Wednesday, September 30, 2009

And it's only Wednesday...

This has not been a good week for the Liberals. I am not even sure calling it a bad week does it justice. And it's only Wednesday.

A glance at various headlines this morning did not tell the story of a unified party on top of its game:

  • "Fate gifts Harper another 'Dion' as Ignatieff's blunders pile up"
  • "Ignatieff latest federal leader to lose his way in Quebec"
  • "War of egos in Quebec blows up in Ignatieff's face"
Meanwhile, over at Kady O'Malley's "Inside the Queensway" blog we are being treated to the "Imminent Liberal Meltdown Watch" (

No, these are not the headlines the Liberal brass envisioned for the fall session.

In fact, things are perceived to be so bad for the Official Opposition that we are seeing growing speculation about poison pills and the possibility the government would engineer its own defeat to get a chance to got to the polls and capitalize on their opponents missteps.

What's upsetting in all of this is the fact that the missteps and public squabbling are capturing the headlines when there is so much of importance to discuss, including:

  • Buy America;
  • The fragility of the economic recovery;
  • Rising unemployment; and
  • The fact that a post-recession Canadian economy may look quite different from the one we were used to.

These are all areas which should be considered and debated by our politicians. They are the sort of issues with which Canadians should see their leaders wrestling.

Like it or not, the world is a different place than it was this time last year. What is Canada going to do about it?

Monday, September 28, 2009

"Denis la Menace"

The question I am asking myself tonight is relatively straightforward. When Mr. Ignatieff stood up at his caucus retreat and said "no more" to the government, did he really expect things to unfold as they have?

Clearly the answer is no.

A few weeks ago I had suggested that however awkward the current situation was, the Liberals had nevertheless managed to break free from supporting the government. Long-term, that was an important win. At the same time, election fear had pushed the NDP to support the government allowing the Liberals oppose without consequence.

All good, right? Cue Denis Coderre.

I am not going to go through all of the background on this one but suffice to say Mr. Coderre has taken (in the grand scheme of things) a small story and made it into a big one. What was a Quebec riding issue is now being characterized as an indictment of Ignatieff's Toronto-based staff (Jane Taber has a nice piece on this in the on-line version of the G&M).

For Mr. Ignatieff, these are not happy days. The Liberals have some valid arguments to make against the "90% done" messages on the government's stimulus plan. They have tabled their confidence motion. Yet they now have to spend time and energy dealing with the Coderre fall-out and the impression it has left that things are not right at party HQ.

Tell me Mr. Harper isn't looking at Jack and saying "Why now, Jack? Why support me now?". Yes, things are looking rosy for the Conservatives.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Does Familiarity Breed Content or Contempt?

From those of us politics watchers stuck in the bubble that is Ottawa, the past few weeks have been great. Will we vote, won't we vote? Good coalition, bad coalition? Now, with break week about to end we ask ourselves "what's next?"

If the past few weeks are an indication, the answer is "who knows?" So I will instead ask a different question.

Stephen Harper was elected Prime Minister in 2006 and re-elected in 2008, both times with minority governments. Those elections were fought against Paul Martin (still struggling under the spectre of adscam) and Dion (still struggling under the spectre of, well, Dion). As a result, the Conservatives' support has grown from one election to the next and, according to many polls, is now approaching majority territory.

My question is why?

  • Is this growth in support a reflection of the leaders against which Harper has had to compete (and in particular Dion, as Martin was clearly hampered by the RCMP-income trust allegations in 2005-2006)?

  • Or is it a reflection of Canadians becoming more comfortable with Stephen Harper as PM?

While it is easy to point ones' finger at the former, there is a lot of truth in the latter. Wearing the badge of Reform, Harper (like his predecessors) was demonized. These attack ads were, to an extent, successful. There is enough polling data - particularly during elections - which suggests that Canadians are not 100% comfortable with the PM.

What I wonder about is whether current events have changed things. In the current environment of uncertainty, are Canadian voters getting increasingly comfortable with a PM who has cast himself as a "sure hand"? Does Harper's promise of stability resonate more with Canadians who are struggling, than Ignatieff's vision of a more international Canada?

Polling results suggest so. While the Conservatives party results are slightly stronger than their rivals, Harper's leadership results are far stronger than his rivals.

