Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Is Harper Sliding into Third Place?

The following is also posted at iPolitics:

A new Ekos poll released on the weekend delivered some bad news for the Harper government. With just 25.6% of preferences the Conservatives badly trailed the the Liberals, leading with 38.7 %. When I apply the Ekos numbers to my seat projection model the Conservatives are pushed into third place in terms seats won - behind the NDP. Thomas Mulcair's party had 23.4 % of preferences - but the New Democrat's vote efficiency boosted them past the Conservatives into second place in seats.

Here are the poll and seat numbers together:

At first glance it might seem incredible that the Harper government could fall so far, so quickly - from a majority government to third party status. In part its seat total is a product of the remorseless logic of a first-past-the-post electoral system.

And don't forget - we have seen this movie before. On October 25, 1993 the Kim Campbell PC government fell to just two seats, with 16% of the vote. The Reform Party got just two percentage points more of the votes cast that day - enough to give it 52 seats.

It isn't just Tory weakness that matters here. Part of the NDP's extra strength in this poll is a product of the weakness of the Bloc Québecois.

The Bloc's new leader, Mario Beaulieu, is from the party's strongly pro-independence wing. He campaigned on a pledge to put sovereignty above all else, despite evidence from the recent Quebec election that this might not be the most successful of strategies. Ekos reports the Bloc at just 16% in Quebec, a level of support that suggests the Bloc risks losing all its seats in the House of Commons in the next election, losses that would largely benefit the NDP.

Other aspects of the Ekos poll suggest little potential upside for the Conservatives. The poll places Stephen Harper's approval rating at just 29% and reports that just 29.9% of Canadians think the government is heading in the right direction. This latter data point simply the continues a negative trend for Harper that first became evident as early as 2012.

Often, incumbent governments benefit from an assumption among many voters that if they won the last election they're likely to win the next. That may no longer apply to the Harper Conservatives.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Quebec independence - Decline, and Fall?

A couple of weeks ago Maclean's political editor Paul Wells, taking note of the decline in pro-independence sentiment in Quebec, gave some of the credit to Prime Minister Harper. This struck me as silly at the time. But if Harper does not deserve credit for the decline in Quebec's sovereignty movement (and he does not despite his claims), what does explain the phenomenon?

The Quebec sovereignty movement and its key political force, the Parti Québecois have fallen on hard times. Yes, they did win a plurality of the seats in a provincial election in 2012, but that was in a close three way race where they won less than 32% of the popular vote. They then proceeded to lose the recent April 7, 2014 general election garnering just 25.4% of the vote. In a poll conducted by Léger Marketing in June 2014 their support had dropped further to just 20% of preferences placing them behind the Coalition Avenir Québec or CAQ.  The same poll placed support for sovereignty at 31% (and just 37% among francophones). The PQ has been the key political institution for the promotion of Quebec independence. The declining support for both the party and sovereignty means that the movement confronts a serious existential crisis.

And what about the actual support for sovereignty over time? Here are some charts. The first is from the blog of Jean-François Lisée, former PQ cabinet minister, in a post that acknowledges the overall slump in support for sovereignty. The chart begins in 1980, jumps to 1989 and captures the spike in support in 1990 following the death of Meech.  It combines CROP polls in blue with Léger in red with the 1980 and 1995 referendum results in black. It is the overall pattern that matters. Except for bumps just after the 1995 referendum and around the time of the sponsorship scandal what we see is steady decline since 1990 (somewhat before Stephen Harper assumed office).

In his blog Lisée argues that fear of a referendum, after Pierre Karl Peladeau raised the prospect of one when he entered the campaign, is what drove votes to the Liberals. He said in his post:
Pierre Karl’s arrival had a major effect. Until then, Quebecers perceived the Marois team as capable of governing as a sovereigntist government, but undoubtedly incapable of acting on its intention of holding a referendum.
When a business titan such as Pierre Karl announced that he was joining the PQ, that changed everything. Sovereigntists (and who can blame them?) enthusiastically greeted his arrival as providential, saying that it would calm people’s fears. Amplified by this chorus of applause, the PQ + PKP combination gave new credibility to the hypothesis of sovereignty.
And for half a million francophone Quebecers, this credibility reawakened a strong aversion to embarking once again on the adventure of a referendum.
The translation above comes from the journal Inroads, which has long provided excellent coverage and insights into Quebec politics.

