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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Friday, July 24, 2015

Ignore the shiny Senate distraction: It really is the economy, and Harper things you're stupid

The National Post's John Ivison makes a good living floating trial balloons and framing announcements on behalf of The Harper Government, so his offering Thursday night certainly got the attention of official Ottawa:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall are expected to appear together Friday to call for the abolition of the Senate, according to a source familiar with their plans.
Now, if you believe that Harper woke up and decided to get serious about the Senate after a decade of doing nothing to reform or get rid of it -- besides appointing a rogue's gallery of hacks, bagman and characters now answering to the justice system or under active investigation -- then I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. And if you think, after a decade of avoiding the provincial premiers like he owes then child support, that he's going to jump into months/years of intensive federal/provincial negotiations, then I'll throw in the Empire State building.

No, Harper did not suddenly find religion on the Senate after a decade in power. What he found was these headlines as he gears up to run for reelection:

So what is a Prime Minister who has tied his re-election to his competent economic management do when his jury-rigged balanced budget turns into his ninth straight budget deficit? Well, after blaming Justin Trudeau, Tom Mulcair and Greece didn't work, distracting the media and the public with cheap populism on Senate reform.

Let's be clear: according to the Supreme Court, abolishing the Senate would require a constitutional amendment and the unanimous support of the provinces. Putting aside the fact that abolition is a bad idea, the last thing the Canada needs is for federal and provincial governments to spend the next two years focusing on the constitution instead of the economy. Canadians don't want Meech Lake Redux; last time, Meech birthed the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois and got the ball rolling on another referendum in Quebec.

Canadians want economic opportunity, job prospects, and the chance to build a better life for their children, not a constitutional sideshow.

Once Harper and Wall throw a shiny red ball in front of Canadians Friday, both the NDP and the Conservatives will be on record offering Canadians years of distracting constitutional drama. And unless it involves all the first ministers living in the same house and a bachelorette giving them roses and kicking one out every week, Canadians don't have an appetite for that.

The truth is, the Harper Conservatives have no answers for Canadians on the economy, and their credibility for economic is in tatters.

Don't let Harper change the channel. Now, more than ever, it's the economy, stupid. And the Liberals have the opportunity to be the only major party offering Canadians what Harper once said he was all about: a laser focus on the economy. It's not about constitutional reform; it's about middle-class families.

Please don't wade into the constitutional muck, Liberals. Keep your eyes on the prize: it's the economy. It always has been.

UPDATE: The Conservatives apparently changed their minds sometime between Ivison's story and the scheduled announcement. Instead, Harper promised to appoint no (more) Senators. He promised the same in 2006, and then went on to appoint 56.

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Monday, February 09, 2015

Today, it’s all about Eve (Adams)

Today it was all about Eve in Canadian politics (one should really Google that plot before referencing it though), even after a mini-cabinet shuffle that made Pierre Poilievre a senior minister of the crown. Pierre gives hope to mindless partisans everywhere that excess of loyalty can trump dearth of qualification and intelligence.

No, it was Mississauga MP Eve Adams crossing the floor to the Liberal Party, and announcing her intent to seek a Liberal nomination in the Greater Toronto area, that overshadowed even the news of Jason Kenney as Minister of Making ISIS an Election Issue.

I still remember where I was when I heard Belinda Stronach was joining the Paul Martin government. It was Election Day in B.C., and I was working for Elections BC as a deputy returning officer. A local news reporter, who knew me as a Federal Liberal, came in to vote and asked me if I’d heard the big news. I called for relief, exited the voting hall and he told me what had happened. After he convinced me he wasn’t making it up, my reply, basically, was shut the front door.

Let me say this: Eve Adams is no Belinda Stronach. I found her conduct concerning as a Conservative MP, from the nomination drama to campaign expenses; my views haven’t changed simply because she’s now sitting as a Liberal. How much of her decision is principle, and how much is convenience? I have no earthly idea. Yes, she wanted to run as a Conservative right up until she couldn’t. That doesn’t mean her decision was purely opportunistic; leaving your party can be like breaking up with a spouse. You can put up with a lot of crap trying to make it work; finally, there’s a straw that breaks the camel’s back and enough is enough. Which isn’t to say there isn’t some opportunism here – she still wants to be an MP, and the Conservatives won’t have her.

We’re a big-tent party. I often disagree with fellow Liberals; that’s healthy. A number of NDPers have joined our caucus; we need to win votes from the Conservatives too if we’re to compete for government this fall. If Adams believes in Liberal values, including same sex marriage and a woman’s right to choose, then fine. Let her seek a Liberal nomination. And let it be a completely open nomination, with no special treatment from the leader’s office. If she can convince Liberals she shares our values and win a nomination, so be it. And if not, she had her chance in an open contest.

All parties will try to spin her decision. I think in reality it’s mixed for both sides. For the Liberals, one less CPC MP is a good thing for the Liberals and a bad thing for the Conservatives, and so is the narrative of progressive Conservatives leaving the Harper Party. On the flip side, Adams carries a great deal of baggage and this crossing looks more opportunistic than most. For the Conservatives, yes, they’re rid of a live wire that had become a distraction; their decision to bar her from running was soon to be public and messy – now it helps. On the other hand, she was still a parliamentary secretary, so how badly could they have thought of her and how seriously can we take their comments now? One less MP is one less MP. And for the NDP, once again someone is joining a party that’s not them and they’re left outside the news cycle looking in. Again. On the other hand, they may be glad to sit this one out.

On floor crossing in general, I’m not automatically opposed. I explained my feelings at length in this piece (Jeff Jedras: In defence of floor-crossing MPs), so I won’t repeat then at length here except to say each circumstance should be judged on its merits, and at the end of the day the electorate should hold the final judgement.

The questions today quickly turned to Adams’ partner Dimitri Soudas, a former national director of the Conservative Party and Stephen Harper loyalist. Two things here.

One, while rumours abounded, it appears that Soudas will not be joining the Liberal war room – his activities will be limited to serving as Adams’ sign chair. Of course, as any political veteran knows, that’s the best job to have – except in Sudbury in a winter byelection. He shouldn’t seek a senior position on the central Liberal campaign team, and he shouldn’t be offered one. While he may be full of Conservative secrets – and he may fight back if challenged – loyalty should still mean something, in spite of all that has happened here. While he supports his partner, spilling secrets is another matter. I can respect a person’s decision to change teams, but not to sell out the team they were loyal to just days ago. And it would be hard to trust such a person.

Two, I reject the suggestion that the questions about Soudas at the Adams presser this morning were sexist. He’s not just her partner. He’s a Harper confidante and former national director of the party privy to their electoral strategy. He lost his job trying to get her a nomination. Their relationship is very public, and that was their decision. His view on her decision was absolutely relevant, and the media would have been derelict in their duty to not have raised the issue. Lord knows we were all wondering the answer.

It was her right not to answer, but the question was fair and had nothing to do with gender. Such charges of bias should be reserved for actual honest to goodness examples of sexism, not wielded as a convenient political shield.

And now, let’s get back to talking about Conservative failure on the economy. 

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