Wednesday, April 27, 2011


By this time, virtually everything you read concerning #elxn41 and the final days before the vote is squarely focused on the rise of the NDP. We are seeing discussion of their national numbers, the story in Quebec and the growing sense that Jack Layton could replace Mr. Ignatieff as the Official Leader of the Opposition.

Yes, it's been quite a week.

For the Liberals, how the next few days play out could have a significant impact not just on how they do on May 2, but on their future. So, what happened?

To start, the Liberals tacked left and looked to make the campaign about a choice between the Conservative agenda and one which was more squarely focused on families. While they quite rightly argued that a sound economy should be rooted in strong a social foundation, their message did not catch.

This isn't to say that people don't like the message. The programme they put forward was intended to appear to NDP voters, women and students. Initially their strategy appeared to be working. They stayed on message, ran a disciplined campaign, and were receiving plaudits.

However, throughout the initial period leading up to the debates it appeared that voters were torn between the message and the messenger. Mr. Igantieff as a leader was simply not getting traction.

Queue the debates and the performance of Mr. Layton. While I was not overly impressed by him, many were - particularly in Quebec. By displaying equal measures of forcefulness and joviality, Mr. Layton looked principled and committed while Mr. Igantieff often appeared angry. It was Mr. Layton, and not Mr. Ignatieff who looked more likely to do what many Canadians want - find a way to make things work.

In hindsight, I think an element of his message was not so much "us or them", it was more "let's just get it done." In so doing, he appeared more above the fray (though not entirely).

This appears to have resonated most strongly in Quebec. If the polls are correct, the NDP could be on its way to an historic breakthrough in the province. For many, the NDP appears to offer a third way; a break from the traditional federalist-sovereignist divide.

They are offering a progressive, social democratic programme which is aligned with the views of many Quebecers. They are also increasingly speaking to a demographic that is removed from the old squabbles on national unity.

Think about this for a moment: We are 16 years removed from the last referendum, 31 years since the first referendum, 35 years since the historic PQ election and more than a generation since the Quiet Revolution.

For many voters in the province, the battles of the past are history; they represent the narrative of a different generation. The problems and opportunities of today are real and pressing and that is where they would prefer their politicians direct their energy. The Bloc looks faded in such a light; the NDP looks new and more engaged.

Of course, we still have a few days until the vote and much can happen. Ground game is an issue for the NDP, as is the possibility that the prominence of their story and the predictions of success could push people back to the Liberals. There are also real challenges with the costing of the NDP platform.

Mr. Ignatieff will hope that this proves to be the case. Despite running well and demonstrating passion and eloquence, he has been "poll axed" over the past week. Each new poll seems to make the story worse and the prospect of a bad defeat seem more likely. Momentum is a funny thing. It's hard to get, but when you do it can often take on a life of its own - a band wagon effect. When it's lost, it is very, very difficult to get back.

Mr. Layton appears to be benefitting from the former; Mr. Ignatieff suffering from the latter. One way or the other, May 2 is now shaping up to be more interesting than we thought at the outset of the campaign.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Curious Case of Canadian Complacency

This time next week, Canadian politics watchers will be sitting through their version of the Oscars or the Super Bowl. Yes, it will be election night and at the end of it we will know who won, by how much, who's in and who's out. We will then inevitably shift the the conversation towards asking "now what?"

With an eye towards the dust settling on #elxn41, I have found myself thinking about the notion of complacency and the impact it is having on our politics. This is not a new thought for me, but I think that events during this campaign and in fact in the months preceding it have given it fresh life in my thinking about the challenges we face in Canada.

Simply put, complacency is challenge number one. If we do not (a) understand it and (b) address it, then we are limiting our ability as a country to address all of the other challenges on the national list. And if we fail to re-set our levels of engagement, we will never truly be able to seize the opportunities in front of us.

The first question I ask myself is "why are we the way we are?" From where does our complacency originate? I have a couple of observations.

First, I believe in Canada we suffer from a form of economic complacency. Geography dealt us a strong hand. We have an abundance of natural wealth - historical wealth (lumber, fish, minerals) and future-oriented wealth (energy, potash). Geography has also graced Canada by virtue of our proximity to the U.S.

This good fortune has pre-disposed the country towards having a resource-based economy. It also contributed to the growth of a branch-plant economy which benefitted from the risks taken by others and by their entrepreneurial mind set.

I don't mean to suggest that we have succeeded or prospered by accident or without effort. Quite the contrary - our history has many stories of enterprise and vision.

However, I do think that as a country we have been content to reap the benefits of our geography when we could have done more to invest in them. We've done well, but we could have done so much better. A Canadian parable of the talents, if you will.

Second, I believe we suffer from political complacency. We believe in government, but don't hold it to account. We know what we want, but assume someone else will figure out how to deliver it. Our lack of understanding about how our system of government works has been laid bare in the past 18 months - sadly, at the very time such understanding is genuinely needed.

Why? I think there are a few reasons.

The dominance of majority governments - particularly through most of the 70s, all of the 80s and and 90s and the first half of the 21st century - has given Canadians the "luxury" of not needing to focus on what happens in Ottawa in the periods between elections. Yes, the noteworthy items (free trade, national unity) drew the requisite attention, but stability and predictability meant we did not need to be as engaged. We did not need to understand the system under which we are governed.

