Monday, June 27, 2011

80 Days of Summer (give or take)

So, the summer recess has begun and our MPs have started to fan out across Canada. The ins-and-outs of Parliament are about to be replaced with the summer BBQ circuit, as MPs head home to meet with constituents. What makes this recess interesting is that it is the first one in some time where MPs can go home and not be haunted by the election around the corner.

Think about that for a moment.

Every recess since 2004 has occurred under a minority government. When MPs went home, they did so knowing that the people they were meeting might well be asked for a vote at any time. They therefore went home armed with talking points and backgrounders. It was like being on a job interview for seven years.

Not so today. As we enter into the summer recess, we do so knowing that the cards have been dealt and that an election will not occur for some time. So if our returning politicians are no longer doing their utmost to secure our vote, what can we expect? I would offer the following observations.

1. While last summer the Liberals embarked on their "summer express", this summer is more likely to be more of a "cap in hand" tour. The party needs to raise funds and build membership. Without the national theatre of QP or the spectre of an election, the Liberals will need to work hard to remain visible.

2. For the NDP, they are on their "summer honeymoon", with MPs still basking in the glow of their significant electoral gains. However, their attention will need to quickly turn towards two things.

First, new MPs need time to better connect in their ridings. Many are unknown quantities and will therefore want to use this break to build up credibility. It's an investment an MP makes to avoid being a one-hit wonder.

Second, they need to balance their focus on constituency and local issues with time spent learning about Parliament, about their responsibilities as a MP and about their party's positions on key issues. For these MPs, school is not out - it is only just beginning. They will want to hit the ground running in September.

3. And what about the Conservatives? Victors in the election, a majority in the House and Senate, and the strong possibility of a decade in power. With all that, might we expect a summer off? Not at all.

Their summer will, I suspect, see the party shift into consolidation mode. The Conservatives will want to build on the gains they made, and will continue their focus on ethnic communities and in key ridings.

However, don't be surprised to see select MPs starting to float trial balloons about government policy; to gauge their constituents' reaction to potential Conservative positions on the economy, health care and the Senate.

Of course, each of these parties will also spend their summer with one eye turned to the five provincial elections scheduled for this fall: Newfoundland & Labrador, PEI, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Party members, including MPs, will lend a hand and do what they can to support their provincial counterparts.


For many of us, the summer is a chance to re-charge and to re-connect. It's no different for MPs, particularly now that we have electoral peace for a few years.

However, each party will enter into the summer with a few key goals - raise money and maintain profile (Liberals); bask and learn (NDP); consolidate and sow seeds (Conservatives). And they will focus on the provincial elections.

For me, the provincial elections are a big story waiting to happen. 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.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Quiet Riot (or when the NDP came to Vancouver)

We have seen a lot in the media in recent days on the hordes who descended on downtown Vancouver - young, energetic people caught on film as they came together and for a short while took over a city.

Yes, the NDP convention came to town this past weekend to do what convention attendees do. They celebrated successes, debated policy resolutions, attended hospitality suites and (after a morning gatorade and greasy breakfast) promised to all who would listen that the future was theirs.

The two topics over which the most ink was spilled (is ink still used - perhaps we should characters typed?) were the debate over the use of the word "socialism" and the debate over a future merger with the Liberals. It tells you a lot about the NDP and its strong affinity to its roots that the former generated as much interest as the latter.

Some good observations on the socialism issue can be found here, via Kathryn Blaze Carlson at the National Post:

For me, the issue over whether to drop the inclusion of the word in the party constitution preamble exposes the dilemma that the NDP now faces. As I mentioned in my recent "Canada's conscience or government in waiting" post, the NDP faces a choice. Does it want to be more of a beacon or conscience, advocating on select policy issues as it recognizes that it will never gain power? Or does it want to become a government in waiting, which means that it must start to appeal to a wider base?