Breaking the perception of Harper as the better leader will be the Liberal's greatest challenge. Are they up for it?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mad Men (or the case of the disapearing PM)

This just in...apparently some 30 photos of the PM have disappeared from the government website explaining the progress of "Canada's Economic Action Plan". Theft? Computer hackers? Or concern that perhaps the line between government communications and political ads had been crossed...

It's an important question. Where does government advertising to inform Canadians end and partisan advertising begin? And of course, who is footing the bill? In this case it was you and I, as the ads/website in question were taxpayer funded.

The Canadian Press called the government on this one and, as the article attached notes, the site was quietly changed and stern denials issued that anything had occurred in the first place. He who controls the present, I guess...

For me, this is a dangerous space to be playing in. These initiatives are no different than the work being done by Service Canada and therefore should be branded "Government of Canada" versus "Harper Government". For some, that might sound like splitting hairs but there is an important distinction.

The "Government of Canada" does not have a slate of candidates and it does not seek election - it represents all Canadians without prejudice. It does not live and die through elections. Conversely, the "Harper Government" is a political animal whose survival depends on the continued support of Canadian voters and their elected representatives. Using taxpayers' money so flagrantly to build and maintain support is worrisome.

That's my two cents. Now, what would Don Draper say?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Jack's Story and Iggy's Plan - A Typical Ottawa Monday

It's break week so there shouldn't be much to discuss, right? Wrong.

The day started with Jack Layton telling us "Why I'm Voting with Stephen Harper" ( I am quite certain that this was near the top of his "things you will never hear me say" list. Ouch.

If I am reading this right, his answer boils down to the following: something is better than nothing. That's fair. The government has offered something which, although a long way from what the NDP has sought, does represent a positive move from the NDP's perspective.

Honestly though, this is something the government was likely going to do anyway. What they didn't want was to be seen to be doing it as a result of a Liberal-driven panel.

I see it as a no-lose move for the government. Table the proposal, have it accepted and you look like you are committed to making things work. Table it, lose and you go to the polls in a far stronger position than any of your opponents. What will be interesting to see is whether Jack's support costs him some of his core.

Later in the day we had Mr. Ignatieff delivering his second policy speech in a week - this time focused on the economy. You will recall last week when I noted how Ignatieff needed to get more of his policies out in the open so that he could move away from being a puzzle. So how did he do?

The speech ( is similar to last week's piece on foreign policy - here's where the government has been poor, here's where we a Liberal government will focus.

There are some specifics, most notably the commitment to make fully independent the Parliamentary Budget Officer and to open the country's books up. The latter pledge is interesting in that it can be seen as an attempt to build some wiggle room into the platform.

See, any delays or discarded Liberal plans will be because the situation was revealed to be far worse than was reported by the government - shame on you government (cue righteous indignation). A tried and true approach.

In terms of a plan for reducing the deficit, we again see the focus on controlling government spending (in what areas? how?). However, this is complemented by a recognition that Canada will need strong economic growth to climb out of the hole.

Here Ignatieff tries to lay out, albeit at a high-level, how a Liberal government would stimulate economic growth. R&D investments, trade missions and a focus on both a knowledge-based and a green economy will feature prominently in the months ahead.

Importantly, we are starting to see hints at how the two main parties will contrast themselves against one another. Cut spending and taxes on one side; maintain tax levels and make targeted investments on the other. For me, this is the fun stuff as it gets at that important "role of government" question.

Hopefully we see more of this in the weeks to come...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

What a week; time for a break...

They say a lot can change in a week, and that was certainly the case last week.

  • The week started with all opposition parties lining up to defeat the government, and a government warning voters about the evils of "the coalition".

  • The week ended with 2 of the 3 opposition parties supporting the government (although the Bloc has since indicated that will no longer support the government), and the Liberals pointing out that the government was now in a coalition.
So is it a Conservative-Socialist coalition? Not really. There are fundamental differences between what was envisioned by the opposition last fall and captured in a formal, written agreement, and what we have today which is essentially an agreement on a specific issue. This is how minority governments are supposed to work - we're just not used to seeing it.

Granted, it is odd to see the NDP lining up with the government. I would add that their argument that they will seek greater enhancements to EI through private member's bills is a touch laughable. Their supporters can't be pleased.

Previous posts have picked at the who won and who lost questions, but in reality only time will tell whether these events will have a significant impact on how Canadians vote next time around. Whether that is this year or next remains to be seen, although the betting money is on next Spring.