We also have an approach to policy in Canada which, while perhaps appropriate, can also be mind-numbing. The American theorist Charles Lindblom called it the "science of muddling through" and what he meant is that policy is typically made incrementally, in small steps. It is endlessly worked and re-worked.

This has been the Canadian model. Slow, reasoned, cautious? Yes. But engaging? No. This approach can work when one has a sense of destination or a vision. Whatever you want to say about the U.S., there is a strong sense of America.

However, in Canada I think we have incrementalism without the vision; without the sense of purpose. We have failed to tie the various policy streams together under a shared sense of what it means to Canada.

So what do we have?

Prosperity driven by geography, political stability, and an incremental approach to policy that lacks vision and common purpose. Taken together, I believe these characteristics have engendered a complacency mind set in Canada. I think they have shaped our levels of engagement, affected our see on the role of government, and limited our sense of the role we can and should play in our democracy.

Today, one week before an election that will one way or the other shape how we view government, what are we going to do about it? Are we prepared to remain complacent? Or are we ready to step forward and become more active participants in our democracy?

The atrophy of complacency or the momentum that flows from engagement? It is our decision.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

How's the view (from outside the bubble)?

Having spent a few days outside of Ottawa I've had an opportunity to hear what people are saying - what they think about the election and the various campaigns so far. My take is that this election is a non-event for many.

Why do I say this? First, getting people to share their views on the election has been akin to pulling teeth. "It's not something I have thought about..." has been a familiar refrain.

Second, for those that have thought about it the sense is often one of apathy. For these people, the refrain tends to be "what does it matter what I think, nothing changes." The people in these first two camps have tended to represent the majority of the views I have heard.

For a guy watching politics, this can be depressing stuff. It shows a lack of engagement and interest in an election which could, depending on its outcome, have a major impact on a range of issues which I believe these are people are concerned about or in which they will have a fair degree of interest.

For the parties, this type of view also favours one person: Mr. Harper. A lack of engagement means a lack of interest in change. It means that the criticisms leveled at the government have not resonated.

That's the "above the fold" story. What about "below the fold?" First, the NDP story that is dominating the national political discourse does not appear to be playing out on the ground in London. While there is one NDP incumbent, don't count on any other candidates joining caucus.

Second, Mr. Ignatieff as a person does not appear to resonate with many voters, even when his policies do. I have had Conservative attack lines about Mr. Ignatieff "being in it for himself" recited to me by decided Liberal voters. This is not a positive sign for the Liberals.

Third, there are people who understand the opposition refrain about Mr. Harper and his approach to politics and democracy. However, they appear prepared to look past this and give him the nod due to concerns with the alternative.

So after a few days outside of the bubble of Ottawa, my take is that the majority of people here are not seized by this election or by any of the narratives being presented to them. This bodes well for Mr. Harper, but perhaps not well-enough to deliver him what he covets most - a majority.

Friday, April 22, 2011

London Calling

The notion of life inside the Ottawa-bubble and outside of it has been discussed from time to time during this campaign. What captures the attention of people in Ottawa, or those who tend to follow politics, is often different than what seizes most Canadians.

With that in mind, your intrepid blogger has decided to temporarily pack-up and burst out of the bubble. Good-bye Ottawa and its "corridors of power"; hello London, Ontario and its suburbs, schools, farms and factories.

To borrow from the the Clash (who borrowed from the BBC), "This is London Calling."

There are three ridings in London (West, North-Centre and Fanshawe), and a number of others in the areas of southwestern Ontario that surround the city. Within the city, the three ridings are split evenly among the Conservatives, Liberals and the NDP. Outside, it is more or less a sea of blue.

Over the next couple of days, I am going to do my best to learn what matters most to the people here. Do the main points of the Liberal narrative resonate - do people care about the contempt vote and the democracy questions? Are the priorities in the Liberal platform their priorities?

Conversely, is the Conservative narrative getting traction? Is this seen as an unnecessary election? Are people worried about a coalition? Do they feel that the economy would be jeopardized by a change in government and that we therefore need a Conservative majority?

Finally, is the NDP story that has been filling the political airwaves evident here? Do we see momentum behind Jack Layton and if so is it sustainable over the last week of the campaign? As of now we are not seeing it, but remember London was the home of David Peterson and it went NDP in 1990...

Right now, local polling and the sentiment I have picked up seems to suggest that London and the surrounding areas will vote more or less as they did in 2008. Interestingly, the few ridings that are considered too close to call are currently held by the Conservatives and could flip to either the Liberals or the NDP.

Some things to consider:

1. The university and college dynamic. There are lot of students in this area (Western and Fanshawe in London, plus Guelph, Waterloo and Laurier), and we are seeing evidence that the youth vote is more active in 2011. Whether and how this group votes could be very decisive.

2. Local issues. In London, there are issues concerning possible funding for a local aircraft manufacturer (Diamond Jet) which people feel may hinder Ed Holder's re-election as the Conservative candidate. In Simcoe-Grey, we have the Helena Guergis story. How issues like this play out on May 2 may have more impact than views on learning passports, corporate tax cuts and the G20.

3. Turn-out and ground game. I don't have the figures on turn-out in 2008, so I am not certain whether the city and area was above, below or more or less consistent with the national result of 58.8. However, the demographic in the area - London in particular - is interesting. We have a strong mix of seniors and youth, "born and bred" and immigrants, white-collar and blue collar. Which groups are engaged and decide to vote will be decisive, which puts pressure on the local riding associations to know who their voters are and to get them out.

