Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Brace yourself, 2012 is coming...

In a couple of days time, 2011 will be done and dusted. A year that saw multiple elections will have passed and the #cdnpoli world (thank-you twitter!) will turn its attention towards 2012.

The coming year offers much for politics watchers across Canada. There is the NDP leadership race, the Liberal reinvention project, the advent of a new political party in Quebec, and more provincial elections (definitely in Alberta, possibly in Quebec).

For this politics watcher, however, the things to watch in 2012 will be on the policy front.

By the time MPs return, the Conservative majority will have seen or be very close to seeing its "bread and butter" pieces of legislation come into law. The gun registry will be scrapped, the crime bill passed, and the wheat board could well be on its was to being dismantled (depending on court challenges).

With these base issues addressed, the government will more meaningfully turn its attention towards the deficit; a focus which will tell us much about how the Prime Minister sees the role of government. Already we have seen glimpses of how Mr. Harper sees the future for this federation.

First, on the health care file (Paul Wells penned a nice piece on this recently), the offer tabled with the provinces to replace the soon-to-expire health accord shows a Prime Minister who sees little role for the federal government in health care (an area of provincial jurisdiction).

His position is that the provinces should be given reasonable and predictable means to deal with what is their responsibility. National standards or federal expectations as to how the money should be spent do not fit within his vision.

Second, in the area of tax policy the Prime Minister's focus on tax reduction (GST, personal, corporate) appears designed to limit the long-term ability of the federal government to act as an agent of change. The government that chooses to do so in the future must either cut spending in other areas, or raise taxes. It is akin to being painted into a fiscal corner.

So what does this tell us about 2012? In a March 2010 post I wrote the following:

"Maybe, just maybe, the crisis presented the government with an opportunity. An opportunity to get back to its core values and roots. A real chance to enact a change in the role of government."

This is where we stand today.

A world in economic turmoil, a structural deficit at home, and a government with the Parliamentary means to effect the changes they want. Freed from the shackles of a minority Parliament, the Conservative majority is now in a position to implement its vision for Canada. And whenever questioned, the government can now point to developments taking place in Europe and the U.S. as the justification for its actions.

Cue Budget 2012.

The next federal budget will be tabled in the coming months. In the run-up to this budget we have had the public Finance Committee pre-budget consultations and the not-so-public spending review occurring across government, which is being vetted by a a Cabinet committee.

The fruit of these exercises, and in particular the latter, will help frame a budget that will take another step along the road towards redefining the relationship between the Government of Canada and us.

Shouldn't we be talking about it?


Many have said that 2011 was the year that Mr. Harper got what he wanted. A majority was secured and the Liberals were knocked down to a level from which many feel they will not be able to climb.

My sense is that these accomplishments are seen by Mr. Harper as means to an end. I don't think these are the reasons that he has gotten out of bed each morning. What these accomplishments do is position him to redefine the role of the federal government in the lives of Canadians.

This is topic which can allow for many positions and varying points of argument. It is a great topic in that it strikes at a core question for any country - what do we expect of the governments we elect?

Yet it is a conversation we are not having. At best we play at the margins, or debate specific issues and not the broader policy thrust and how the pieces fit together. We need to do better in 2012.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

One Step Forward, Three Steps Back

Parliament's winter break has begun and MPs have made their way back home. Unlike recent times, however, everyone has gone home knowing that regardless of whether they have been good or bad Santa will not be giving them a trip to the polls for the holidays.

Deprived of any election rumblings, politics watchers are left with the more traditional end-of-year retrospectives and report cards. And with the NDP and the Liberals going down the introspection road, any year-end review undoubtedly leads to the Conservatives and how their eight months with a "strong, stable majority" have played out.

From the view at A Guy Watching Politics, the assessment would read something like:

One Step Forward, Three Steps Back.

More than anything else, a majority is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to govern without the fear of an election, of course. But is also an opportunity to rise above short-term politics and tackle the challenge of governing. It is a chance to consider the challenges and opportunities the country faces and set a path forward. It is a time for leadership.

Unfortunately, the past eight months have given us only fleeting glances of a government seizing the real potential of these opportunities. Let's start with the positives.

Recognizing the regional land mines and, perhaps, learning from the F35 debacle, the government managed a very successful procurement programme for the navy. It was fair, hands-off and has won deserved plaudits. In these situations, some will always lament the decision. That the process has come out not just unscathed but commended is a sign of good policy.

The Supreme Court appointments offer another example of the government taking a measured approach to a sensitive topic. As is his prerogative, the Prime Minister chose from a list agreed upon by an all-party committee. There was no major shift to the right as many feared, and the process was more or less consistent with what we have come to expect in Canada.

So, some steps forward on the process side. The Libya mission is also a good example of the government being open and clear about its objectives and, essentially, being on the right side of the argument. The government has also stepped up its efforts on the international trade front.

This would all be well and good if it weren't for the steps backward...

The withdrawal from the Kyoto Accord and the general demeanour of the government on what is the defining (environmental) issue of the day is more than disappointing - it is a failure to take responsibility. Climate change is more than an environmental issue. It is a health issue, an economic issue, a transportation issue, and a foreign policy issue.

Yet Canada is now seen as a country that fails to take this issue seriously. We are seen as obstructionist and lacking vision. Our brand is weak and we are considered to be short-sighted (for failing to grasp the severity of the situation) and single-minded (for being so desperate to protect the oil sands).

In terms of policy here at home, we have been shown as similar lack of vision. A gun and crime agenda has been relentlessly pursued in the face of all evidence and experience which suggest it is misguided. Dollars which could be used to advance the lives of Canadians will instead be used on jails. The valuable data housed within the gun registry will be destroyed.

But beyond these areas, the real issue - the major step back - has been the inability of the government to hold in check its partisan impulses. Some examples:

- the Quebecor-driven and Conservative-lead attack on the CBC
- the increasing use of closure to kill debate
- the not-so-subtle criticism of the Parliamentary Budget Officer when his office questions the government
- the reprehensible tactics used in the riding of Mount Royal to promote the Conservative party

Too often it appears that we have a government which goes to great lengths to engender a dysfunctional tone in Parliament, for the sole purpose of using that tone as a justification to ignore Parliament and move forward without debate and accountability. And with a disjointed opposition there is nothing standing in the way.


Eight months in as a majority and the Conservatives have shown glimpses of good government. Unfortunately, they have also shown an inability (or unwillingness) to keep their more partisan instincts in place.

They remain less a government and more a party; fixated more on their opposition and their political base, and less on the issues of the day. This may be good for the Conservative Party, but Canada loses.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Doing the limbo under an already low bar

A lot has been said in recent days about the Conservative party's not-so-subtle campaign against Irwin Cotler in the riding of Mount Royal. To have the Government House Leader not only acknowledge the use of such tactics, but to go on and defend them has, as many have remarked, laid bare the depths to which our politics has fallen.

It is akin to setting the bar low, and then limboing under it. It takes a freakish skill and you can't care how you look. In this case, it is the Conservative government which has stepped up and responded to the challenge "how low can you go?"

To say that this is unfortunate is an understatement. We are seven months into a majority mandate, and for the first time since 2006 the "election around the corner" has been pushed to the back of our political minds. Or at least we hoped it had.

Rather than embark on the business of governing, stay above the fray, and do their job while the two main opposition parties turn inwards as they look for new leadership, the Conservative government has remained in their perpetual campaign mode. Sometimes it seems like they just can't help themselves.

Political stability should have brought a levelling off of the constant campaigning. It should have brought responsible government and meaningful opposition. And it should have brought debate, particularly on the more pressing issues of the day (hint - this does not mean prisons or the gun registry).

Unfortunately it has brought us very little of these things. What it has brought us is a vicious circle. Each week that we are subjected to events like those in the riding of Mount Royal sadly reinforces for many a sense that Parliament doesn't work and that there is no point to being engaged.

Rather than act as a lightning rod or a catalyst, these events simply accelerate the lack of engagement in our politics. People are tuning out, and there is no imminent election or stability among the opposition to grab their attention.

In this environment, Canada loses.


Political tactics and constant campaigning are undermining the already shaky foundations on which our belief in Parliament stands. We need to not only expect better; we must demand it.

Unfortunately letting someone know that this is not acceptable cannot be done by turning one's back. Improper actions should result in greater scrutiny, not less. If your concerns fall on deaf ears, talk louder.

There might not be an election around the corner, but some 308 people are in a 4-5 year job interview. And you are in charge of hiring. Don't let them forget.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

(Somewhat, kind of) Ethical Oil?

This morning I awoke to find a fair bit of chatter on Twitter among the #cdnpoli crew about "ethical oil." The catalyst for the discussion was this excellent article in the Edmonton Journal by Trish Audette.

Reading the article got me thinking more about whether proponents of the ethical oil argument were being too limited in their definition of the word ethical.

At its heart, the word ethical relates to morals and principles which are commonly held. In effect, it speaks to the notion of right and wrong.