In the meantime, it's break week. Yes, after all that maneuvering Parliamentarians are in need of a break (note to my boss, I would like a similar such arrangement). MPs are back in their ridings where I am sure they will get an earful on recent events. If you see an MP, tell them what you think and let me know how it goes...

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Fool(s) on the Hill

As you may have heard, last week remastered versions of the Beatles recordings were released. In honour of that release, I offer you the opening lines from "The Fool on the Hill":

Day after day,
Alone on a hill.
The man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still.
But nobody wants to know him,
They can see that he's just a fool.
And he never gives an answer,

But the fool on the hill
Sees the sun going down.
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning 'round.

Question: Prescient writers that they were, to which of the party leaders on our Hill were Lennon-McCartney referring?

It's been a long day. More to come tomorrow...

To blog or not to blog, that is the question

As you know, I started this blog to provide commentary around what appeared to be an imminent federal election. However, in the same way that bringing an umbrella to work is a sure fire way to ensure it doesn't rain, starting this blog appears to have the effect of dampening/killing the prospects of an election.

So what's a blogger to do?

  • Option 1 - stop blogging, and get back to life. Apparently things happen outside the bubble of Ottawa.

  • Option 2 - slip into denial and continue to blog as if the election was tomorrow.

  • Option 3 - continue to blog with a focus on politics and if an election comes jump all over it like a fat kid on a smartie.

Now I could start a poll on the site, but one reads it, I would more or less be relying on my own vote to make the decision. So if it's my choice, I will go with option 3. There's far too many interesting things going on here to give up now.

I'll be back later this evening with a wrap on where things stand up there with folks on the Hill.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Well, it was fun while it lasted...

So is that it then? Has election buzz given way to election fizzle? It certainly seems like it right now.

Over the past 24 hours we have seen the Bloc indicate they will support the ways and means bill before the House, and the NDP say they will support the government's EI changes through to enactment. These moves - particularly the NDP's - ensure that the government will live through the fall. As the Globe is noting this evening, it's "Harper's Reluctant Coalition".

When the dust settles on September, it will be interesting to see who is pleased and is who unhappy following the latest turn of events. A few questions to consider:
  • Will Ignatieff be that unhappy about not getting a chance to bring down the government this fall? Jack and Gilles may be supporting Harper, but they have helped the Liberals out of what could have been an awful mess of an election.

  • Will Harper really be happy to have avoided an election? As many have noted in recent days, he might well have welcomed an opportunity to be forced to go to the polls by the Liberals-Separatists-Socialists. If you close your eyes you can just see the ads and hear the talk radio chatter in that campaign scenario.

  • How happy are the NDP to be helping to prop up a government they have spent something like eternity vilifying? And what did they get for their support?

Readers (ok, I am not sure there are any but a blogger can dream...) will recall the following from my last post:

"At some point, the Liberals needed to break themselves free from supporting the government. While it may have been a necessary evil, it was damaging credibility, sapping party morale, and for many made them look weak.Mr. Ignatieff needed to make a break with the past and begin to set his own tone."

They swallowed hard, took a chance and have now broken free without paying a real cost. Polls may be worrisome right now, but in-between elections they mean less.

As Taber and Ibbitson commented this evening, they can stop looking like they are capitulating and start acting like a government-in-waiting. Time will tell if they can run with the reprieve they have been given.

Monday, September 14, 2009

When we look back on these days, will any of it matter?

One question we may want to start asking ourselves is what long-term damage a Conservative-NDP deal would do to the Liberals. Will they look like they weren't prepared to make Parliament work? That they sought an election without being clear as to why now?

Short-term, yes. The polling information is already starting to reveal this sort of view. Longer-term, I am not as sure. At some point, the Liberals needed to break themselves free from supporting the government. While it may have been a necessary evil, it was damaging credibility, sapping party morale, and for many made them look weak.

Mr. Ignatieff needed to make a break with the past and begin to set his own tone. In some respects he has done so. It is useful to remember exactly where the Liberals were 11 months ago. Funding was poor, organization was scattered and the party was getting no traction with the green shift. Today, regardless of the current perception, they are in far better shape.

If an election is delayed until next year, their actions over the past few weeks will mean little in a future campaign.

That's my two cents. Thoughts?

Canada, Canada, where art thou Canada? The Liberal Critique

This afternoon, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff addressed the Canadian Club of Ottawa and used the occasion to deliver a critique of the Tory government's approach to foreign policy.

