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?
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