So, with that in mind off I go to talk, listen and get a sense as to what we can expect from a part of Ontario that is conservative by nature, if not always by political affiliation. My sense is that the people of London and southwestern Ontario will throw us few surprises.

We'll see if I am right...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Jack in the (ballot) box?

Many will have woken up this morning to the news that the NDP is on the move up in the polls. One has them leading in Quebec (CROP), another has them tied nationally with the Liberals (EKOS) and all show a positive trending for Mr. Layton's party.

I say Mr. Layton's party for a reason. A huge driver of the move appears to be the popularity and credibility voters see in Mr. Layton. This was something that we started seeing after the debates (particularly the French debate) and which has been slowly building over the past week.

So what should we watch for?

1. Sustainability - will the NDP be able to keep these numbers up for the final 12 days?

2. Ground game. Getting your vote out in places where you expected to do well is one thing. Getting it out in places where you really didn't think you had a chance is another. Is the NDP ready for election day in, for example, Quebec?

3. The Liberal numbers in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. If these continue to fall, they have a problem.

Keep an eye on for their usual, excellent analysis. As of this morning, they are not seeing these polling numbers translating into seat changes, but it make take some time. Again, sustainability is critical.

All to say, watch this space to see whether things revert to type or whether voters think of Jack at the ballot box.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bursting Bubbles and Ground Games

Election day is now 12 days away, and the campaign is heading into the final phase. Between now and May 2nd we will have holidays (Passover and Easter), which will further cut into campaign schedules as candidates become increasingly focused on two things: polls and the clock.

When I look ahead and start consider what we might expect to see over these remaining days, I come down to a few things that I will be looking for.

1. Is the Liberal message getting traction; are they bursting out of the bubble? A huge part of their campaign has focused on the transgressions (real and otherwise) of the Conservatives. For their part, the Conservatives have tried to portray any accusations as process-related, Ottawa-centric non-events. Their gamble has been that they won't resonate in a meaningful way with the average Canadian.

The Liberal "rise up" refrain and the fact that they are persisting with it (and actually looking to take it to more people through a just-announced 30 minute "special" on the weekend), suggests they feel they are getting traction. If they are right, we have something interesting on our hands. If not, their chances move from slim to something less.

2. Building on the point above is the Liberal (and to a lesser extent NDP) message on health care resonating with voters. This is definitely an "outside the bubble" issue, and one that essentially comes down to trust. The Liberals have come out hard and need this to work, particularly among women voters - a key demographic for them.

3. How will we know what's happening with respect to points 1 and 2: the polls and the behaviour of the parties. An important thing to look for over the remaining days is whether the Leaders are staying on message, or whether they appear to be in "spray and pray" mode. If it's the former, it suggests that polling (and in particular their internal polling) is telling them they are getting traction. If it's the latter, they are in damage-control mode.

Also look at where the Leaders are spending their time. If you see Mr. Ignatieff spending a lot of time on the island of Montreal, or in downtown Toronto know that they are playing defence. If, however, you see him in ridings that could be turned to the Liberals it's because they feel they have a real chance. Similarly, if Mr. Harper is with his incumbents he is playing defence. If he's in Liberal ridings, he feels he has a chance.

As for the polls, as mentioned previously pay particular focus to the provincial results. The national average is becoming less meaningful. The real story is what is happening in the provinces - tightening in BC, Ontario and Quebec in particular.

4. Look at how parties are approaching the NDP. This applies to the Conservatives (in BC), the Liberals (in Ontario) and the Bloc (in Quebec..though you probably knew that one!). Messaging in respect of the NDP and Jack Layton will let you know who's worried, where and why.

The last thing I want to mention concerns the ground game. At some point in the very near future, it will cease to be about platforms, spin, talking points, visits, media coverage and twitter. It will become all about the ground game and the ability of a party to get its vote out.

The Conservatives are very strong in this area. A huge part of their messaging - in campaigns and while governing - has been focused on their base, keeping them energized and ready. That's why they are such good fund-raisers and that is an advantage for them on May 2.

Going into the campaign, this was an area of concern for me when I looked at the Liberals. Today, I am not as concerned. Throughout this campaign they have demonstrated a surprisingly strong ability to mobilize their people. They are also showing themselves to be more adept at using social media; something which, combined with their "rise up" message may be more likely to mobilize the youth vote.

So, what am I looking for? Bursting bubbles and solid ground games. What about you?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Confidence Games

I just watched Mr. Ignatieff's interview with Peter Mansbridge, and would say it's a fair bet that his comments on coalitions and how our system of government works will get most of the air time. However, in listening to his comments it occurred to me that over the past 2 years we have allowed rhetoric and spin to obscure our view of how one forms a government.

One's ability to govern flows from one's ability to hold the confidence of the House of Commons. That's it. The election simply populates that House with MPs representing parties - we elect MPs from which a government is formed.

After the election, the party with the most seats will be given an opportunity to form a government. They will do this by demonstrating to the Governor-General that they can obtain the confidence of the House. If they have 155 seats or more, this is easy - it's a majority government. If they have fewer, it becomes more complicated. Doable, but more difficult. That's the minority government.

The scenario being discussed now is what happens if Mr. Harper forms another minority government and at some point - perhaps on a budget - it is defeated. Such a defeat would indicate that the government no longer has the confidence of the House; that the majority of the elected officials did not agree with the proposals put before them.

