DO see Trudeau as ready to govern and lead, and not just a good guy.

However, in closing, I will say that I hope the Liberals abandon this positive-only pledge. It's naive. Don't go personally negative, but contrast and looking at the record of our opponents and the emptiness of their promises is both fair and effective. There is no virtue, electoral or otherwise, in clinging to some sort of positive high ground. People say they don't like the hard stuff, but you don't win points for not doing it, and those ads do influence their voting decision even if they won't admit it.

Trudeau is a boxer; well, it's time to suit up and get in the ring. Don't pull your punches. Game on.

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Friday, July 31, 2015

Confusing Canadians about coalitions to score political points

We hear a lot about coalitions these days, and it seems clear there’s a bit of confusion out there about what it means and just what the post-election options for cooperation are – confusion likely deliberately spread by the NDP.

I was canvassing in Scarborough the other day. It’s a riding that was Liberal for many years, until 2011 when the NDP took enough Liberal vote for the Conservatives to win with little growth in vote. And they’re trying hard for a repeat. I knocked on the door of a woman who told me she had voted Liberal all her life and really likes Justin Trudeau, but she’s thinking of voting NDP for the first time. Why? Well, she wants to get rid of Stephen Harper, and the NDP was at her door recently and told her that Trudeau doesn’t want a coalition to defeat Harper – he’d rather see Harper stay.

It’s an example of the NDP strategy across the country – try to solidify the anti-Harper vote (even in ridings where it would likely just help elect Conservatives) behind them by painting the Liberals as unwilling to cooperate to defeat Harper, or worse, to even prop him up instead of supporting the NDP. It’s a pretty disingenuous, not to mention dishonest, approach to take, but it may prove effective.

Like any good strategy, there’s at least a modicum of truth: yes, Trudeau has said no to a coalition. Consistently so, in fact. Unlike the NDP; Tom Mulcair’s position has flip-flopped too many times to count, usually tied to their position on the polls.

“N.O. The no is categorical, absolute, irrefutable and non-negotiable. It’s no. End of story. Full stop.”
Now that the polls show he could form a minority government that would need support from someone, his tune has changed. If you notice though, the word the NDP keeps using, and what Trudeau actually said no to, is coalition. And that’s the operative word.

What is a coalition? A governing coalition is a joint governing agreement where the two parties sit on the government side, and share cabinet ministers and a legislative agenda. Think the Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats in the last UK parliament. We’ve never had a governing coalition in Canada before, and the word never really came up before 2011 when the Liberals and the NDP briefly tried to form one.

We may not have had coalition governments, but we’ve had minority governments. Many of them long lasting and extremely productive. Lester Pearson’s Liberal minorities brought us many of the progressive social policies Canadians cherish today. All without a coalition. David Peterson’s Ontario Liberal minority provides a great example. The NDP agreed to support a Liberal government for two years, in exchange for action on several specific NDP legislative priorities. The NDP didn’t sit with the government, and was free to vote as it wished on bills that weren’t matters of confidence.

Cooperation. That’s the word you don’t hear the NDP using today. Because Trudeau hasn’t said no to cooperation. That door is very much open, and so it should be. Should the NDP be in the position to form a minority government (which is frankly rather presumptuous at the moment) I could certainly see the Liberals agreeing to support a budget and throne speech in exchange for the inclusion and support of a number of key Liberal policy priorities. It would need to be negotiated, but the door is very much open.

And that is what the woman whose door I knocked on in Scarborough wanted: the door open to cooperation to defeat the Harper Conservatives. The NDP tried to confuse her with talk of coalitions; she was relieved to learn cooperation was definitely not off the table and she could still vote her conscience, instead of being bullied into a strategic vote that, in her riding, would not be very strategic at all.

A poll today, from a notoriously unreliable pollster, says most Canadians favour a Liberal/NDP coalition. I don’t doubt the respondents said that, but I do doubt the difference was explained to them between coalition and cooperation. I believe a majority of Canadians want to see progressives cooperate to defeat Harper; I don’t think they care which of the “c” words gets us there.

Why no to a coalition?

Why do Liberals oppose a coalition? Well, I can only speak for myself, but I believe being the junior partner in a governing coalition with the NDP would be the death of the Liberal Party. The right flank of the party would flee in revulsion, into the hands of the Conservatives. And the other half of the party would come to the conclusion that they may as well just join the NDP since we’re in bed with them anyways. And frankly, while both the NDP and the Conservatives want to see the Liberals disappear and are working towards that end, the Conservatives certainly believe the math of a two-party state (putting aside the Greens and BQ for a moment) favours them. And I tend to agree.


Thankfully though, despite the misinformation the NDP is trying to spread, coalition is not the only option. Liberals are open to cooperating with them, even if they seem very determined to make it hard to do so.

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Monday, July 27, 2015

Haters were going to call Eglinton-Lawrence a loss for Trudeau no matter what

When the narrative is against you, events don't matter -- they'll be twisted to suit the desired message no matter what. Such is the case these days with Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party, and Sunday's nomination in Eglinton-Lawrence offers a compelling case study.

As you probably know, some months back former Conservative MP Eve Adams crossed the floor to join the Liberal caucus. Told she had to seek an open nomination, she opted to run in a riding where she had no roots -- Eglinton-Lawrence -- as there was already a Liberal candidate nominated at the time in her home riding. A local Liberal, Marco Mendicino, was already seeking the nomination in Eglinton-Lawrence. After a long delay and a heated race, Mendicino won on Sunday -- by some reports handily.

