Saturday, November 2, 2013

Fall Back Position

Last night at the Conservative Party Convention (#CPC13), the Prime Minister delivered his much anticipated speech to the party faithful. After all of the distraction, challenges and criticisms Mr. Harper has endured owing to the Senate scandal, this speech was his opportunity to get back on track.

So, how did he do?

The answer to that question depends very much on whether you are a Conservative partisan or, basically, anyone else.

What the faithful saw...

For those Conservatives attending or following from afar, the speech was important in two ways. The first, and perhaps most significant, was the energy the Prime Minister displayed.

I joked last night on Twitter that the staffer who suggested he have a Red Bull before going to the podium was due a raise or a Senate appointment. The point is that Mr. Harper was clearly energized and demonstrated an enthusiasm that has rarely been present during this crisis.

Energy matters, particularly when you are dealing with your base. The base is the group on whose energy you depend for donations and organization. They needed to see this side of Mr. Harper.

The second key element of the speech was its recitation of the government's accomplishments. Or more specifically accomplishments as defined by the base.

- Death of the wheat board and gun registry...check!
- CETA...check!
- Victims rights and a tough on crime agenda...check!
- Support for the troops...check!
- Not letting environmental policy impede energy policy...check!

With each reference the base was reminded both what this government has done, and what was at risk should anyone else assume the reigns of power.

What others saw...

Of course those of us who are not Conservatives saw the same things. Mr. Harper was fired up and the list of accomplishments was proudly proclaimed. Beyond that, my takeaways were the following:

- Thomas Mulcair probably has to wonder what an Opposition leader needs to do to get a mention. The man has been hammering Mr. Harper in QP with greater effect than anyone since 2006 and he gets nothing by way of a mention. All the focus was on Justin Trudeau.

- The Senate narrative is set and in it Mr. Harper is the solution, not the problem. Standing in his way are Liberal Senators and the Courts (if you could name two opponents more distasteful to the base, let me know).

But the main takeaway for me was the re-set that was attempted last night.

It is somewhat fitting that this weekend we will adjust our clocks and "fall back." More than anything, last night was an attempt to fall back and do what the Speech from the Throne (#SFT13) was supposed to do.

As I wrote here, #SFT13 was about red meat for a blue base. Unfortunately, subsequent events scuppered any chance of that speech accomplishing its objectives.

Cue last night at #CPC13. This was #SFT13 on Red Bull, delivered to the party faithful. There was nothing of substance or measure; rather it was highly targeted at those people on whom the party needs to keep in the fold, energized and donating.


Whether the government can successfully fall back is another matter, of course. Time is on their side in terms of an election, but it is clear that their brand has suffered across the country.

Job #1 right now is to shore up the base, and in that regard I think they can call #CPC13 a reasonable success. Job #2 is to convince enough of the rest of the country. Time will tell if they can spring forward.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Has the (Ottawa) Bubble Burst?

Something rare has happened in Canadian politics over the past eight or nine days, and the fact that it has happened could have significant implications for the Conservative government. If you listened carefully, you could hear it happening. It went *pop*.

The *pop* was the sound of the Ottawa bubble bursting as the rest of the country tuned in to what has been happening on the Hill.

It is an increasingly rare event that manages to build a bridge between the political media/politics watchers (those in the Ottawa bubble), and the broader public. Given that rarity, it is somewhat ironic that it was the Senate of all places that managed to burst the bubble.

Think about it. The part of the government that Canadians probably see as the least relevant has become the part of the government that has done more to engage Canadians on a political issue than any other in recent years.

More than prorogation, the long-form census, the gun registry, Afghanistan, Guerguis-Jaffer (and the busty hookers), F-35s, the Economic Action Plan, and a host of other issues....this issue has brought politics to Canadians and brought Canadians to politics.

Ironic point number 2: Mr. Harper appointed Mr. Duffy to the Senate to strengthen the government's ability to connect with the voter. I suppose he can say mission accomplished.

In reality though, the Senate is not the issue despite the fact that this is what the government would have you believe. As I wrote here, what is happening in the Senate is a symptom of a wider problem that relates to questions of transparency and accountability.

The evidence thus far suggests that the government:

- knew what was happening;
- made various efforts to hide it; and
- celebrated those efforts and attacked those who offered criticism.