The question put to Mr. Igantieff is whether at that point, would he try to form a government. Would he propose that he could maintain the confidence of a majority of MPs.

Here's the thing - there is nothing wrong with this scenario. This is how the system is supposed to work. Yes, the viability of his option is something that should be considered. The steps he would need to take to establish and maintain confidence would need to be understood for the Governor-General to offer him the opportunity.

But aside from that, this is the way our Parliamentary democracy works. Unfortunately our 2-year fascination with the word coalition has pushed this simple fact to the back pages. We have allowed what is appropriate and legitimate to be characterized as dangerous and illegitimate.

Now I fully expect that the spin machines will seize on Mr. Igantieff's remarks; that they will try suggest that it is he who has a "hidden agenda." This is unfortunate.

As voters, we should possess an understanding of our system and how it works. By informing ourselves we can take a step away from spin and towards engagement.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Poll Vault: The Story of the NDP

Up until now, the commentary on #elxn41 (including here in the ivory towers of A Guy Watching Politics) has focused on the battle between the Conservatives and the Liberals. One is the party of the government; the other the party of the government in waiting.

So far, so good. It all made sense.

While nothing has changed the fact that the next Prime Minister will come from one of these parties, events over the past seven days have changed the landscape.

The strength of the NDP was always going to be an important variable. We knew that going into this campaign. What's interesting is not that the NDP are an important player, it's the shift over the past week.

For the first two weeks or so, the NDP had a poor campaign. They received limited visibility and their message was being drowned out by the Liberal and Conservative campaigns. Heading into the debates, a major talking point was the falling levels of NDP support, particularly in vote-rich Ontario.

That was certainly the top-line story. Below this line, we also had the story of the NDP polling well in Quebec. Something that read well and was interesting, but perhaps not compelling given the broader national narrative.

Enter the debates.

I am the first to admit that I am not a fan of Mr. Layton. He's affable and passionate - I get that. However, his message and style don't resonate with me. I find it sometimes too flippant and the economics too idealistic. All said I'd have a beer with him, but I don't think I would vote for him.

However, putting aside my views, I think during the debates (particularly in French) he did come across as natural - impassioned, interested, and at times above the fray. I think that resonated with voters in Quebec who are tired of the same old struggle, and with voters in Ontario who had moved Liberal in the first two weeks.

The result is that over the past few days we have seen an NDP "poll vault." They have reversed the losses in Ontario (at the expense of the Liberals) and have made gains in Quebec (at the expense primarily of the Bloc, but also to the detriment of the others). Add to this the resonance that the anti-HST campaign is having in BC and you have the potential for something meaningful.

Today Angus-Reid had the Liberals and NDP both at 25% nationally. Other polls show a similar resurgence, though not a tie with the Liberals.

The two weeks left are an eternity. The NDP numbers nationally may not mean much in the grand scheme of things. However, the NDP numbers in Ontario, Quebec and BC could be significant. The question is how?

Will this last? Will it result in greater vote-splitting on the left, allowing the Conservatives to come up the middle? Or do the polling numbers translate into NDP seats? Put another way, how is the Conservative quest for a majority affected by a resurgent NDP? What does this mean for the Liberals?

Tell me what you think. How will this affect the final two weeks of the campaign?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

At least you have your health...

With a little more than two weeks to go before voting day, the issue of health care has been generating more and more attention. This should not be surprising.

- Health care has remained near or at the top of the list of issues Canadians have deemed the most important to them.

- At a time where government austerity of some sort is going to be needed to address the deficit, how government spending on health care might be affected is a topic that needs to be on the table.

- With two weeks to go and the Conservatives still polling strongly, the Opposition parties will look to tap into public concerns about health care and possible funding cuts to gain support.

Let me start with the following observation: it should not take an election to prompt discussion of our health care system, how it is funded and the upcoming challenges we are facing.

This is already the single largest draw on provincial revenues. And transfers to the provinces from the federal government related to health care represent the largest share of government transfers.

Canadians value it. Provinces are responsible for it. All governments pay for it.

Add to that the demographic realities we are facing and the only surprise is that it took nearly three weeks for health care to "rise up" to the top of list of issues being discussed in #elxn41. Yet there it is, featuring in attack ads and duelling talking points and tweets. Here are some of my thoughts.

1. I would start by noting that the Health Accord - the agreement struck between the Martin Liberal government and the provinces - will expire in 2014. As I noted in a blog post last year, if you thought saving GM and Chrysler were expensive wait until the bill comes in for the next iteration of this accord.

The fact that this Accord is: (a) soon to expire; and (b) the big ticket of big ticket items was apparently not sufficient for it to feature prominently in the platforms of the Conservatives and Liberals. As a result, we have seen the parties simply reaffirm their commitment to the Accord and its funding during scrums. As Andrew Coyne has noted, we are essentially making policy on the fly.

While I favour a commitment to funding, I have to admit that I am dismayed by the lack of discussion about how Canada is going to address the challenges demographics will present to our system. In effect, we are committing funding without having really discussed the demand, the needs of tomorrow. This is not the best way to make policy, and all parties are guilty of going down this path.

2. Despite this being identified as their most important issue, I am not sure Canadians really understand how the system works and how it is funded. In a 2009 posting on this blog (*sigh* has it been that long?), I wrote about the division of powers and how we have the system we have -

We have a system in which responsibility for delivering health care resides with the provinces, but the core means for generating the funds necessary for running it reside with the federal government. One has the responsibility, the other the cash.