The ethical oil camp has rightly suggested that democratic principles, the treatment of women and broader support for human rights are areas where "ethical distinctions" can be made between states. So far so good.

However, their definition of ethical seems to suggest that environmental issues are secondary to notions of conflict and human rights; that environmental "rights and wrongs" do not warrant equal consideration when we ask ourselves whether the oil sands are ethical.

This is the same type of limited thinking that is used when one is asked to make a choice between jobs and the environment. The argument often boils down to "well, dealing with climate change will kill jobs." It is a form of mutual exclusivity which has thus far impeded real action on what is a global challenge.

If defined more broadly, the concept of ethical oil can serve as a useful guide to influence decision-making - by governments, businesses, and consumers. What is needed is a definition which is not designed to reach a specific conclusion; something which the current one often seems intended to do.

For Canadians to participate in this debate, we should strive for a definition which takes a balanced look at what ethical means in the context of an increasingly integrated 21st century society. One which equally considers rights, security, democracy, health, environmental footprint and climate change.

Until we come up with that definition, we should use caution when we describe our oil sands production as ethical. "Somewhat, kind of, ethical oil" might make more sense.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The long, slow death of Parliament

The end of 2011 will bring to a close a year during which the theme of death seemed to come up in our political discourse with increasing frequency. Whether it has been real death (the tragic passing of Mr. Layton), apparent death (the fall of the federal Liberals), or policy death (party subsidies, the wheat board) the concept of demise has been prevalent.

As we look towards 2012, the question I find myself asking is whether Parliament's obituary will be the next one written.

A lot of ink has been spilled and characters typed over the past several years about the decline of Parliament. Many chart the beginning of the decline to the centralization of decision-making in the Prime Minister's Office under Mr. Trudeau - something which continued through successive governments.

However, since 2006 this decline has accelerated. Minority Harper governments resulted in greater centralization in order to ensure consistency in messaging. It became increasingly about control.

At the same time, prorogation was used as a tool of convenience; a means of cutting off Parliamentary debate in order to avoid accountability. It was used first to avoid a confidence vote and a year later to avoid debate on the disclosure of documents. Finally, weak opposition and fears about elections exacerbated the problem as parties opted to bicker rather than debate.

These developments on their own are worrying enough. Unfortunately, there is more.

The standard of debate in Parliament has also been declining, and again the pace of that decline has accelerated. To anyone watching, the spectacle that has become our democracy is off-putting to say the least.

Obfuscation has been taken to new levels, insults are used with more vigour and intent, and personal attacks are no longer surprising anyone. All the while, real debate on the very important issues of the day doesn't take place.

And here's the thing. I don't think the government minds this decline at all.

In recent years, the Harper government has mastered the art of talking over Parliament. An argument can be made that the government made frequent efforts to circumvent it, and then used the resulting dysfunction as part of their pitch for a majority. Well they have that majority now and things have only gotten more toxic.

Using the argument of an electoral mandate, the government is doing all it can to push through its legislative agenda. However, this argument ignores the fact that the majority of Canadians chose other parties - a reality the Conservatives would be quick to point out should the situation be reversed.

So the vicious cycle continues with the opposition getting more desperate, the government taking greater license, and the institution looking less and less relevant as more and more decisions are taken and implemented far from its glaze.


This year our politics has seen tragic death in Mr. Layton's passing, and apparent death in the Liberal's fall. Are we also witnessing Parliament's death?

Every day that a Parliament does not work is a day a government can avoid accountability. This is what we are seeing today. Canadians need to reflect on Parliament's decline and ask themselves whether this is in their interest.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Role Reversal

Once upon a time there was a majority government that was prone to episodes of arrogance, and which would frequently demonize its opponents. When necessary, hardline tactics were used to end debate. They could be ruthless when necessary, capitalizing on the missteps of their opponents to secure victory.

At the same time there was an opposition. A collection of MPs, many of which shared similar views even if they did not share the same party affiliation. They were spirited, divided and frustrated. They did not consistently give the appearance of being a government in waiting.

This was the scene a decade ago. The government was Liberal and the opposition was the divided right (along with the NDP and the Bloc).

Fast forward ten years and the roles have been reversed.

The Conservatives are united and have their majority. They are a government which regularly faces accusations of arrogance and fear-mongering.

The progressive vote is now very much divided, with the NDP as the official Opposition and the Liberals trying to define themselves. Looking at the front benches of either, one struggles to see the makings of a full Cabinet.

While there are obvious differences to between the two eras, there are nevertheless interesting parallels that can be drawn - particularly for the opposition. I am going to focus on two: the pressure to merge; and the opportunity to influence.

1. The pressure to merge

In the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, there was growing pressure for the parties of the right to merge. In the end, it took three things to make it happen. Mr Harper's leadership (with Mr. Mackay's acquiescence), the push from the conservative establishment, and the fear over what a (pre-sponsorship scandal) Martin government would do to the right in an election.

Looking at things today and we do not see the same pressure points, yet. Permanent leadership among the NDP and Liberals is needed for a real dialogue to occur. The absence of the election around the corner also means that the parties are not feeling that same level of fear Conservatives had when it was widely assumed Martin would take power and immediately seek his own mandate.

Finally, the progressive vote is only now starting to see what a Conservative majority looks like. Over the next 12-24 months - and two budgets - the answer to the question "what will a Harper majority look like" will be answered. Depending on that answer, the progressives may start to see greater impetus to merge.

2. The opportunity to influence

During the late 1990s, the conservative right gradually came to have some influence on policy. Deficit reduction and clarity act are the two big examples where their influence could be seen.

This is not to say that they drove these policies or exacted them out of the government. However, the fact that views they were expressing were shared by many Canadians helped move the Liberal government to act. Put another way, they were on the right side of the argument. This had the effect of allowing more Canadians to see the right as being able and ready to govern.

Looking at things today, the progressive opposition would do well to find similar such opportunities to get on the right side of the argument. They need to develop cogent positions which mirror the public mood and try to influence.

The first opportunity will come over the coming months as the government prepares what promises to be an austerity budget. This budget (and the next) will introduce sharp contrasts between the conservative and progressive views on the role of government. In other words, there is a great opportunity to do more than oppose - they can present an alternative.


The Conservative government isn't going anywhere for the next few years, and are well-positioned for the next decade. Those are the facts. However, the same could be said of the Liberals during much of their 13 years in power. The lesson - everything changes, so be prepared.

The progressive parties have time to prepare. Part of that preparation should include a meaningful discussion on merging. It should not be simply ruled out. They also need to use the coming months to start to develop policy positions which both reflect and influence how the public views the role of government.

In other words, they need to start down the path of looking like a viable alternative. It will take time, but it has to be done if they want to see roles reversed again.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Everything's changed and nothing is different

Taking a break can be instructive. You can learn a lot just by stepping back, and not getting so immersed in the things which typically hold so much of your attention. For me it was not about breaking out of the Ottawa bubble - after all, this is my home. No, it was more about stepping out of the politics watcher bubble.

Call it a personal prorogation.

It was needed. 2011 has been an intense year for a politics watcher. A federal election in the spring, and a series of provincial elections in the fall. Lots to watch and digest. Which brings me to today and where things stand on the federal stage.

Roughly eight months on from when the federal writ was dropped and everything has changed.

- A minority is now a majority, and the Conservatives have complete control over both houses of Parliament.

- The NDP has become the Official Opposition, but are now (tragically) leaderless.

- The Liberals have fallen to being the third party in Parliament, and are in the midst redefining themselves and finding permanent leadership.

- The Bloc is in the process of fading from memory.

I would bet that back in the spring when Mr. Harper asked for his strong, stable majority his wildest dreams would not have looked like things do today.

And yet re-emerging from my personal prorogation, it feels like nothing has changed.


The tone of our politics has continued its slide downwards. The hostility among MPs is on the rise, with personal attacks popping up with greater frequency. The government has looked smug and dismissive; the opposition desperate and frustrated.

The loser in their war of words? You, me, debate and public policy.


Just when you thought Parliament could not look any less relevant to those outside the bubble, et voila. This is particularly frustrating.

Looking in from the outside, it often appears that many people worked tirelessly to get elected to Parliament for the sole purpose of showing that it can't work.

We have limited debate. Closure and other tactics are invoked quickly. MPs of all stripes continue to favour the embarrassment game in place of substance.


Whether it is a "tough on crime" approach that ignores all evidence that demonstrates it won't work, or a gun registry position that ignores the views of law enforcement in the name of the "base", the government insists on using its majority to play on the margins of what is significant and meaningful.

I get playing to the base - there is a time and place for it. It is part of politics. However, I am not certain this is the time. Particularly when I see what is happening in the world.

If ever there was a time to look like a government and not a party, this would be it. But this doesn't seem to be the case.


The federal election may have changed the landscape, but not the view. In many respects, it would appear that the Harper government got everything it wanted, so that it could do everything it was doing before.

If the stakes weren't so high, it would be laughable. Sadly, it is not.