Only when it was clear that things were about to get worse did the government act, but those actions have only served to reveal the inconsistencies in their positioning of the issue. And those inconsistencies raise some important questions:

1. Did the Prime Minister mislead Parliament? On numerous occasions inside and outside Parliament, he has said that Mr. Wright resigned (something publicly lamented by more than one MP and Cabinet Minister). Now Parliament is told Mr. Wright was fired. Both can't be true, so which one was not?

2. Mr. Harper has said Mr. Duffy must pay back the money. OK, but to who? Was the public purse reimbursed by the 90K from Mr. Wright, as we were told? If so, then I guess he has to pay back Mr. Wright (though it is odd that the Prime Minister would so publicly ask for money to be repaid to someone he has now thrown under a bus and ran over several times).

Or is he to pay back the party? Or is it possible that the expenses were not repaid, in which case why did the government say they were when the celebrated Mr. Duffy? Again, given the government's statements earlier this year something is not correct.

3. Who knew what in the PMO? And depending on the answer, why has only one person (Wright) paid a price (either through resignation or dismissal)?

4. What is the truth on the RBC loan line that was used by the government and Mr. Duffy? If it is not true, who developed the line and insisted on its use?


After #SFT13, with its focus on the base, I made the following comment:

Should the government find itself subject to death by a thousand cuts emanating from the Senate, particularly if there are links to the PMO, then all best intentions with respect to both the base and the broader electorate are out the window.

As the Liberals will tell you, erosion in support is difficult to stop once your brand has been subjected to a steady drip of scandal. Similarly, mould and decay are not easily painted over.

Two weeks ago we were not at this point. I think we are now, and with more and more Canadians paying attention the government should be worried.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Red Meat For a Blue Base

So, there it is.

A prorogation, summer of reflection and a fall re-set has brought us to today. To a Speech from the Throne (#SFT13) that in the end was akin to a wordy pamphlet that appears primarily aimed at the Conservative party base.

This is not surprising. Given the challenges the Harper government has faced, securing things in their own home should be the first priority. More particularly, the nature of the government's challenges - the Senate / Nigel Wright, the Auditor General's questions about defence spending, Robocalls and perceived election improprieties, sluggish job growth - run counter to the very brand the government purports to represent.

Job one, therefore, was to make nice and sort things out with the base.

How does one do that? First, by reciting all of the base-friendly accomplishments of the past (e.g. the end of the gun registry and Wheat Board). Second, by promising an agenda that is both populist (consumer-friendly, smaller government) and conservative (balanced budget legislation, victims rights).

With two years to go until an election, it is arguably a sensible strategy. Get back to your core first, and once they are re-energized and engaged turn towards those remaining slices of the electorate that can get you over the line.  Simple enough.

Now, anyone who tells you this will work is misleading you. Similarly, anyone who tells you it won't is also misleading you. With two years to go until we go back to the polls, anything can happen that either adds to or detracts from the Conservative narrative we heard today.

So what to watch for?

By-elections, as a start. Want to test how this narrative will play on the campaign trail, try a by-election.  With four coming up in the coming months we will see how the message lands with the voter, particularly in the two Conservative seats in play.

Something else to watch for is the degree to which the government will use the opposition's continued focus on scandal as an opportunity to show themselves as "in touch with Canadians" and their opponents as being "stuck in the Ottawa bubble".

This is a gamble, particularly as it is not actually within the government's abilities to independently deliver many of the consumer-friendly measures contained in the Speech. Failure to do so, while at the same time wearing a heavier and heavier mantle of scandal, could prove problematic.

Which leads to a final point. Should the government find itself subject to death by a thousand cuts emanating from the Senate, particularly if there are links to the PMO, then all best intentions with respect to both the base and the broader electorate are out the window.

As the Liberals will tell you, erosion in support is difficult to stop once your brand has been subjected to a steady drip of scandal. Similarly, mould and decay are not easily painted over.

The government is not at that point, yet. But they have cast their die with the narrative put in place today. How this plays out will make for some interesting politics watching.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Much ado about very little

So, at long last we had our Cabinet shuffle. Weeks of speculation culminated in today's series of Prime Ministerial tweets announcing the new appointees. It was all very exciting!