Over the years, this has been addressed through funding agreements (cash and tax points) from Ottawa to the provinces. Unfortunately, from my perspective previous discussions and the subsequent agreements have focused on cash being the solution. The dialogue almost seems to be along the lines of: "If there was more money available, the current problems (wait times, access to equipment, etc.) would go away."

Money is only a solution to problem if you have properly and honestly considered the problem, and discussed all solutions. I am not sure that this has been done.

The result? Commitments to funding, accusations focusing on past behaviour and warnings about future agendas. Sadly, none of this will do anything to address health care. None of this is showing the public that there is a real willingness to do something about the area we have said matters most to us.

3. Building on the point above, we also have the Canada Health Act which essentially lays out the principles the federal government expects the provinces to adhere to in exchange for federal money.

But do Canadians really understand the Act, what it says, how the provinces interpret it? Again, I am not sure they do. Yet this is what is raised to them during campaigns and speeches. It would be more meaningful when one says they will "defend the Canada Health Act" if the audience knew what that meant.

So at the end of all of this, here is what I see:

- it's valued;
- it's expensive;
- different levels of government are responsible for it; and
- it's about to face some serious challenges - in the context of our fiscal position and more importantly in the context of our changing demographics.

In the end, we have to talk about it. Together. It can't be a line in a scrum intended to take the issue of the table. It can't be an attack ad. It has to be a discussion.

Are we prepared for it?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Modest Proposal (for the debates)

The two debates scheduled for #elxn41 have been concluded, though we still have 18 days to go. It struck me the other night that we can do better.

Putting aside all of the problems with "the consortium" (is it supposed to sound so nefarious?) and the way the debates are actually structured in terms of questions and topics, isn't it time we looked at the number of debates that are held and the location of the debates?

On Tuesday night, as the English language debate started in Ottawa it was 4:00 in the afternoon in Vancouver! Think about that for a moment. We hear so much about the growing importance of British Columbia, and the need for parties to make real gains in the province and break the typical 3-way split.

So what do we do? We hold the debate - one of only 2 times to see the Leaders engage with one another and lay out their vision for the country - while most people are at work or on a commute. It was not much better for Albertans, as the debate kicked off at 5:00 pm there (though Alberta is far from being a battleground given Conservative hegemony).

With that in mind, a proposal for next time:

- A minimum of three debates (two in English and one in French)
- One English debate to be held in Ontario, the other in British Columbia
- Debates are scheduled over three successive weeks; no more of this 24-48 hour turnaround

I would also propose the following, which is perhaps more controversial.

The first say 75 minutes or so would feature only the Leaders of the two largest parties - barring the unforeseen the Conservatives and the Liberals. These are the only two Leaders with any real chance of becoming Prime Minister. Let's hear from them about their respective visions for the country, and let them make their pitch to lead.

For the remaining 45 minutes the Leaders of the other main parties would be invited to participate. This would include those with representation in the House of Commons at dissolution (in the current scenario the NDP and the Bloc), but also those with significant levels of national support (the Greens in this scenario).

I know that for many (read: the NDP) this would not be acceptable. However, whether we like it or not Canadians are being presented with a choice between two prospective Prime Ministers. I for one want to hear them debate one another.

If this has to come at the expense of parties which may hold the balance of power, so be it. It's a trade-off/sacrifice I am prepared to make.

Finally, I would like to see the moderator(s) more engaged. There should be an opportunity for them to call the Leaders out on inconsistencies (we see enough of these through the fact checking and reality checks in play), personal attacks, etc. They should be more than timekeepers.

What are the odds of any of this happening? Likely pretty slim. Networks are being asked to give up air time for these debates and will therefore want to continue to control the structure. Parties will also favour the conservative approach currently used - it's safer.

I just think we deserve a better opportunity to have the choice presented and argued before us. What about you?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011's more than an inconvenience

The first of the debates scheduled for #elxn41 concluded last night, and this morning the papers, blogs and twittersphere are filled with commentary, reaction, spin and pronouncements about winners and losers.

Like many, I watched the debate and did not see anything that I thought would move a sizable number of votes one way or the other. Bases were shored up, though I am not sure much more occurred.

With this in mind, I opted against using today's post to prepare my own summary and instead want to focus on one of the discussion points that struck me.

Throughout the debate when topics such as Parliament, coalitions and the contempt finding were discussed, Mr. Harper conveyed what to me was essentially a tone of irritation. It was a consistent non-acceptance of the views expressed by the majority of the House of Commons.

"I don't accept these truths" was one of the lines used by Mr. Harper in response to points raised about the contempt finding. Not, "I don't agree" or "we have different views". "I don't accept."

Democracy is more than an inconvenience. It should not be portrayed as an irritant, or something that gets in your way. Yet this is basically what Mr. Harper was saying.

Democracy takes work and demands compromise. To function properly it requires information and transparency - they are like oxygen. Within our system of government the notions of accountability and responsibility are supposed to be paramount.

These principles are not meant to be a high standard we hope our leaders attain; they should be the bare minimum we accept from the people we elect to make decisions on our behalf, to spend our money, to commit our troops, to be stewards of the public trust, and to govern us.

I did not hear that last night from Mr. Harper. I heard irritation and a sense of being inconvenienced. I heard that he wants a majority so he doesn't have to be bothered or distracted from governing how he wants to govern.

He wants to do his job - fine. But he did not accept that the debate, dialogue and compromise so sorely lacking from our political process is a fundamental part of his job.