Every day the world reminds us how interconnected we are, how fragile things can become, and how much more we accomplish when we work together. Canada and its politics need to heed this lesson.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

My Apologies

Just wanted to post a quick note of apologies to those of you who follow me on Twitter (@PoliticWatcher). A virus that was going around "infected" my account and some people may have received direct messages from me. This message was not sent by me. I apologize for any inconvenience.

I have not posted in a couple of weeks, but plan to start up again shortly. If you have any ideas for posts or areas of interest, please let me know at

A Guy Watching Politics

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Plus ça change?

Earlier tonight Kathy Dunderdale was elected Premier in Newfoundland and Labrador. Her victory brings an end to the fourth provincial campaign to take place this fall. Already, we have seen voters in P.E.I., Manitoba, Ontario and now the Rock head to the polls, with Saskatchewan to follow in November.

As we near the end of election season, I thought it was a good time to come back to an observation I made earlier following the federal election.

"The 2011 book on Canadian politics has two chapters. Chapter One was the May 2 federal election. Chapter Two will be the elections in those five provinces. Depending on the outcomes, Canada could look quite different by the end of the year."

Well, Chapter Two is nearly finished and in each case so far, the incumbent has been returned to power. The popularity of Premier Brad Wall suggests that he will also be successful in his bid to retain power. So what conclusions can we draw from these results?

To answer, let's go back to a couple of questions I asked in this post written as the provincial campaigns were about to begin.

1. Will the global economic environment affect the outcomes?

When considering this first question, look no further than Ontario. At the same time Ontario voters considered the choices in front of them, they were treated to nightly news stories on the U.S. economy and the sovereign debt crisis in the E.U.

They saw a world defined by instability; a reality which tends to drive people towards stability and what they know. Mr. McGuinty clearly benefitted from this anchor mentality. More to the point, he played to it and cast himself in the role of tried and true. Put another way, he made the global economy a core part of his message, where others perhaps were too insular.

Elsewhere, stability and consistently was also chosen. How much of this was down to people honestly feeling that the incumbent offered the best option versus "the devil you know" syndrome is open to debate.

2. Will we see a consolidation of conservatism in Canada, or will voters decide to elect an off-set to a federal Conservative government?

Looking at the results, it is fair to say that there has not been a major shift to the right in the provinces. Yes, Mr. Hudak increased the Conservative seat count in Ontario and held the Liberals to a minority. But for many his campaign is seen as an opportunity lost, given how poor the Liberals were looking right into the summer.

Outside of Ontario, Conservatives did more or less as expected. Some picked up a bit (P.E.I.), others lost a bit (Newfoundland and Labrador). No major shifts.

Perhaps the more important question concerns the left, and the vibrancy of the progressive vote. The results in the provinces thus far show an NDP that is holding strong (Manitoba) and gaining strength (Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador). The results also show a Liberal brand that, while tarnished, is not yet being painted with the same brush as their federal cousins.

In terms of whether those provinces that elected Liberal or NDP governments were electing "off-sets" to the federal Conservatives, I am inclined to say no with the exception perhaps being Ontario. I think the very open federal Conservative cheering/campaigning for Hudak was not received positively by voters and could have affected the results in some ridings.


So let's go back to the original suggestion - that depending on the outcomes, Canada could look quite different by the end of the year. Does it?

Yes, but not in an obvious way. The players are all more or less the same and the positions of each government are well-known. The difference lies in one principal area - stability.

At the federal level, the next election is no longer around the corner. The government has a majority and time on its side. That is a major change.

Majorities in the provinces (with one very strong minority) also point to stability and consistency. Of course we will have to wait and see what fate brings us in B.C. and Quebec when their turns come, but for the most part the table is set and we know who is coming to dinner.

So where does that leave us?

My hope is that stability and the recognition among our politicians that they are effectively stuck with one another for 4-5 years will act as a prompt for action.

- Action on the economy and how to navigate through a turbulent world.

- Action on health care and how to ensure our system adapts so that it can remain sustainable.

- Action on the environment and how to address the dangers climate change poses to our health, well-being and future.

We have a lot that needs attention and the implications could be far-reaching. All to say, ladies and gentlemen in Ottawa and the provincial capitals you may as well roll up your sleeves and start working. Together.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Talking Turnout on Thanksgiving

Here at A Guy Watching Politics, I still cling to the belief that possibly, perhaps, if there is nothing else to do, there are some people out there reading this blog. What can I say? I am a glass half-full kind of blogger...

With that in mind, I am putting out this open question and asking for your views:

Why is voter turnout so low?

Of course there is no single reason, so let me start the discussion with some observations based on a conversation I had on-line earlier today.

We are trapped in a vicious cycle; a dangerous chicken and egg scenario in which politicians are failing to offer us real choices and thoughtful options, and where we are disconnected from our politics and complacent about the challenges our society is facing.

The result? We only superficially (if at all) see the real challenges and opportunities we face raised during elections. And no one offers more because we do not demand it.

In good times, this would be disappointing and frustrating. Today it can be dangerous. The interest to engage and the willingness to present real policy options are "muscles" that need to be consistently worked and exercised.

My concern is that as move through what promises to be a very tumultuous period, we will do from a position of weakness. We have switched off from politics at the very time our presence is needed. And our political parties have failed to put real (and possibly difficult) choices on the table at the very time we need to think differently.

- We have allowed ourselves to be governed with an eye to the election around the corner, elevating short-term electoral considerations at the expense of long-term policy debate.

- We have allowed real policy options like tax increases or spending cuts to be stigmatized, and as a result further polarized our politics into "us versus them" camps.

What are we going to do about it? The responsibility for arresting this slide rests with all of us. Politicians, the bureaucracy, the media and the public all have a role to play in changing how Canadians engage.

Electoral reform and greater use of technology or social media are important. But before we get wrapped up in changing how we vote, perhaps we should take a step back and ask ourselves how we can give greater visibility to the issues on which we should be voting.


So, over to you reader(s). What do you think about the state of our engagement? Why is turnout so low, and what can we do about it? Share your views; let's talk turnout.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Election Reflections

Well there you have it, Ontario. The election is over and the results are in. A minority Liberal government has been tasked with navigating the province through what promises to be tumultuous times.

Having followed the campaign for the past several weeks, I wanted to share with you my take on the results and what it all could mean. Ready?

1. The Liberals (part 1)

For most of this year, the Liberals were expected to lose. More to the point, they were there for the taking. Ontario voters appeared to express a desire for change and the government looked tired. And yet, they survived - albeit with a minority.

A lot has been written over the past week about how the PC's dropped the ball and squandered their chance (see below for more on the Hudak campaingn). However, to focus solely on that aspect takes away from what must be seen as a very well-run Liberal campaign.

- they presented a vision
- they stayed on message
- they did not shy away from their record
- they recognized that voters had begun to move away from the change story and towards one of stability

Taken together, this approach gave voters a clear sense as to what to expect from the government. They provided clarity at a time when so much around us in constant flux. Yes, they lost seats and were moved into a minority position, but I bet if you asked any Liberal in June whether they would be happy with such a result, they would have said yes.

2. The Liberals (part 2)

After the champagne and victory speeches, some Liberals will be looking at these results and wondering if history is repeating itself. For all of the talk about preventing the conservative hat-trick, the Liberals should be a little worried about the map and where they see their support coming from.

Like their federal cousins, the Ontario Liberals are becoming an urban party dependant on the big cities for electoral success. They are in danger of slowly getting hemmed in, ceding more and more of the province to their rivals. All it takes is a scandal, a stuttering economy or some other event to tilt things against them. Watch this space.

3. The Progressive Conservatives

On any other day, someone who in their first campaign as leader increased his party's seat total and limited his principal opponent to a minority would be celebrated. Not so for Mr. Hudak.

The PC party ran a bad campaign, there is no way around it.

- they took themselves off message by making the first week about "foreign workers", a position which likely affected them in the 416 and 905 areas of the province
- they defined the election as a referendum on McGuinty, and did not spend equal time articulating what a PC government would look like
- they failed to appreciate how the dialogue on the global economy was affecting the voter

Of these three points, I believe the "we're not McGuinty" strategy was the most ill-advised. In employing it, they incorrectly assumed that simply by biding their time they could form the government; that they did not need to offer a vision.

Raise your hand if you can name three things a Hudak government would do. Exactly.

4. The NDP

The NDP increased their seat count and used the campaign to generate more exposure and awareness about their leader, Andrea Horwath. So far so good. And now they hold the balance of power, though with only one seat separating the Liberals from an outright majority the NDP position is not as consequential as say Jack Layton's when Paul Martin was PM.

That said, it will be interesting to see how the NDP plays their cards; where they decide to push and seek concessions in exchange for support. How they react to deficit reduction, environment policy, transportation policy will be interesting to watch.

5. The Voter

The low turnout was more than disappointing. It was wretched. Any reader of this blog will know that engagement by the voter is of tremendous importance to me. With so much happening in Ontario, Canada and around the world, one would hope that voters would see fit to take more interest.

Sadly, they did not.