As we waited for the results, I tweeted this:

And as you can guess, with Mendicino's win they went for option 2. It was entirely predictable. Heads the pundits win, tails Justin loses. Tim Harper's column is representative of the spin across social media and pundit land this morning. Haters gonna hate, and they were going to hate either way.

Just for fun, let's try to look at this logically. Fact is if Trudeau really wanted Adams as the candidate, she'd be the candidate. He'd either have appointed her or fixed the race to ensure she won. Mendicino would have had swathes of memberships mysteriously disallowed or disappeared. People would have been strongly encouraged to not support his campaign. There were plenty of levers they could have pulled. They pulled none of them. Besides leaving the nomination call to second-last in the GTA (Thornhill remains) no process or other levers were used to support the supposedly favoured candidate. And Mendicino had the support of past (interim) leader Bob Rae and a lot of active establishment Liberals who, if Adams was really the hard Trudeau choice, wouldn't have gone near his campaign.

The argument for option 2 also relies on Adams being "Trudeau's choice." Let's examine that logically too, shall we? The only way Trudeau could have headed off this damned either way scenario is if he hadn't have let Adams cross the floor to the Liberal caucus. She was hardly a big get and her Liberal bonafides were questionable at best, but the opportunity to pick up an MP at Harper's expense is hard to pass up. And if he'd blocked her he'd have taken flack for that too; don't kid yourself.

So now that we accept she's coming onboard, of course he has to have a press conference with her -- only Prime Minister Harper is allowed to never talk to the press without consequence. And of course he is going to say positive things about her -- what, is he going to say I don't like her but welcome to our caucus? But he took pains to make clear that she would have to face an open nomination and he would pick no favourites. So all the "Trudeau's choice" arguments are predicated on the fact he had a press conference to welcome a new MP to the caucus. It just doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Of course, logic doesn't help you when the gods of the narrative aren't on your side. So be it. To quote a great philosopher, haters gonna hate. Liberals just need to shake it off. The pundits will move on to the next tortured story soon. And no narrative is forever -- a year ago they'd decided the man walked on water.

Meanwhile, in Mendicino Liberals have a candidate with deep local roots and the Liberal grassroots behind him that is best positioned to take on and defeat Joe Oliver. And none of the rest matters.

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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Firefighters run towards fires; politicians should stay out of the way

Stephen Harper's forest fire firefighter photo-op gone wrong this week reminded me of the time a campaign I was involved in was faced with a similar fire-related choice.

In the summer election of 2004, I was helping with communications in Skeena-Bulkley Valley on the campaign of our Liberal candidate, Miles Richardson. It was a fun campaign in one of the largest ridings in Canada -- we'd send Miles on the road from our Prince Rupert base and not see him for a week. We were confident we'd dispatch Conservative incumbent Andy Burton, but we didn't expect the NDP's Nathan Cullen to sneak up the middle. I remember Nathan as an friendly, cherry guy who went around saying "I agree with everything Miles just said -- but I'm not a Liberal, so vote for me."

We had a late-campaign rally scheduled for Terrace with Prime Minister Paul Martin, and had been working for a week on the logistics of bussing in supporters from Prince Rupert, Smithers, and communities across the massive riding.

But then Mother Nature threw a wrench in our best-laid plans, and forest fires began to rage in Northern British Columbia. And the Terrace Airport, where Martin, his entourage and the national media were scheduled to fly into, was ground zero for the effort to fight the forest fires.

With the fires still raging the morning of the scheduled rally, the decision of our campaign and the leader's tour team was clear -- we cannot run the risk that Martin flying into Terrace Airport could divert or distract any resources away from the firefighting effort. That had to be the priority.

So on less than half a day's notice, we shifted the rally from Terrace to Prince Rupert, a two-hour drive away. And to complicate matters further, the rally would have to be at the airport -- and Prince Rupert's airport is on an island, accessible from Prince Rupert only by a small ferry that doesn't run as often as you'd like. Still, after a lot of frantic effort we pulled off a successful rally. And, most importantly, the efforts to fight the forest fires were able to continue without interruption.



Then there's Harper, who this week flew right into the flames and diverted resources from the firefighting effort for a hollow photo-op with BC Premier Christy Clark, who also should have known better. A local reporter with guts captured the mood of the locals well:
For a second straight day, firefighting efforts at the Westside Road fire were the backdrop for political photo ops.
Today, several federal politicians stood around waiting, occasionally wiping dirt from their clothing while sweaty, ash-covered, exhausted-looking firefighters surrounded them for the tightly controlled photo opportunity. Helicopters carrying empty buckets buzzed overhead and a steady stream of wildfire fighting aircraft circled prior to the event.
The publication explained to the Huffington Post why it went with the headline "Man in blue suit thanks firefighters" and took the tone it did:
(Harper) chose to make a campaign statement about possibly sharing firefighting costs, but no date, no commitment to put him on the record. We thought the focus should be on the firefighters...We thought it was entirely appropriate for what happened and we are a little surprised other media didn't treat it similarly.
So am I, frankly. Still, the media coverage is besides the point, because the rule should be clear: only firefighters should run towards the fire; politicians should just stay out of the way.

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