If the conclusion is that the latter is a realistic goal, then the party has an obligation to consider all means necessary to get there. The word socialism carries with it a lot of baggage, and some members of the party have therefore concluded that it can be an obstacle to power.

In many respects you cannot blame them. The Conservative rhetoric since late 2008 has branded them socialists. Having seen how repeated branding by your opponent contributed to the Liberal demise, it makes sense that the party should look to limit their opponent's opportunities to attack in this fashion.

However, it will be in the area of policy and the credible options they can present the electorate that will ultimately make the difference. Once you cut away the words, the party needs to present an alternative that appeals to voters.

This leads to the second item of debate - a merger with the Liberals.

On the one hand you have those who question whether there is any merit in allying the NDP with a party which has been rejected by the electorate. We'll call this the "hell no" side.

On the other hand, you have those who say we have an electorate which continues to be more progressive. They argue that until we either eliminate splits or change the electoral system (not going to happen) the Conservatives will form the government. We'll call them the "let's think about it" side.

The former think that they can wait the Liberals out - that the end of the public subsidy and the two year wait for a new Liberal leader will further marginalize the Liberals and make them seem less and less like a viable option. The thinking is that there is no need to merge because in time the progressive space will be occupied only by the NDP as the Liberals fall away.

The latter feel that the NDP cannot simply hope to attract the progressive vote by default. The view is that in the same way the right needed to come together, the left will need to do the same. For them, this is the perfect time for the NDP to consider such discussions - they are in a position of strength. The terms of a merger can be more easily dictated when you are in the ascendancy. Despite their troubles, the Liberals can offer some street credibility as a party which has successfully tackled issues such as the deficit and offered credible economic management.


For me, the discussion on the word socialism and the debate on a merger with the Liberals are the same issue. They are both about how the NDP can move from being the opposition to being the government. It is about what steps they need to take to move from away being seen as a modern day CCF, and towards being seen as Canada's equivalent of New Labour; as a government in waiting.

Getting to an answer will not be easy for the NDP. The party will go through their own "quiet riot" as they struggle with striking the right balance between the principles of their past and their aspirations for the future.

Are they up for the challenge?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Breaking off the engagement?

The results of #elxn41 and the relative political stability that will result for at least the next four years have started me thinking about what this means for our political engagement. Are we in danger of taking a step backwards; of slipping into old habits?

During the campaign I posted this piece describing what I called "The Curious Case of Canadian Complacency":

After discussing what I saw as some of the root causes of our complacency, I concluded with the following:

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.

Fast forward to today and we are in a post-elxn world with a government that not only has a strong majority in both the House and Senate, but which is also well-positioned for political dominance for a decade. My worry is that this stability will lull Canadians back into their political comfort zone - complacency.

More to point, we risk falling further back into this mode at the very time the opposite is required.

Any reader of this blog will be familiar with my concerns about the degree to which we are not engaged on the issues facing Canada - both the challenges and the opportunities. Even when we are engaged, it is often on the sensational (political scandal) or it is fleeting (the long-form census, the contempt issue).

The question I am asking is whether the "strong, stable majority" provided to Mr. Harper and the Conservatives was, in part, Canadians' way of saying "enough already - just get on with it." Put another way, did we vote for stability at the expense of engagement?

While I am concerned we may have voted this way, I nevertheless believe that the decisions that the government is going to be forced to make - on the economy, health care, the environment, security, innovation and education are of the type that Canadians may find difficult to ignore. But to truly get us engaged, we may need more:

1. We need credible policy alternatives. There are any number of ways we can address the challenges and opportunities before us. Canadians need to be better exposed to the credible options available to their government, and not just the preferred. Engagement requires choice.

2. We need credible government alternatives. The ineffectiveness of the Liberals and concerns about the NDP have made the Conservatives a default for many Canadians. In addition to needing to be exposed to different policy options, we need to have more confidence that there is more than one party which can govern the country. This does not exist today. Again, engagement requires choice.