Election fatigue likely played some part. However, seeing our Canadian complacency once again rear its ugly head reminded us of the need to consider how best to wake the Canadian voter and tune them into the issues such that they are prepared to get engaged.

6. The Harper Government

The federal Tories had far too much skin in the game in this campaign. They were visible, audible and clear about the result they wanted. And in the end they did not get it.

A federal government should never be so vocal and involved in a provincial campaign. It will be interesting to see how their not-too subtle cheering will affect relations between the Toronto and Ottawa.

The thing is, it was amateurish. They have to work with whoever wins, so why be so blatant as to your preference? It is persistent curiosity of mine; how can a party that is clearly very strategic and focused in so many areas remain so susceptible to such base partisanship? It's like they can't help themselves.

I half-joked on election night that a Liberal minority with the NDP holding the balance would resurrect the Tory "socialist" lines. Here's hoping I am wrong.


In August I wrote a piece on the upcoming provincial elections and the role the provinces would need to start playing as the de facto official opposition. That time starts now.

Ontario has stayed Liberal, as has PEI. Manitoba has stayed NDP and Newfoundland & Labrador will stay PC. The pieces on the board are getting in place so that everyone knows who they need to work with.

As the political landscape starts to settle, it is time for everyone to turn their attention towards governing; towards addressing the multitude of things on our public policy plate. There is a lot at stake and it goes beyond politics. I hope everyone is up for it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Election Night in Ontario (just not on CBC)

We have waited a long time, but tomorrow night is nearly here. Old rivals squaring off against one another. One in red, the other in blue. Hope, intensity and a chance at glory. Yes Ontario politics watchers, tomorrow is election night!

Oh, yeah, and the NHL season also starts with the Habs versus the Leafs. Go Habs!

After a short official campaign and quite a long unofficial one, Ontario voters will go the polls tomorrow and, depending on which poll you are reading, will elect:

- a third straight Liberal majority; or
- a Liberal minority, with the NDP holding the balance of power; or
- a Progressive Conservative minority, with the NDP holding the balance of power; or
- a legislature where the two main parties having an equal number of seats, with the NDP opening a bidding war for their support.

I won't go into the differing polls here, but you can find some good analysis and perspective at As the blog notes, with such wildly different projected outcomes there will surely be some pollsters looking a tad embarrassed come Friday morning.

Since I leave polls to the experts, I decided to relax this evening. However, as I prepared to sit back I was treated to one of those lovely, "only a political geek would appreciate this" moments. My phone rang and when I answered, I had a message from one of the Ottawa Liberal candidates inviting me to stay on the line for a live, "virtual town hall" with all Ottawa Liberal candidates, including Premier McGuinty.

Being A Guy Watching Politics, I was tempted to say "You had me at hello."

The call was a neat format. I was placed into the conference which was underway, and listened to Premier McGuinty finishing off a response to a question from a listener regarding seniors. I then heard remarks from the other Ottawa candidates, followed by listeners asking questions of the Premier (all questions were pre-screened - mine did not make the cut!).

I am not sure whether these had been done earlier in the campaign, or whether this was the first instance. I also don't know if the other parties had done something similar (if you know, please leave a comment).

What I do know is I quite liked it, and not just for the geekiness of it. The more interesting element for me was that for the most part there was very little commentary about why someone should not vote for the PCs or the NDP. Fear mongering was in relatively short supply. Instead I heard the candidates outlining their record as a government and their priorities going forward.

I found Mr. McGuinty's tone, in particular, to be very positive. It was calm, earnest and focused. Education was a recurring theme and to my ears he effectively used personal anecdotes to make his remarks less like a sound bite and more like a conversation.

So, did the Liberals finally start reading A Guy Watching Politics and other blogs and commentaries which are demanding more from our political discourse? While I would love to say yes, the answer is likely no.

One argument to make is that what I heard were the final arguments of a party comfortable that the outcome will favour them. This was the tone and confidence of a front-runner.

Another perspective is that this was the tone of front runners here in the Ottawa ridings. The Liberals are confident here, and therefore could appear more positive and statesman-like.

What I don't know is whether other Liberal virtual towns have taken place tonight, and if so whether they took a different tone and were more confrontational and partisan. What would one in a 905 riding sounded like, for example?

If you know, please let me know. Otherwise, let's connect tomorrow and see what the voters bring us. Polls are open 9:00-9:00, with result coming when they close. Oh yeah, and CBC is carrying hockey.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The speech Ontario should hear, but won't...

As we enter the homestretch of this too-close-to-call provincial election, we find the Liberal, PC and NDP leaders spending their time criss-crossing the province. Whether they are in a riding they hope to steal or one they are trying to protect, the remarks now start to take on a familiar shape - final arguments.

Between now and election day, the leaders will each use that mountain of polling data they have collected to frame and make their final pitch to the voter. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, their respective pitches will be built around what they feel the voter wants to hear and not what they voter should hear.

A few days ago, Jeffrey Simpson wrote about the absence of hard truths in our campaigns; about the political reluctance to "tell it like it is." This is something that has been on my mind for some time, and which this campaign (and the federal one in May) has reinforced.

So with that in mind, I decided to write "The speech Ontario should hear, but won't..."


Hello ladies and gentleman, and thank-you for taking the time to be here today. Whether you are a supporter or someone still undecided, welcome to the last week of this campaign. Your campaign.

Let me say that again. Your campaign.

This is not, and should not, be about me getting elected or becoming Premier. This campaign is about the Ontario you want; the province you will charge the women and men standing for office with building.

It is a big responsibility, for sure. And it is a responsibility which deserves respect and honesty. Unfortunately, in a campaign these attributes - respect and honesty - often appear to be in short supply.

That changes today. Let me start with some three simple observations.

- the politician who says they have all the answers doesn't

- be wary of the campaign which spends more time telling you why not to vote for someone, and less time making their own case for your vote

- there is no easy fix to any of the challenges we are facing

With those three maxims in mind, consider the following three issues.

If the past few years have taught us anything, it is that we now live in a world defined by change and uncertainty. Ontario is part of a highly integrated global economy which is going through significant changes. Jobs have been lost and deficits have grown as governments attempted to stem the bleed and alleviate the damage.

While we are still trying to figure out what this economy looks like over the next 4 years, we can be certain of one thing: it will not look like it did before the 2008. If I told you that my party would return Ontario's economy to its "glory years", I would be lying. Or own a time machine.

The government you elect will not be tasked with bringing the old economy back. It will be tasked with reinventing our economy for the 21st century.

At the same time our economy is changing, we are seeing tremendous change in our society. We are getting older and living longer. This will place demands on our health care system which cannot be met based on our current model.

We need to have a serious discussion about the health care system we want, its costs and how we can fund it. This is not just a question of spending more - throwing dollars at health care is not a solution. It also misses the point that health care is as much about building a competitive economy as it is about building a healthy society. We need to talk about both.

The government you elect will not be tasked with protecting the health care system we have today. They will be tasked with starting a real dialogue about how to make health care (a) sustainable and (b) a competitive advantage.

We have a deficit. And it is large. As we look at what is happening around the world, we see markets which are increasingly unforgiving on those who live beyond their means. We cannot put Ontario in this position.

A large part of our deficit is related to the measures taken to protect Ontario over the past few years. But that is not the only reason we have a deficit. Health, education and social spending are big tickets. Energy and environment policy measures cost too.

What this means is that we can't simply grow ourselves out of deficit. We need to have a serious discussion about government spending. This can mean cuts. It can mean taxes. If I told you I had the answer, I would not be telling you the truth. What I can tell you is that it is not easy and we need to talk about it.

The government you elect cannot promise to eliminate the deficit without spending cuts or tax increases - the world is too uncertain. The government you will elect will be tasked with engaging the legislature and the public on how best to address the deficit.

There are more issues we could discuss, but the point I would make is the same. Governing is not about having all of the answers; it is about asking the right questions and then working with others to find answers to those questions. This is what I can commit to you. Asking those questions and then working collaboratively to find and implement the answers.

So when you walk towards that box on election day, ask yourself the following:

- whose questions are my questions?
- who has been honest with me about the tasks we face?
- who has told me why I should vote for them, versus telling me why not to vote for someone else?

October 6th is a few days away. It's your campaign. Vote.


More platitude than details, for sure. But the point I want to make is that we should expect more from those seeking our vote. We have real challenges which will require difficult decisions. This is not discussed in a campaign. And it should be discussed.

Speak your mind.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Boy Who Cried Crisis!

Hyperbole is nothing new in politics. It is used often, and sometimes it seems with great relish, by politicians and stakeholders alike to frame an issue, mobilize voters and ultimately win the day. Used properly it can have tremendous impact.

However, used improperly it can have the opposite effect. Its impact can be limited as the message simply becomes part of the noise. In these cases it is either ignored, or worse, never heard.

Unfortunately, we can see elements of this effect today. Take, for example, the use of the word crisis. At any one time in this campaign we are being told about an economic crisis, a jobs crisis, a looming demographic crisis, a health care crisis, an environmental crisis.