Entitled "Canada's Place in a Changing World" (go to for the complete text), the speech was seen as an opportunity for Mr. Ignatieff to address one of the persistent criticisms leveled at him - a failure to articulate his vision for the country.

As speeches and critiques go, this was a well-crafted and well-delivered piece of work. Mr. Ignatieff's articulate assessment of how Canada's role in the world has been diminished over the past few years will resonate with many involved in foreign policy, aid, development and conflict resolution. Moreover, the more red Torys who have never been comfortable with Mr. Harper will have appreciated his nod to the Mulroney government's strong stance on apartheid.

His position is that Canada has a long history - through both Liberal and Conservative governments - of looking to lead in the world on a range of issues. For him, the traditional middle power and honest broker role that earned successive governments respect has waned under Mr. Harper's watch. Numerous examples are cited throughout the first part of the speech.

The second part of the speech begins to lay out his vision of a Liberal government's approach to foreign policy (expect the text from the speech to feature prominently in their platform). Fewer specifics here - "we will reach out" and the like - but a number of markers around what diplomacy would mean for the Liberals and the areas in which they will focus.

As I said, it was well-crafted and struck a nice balance by making an effort to remind Canadians of our successes , while at the same time attacking the government for its perceived failures. The question is does this matter to the ordinary voter?

As we are so often reminded, "all politics is local" with elections won and lost on domestic issues. Nixon may have likened domestic policy to be akin to worrying about "outhouses in Peoria", but local is what voters traditionally relate to. Will the question of who is invited to attend the G-8 be a ballot-box question? Likely not.

However, should similar pieces follow on issues that do resonate with the wider public including the economy, health care, the environment, and social policy then today's speech will simply be another piece in the Ignatieff puzzle.

See for me, right now he's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle but we don't have the picture on the box to know what the image - in this case a Liberal government - will look like. In the absence of the picture, we struggle to see how the few pieces that are thrown our way will fit together.

Mr. Ignatieff is doing the right thing by reminding us that we have a role to play in the international community. We now need to see similar focus, critique and alternatives presented on other issues. Only then will we have enough of a picture to make a clear choice.

But there has to be an election - I started a blog!

As posted earlier, the government has tabled their proposed changes to the EI program which may be enough to convince the NDP to support the government and prevent an election this fall.

There is good reason to believe the NDP will support:
  • Their poll numbers are poor (down from the last election);
  • They are not ready to go to the polls financially or in terms of a slate of candidates; and
  • Jack likes to make a deal.
Should an election fall by the wayside expect to see Jack on the air, in the householder, streetcorners...basically anywhere there is a chance of a camera or of being seen (he's like City TV for pete's sake, he's everywhere!). And expect him to be telling you how he's listened to Canadians and done what he can to make Parliament work.

Probably the bigger question right now is will he accept this olive branch as is or hold out for more. I suspect the former, as Jack knows the PM will be reluctant to do more and this will be as good as it gets.

For the Liberals, the question would then be whether all of this has done them lasting damage. More on that shortly - I have another post to go tonight.

This leaves one last question for this post and it's for the PM. Be honest Mr. Harper, is this gesture really about the unemployed or is it an opportunistic ploy to take a rookie blog out of the game. We demand the truth!

Conservative-Socialist Coalition Anyone?

The government tabled proposals today which would extend EI benefits - something long sought by the Opposition. The NDP are cautiously making nice, batting their eyelids at the PM and saying all the right things. Has the government done enough? Stay tuned...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dear Canada, you're not as rich as you think

Earlier today the Minister of Finance, Jim Flaherty, let us know that (a) we will be in deficit longer than expected and (b) that our deficits are going to be much higher than expected. Not to worry, as there is a plan (not shared) to get us out. That plan will apparently not involve cuts to individual transfers (OAP, for example) or higher taxes.

So what will it involve? That old favourite, cuts to government spending. Now government spending as been increasing for some time and there are big ticket bills yet to come (e.g. a new health care accord with the provinces). So what is left that hasn't been looked at through several years of various spending reviews? And what savings are truly out there without introducing cuts to services?

This is the sort of topic that I hope the other parties will pursue. In the same way they will be challenged (accused?) on tax increases, they should be challenging the government on where it wants to cut spending.

The size of the deficit presents an opportunity for parties to present their views on how to address it. As voters, we should take the time to consider these different plans as, like it or not, deficits will be with us for some time. This should be part of our public discourse over the foreseeable future. We'll see.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The grass is always greener...