3. We need information and transparency - they are vital to debate and dialogue. As noted in my recent post on the deficit and cost-cutting, the government wants to cut spending and has set a target, but has not been clear about on what basis cuts will be considered. Not knowing the criteria makes it difficult to become engaged on the objective. This is just one example of a lack of transparency in our government. We have an information-deficit in government that is just as in need of addressing as our fiscal deficit.


Will the combined effect of political stability and a naturally complacent citizenry result in a further dis-engagement from our politics? I hope not.

Interestingly, I read today that Iceland is crowd-sourcing its constitution via social media - throwing it open to citizens for their views on how a country ravaged by the financial crisis wants to be governed in the future. While one might expect a lot of extreme views, the sense thus far has been that some very reasoned and informed ideas have been offered up. That's engagement.

Will our governments ever be so bold? Will we ever be ready to jump at the chance?

What do you think?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Appoint to Prove

The power of the Prime Minister to appoint is immense. Whether it is to the Senate, commissions, diplomatic posts, senior positions in the bureaucracy, or to the judiciary, the Prime Minister has the power to use his or her appointees to shape public policy.

Of course, appointments are also used extensively to reward the faithful - party officials, defeated candidates, long-time kindred spirits. This makes the power a double-edged sword, as such use of it can over time move public opinion and undermine support from the user. One could argue that such use of this power has made a strong contribution to the apathy and cynicism Canadians have for their political system.

So what of Stephen Harper? While he has been able to wield this power since 2006, he is now able to do so as a Prime Minister with a strong majority. He also has, following recent decisions to retire, the opportunity to appoint two Supreme Court justices - appointments which will have a profound impact on the course of public policy in Canada.

All to say, how Stephen Harper exercises this power over the next 4-5 years will be important. And make no mistake, there will be pressure on him.

On one side, you have the infamous base. The social conservative element of the Conservative Party will be looking at the appointments the Prime Minister makes (particularly those to the judiciary) for signs that decades of perceived liberal values dominating Canadian public policy are coming to an end.

On the other side is the centrist voter in Canada. While there has been a lot of debate recently about whether Canada is moving right, the fact remains that we continue to be a body politic that is most comfortable in the centre. This group will be watching to see whether the Prime Minister uses his appointments to lurch Canada to the right, to attack his opponents and reward his faithful - things they do not want to see.

All of this suggests that we can expect a balancing act of sorts for Mr. Harper. The base will be rewarded and mollified through some appointments, though I believe that these will be in areas which have less impact on the national scene. They may play locally or are targeted, but overall will not help frame the national narrative on the Prime Minister.

However, my sense is that for those appointments which clearly matter to the majority of Canadians - such as to the Supreme Court - the Prime Minister will be reasonably balanced. Process will be emphasized and effort will be made to not be overtly partisan or ideological.

Why? I may be thinking wishfully but I am hoping that Mr. Harper realizes he has a point to prove - that he is prepared to govern for all Canadians.

This was his pledge on election night and it is the one which I will ultimately be watching most closely.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Checking your winter coat and looking between the cushions

Finance Minister Flaherty tabled his budget this week. As expected, it was essentially the same budget that had been tabled in March, with a few additions and tweaks including the end of the per vote subsidy, and HST compensation for Quebec.

While there were no surprises, the one issue which is sure to generate a great deal of discussion over the next year is the government's objective to cut $4 billion from public sector spending. Note, I did not say the government's plan.

Why? There isn't one. What we have instead is a process that is supposed to identify these cuts, with the plan being presented in the 2012 budget.

Heads-up, you do not find $4 billion between the cushions and in your winter coat. Yet, this is in many respects the tone used by the Finance Minister in response to questions about whether such cuts were possible.

As discussed in this blog many times, the government has taken the following things off of the table when it comes to fighting the deficit:

- no increase to taxes, including the GST
- no cuts in transfers to provinces
- no cuts in transfers to individuals

Add to this the certainty that the government will not be abandoning its crime agenda and the expenditures it will require, and you have the focus squarely turned on a broad basket of government spending. Areas such as the environment, defence, culture and the CBC, foreign affairs, trade, and federally funded social programs are now on the table.