Taken together, it is amazing any of us get out of bed in the morning. Of course that assumes anyone is really listening.

Those who use hyperbole successfully are those who use it selectively and with the right audience. They are measured and targeted. Most importantly, the hyperbole complements their message; it does not become their message. They are heard.

In many instances it boils down to the fact that the more successful have recognized that if everything is a crisis, nothing is a crisis. Put another way, they are successful because they are credible, and they are credible because their are selective.

There is a fine line between trying to raise awareness of an issue and fear-mongering; between being watchdog and being chicken little. Today we see that line being crossed with greater frequency as politicians and stakeholders look to win the hearts, minds and votes of select swing voters in key ridings, cities and provinces.

So as election day draws closer in Ontario, P.E.I, Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, challenge yourself to see through the hyperbole. There are challenges out there, no doubt. And there are crisis - either current or looming.

At this point in the campaigns underway, we have a good sense as to where everyone stands and how they are framing things. Now it is our turn. As voters we need to inform ourselves on the issues that are presented. Seek a second opinion. Ask family, friends or co-workers. Don't just stand there looking up, waiting for the next acorn to fall.

Engaged voters look beyond the advertisements and the spin. They ask their own questions and come to their own answers. And they put themselves in the position of being able to spot the difference between a credible choice and the "boy who cried crisis."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Missing Links

So far in this election, Ontario voters have been treated to a series of policy pronouncements and talking points which break the campaign down into a series of issues. Every party does it, and with good reason.

As noted in my last post on the forgotten voter, each party has spent considerable time and resources identifying what it thinks will be the election strategy that offers the best chance of success. The result is a campaign which is focused on key voter groups and ridings.

Of course in such a short campaign, this makes sense. At some point, one needs to be targeted. And on one level, I suspect that voters have a certain amount of respect for a focused campaign. The party which employs a "spray and pray" approach is inevitably caught out. In the end the voter can always spot a flailing party that tries too desperately to be all things to all people.

The need to focus should not, however, excuse our prospective leaders from the importance of tying the various issues together and making what I see are some important linkages in our public policy.

As an example, health care is not a "stand alone" issue, nor is it simply about social policy. It is an economic issue as much as it is a social one - perhaps more so. In order for a society to prosper, it needs a healthy, fit and active population. Health care has as much to do with productivity, innovation and economic well-being as does tax policy.

Yet when we hear health care being debated it is too often dominated by questions of cost and whether we can afford the system we have. These are important questions, but they should not be the only ones.

Transportation policy is another area where we should expect better. In this case, it is not that the other dimensions are ignored; rather, we seem to have hived transportation policy into a series of separate and distinct conversations - about cost, or about urban planning, or the environment. The party which is best able to link these elements into a cohesive, plausible narrative is the one which will get my attention.

Better progress is being made on the question of the environment, where parties - particularly the Liberals and the NDP - are more eager to link addressing issues like climate change to the opportunity of building a green economy. They have done so, in part, to blunt the criticisms that addressing climate change will cost jobs. Still, at least the broader linkages between the environment and the economy are being discussed (albeit for defensive reasons).

Education is probably the one area where parties have been successfully able to draw a broader picture, for obvious reasons. The linkages between education and employment and prosperity have been drilled into all of us since we were children. When politicians say that education is the silver bullet we get it, even if we don't hold them truly accountable for the need for change.


Too often during a campaign our engagement is in 2D. Issues are presented in a very linear manner, broken down into what appear to be simple causalities when in fact they are not. It is all very flat and if you look closely you come away with a feeling that something is missing.

In reality, policy discussions in areas like health care, transportation and the environment should be in 3D. They should strive to present a broader perspective on the issue and how the different elements come together.

The interdependence between the various areas of public policy needs to be presented so that voters can consider the bigger picture and make decisions which see Ontario for what it is - the sum of its parts. For this to happen, we need to demand it. We need to be engaged and let those looking for our vote know that this is what we expect.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The forgotten voter

If you close your eyes, you can probably picture them. Perhaps they are a student. Or maybe someone who could be homeless tomorrow. They could live somewhere that isn't along the 401 corridor from Windsor and up to Ottawa.

What we know is that they don't fit so easily into a box marked "family", or "immigrant", or "905-golden horseshoe". They probably don't belong to a union. They may be single and not yet facing concerns like aging parents or considering their own retirement. They are generally healthy.

Ontario, let me introduce you to the forgotten voter.

Every campaign has them. With time of the essence, parties need to focus and prioritize. While every politician will say this election is about everyone, in truth it can't be. Votes win elections, and each party will have spent a lot of time and money considering from where the votes will come and what they need to do to get them.

As a consequence, some slices of the electorate don't really see themselves in the campaign or in the supposed priorities of the main parties. They don't fit in the narrative except at a very high, almost superficial level.

Unfortunate? Yes. Surprising? No.

Before going further, let me be clear that what I am talking about as far as this election goes is the provincial narrative. Individual candidates are and always will be attuned to local issues and circumstances, whatever they may be.

However, my point is simply that at the province-wide level each party has had to make a choice about what they want to frame this election as being about. And that choice will have been made based on studious research into one thing: what will it take to win.

In this campaign, families occupy tier 1 in terms of priorities, followed by immigrants, seniors and the more broad notion of the urban-based middle-class. While that sounds like a big group, it excludes a lot of people.

So my challenge to those reading (he said hopefully) is simple. If you are a forgotten voter, tell us what would make this campaign resonate with you. What matters to you; what will earn your vote?

I am asking because when election day comes, you have a choice.

You can answer the questions the parties are asking you. Questions like "do you trust McGuinty not to raise taxes?" or "do you trust Hudak not to cut health care?"

Or you can answer the questions that you ask yourself - about Ontario, about what you think it needs to move forward, and about which party spoke to you and your vision during the campaign.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Caution, may cause dizziness

We are now into week two of the Ontario election and you can start to see how each party is trying to shape the narrative and define for the voter the infamous ballot box question. As party leaders fan out across the province, they do so armed with speeches and talking points which have one simple objective - define the election on their terms.

Sounds like a good time to pause and consider this further. So let me start with the following observations...

1. Dalton McGuinty does not spend every waking moment coming up with ideas about how to tax Ontarians or take jobs away from those born here.

2. Tim Hudak does not define success by killing health care, laying off teachers or turning the environment into a permanent greenhouse.

3. Andrea Horwath does not have the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto tattooed on her arm, and is not looking to nationalize everything.

Yet, obvious exaggerations aside, these types of suggestions are often what we tend to hear as leaders and spin doctors try and shape a narrative for the voter. Why?

To start, each party has its core support; those that will consistently vote for them. These voters not only need to "hear themselves" reflected in the comments of the candidates, they also need to have their worst fears articulated for them. Like it or not, this will help a party mobilize their voters on election day - a key driver of success.

A second observation is that core support is not enough to take any party to victory. This means that in order to win, a party needs to pick votes from their opponents (difficult and therefore not a huge source of support), or convince a good portion of the undecided block of essentially centrist voters to vote for them (a potentially rich and decisive source of support).

How does one do this? Make yourself appear safe and your opponents...not so much. Put another way, parties are always looking for a wedge issue. They want to hit upon something that brings them closer to a voter while at the same time driving their opponent(s) further away.

The "tax incentive for hiring immigrants" versus "taxpayer dollars to hire foreign workers" is an interesting example of two parties trying to use the same issue as a wedge. The PCs jumped upon this Liberal platform commitment and have tried to frame it in a way that drives middle-class voters worried about their jobs to the PCs.

The Liberals (after adding more precision to their policy) jumped on the PC reaction in a way that attempts to frame the PCs as anti-immigrant - a key demographic in Ontario's urban centres.

It's too early to tell whether either approach will be successful, though watching to see which party persists with their message and which one moves on will give some sense as to what internal polling is telling them about their likely success.

Something worth considering is the fact that in many respects, the parties do not differ from one another on the big issues in a hugely significant way. When you consider this and then factor in the realization that in order to achieve success the parties are all essentially going after the same block of votes, you can see the importance of making sharp distinctions.


In the coming weeks, Ontarians will be bombarded with all manner of spin and argument - again. It happened last fall with the municipal elections, in the spring with the federal election and now today with the provincial election.

As you consider all that is thrown your way and start to feel dizzy, move beyond the spin. Make this election about more than what is suggested to you. Make it about what is important to you.

Speak your mind.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A campaign underway and more Hudak clouds

"And they're off!" Yes, the Ontario election officially kicked off this week with the traditional posturing and efforts by each party to frame the narrative.

Over the course of the coming weeks I will be looking at each of the three main parties and how their messaging is evolving. Is their message resonating, or are they having to tweak it to respond to campaign developments?

As a start, I decided to follow-up on the tag cloud I prepared based on Mr. Hudak's response to the last Liberal budget. As mentioned in
the accompanying blog post, a big part of the Hudak strategy is to make this election a referendum on Dalton McGuinty.