Actually, it wasn't. Not really.

Looking at the end product of this endless cycle of speculation actually left this politics watcher decidedly underwhelmed. The great recasting of the government actually turned out to be much ado about very little.

Certainly there was an infusion of new blood and a move towards greater gender diversity around the table. I suppose that on one level, it can be argued that those elements made the exercise meaningful.

And for some, perhaps, the novelty of the Prime Minister tweeting in 140 characters about the positions occupied by 39 characters was interesting.

But if the objective was to present a refocused government and sense that this was the team that would transition the government away from scandal and back towards governing, I am not sure it was much of a success.

The main players remained in Cabinet and in their current portfolios. The composition of the powerful Cabinet committees has not appreciably changed. And of course the boss is still the boss.

It's like walking into a refurbished restaurant, only to find that the same items are on the menu and the cook hasn't changed. Sure it looks a little different, but it remains all too familiar.

Time will tell if this shuffle gets the government any traction with the voting public, though it is worth noting that this is rarely the case...if ever.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Go Sens, Go? That's Not the Issue

Yes, yes. It has been a long time. Too long, actually, between posts. To those who read my posts (hopeful voice), I apologize...

That said, nothing like the week that was to rouse one from slumber and encourage a new post. In truth, last week seemed like some political version of "anything you can do I do better" - from the polls first in Labrador and then in British Colombia, to the Senate and then the Office of the Mayor of Toronto, and finally to the PMO. 

Plus we had an earthquake, just for good measure.

While there is so much on which one could comment, let's look at events in Ottawa and the furore developing over the Senate following expense improprieties and the government, ahem, response.

Rather than go into the well-reported details here, I wanted to focus on what this issue is and is not about. Let's start with the latter.

This is not about the Senate. 

While the issue began in the Senate and is focused on the conduct of members of the Senate, the most recent events have made this something beyond the Senate. Yet Canadians are being told the opposite.

The government lines are making every effort to define this as a Senate issue; lines which go so far as to suggest that this is exactly why Canada needs the Senate reform they have long championed (and they suggest would have advanced were it not for the Liberals and the NDP).

Now, had the issue been solely about improper expenses related to residency the government might have been on stronger ground. As well, had the government decided not to make Senator Duffy's "repayment" a partisan issue and hold him up as an example of all that is good, this might have stayed within the walls of a chamber to which so few pay attention.

But events did not play out this way.

So for those using this event as a justification for chanting "Go Sens, go", hold on a moment.  There is more here.


If it is not primarily about the Senate, what is it about? Some observations...

1. It may be about criminality. As Rob Walsh (former Law Clerk of the House of Commons) noted today, the actions of Duffy and Wright may have violated the Criminal Code provisions which relate to Members of Parliament (sec. 119). While it is not clear that this is the case, understanding whether it is is or is not demands more information, not less.  Which leads to observation #2...

2. It is about transparency. Information and transparency are like oxygen for a well-functioning democracy, and in this case they are sorely lacking. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon. While it is a truism that all parties are strong advocates for transparency while in opposition and laggards while in government, the current government has taken that maxim to new levels.

If this was purely about Senate reform and the need for change, I suspect the government would be highly transparent. That they are not is telling, which leads to observation #3...

3. It is most definitely about attitude. It is about an aggressive attitude towards any opposition, towards any challenge and towards facts. It was the government's instinct to make a Senate issue a partisan one by trumpeting Senator Duffy's "repayment" that contributed to this mess. By choosing to elevate him, they took an Ottawa issue and made it a national one.

Put another way, by elevating Duffy they set themselves up and are now paying the price.

All governments - Conservative, Liberal, NDP, PQ, you name it - will have an element of "how much do we think we can get away with" in their conduct. There will be obfuscation, deflection and denial. A sense that they can ride it out.

Time in power feeds this sense, as does a fractured opposition (take today's QP as an example of an opposition that failed to really focus its questions and pen the government into the corner in which they were already standing).

But in the end, it is this attitude which ultimately brings down governments. And this is the point which should worry the government.

This issue and, more importantly, their handling of it has lead an increasing number of people - including elements of their base - to see them less as like the champions of change from 2006 and more like just another party. And when you are seen as just another party, the public will quickly realize that there is always someone else to which they can turn.
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