Mr. Flaherty thinks that the $4 billion objective is not ambitious, and in fact is less challenging than what the private sector might set as an objective. I am not sure I agree.

The private sector has as its goal profit maximization. The government does not. What we should expect from government is better efficiency in its operations; in its spending of our money. This does not necessarily mean cuts or the elimination of programs.

Further, the responsibilities of government are broad and varied, and in some cases the weight of those responsibilities trumps questions of cost. This does not mean waste is ok, but it does mean that the cost-benefit model of government is by definition different than that of the private sector.

So what would I like to see? To start, a terms of reference of sorts. I would like to know with more definition what structure and parameters the government has set for this exercise. For example:

- We know the dollar objective in terms of an overall reduction in spending, but what are the criteria against which a program or initiative will be assessed?

- On what basis will decisions be made to reduce or eliminate spending in one area or another?

- Is the sale of government assets on the table? If so, which ones and why does government believe these should no longer be in public hands?

I think we also need to discuss the more long-term "what next?". Say we are successful and through economic growth and targeted cuts we balance the budget. What next? Ask yourself the following:

- Are we well-positioned to deal with the demographic time bomb in front of us (e.g. fewer workers, higher social costs)?

- Are we fiscally equipped to deal with the economic fallout from climate change (e.g. erratic/catastrophic weather)?

- Are we prepared for the shifts already well-underway in global trade, and the growing dominance of countries like China, India and Brazil?

Addressing these issues will require thought, dialogue and money. We are discussing climbing out of a hole, but when we are out there is a mountain in front of us. This should be part of our national dialogue.

By taking options off the table and downplaying the challenges in front of us, we have taken the wholly reasonable question of fiscal responsibility and turned into a discussion on government waste. That won't do.

What do you think?

Century Club

It has come to my attention that my most recent post was actually the 100th posting on this blog since the late summer 2009. Yes, the champagne was flowing here at A Guy Watching Politics.

I had started the blog in 2009 when the prospects of an election seemed high. Mr. Ignatieff (see history books, under Liberal leaders) had announced that he would no longer support the Conservative government. The purpose of the blog was to promote a dialogue on the issues as we headed into the pending election.

While the subsequent Liberal downward spiral in the polls and a decision by Mr. Layton to continue to support the government took an election off of the table a few months later, I decided to keep writing. I wanted to continue the dialogue and use this blog to - in my own way - promote greater engagement on the issues facing Canada.

So, with a 100 posts and an election under my belt I want to say thanks to those of you (both of you?) who have read my posts, provided your comments and encouraged me to do more. My instincts tell me that the next four years in Parliament will provide a lot of food for thought, so let's keep the conversation going.

A Guy Watching Politics

Sunday, June 5, 2011

On second (sober) thought...

The Senate is a curious discussion topic. Most people don't follow it, yet many have incredibly strong views about it - almost all negative. I find this frustrating, and another example of why we need to demonstrate a greater degree of engagement on the topic of our democratic institutions.

Before going further, I feel I should start by noting that I am not a Senate apologist. I do believe that the Senate is a strong candidate for reform.

That said, I think all of our democratic institutions are in need of reform. The principal arenas for considering the challenges and opportunities facing Canada have, sadly, not shown themselves up to the task in recent years.

So what of the Senate?

Let's start with the nuts and bolts. The intent was to create a body which would represent regional views, and offer a second, sober thought to balance against the populist-driven views expressed through the representation by population-based structure of the Commons.

There are 105 Senators, broken down as follows:

- 24 from Ontario;
- 24 from Quebec;
- 24 from the Maritimes (10 for Nova Scotia, 10 for New Brunswick, 4 for PEI);
- 24 for the West (6 each for Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC);
- 6 from Newfoundland and Labrador; and
- 1 each from the Yukon, the NWT and Nunavut.