That speech was several months ago. So now, with the campaign underway, I wanted to see whether the PCs were sticking to this approach. To start to answer this question, I reviewed Mr. Hudak's speech to the Economic Club of Canada on Friday.

This was a somewhat more detailed speech, and one which attempted to provide some clarity as to what a Hudak government would look like. That said, it was still very much a speech focused on the McGuinty record - the Liberal government was not mentioned once; it was always the McGuinty government.

Here is a tag cloud created using the most frequently used words in his speech. Once again, the focus on McGuinty is clear as the current Premier is referenced twice as many times as the Progressive Conservatives.

Don't expect this to change. The PCs will make every effort to frame this campaign as a referendum on Dalton McGuinty. They will then use the issues to target a specific audience.

This speech was focussed on business leaders and the business press. The focus understandably was on job creation, with the not too subtle message that families, the middle class and business would all be better off under a Hudak government. Moving forward, we should expect messaging which continues to be built around Dalton McGuinty, but which focuses on specific issues such as health.

My challenge with this approach is that it is premised on the wrong question. It asks you to consider Mr. Hudak as "the Premier who isn't (McGuinty)" and not as the "Premier who might be." As a voter, I deserve more.

I deserve clarity as to what I can expect over the first 100 days. I want to know how the government will tackle the deficit and debt. I want to know about each party's plans regarding climate change and the environment. I want to make an informed decision.

Put another way, I want those asking for my vote to tell me who they are and what they will do, rather than who they are not and what they haven't done.

Is that too much to ask?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Pick me, I'm not him! Pick me, I'm not them!

While the unofficial Ontario election has been underway for some time, the official kick-off will come this week when the writ is dropped. However, for a campaign yet to begin we already know a fair bit about the narratives that are being drawn.

- For the governing Liberals, it's about continuity and experience, with a platform built around families.

- For the poll-leading Tories, it's about the need for a change in leadership, with a platform built around families.

- For the NDP, it's about breaking out of the Liberal-Tory axis and embracing a third way, with a platform built around families.

Spot any trends?

We have known for some time that the Hudak Tories will want to make this election a referendum on Dalton McGuinty's leadership. This focus on McGuinty and the question of trust (e.g. the surprise "health tax") will be complemented by policy proposals which could be considered "safe". Having seen how the schools issue hampered John Tory, Mr. Hudak will want to stick closely to the middle.

Mr. McGuinty will also want to make it about leadership, focusing on his experience as Premier and Mr. Hudak's past as part of the Harris government's common sense revolution. He will argue that Ontario needs an experienced leader to continue the province's transition out of the economic crisis, and to strike the right balance between economic demands and social policy challenges.

For her part, Ms. Horwath is hoping to present voters with a "third way". Drawing on the federal NDP's tactics, she will position her opponents as the status quo; as two sides of the same coin offering the same, tired politics.

So we have Mr. Hudak focused on the Liberals and saying "pick me, I'm not him." Mr. McGuinty is focused on the Tories and saying "pick me, I'm not him." Meanwhile, Ms. Horwath is looking at both of them and saying to the voter, "pick me, I'm not them."

So what will be it be Ontario? Is this enough to pull your vote in one direction or the other? I hope not. Over the coming weeks, we should be expecting to hear more from each of the parties looking for our vote. Some examples:

1. What will Ontario's position be when it enters into discussions with the federal government on a new health accord? Will it be purely about the need for cash, or will we get more clarity about how that cash would be spent? What are the priorities?

2. The economic landscape of Ontario has changed, such that we are no longer a "have province." With an eroded manufacturing sector, what are the priorities for re-building and re-focusing the economy? A government does not "create jobs", but it does create the conditions for those who do. What's the plan?

3. The HST. Following events in British Columbia, this could be a bigger issue than we might think. Like it or not, the leaders will need to clearly spell out their positions on the tax.

4. The environment, and in particular how to balance economic recovery with the climate change challenge. Doing nothing has a cost. Doing something has a cost. We need a good debate.

5. The deficit. At $14 billion and counting, we need a conversation about the deficit. If no one is planning on raising taxes, it can only be meaningfully tackled through reductions in expenditures (even accounting for higher tax revenues as the economy grows). What is the plan?

All to say, there is more than enough to discuss. We have province-wide issues, such as the ones above. We also have niche-issues in key areas - transportation in the GTA, being a big one.

Week one will not surprisingly be more focused on message, spin and efforts to define the campaign. This is normal course. Following that, however, we should see more debate. Frankly, we need it. Why?

It has to be more than "Pick me, I'm not him! Pick me, I'm not them!"

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Did the Stakes Just Get Higher?

Not for the first time this year, the political landscape in Canada has changed drastically. The sad passing of Jack Layton has left a hole in federal politics, depriving Canadians of the opportunity to see what role he would play as Leader of the Official Opposition.

Mr. Layton's commitment to social issues, mixed with his belief that politics can and should be conducted in a more civil tone will be sorely missed in Ottawa. While the NDP may appear to be the group most immediately affected by his death, there are broader implications both in Ottawa and in the provinces.

In a recent post, written shortly after Mr. Layton had announced that he was stepping down, I wrote that as much as the NDP needed him Canada needed him too:

"Mr. Layton is not just the leader of the NDP. He is the Leader of the Official Opposition and the principal critic of government.

His role tasks him with the responsibility of holding the government to account; with offering Canadians an alternative perspective on how their money is spent, their environment is protected, their security ensured and their country governed.

As we consider the challenges, opportunities and choices in front of us, we need strong voices to share all perspectives and alternatives. You don't have to agree with his politics to see that Mr. Layton offers such a voice."

With that voice now gone, who will play this role? The NDP will start the process of finding a new leader, while the Liberals continue with their own renewal process. As John Ibbitson noted this week, this reality has afforded Mr. Harper a degree of freedom that most Prime Ministers never experience.

Cue the provinces.

The stakes in the upcoming provincial elections have just been raised. With federal opposition to the government severely weakened, the provinces may be the only effective opposition facing Mr. Harper's government. This is particularly true in Ontario.

Consider the major issues of debate now facing Canada - the renegotiation of the health accord, environmental policy (and in particular climate change), economic policy, or measures taken to address deficits. As we debate these and other issues, the provinces will become potentially greater sources of opposition to the federal government than the opposition parties in Parliament.

While I am not sure to what extent voters have previously considered who is in power in Ottawa when they vote provincially, they may start doing so now. Why? Like-minded governments offer like-minded solutions. At this juncture, we need a broader perspective; a diversity of options for policy-makers to consider.

The federal NDP will offer this, but sadly they may do so in a less compelling or effective manner. The provinces, lead by Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta, can fill this void.

The challenge for the voter is to take the time to consider all of this over the coming weeks. Consider how a McGuinty-Harper dynamic affects issues like health or the economy, versus a Hudak-Harper dynamic. For those of you in Toronto, factor in Mayor Ford to see how issues like transit funding may play out.

At the same time, voters should challenge themselves to consider the national story. Not just what a Liberal or Conservative government in Toronto may mean for Ontario, but what it may mean for Canada.

None of this is easy to do, but that is what engagement means. It is about considering the implications of your vote and making an informed choice. As noted in a previous post, you can't have responsible government without responsible voters.

The stakes have gotten higher. Our provincial elections will shape the national narrative in a potentially more meaningful way than perhaps we thought. Are we ready to play our part?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The National Debate in Microcosm...brought to you by Ontario

Nearly four months have passed since the federal election, and we are about six weeks away from Ontario's trip to the polls. However, while there will have only been five months between the two elections by the time Ontarians vote, the economic landscape has shifted.

Since May 2, we have seen global economic conditions deteriorate - typified by the sovereign debt challenges in the European Union and the United States. Importantly, the spectre of a new phase to the economic crisis has fostered a more public and open debate about state finances and how to build a more sustainable model of government.

In just four months, external events have made voters more sensitive to the choices that Western governments are facing. This reality will shape the narrative of Ontario's election

More often than not an election is a mini-referendum on what has happened; a vote on the government's performance. Opposition parties don't win, governments lose. You can see elements of this in the Progressive Conservative's tactics thus far. Their goal is to make this election a referendum on the McGuinty government's record.

Fair enough. The voter should consider the government's performance, both on its face and as an indicator as to how they will govern going forward. Unfortunately, too often the focus becomes on the past and real discussion about the future is limited.

Ontario cannot afford such a campaign this time around.

The province was battered by the recession, its major trading partner is suffering and its manufacturing base continues to experience erosion. At the same time, the population is aging and social costs are continuing to climb. Current projections show a $16 billion deficit and a province that is $235 billion in debt.

These challenges demand a campaign that is forward looking; one which is seized on how best to strike the right balance between taxes and spending, cuts and investments, and how we can position Ontario for tomorrow. This is what the voter should expect and demand.

A campaign which brings an open debate on our challenges and choices is the type of campaign that Ontarians deserve. But it is also the type of campaign that Canadians should be watching.

Why? In many respects, Ontario's election will be a microcosm of our national debate - the debate we should have had in May. In May the federal election, depending on who you spoke to, was about Harper's contempt or the "socialist-separatist" power grab. It was more about whether to have a majority, and less about the challenges Canada is facing.