Well, tonight a major political leader came out and addressed friend, foe and the undecided about a major public policy issue. There was vision and substance (though not as much of the latter as many would like), and an effort to frame the debate and build support. Alas, this did not happen in Canada. It was Obama. Again.

As this blog is about Canadian politics and our upcoming election, I raise the Obama speech as an example of the type of discourse which is lacking in Canada. Increasingly it seems we are resorting to fear mongering ("vote Liberal and the crime bill will die, and your tax credit is gone!") or vagueness ("We can do better"), missing an opportunity to meaningfully engage Canadians on issues like innovation or democratic reform.

The debate in the U.S. is far from perfect and contains its own healthy doses of fear mongering and a lack of mutual respect. But it is a debate around issues, around the role of government and what citizens should and should not expect from the state.

As we head into our (annual) campaign season, here's hoping we can see a similar effort to frame issues and engage the public on the issues which mean the most to them.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Liberal Ads: Could they have done better?

This past weekend the Liberals released a series of pre-election ads (go to to have a look). The launch was accompanied by a message from National Director Rocco Rossi which described the ads as follows:

"This week, the Liberal Party will begin airing a series of powerful new television ads that highlight Michael Ignatieff’s vision for Canada. The message: we can do better."

I am still trying to make my mind up on these ads. As the Globe reported yesterday, the approach and tone differs between English and French. I have no issue with that - tailored marketing is normal practice.

I guess what I am struggling with is whether the ads - particularly the more general English ones - are going to help me or anyone else frame the all-important ballot-box question.
  • Have they told me why I am about to vote...again? No.
  • Are the ads "powerful", as Mr. Rossi wrote? Uhm, not so much.
  • Does any of that matter today, in a pre-writ period. Probably not.

There will be time for each party to frame and tell their story, define their value proposition, and make their case to Canadians - but not too much time. And I guess that's what troubles me about the ads.

The Liberals had time - time to give their leader visibility, tell his story and articulate his vision. I am not sure it was used well enough to allow these ads to be what they should be, which is a decisive jump out of the blocks. Time will tell.

Oh, and don't get me started on the tag line "We can do better"...


From poll to poll

The first of many polls we'll highlight here came out this morning. Conducted by The Strategic Counsel for CTV and the Globe and Mail, the poll puts the Conservatives up by 5 points over the Liberals (35-30). The NDP are at 14, the Greens at 9. In Quebec, the Bloc is up to 49 - it's highest score since the 2004 election. Here's the article:

Of course the poll does not take into account the ads recently released by the Liberals (more on those later this week).

Polls are funny things - part snapshot, part trend analysis. As more come out, including the daily tracking ones conducted by Nick Nanos and co., we'll discuss what to look for in a poll.


Monday, September 7, 2009

The first (past the) post...

Well, here we are on the verge of another federal election. Has it only been 11 months since the last one? I guess time flies when you', wait, that's not right. Who's been having fun since the last vote? C'mon, raise your hands.

What has happened since October 2008? Perhaps a short recap is in order:
  • Another minority government - not fun.
  • Major global economic crisis - not fun.
  • Laughable/mean-spirited economic and fiscal update - not fun.
  • Prospects of the coalition - funny, maybe. But not fun.
  • Governor General allows kids to take a time-out. Again, funny but also not fun.
  • Dion, gone; Iggy in. Fun for one, not so much for the other.
  • Having to introduce a budget that goes against every fibre of your political being - not fun.

You get the picture. And now, after a summer of absolutely nothing except bad weather we're told an election is on the way. Kids go back to school, grown-ups go back to vote. But what exactly are we voting on? Surely to God if we are going to spend $300 million on this we should have some sense as to what it's about.

Well, over the next 2 months, that's exactly what I want to explore on this blog. Who's who in the zoo? What are the leaders saying (and not saying)? How do the platforms measure up (Dear Conservatives, no glossy concert-style programmes this time, please. Let's get some discussion of the issues). Who won the debates? Who's wearing the blue sweater?

Importantly, all without spin. My comments will aim to be critical, but impartial. There will be no partisan ranting from me. That's where you come in...

Tell me (and the 2.4 other people likely to read this) what you think about a post, an issue, a leader, an ad, anything at all about this campaign. My blog, your forum. Deal? Your comments are welcome and encouraged. Fire away!

That's it for the first post. The House returns on September 14th, so we have a week of posturing and punditry ahead of us. Yippee!


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