Senators are appointed by the Governor General, effectively on the advice of the Prime Minister, and serve until the age of 75. And while the Chamber can be used to originate legislation (save for money bills), it has more or less grown to be seen as simply a step in the process a bill goes through to become a law, particularly if the government has a majority in both the Commons and the Senate as we now have.

To recap, we have what on the surface appears to be an unequal, appointed, and not typically effective upper chamber. In other words, a body ripe for reform.

Unfortunately, much of the substantive reform - the structure and powers of the Senate - would require constitutional amendment. As politics watchers in Canada will know, such reform does not come easily.

So is that it? Is there anything that can be done? In a word, yes.

Let me start by saying that I believe the Senate has often been unfairly painted as a meaningless body; a chamber which offers little to the policy consideration and decision-making processes in Canada.

If you don't agree, I would highly recommend attending a Senate Committee hearing - particularly one which is not discussing a government bill, but instead is studying a more broad-based issue.

In these instances, the views expressed by many Senators are reasoned and offer much for thought. The perspective they provide is a useful contrast with the more (a) party-focused or (b) more narrow constituent-based views, both expressed in the Commons. They are typically less partisan, work more effectively together and in the best situations enrich policy discussions with real-life experiences and perspective.

But this effective dialogue falls under the radar. Why? To borrow from Eric Clapton, "it's in the way that you use it."

Governments, regardless of political stripe, have used their power of appointment to control the Senate and advance their own legislative agenda. As a result, it is increasingly seen as a place where defeated candidates, party fundraisers and other partisan operatives wind up. To these eyes, more of a reward and less of an important role in the legislative process.

And for A Guy Watching Politics, therein lies a the roots of a non-constitutional solution to this issue.

Basically, absent a constitutional amendment we are stuck with what we have. So how do we make the best use of what we have? It's in the way that we use it.

1. Seek agreement among the provinces as to how Senators will be appointed.

Public sentiment is on the side of reform, so harness this consensus and make the case for an appointment process that makes sense in the 21st century. Much of the public resentment has stemmed from how governments have filled the chamber - something completely in their control to change.

I favour elections which do not occur as part of the normal (if there is a such thing as normal) cycle of federal elections. Candidates for a vacant provincial Senate seat should appear on the ballot of the next provincial election.

Personally, I also feel Senate candidates should stand without party affiliation. Free the candidates from party affiliation, and ask that they be considered based on what they bring to the table, and not by which party they represent. A bridge too far, perhaps...

2. Funding.

This point actually applies to both the House and Senate. The Committees of both chambers are tasked with considering legislation, policy, market and societal trends. Yet their means to do so is limited. Compare what a Congressional Committee can do in the U.S. with what a Parliamentary Committee can do in Canada, and you will see what I mean.

The Senate and its Committees need the resources to do the job we are asking of them. Fund them well, and ask them to consider the hard questions and provide real options.

3. Think Canada.

Yes, this would be a departure from the intent of the Senate. The chamber was intended to be a regional voice; a more "informed" counter-balance to the views of the Commons.

However, our politics is already regionally fragmented. The Senate could now offer an opportunity to challenge the Commons to think of the country as a whole. What makes sense for Canada? The Senate could play a role in taking our politics away from a focus on "the base" and "swing ridings" and towards a more meaningful discussion on what Canada needs to do to succeed.


Those are some initial thoughts. I would love to shorter term limits, along the lines of the 10-15 year period we are hearing about but that would require a constitutional amendment. So we are left with the low hanging fruit/

Elect them and have the Prime Minister appoint who has been elected - no more staffers and fund raisers, please. Empower them by giving them the resources to conduct a proper review of legislation and other policy issues of importance. And free them up from the regional parochialism that is increasingly dominating our politics - encourage them to consider what is before them from the perspective of Canada.

What about you? Any second (sober) thoughts? Let me know.
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