Four months on and external events have conspired to draw greater attention towards the real choices governments are facing as they deal with a world increasingly defined by uncertainty. Against this back-drop Ontario voters have an opportunity to consider how a prospective government will tackle the deficit, the environment, and social spending.

The outcome will not only affect Ontario. It will also influence how other provinces and, importantly, the federal government start to address these choices.

All to say...stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cloud Watching and the Ontario Election

As I look ahead to the Ontario election, I decided to look back and see what's been said. My first stop happened to be a speech given by Tim Hudak, the leader of the Progressive Conservatives. The speech was given in response to the last provincial budget, and was entitled "Families Need Tax Relief."

After listening to the video, I decided to do something different. Rather than simply write what I thought about the speech, I created this tag cloud based on the words used throughout.

Looking at the words and the frequency with which they are used, you can see the shape of the Tory narrative and the ballot box question they are trying to frame for Ontario voters. Their goal is simple - define the election around Mr. McGuinty and the perceived "cost" of another Liberal government.

Unfortunately, little is provided of substance or note around what a Hudak government would mean for the voter. He mentions his name once, and the PC party only a couple of times. Policy options are in short supply save for the traditional commitments to drop unpopular initiatives (smart meters) and vague generalities around reviewing programs.

It is not surprising, safe and typical. Unfortunately it does little to help the voter consider the choices in front of them.

I am hopeful that all parties can do better over the next 8 weeks or so. Thoughts?

Speak Your Mind!

This past spring, Canada essentially got its first social media election under its belt with #elxn41. Now, with fall election season fast approaching in a number of provinces the Toronto Star is teaming up with Atomic Reach to launch Speak Your Mind, a forum for commentary, debate and conversation around the key topics driving the fall Ontario election.

I think this is a great initiative and one in which I will be participating. Here at A Guy Watching Politics, the focus has always been on using social media to promote a dialogue on the issues; to offer perspectives and share. The objective is simple - promoting greater engagement.

Not surprisingly, Speak Your Mind is right up our alley! I will be linking any posts I prepare on the Ontario election into their site. Take a look. Read, share, participate.

How we respond to the challenges and opportunities in front of us will go a long way towards defining the Ontario of tomorrow. The first step in responding is getting engaged. Let's start...

Monday, August 15, 2011

Solid as a Rock? Probably

On October 11, Newfoundland and Labrador goes to the polls and as of now the election is the ruling Progressive Conservatives' to lose. The party is vying for its third win in a row, following the two elections successfully fought by Danny Williams. Importantly, Premier Kathy Dunderdale will hit the hustings knowing that this is an electorate which tends to give parties multiple mandates.

Premier Dunderdale's cause has been aided by the disarray among her traditional rivals, the Liberals (sound familiar?). Liberal Leader Yvonne Jones surprised many when she resigned as leader for health reasons, essentially on the eve of the election. A new leader, Kevin Aylward, has just been selected, and will now embark on a crash course on the issues in preparation for the campaign.

In contrast, the NDP offer up a relative sense of stability having been led by Lorraine Michael since 2006. However, this stability cannot make up for the fact that this has always been a 2-party province. The NDP have never won more than 2 seats in a provincial election.

So does this make it a slam dunk for the Progressive Conservatives? Probably. And if so, is there anything worth watching? Definitely.

1. Ms. Dunderdale is following the immensely popular Danny Williams. While she and the party continue to benefit from the strong levels of satisfaction and support he left them, there has been slippage. While this won't necessarily affect the outcome of the election, how she fares will become a big part of the party narrative over the next four years.

It is also worth noting that unlike Mr. Williams, she publicly supported the federal Conservatives in the last election and in fact a number of former members of the Williams government ran under Mr. Harper's banner. They did not fare well. How her support for the Harper Conservatives plays out in the provincial election will be interesting to see.

2. Could this be the election which sees the NDP make real gains? Stability at the top, the federal breakthrough still fresh in the mind (current challenges notwithstanding) and a growing concern about social issues in the face of an aging population could help the NDP make inroads. An NDP campaign which focuses on issues like health, home care, and the elderly won't give them victory, but it could just push them to second place.

3. Building on the point above, the Liberals are in disarray. A new leader has been elected and will have little time to prepare. Like their federal cousins, there has likely been a sense that if they are patient their time will come. It always does, right?

Perhaps before, but maybe not anymore. As the federal Liberals found out, Canadians are increasingly prepared to look beyond the two-party system. The Liberals may need to work harder for second spot than they expected.

4. Issues? Beyond areas of social policy it will be interesting to see how the Lower Churchill narrative plays out over the course of the campaign. The development of the Churchill Falls has always been a key element in Newfoundland and Labrador politics - it is a truly sensitive nerve. As debate in New Brunswick on the NB Power-Hydro Quebec proposals recently showed, the politics of power development can be tricky waters for a politician to navigate.


This election is Premier Dunderdale's to lose and to be honest, losing it would take some doing. However, below the headline of "who wins" are some interesting issues worth following. I will be focusing on what the election could mean for the Liberal and NDP brands in the province, and what issues resonate most with voters.

But more than anything, what I am interested in seeing over the course of the fall elections is to what degree we see commonality in the issues and views expressed. Why?

With a majority government in Ottawa, the provinces once again start to play a larger role. Depending on the results of elections they can become supporters of the federal government, or they can become the de facto "official opposition."


Monday, August 8, 2011

Coming soon to a province near (many of) you...

For politics watchers here in Ottawa, the summer often offers slim pickings for those looking to satisfy their need for all things political. This is particularly true in an election year, when we move quickly from the pace and excitement of a federal election into the summer doldrums.

While the global financial crisis and the NDP have each done their best to satisfy our political cravings, it typically takes the imminent return of Parliament to really focus our attention. This time, however, things are different. Why? cue drum roll

Coming soon to a province near (many of) you...elections!

Yes politics watchers, five provincial elections are scheduled for this fall: Newfoundland & Labrador, PEI, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Candidates are being selected, ads are already airing, and messages are being sharpened in advance of what could prove to be a very interesting fall.

In a recent blog, I noted the following:

"The 2011 book on Canadian politics has two chapters. Chapter One was the May 2 federal election. Chapter Two will be the elections in those five provinces. Depending on the outcomes, Canada could look quite different by the end of the year."

After #elxn41, there was a lot of discussion about whether Canada was becoming more conservative; about whether the electorate may be shifting right in terms of its outlook and priorities. Here at A Guy Watching Politics, the view has been that we really won't know this until at least the end of 2011.

The upcoming elections will provide more insight as to how political views in Canada may be changing. With that in mind, over the coming few months we will take some time to look at each of these five elections individually - the key issues, the outlook and implications for the broader Canadian political narrative.

Some things to consider:

- will the global economic environment affect the outcome?

- will we see a consolidation of conservatism in Canada, or will voters decide to elect an off-set to a federal Conservative government?

- what will the key ballot box issues be in each province, and what will this tell us about Canadians' priorities?

The last point is an important one. Given the areas of provincial responsibility (see, provincial/local issues can play a big part in how these elections finish. While this offers an important degree of uniqueness, it can also limit the degree to which we tie a result into the broader Canadian narrative.

All to say, there will be a lot to consider and discuss. As always, your views and perspective are welcomed. Let's hear them!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Questions of Judgement

This time last week, the NDP was the story with Jack Layton's announcement about his health and decision to temporarily step down. On Mr. Layton's recommendation, Nycole Turmel was selected and confirmed in the role as Interim Leader of the Opposition.

Fast forward to this week and the NDP is again the story. However, this time it is the revelations that Ms. Turmel was a supporter of the Bloc since 2006 and that she only relinquished her Bloc membership to run for the NDP which are the focus of politics watchers.

Cue the duelling talking points of spinners woken from their summer slumbers.

From my perspective, there are two stories here. The first is one of judgement and whether the NDP (and Mr. Layton in particular) failed to properly consider how these revelations would play out. The second story is about how we consider party allegiance and support in a modern democracy, and whether we are too quick to judge.

It's about the NDP's judgement...

By all accounts, Ms. Turmel's previous support for the Bloc was known by Mr. Layton and his leadership team. It was also known that she was a long-time supporter of the NDP.

In many respects, this is understandable as both are traditionally strong supporters of organized labour. Moreover, NDP and Bloc positions in many areas related to social policy and social justice are quite similar.

The principal (and not inconsequential) distinction is on the question of national unity. This is where judgement comes into play.

Having witnessed the past two and half years of Canadian politics where the government was always quick to attack what it saw as a separatist-socialist coalition, one could argue that the NDP hierarchy should have been more sensitive as to how all of this would play out.

This is a very important time for the NDP as they adjust to their new role as Official Opposition. Consistency, staying on message and not letting internal issues become the story are important objectives as they look to develop their brand as the government-in-waiting.