These are not "nice to haves", and are not impediments to managing an economy or considering how to provide sustainable health care. On the contrary, they are pre-requisites to governing.

I hope that this theme is picked up tonight in the second debate and in the commentary that follows over the remainder of the campaign, though I am not sure.

In expressing his views the way he did, Mr. Harper is counting on possible election-fatigue as being a factor for voters. He is also counting on voters seeing these things as "Ottawa issues" and not mainstreet issues.

Is he right? What are you prepared to accept?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Tell me why I don't like Mondays...

Well this has been an interesting day. One of those days that really goes someplace different than you had originally thought it would.

Normally the day before a debate is a comparatively quiet day, as the Leaders prepare. This should have been the case today, particularly as we no longer have a day in between the English and French debates. For the Leaders, it should have been a day spent in an intense mix of exam cramming AND rehearsing their lines for opening night.

What is it they say about the best laid plans?

As you no doubt know by now, a draft of the Auditor General's report on spending related to the G8/G20 meetings has been leaked. The leaked draft and a subsequent version are critical of the government's transparency and accuracy with respect to spending on the summits (though the language in the latter report is apparently less scathing, the rebuke and observations are clear).

Bottom line: Parliament was not given the information it needed to consider how public funds were being used, despite this being its job.

Added to this is a letter that the Auditor General sent to the government criticizing government MPs for misquoting her in a Committee report (something for which the Conservatives have apologized). If you know anything about the Office of the Auditor General, you know one thing: This is not a good thing to do.

So a day that was set aside for preparations instead became a day laden with spin, rhetoric, accusations about the use of public funds, and questions about transparency and the treatment of protected information.

Of course the simple thing, and in fact the thing all profess to want, is to release the final report (it would have been released on April 5, but the election intervened). The thing is, you need a Parliament in order to table such a report. As we currently have no Parliament, we have no report.

The result? We all start filling in the blanks.

The question is what impact all of this will this have on the narrative of #elxn41. In this case, I am looking to three blocks of the electorate.

1. The undecided

Consider this - there are somewhere between 15-20% of the electorate who are undecided. There are many reasons one is undecided, including lack of focus or engagement. This story can create engagement where there hasn't been any. This does not favour the Conservatives.

The undecided will also be comprised of those who have been engaged but genuinely do not know how they will vote. Something was holding them back, and if it was because they had some doubt about the Conservatives, today's events could have an impact.

2. The key battlegrounds

This is not an issue that is going to have a significant impact on voters in Alberta, parts of the Prairies, etc. Where the Conservatives are strong, they are strong and their voters are committed. But what about Ontario and in particular the coveted 905 area? The combination of a Liberal campaign that is exceeding expectations (albeit low ones), falling NDP support and today's developments could be enough to give lift to the Liberals.

I am also curious to see how this plays in Quebec. The Auditor General's views are taken seriously in a province not that far removed from the sponsorship scandal. Will this shore up the Bloc, and if so at who's expense?

There are also a number of ridings which were already going to be very close. When a riding is decided by 1-999 votes, issues like this can be significant.

3. The Non-Voter

Election day turn-out has been falling in successive elections. More and more Canadians, particularly young Canadians, are not voting. Apathy plays a big part. Will this change things? No. But will the series of events over the past few weeks have a cumulative impact and get this vote out? Will a younger voter start to draw a line from say the last prorogation through to today? The Liberals will hope so.


The Boomtown Rats had a big hit with a song entitled, "I Don't like Mondays". The coming days will tell us how much this sentiment resonates with the Conservatives.

So faithful reader(s), over to you:

- Will this have an impact? If so, how?
- Is this significant, or sound and fury signifying nothing?
- What do you think?

Let's have a conversation...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Gee Mom I Wanna Go, Back to Ontario...

It is the electoral mother-lode in Canada. With 106 seats it is, for all intents and purposes, the make or break province for a prospective government. Ontario.

Only once in our recent election history has a party formed a majority government without Ontario. That was in 1988, when Mr. Mulroney was able to overcome the province's concerns with the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. Other than that, it's been simple. Take a strong plurality of seats in Ontario and you win.

Ontario is what gave Mr. Chretien his three majority governments. It enabled Mr. Martin to hold onto power in the post-sponsorship scandal environment. And it will be key to both Mr. Harper and Mr. Igantieff's prospects this time around.

So what are we seeing in this battleground province?

I noted yesterday that we are spending a lot of time looking at the top line, national polling results. These are interesting and fun (yes, I am a geek) to watch. However, too much focus on the national number can skew how we view an election campaign. It's like reading the headline but not the article - you get a picture, but by no means the whole picture. As a result, you can miss things.

Nationally, we see some consistency to the polling numbers. Generally, results show a 8-10 Conservative lead. Ok, fine.

However, if we look at Ontario we are seeing the results getting closer. Some polls are seeing a small Conservative lead, others show a statistical tie. This compares with the start of the campaign, at which time the Conservatives enjoyed a strong lead in the province.

What's driving the shift? A big factor is the falling support for the NDP. One element of the Liberal narrative over the first two weeks has been the portrayal of the party as the only national party able to stand up against the Conservatives. That, coupled with Mr. Igantieff trying to take notion of the coalition off the table, I think is having an effect on the NDP voter.

Similarly, the Liberal platform is strongly aligned with many traditional NDP views in areas such as education, training and families. Again, this will be attractive to the NDP voter.