Knowing this, the NDP hierarchy should have taken greater care to insulate themselves from the attacks the party and its interim leader are now facing. Should this persist into the fall and Mr. Layton's return is delayed for however long, the party will have been wounded by something completely avoidable.

Are we judgemental?

The second story is less about the NDP and more about the reaction of the other parties, and the eagerness with which fingers are pointed and judgement is made.

- In every election since 1993, all parties have eagerly sought the votes of Quebecers who in the past voted for the Bloc. In so doing they did not seem concerned about what political allegiances these voters may have had in the past.

- From 2006-2008, the Conservatives expended great effort and public money on currying favour with a portion of the Quebec electorate which was more nationalist in nature. Their goal was to try re-build the Mulroney-era coalition of the West and soft-nationalists in Quebec. In so doing, they were not particularly concerned with past allegiances.

- Many Conservatives were supportive of the ADQ, given its more conservative economic agenda - despite the fact that the ADQ was lead by a member of the "Oui" campaign in the 1995 referendum.

- The Liberals welcomed back a former BQ member (Jean Lapierre) and appointed him to Cabinet (Transport), while Liza Frulla (former Minister of Canadian Heritage) was open about voting yes in the 1980 referendum.

The simple fact is that in Quebec politics, for a variety of reasons, you are going to have a sizeable number of people who have supported both the federalist and separatist parties - often for reasons which have little or nothing to do with federalism or separatism.

If this reality does not make one's vote less desirable, it should not let one's candidacy or leadership be attacked in the manner it has been.


The NDP should have foreseen this week's circus and either avoided it or got out ahead of it. That they did not shows a lapse in judgement which one hopes does not set them off in September on the wrong foot - we need a strong Official Opposition.

However, to say that they should have foreseen the reaction should not validate that reaction. There is an element of hypocrisy and a tendency to be judgemental in the talking points and talking heads we have seen today.

As our society changes, our politics and views about parties will change. I suspect that there will be more movement and coalescing around issues, and less iron-clad party support in the future. Are we ready for it?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Taxing Questions

Over the coming days, we will learn whether U.S. lawmakers have been able to reach a compromise on how best to tackle the federal deficit. Already this week we have seen both President Obama and the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, make their respective pitches to Americans.

While all sides agree that spending needs to be curtailed, there are differing views as to by how much and in what areas. That there are differing views on government spending is normal and in fact healthy. We are about to embark on a similar such debate here in Canada.

However, where the divide between the two sides is more pronounced and the debate potentially less healthy is on the question of taxes. More specifically, should taxes be increased to bolster government revenues?

The Democrats would favour some increases as part of what the President has called a balanced approach. The Republicans favour no increases. At all.

This intransigence on the question of taxes, while rooted in the Republican mindset, is becoming further entrenched due to the presence of the Tea Party - a group which is fast becoming the conscience of Republican party. Republican lawmakers have both an eye forward to the 2012 elections and the memories of the 2010 elections, and know that they need the support of the Tea Party.

On or before August 2, we will have a better sense as to how this conflict of views plays out. In the weeks that follow, we will also see how the markets, rating agencies and the public respond.

As we watch this all unfold, it is useful to consider whether there are any lessons for Canada. To date, the discussion as far as Canada is concerned has been about the parallels between what is happening in the U.S. today and what happened in Canada in the 1990s, when we embarked on a deficit reduction program.

To be sure there are useful comparisons that can be made, particularly as it relates to how to implement program cuts. However, the area which interests me and which I think we need to consider more fully in Canada is the question of taxes.

The Conservative Party of Canada does not favour tax increases - quite the opposite. Their long-term focus is on further reducing taxes. This is the mindset that drove the GST cuts, and is the mindset which will further govern how they manage Canada's economy.

There are real similarities here with the Republican position. Unfortunately, in the U.S. this position has over the past three decades effectively taken off of the table one of the major tools available to a government to manage the affairs of state. Pity the politician in the U.S. who openly contemplates a tax increase, regardless of the need it could serve.

Unfortunately, this "stigmatization" of taxes is becoming more and more a part of our political discourse in Canada. We are not far from the point where the merits of a policy initiative or course of action take a back seat to rhetoric on taxes.

When considering any new initiative, costs have to be considered and choices need to be made. One of the choices should be around whether taxes are an appropriate and effective means of funding an initiative. The U.S. has taken this off of the table, which in part has fueled the crisis in which they find themselves.

A lesson for us? We would do ourselves a favour in Canada if we pulled back from the current path we are on, and resist the temptation to take taxes off of the table. Good policy requires a thoughtful consideration of all of the options.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The NDP Needs Jack, But So Does Canada

Earlier today Official Opposition Leader Jack Layton announced that he is temporarily stepping aside to receive treatment for a second bout of cancer. Both the announcement and the appearance of Mr. Layton surprised many, as he appeared to be in fine form as recently as June when Parliament broke for its summer break.

The immediate reaction can be broken into two categories. The first was sympathy and concern for the well-being of someone who is respected in politics. Canadians, by and large, like Mr. Layton - his enthusiasm, positivity, and ability to be committed to his principles without being blinded by them.

The second category of reaction is more focused on the impact this could have on the NDP. As one commentator noted, he has become more than just the leader of the NDP - for many voters he is the NDP. While all parties thrive or falter based on the popularity of the leader to some degree, the story is more pronounced for the NDP.

The success of the NDP in May was largely driven, particularly in Quebec, by the appeal and popularity of Mr. Layton. And now he is temporarily stepping aside in what continues to be a very formative period for this new NDP.

For caucus members who should still be basking in the glow of their May breakthrough, the immediate future holds innumerable questions about Mr. Layton's health. Similarly, for a party which should be looking to the future with hope, there is a danger of becoming somewhat introspective. This is the challenge with having a leader-based narrative - they become the story.

But for me, the issue is broader than that. Mr. Layton is not just the leader of the NDP. He is the Leader of the Official Opposition and the principal critic of government.

His role tasks him with the responsibility of holding the government to account; with offering Canadians an alternative perspective on how their money is spent, their environment is protected, their security ensured and their country governed.

As we consider the challenges, opportunities and choices in front of us, we need strong voices to share all perspectives and alternatives. You don't have to agree with his politics to see that Mr. Layton offers such a voice.

So yes, the NDP needs Mr. Layton back and ready for action. But so does Canada.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

It's My Planet Too

Imagine you owned a home and that home required major work. A new roof, foundation repair, something structural and unquestionably expensive. You know it will be hard on your wallet to get it done, so you decide not to - even though the reasons for doing it are compelling and the cost of not doing anything could be far greater down the road.

Instead you decide to spend money on aesthetic improvements, like painting, or on amenities. Things that make you feel better when you are in the house, but do nothing to address your real problems. An outside observer would call this decision-making shortsighted.

Heads-up Canada, this is exactly how we are making climate change policy in our country.

Jeffrey Simpson has just written a good piece in the Globe and Mail on how Australia is trying to come to grips with the climate change question. His piece accurately describes the challenges a government faces when trying to tackle a long-term problem with solutions which are seen as expensive, and which do not deliver a "visible" benefit for some time.

Canadian policy-makers have been trying to get their head around this issue since the 1990s, with little success. Yes we ratified Kyoto, but did not take any of the difficult decisions that meeting our commitments required. We have done small things to improve and promote energy efficiency, but have studiously avoided meaningful debate on the oil sands and pricing carbon.

Sadly, despite being a country with a lot at stake, our federal government has played at the margins on an issue which could define the next century. Policy-makers have mastered the art of having "half the conversation". Some examples...

- The government has made great fanfare about its plans for asserting and protecting our Arctic sovereignty, yet has not highlighted the fact that climate change and its effect on sea lanes has helped to make the arctic such a pressing issue.

- Tremendous effort has been expended dealing with natural disaster at home and abroad, but there has been little if anything from government about the role climate change is playing on weather patterns and disasters which are becoming less freak and more the norm.

- Energy policy, and in particular discussions on the oil sands, rightly highlights the security aspect of Canadian energy but wrongly fails to acknowledge the trade-off in terms of the environmental impact of oil sands development.

By only having half the conversation, our policy makers are limiting discussion about the linkages between climate change and a host of public policy issues. Why? Because of the potential political ramifications. Those who do try are attacked and marginalized, first by their political opponents and then by a public which too often is more concerned with the here and now and not the long game.

Not for the first time, it may come down to the provinces to move the yard sticks in Canada. Lead by British Columbia and Quebec, the provinces (and their stateside colleagues) may be able to implement policies which demonstrate leadership and de-mystify the economic impact arguments of this opposed to taking real action.

As promising as that may be, it also serves as another indictment of federal policy on an issue which is no longer emerging. Climate change is here and Canadians need to see the Government of Canada tackling the issue with the seriousness it deserves.

So to MPs currently on summer break, please take a moment to consider what climate change might mean for the people in your riding. Think about it from a health issue, consider the economics (short-term and long-term), consider the impact of weather on food production. Think about your role as a steward for this country; about being a government holding Canada in trust for current and future generations.

Please. It's my planet too!
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