What this means on election day - the only poll that matters - remains to be seen. The Conservatives are holding their vote in the province; we are not seeing any real bleeding of their support to the Liberals. However, they are not growing in any meaningful way and may in fact be close to a ceiling.

For their part, the Liberals are shoring up their urban support and pulling support from the left. Unfortunately for them, there is not enough of it to make this in and of itself a game changer.

The result? No one can count on getting a Chretien-esque motherlode of Ontario seats on May 2. Which likely means more of the same in the next Parliament.

Of course, this assumes that the debates don't spark a shift. If Mr. Ignatieff decides to really go for it, to make the case why he should be the Prime Minister, to attack Mr. Harper and say Canada can do better with him, well that might change things. It's a risk, but it really is the only option if they want to make a real shot at winning.

So, who do you think will emerge the victor in battleground Ontario. Equally important, tell me why. What will make the difference for the Ontario voter?

P.S. For more on polling, including some great analysis you should be checking out: There's a lot of information on the blog, with regular updates and seat projections incorporating the latest polls.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Up next - from poll to poll...

I am not planning a new post until Sunday evening, so in the meantime I encourage you to take a look at the blogs listed on this site. They are offering great perspective on what's happened after 2 weeks of the campaign. Most of these bloggers are also on Twitter, so check them out there too!

One of the things on my mind is the multiple polls we are being bombarded with, and what they are (and are not) telling us. We are looking at national polls, but are in a campaign that will be won and lost in regions and ridings. The Ontario numbers in particular are key ones to watch...

More later, but in the meantime happy reading!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Making Character a Question

So, we've now had 12 days of official campaigning. From my perspective they have been a surprisingly full 12 days.

We've seen policy choices tabled and debated. We've seen a Liberal campaign team that has exceeded expectations (perhaps they were too low) and demonstrated a strong degree of professionalism and organization. And we've seen the Conservatives move from avoiding the word majority, to actively using it to tap into what they see as public election fatigue and fears of a "socialist-separatist" coalition.

Yet, for all of this after 12 days we may be starting to see character and comportment emerge as real issues.

Now for those of you (ok, both of you) who read this blog with any regularity, you may be surprised to see that I am raising this as an issue. A big focus for me over the 18 months or so has been the importance of highlighting the issues Canadians need to face as we look to position our country for the future - things like health care, the environment, productivity, and innovation.

While it has been great to see these topics getting an airing (some more than others - we need a real health care debate if only to get clarity on each party's position on the future of the health accord with the provinces!), the events of the past week may just be coming together to frame a character issue. Let's review:

- the allegations surrounding Bruce Carson
- the decision by the Conservatives to limit questions and engagement with Mr. Harper
- the treatment of perceived "non-friendly" attendees at Conservative events

Taken together, these points are providing the Liberals, NDP and BQ with real-time examples of what they have been criticizing the Conservatives for since the last election. Importantly, these parties now have what I will lazily call "non-Parliamentary" examples of what they see as the true character of the Conservatives.

In a campaign, it was unlikely that issues like obstruction in Committees, transparency, accountability, Speaker's rulings, document dumps and the like were going to resonate with the average voter. For many, these are Ottawa stories; procedural matters. This was the Conservative message.

However, in the space of a week we now have examples that voters can identify with...

- why was this man hired and who knew about his past?
- why are the reporters being kept back and their questions not being answered?
- what do you mean they kicked out a student?

The election was called following a vote of contempt in Parliament, yet the Liberals spent week one more focused on policy. Week two has started to gravitate towards the character issue, but not because of what the Liberals, NDP and BQ have done. It's because of the actions of the Conservatives. Ironically, they have made it an issue.

Through their actions they have now given the other parties the chance to link campaign actions to the more Ottawa-focused narrative. They can say, "This is what we have been talking about. This is a Conservative government."

Will any of it matter?

Ultimately, it will be the voters and not the politicians who frame their ballot box question. They will answer the questions they ask themselves more than the questions the parties ask them. Have recent events made character, comportment and attitude the question for a larger number of voters?

For me, I go back to something I wrote earlier this year about government and our attitudes towards politicians. Canadians recognize that we live in challenging times and we continue to see uncertainty around us, in Canada and around the world.

The challenges and opportunities we are facing demand the best of government (policy) and not the worst of politics (attitude, character, comportment).

So, what will it be Canada?

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Liberal Platform - offering a choice; tacking left

The Liberal platform was released yesterday, generating a lot of discussion and commentary. While I am not planning on presenting a full proposal-by-proposal assessment, I think there are some themes and initiatives worth highlighting.

1. The notion of choice

Go back 12-18 months ago, and you would have seen a Liberal Opposition that had not done much to frame an alternative vision of Canada. It was not clear what they stood for or what a Liberal government would look like.

Now fast forward to today and you have your answer. Through this platform, which the announcements of week 1 were designed to build up to, the Liberals have given themselves definition. They have moved from presenting a "we're not the other guy" argument towards "this is who we are and what you can expect."

Canadians are now better placed than they have been in some time to ask themselves which party is more aligned with their priorities. This doesn't mean they will suddenly vote Liberal. But it does mean they can make a more informed choice.

2. Clarity of message

Taking a page from the 2006 Conservative campaign, the Liberals have opted for a focused message which highlights their core priorities. The goal here is simplicity and clarity. You can't be everything to all people; you can't do it all. You want what you stand for to be memorable, to be suitable for an elevator conversation or a chat when you are waiting in line. The "Family Pack" theme ticks this box. In fact throughout week 1 the Liberals have largely been on-message.

3. Know your audience

Women voters are key to Liberal hopes. While the Conservatives have a strong grip on the middle-aged male demographic, women are another story. This platform, with its focus on families and education, is geared towards this demographic.

It is also very much focused on the left. The Liberals had a decision to make. Do we try and take from the Conservatives or from the NDP? They have opted for the latter, and are trying to do so in two ways.

First, they are intent on communicating this as a 2-horse race with the Liberals as the only party capable of stopping Harper. This was the message after the by-elections in the fall and it's the message today.

Second, they have adopted policy positions clearly more attractive to an NDP voter. Roll-back of corporate tax cuts, training, the learning passport, child care...the list goes on. If the NDP had released this document, no one would have been to shocked with the main elements. In some parts, I actually felt like I was reading New Labour from the UK.

For better or worse, they have tacked left. Time will tell whether this was the right decision.

4. Where's the fix?

If I were to choose one area where I was disappointed, I would likely go with the limited focus on the erosion of our democratic institutions. This has been the one theme on which all of the opposition has focused consistently for 2 years. We have been told that Parliament is broken and that our institutions are in jeopardy. The election was actually brought about as as result of a contempt finding.

So, where's the fix? Yes, this theme is discussed and some novel ideas are presented. But compared with the substance behind the Liberal's other proposals, I found the discussion in the platform thin. I am hopeful that this issue gets more airing in a debate.


Those are some of my initial observations. What are yours? Has the platform influenced how you are looking at this election?

Interestingly, despite the plaudits the Liberals have received for their week 1 performance the Conservatives are continuing to enjoy a very healthy advantage in every poll I have seen. We'll see if week 2 and the release of this platform changes anything.


What others are saying...

In the spirit of promoting engagement and sharing views, I just read a good reflection on week 1 of the campaign (thanks to @Susan Delacourt for tweeting out the recommendation). Entitled "My thoughts on #Elxn41 – Week 1" , the piece provides some interesting perspective on the campaign thus far.

You can access it here:

Give it a read and share your thoughts. Also, if you have any suggestions for blogs or articles pass them on. I would like to make the title of this posting - "What others are saying..." - a recurring feature. It's important to me that as many views get shared.


Saturday, April 2, 2011

Week 1. Done.

Well, the first week has finished and the national polls are not showing us anything dramatically different. Done and dusted? Not at all.

What I find interesting is that there are actually a number of different conclusions to the first week of elxn41 (did I mention I am growing to love twitter shorthand and hash-tags?). Depending on what you read / who you follow / what you hear, the first week could be summed up as follows:

1. Harper maintains strong lead, growing support in key provinces. A majority is possible.

2. Harper performs poorly in the first week. PM appears on the defensive and not looking like the seasoned campaigner.

3. Liberals out of the gate strongly and making important gains. Ignatieff a clear winner after week one.

4. NDP struggles to get message out after first week.

5. Bloc cruising in Quebec.

If the above were possible answers to a multiple choice question, you could be forgiven for looking for the "all of the above option." Why? Because in many respects, they are all true.

The Conservatives continue to enjoy a healthy advantage, both nationally and in key battlegrounds, particularly in Ontario. This despite Mr. Harper having a poor week in which he has been criticized for (a) his rhetoric and tone (b) his relationship with the media and (c) his lack of engagement on policy.

The Liberals continue to trail nationally and in key provinces, despite the fact that they have had a strong week. They have demonstrated election readiness, an openness to engage and a commitment to presenting themselves as a option.

The NDP did cede ground to the Liberals during the week. There is a danger that any further slide could make this election an explicit Harper-Ignatieff choice among voters.

Finally, the Bloc did what it does. It cruises in Quebec and points to real and imagined imbalances between how the government of the day treats Quebec relative to other provinces. In this case, the issue is the Lower Churchill development in Newfoundland and Labrador.

So, with that in mind what are my conclusions?

First, Mr. Igantieff will be pleased with a dialogue that focuses on a 2-horse race. While it is true a PM would only come from either the Conservative or the Liberal party, the fact that this is being more explicitly framed after only one week is important. If the Liberals are to have any success, they need to attract NDP voters, as well as centre-left Tories.

He will also be pleased with a week that has shown his ability to campaign and to offer a choice. His ability to connect with voters was a big question mark at the start of the campaign - the past week will have done a lot of good for the morale of his team and slate of candidates.

Second, Mr. Harper has spent a lot of time making the notion of minority Parliament something to fear. Interestingly, days 1-4 were more "coalition" focused in terms of his rhetoric. Days 5-7 transitioned (slightly) away from coalition and towards the suggestion that we need to end minority Parliaments.

It's the "let's put an end to unnecessary elections" argument. The fact that nearly 50% of Canadians are not averse to a majority would constitute some traction for this line of messaging. This should be followed closely. If this trend continues, Mr. Harper could move the yardsticks enough in those key swing ridings.

Third, the issues are getting an airing. The Liberals released large elements of a family- and education-focused platform. The Conservatives highlighted their budget and then followed that up with the income-splitting proposal. These are substantive issues, all worthy of discussion. More please.

So, those are some initial thoughts. Tomorrow I will blog about what I will be looking to see in week 2, and as well on the Liberal platform (issues!). In the meantime...

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