Aversion to a referendum of course is rooted in opposition to sovereignty itself. As well, I have little doubt that the memories of the divisiveness of the 1995 referendum for Quebec francophone families add to feelings about this in Quebec. The PQ in office had avoided the issue of sovereignty but waved the nationalist flag with its "Charter of Values", a ploy that never garnered the political efficacy they hoped it might. The "Charter of Values" ended up being a symbol of the weakness of Quebec sovereignty sentiment, not a sign of its strength.

There is a detailed look at this loss of support for both the PQ and sovereignty in the blog of Université de Montréal sociologist Claire Durand.  Her blog on polling is titled Ah les sondages. She is one of the leading analysts of polling in Quebec and presents data in the chart below that report that support for sovereignty among younger Quebecers peaked around the year 2000 and has been steadily declining since, to the point where age differences among the Quebec francophones are significantly diminishing. By 2014 as one can see by the converging lines (blue is 18-34, green is 35-54 and red is 55 plus), age differences have all but disappeared.

Her research using CROP polls concludes there were two generations (by her definition) that supported the PQ and sovereignty, the baby boom born from 1945 to 1962, and those born between 1962 and 1977. She remains agnostic on whether younger voters who have abandoned support for sovereignty and the PQ can be persuaded to return to the fold, but there is no doubt at all about the current situation. The loss of support for the Parti Québecois among younger and middle-aged voters is particularly pronounced as the chart below illustrates.

Sovereignty is a critically important existential issue in Quebec. One should see it as fundamentally apart from day to day political debate. Why it has declined most likely revolves around matters of fundamental importance to French Quebeckers, particularly the status of the French language.

A key reason for the decline of pro-sovereignty sentiment is likely rooted in one of the greatest accomplishments of the first PQ government - Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language.  Political scientist Reg Whitaker wrote about this in 1991 on page 304 of his book, Sovereign Idea: Essays on Canada as a Democratic Community.  His words bear repeating:
... language is a sovereignty issue in Quebec in that it revolves around the sovereign right of the Quebec community through those political institutions under its control, to legislate the priority of the French language within the boundaries of the community. The historical irony is that the PQ's very success in framing and implementing a clear, effective and relatively liberal language law - arguably its major achievement in two terms in office - was also the single act which did the most to undermine the PQ's own option of sovereignty-association. If Quebec could exercise sovereignty in legislating language within the framework of the Canadian federation, perhaps it did not require sovereignty in the full political sense.  
I would argue that, in addition to Bill 101, federal bilingualism and the promotion of the French fact in Ottawa and across the country over time played an important role in undermining the case in Quebec for sovereignty. Earlier generations of Quebeckers experienced significant discrimination against them and their language, but now we have generations who have come to maturity in a different context. It is having an impact.

Given the steadiness of the decline it seems unlikely that with the exception of the Sponsorship scandal (and its effect has passed) the numerous developments of the late nineties and early aughts had any significant impact one way or the other on overall support levels for sovereignty. This would include the federal secession reference, the federal clarity law, devolution of labour market training, the Social Union Framework Agreement, cuts to federal transfers, and so on.

We see a parallel to the decline of the PQ in provincial politics in the decline of the Bloc Québecois federally. Recently, the Bloc selected a new leader from the 'pur et dur' hardline separatist wing of the party, Mario Beaulieu.  In a sense the weakness of sovereignty so clear today was foreshadowed by the big NDP win in Quebec in 2011 when the Bloc was reduced to four seats and 23.4% of the vote, a number very close to the PQ result on April 7. Bryan Breguet of Too Close to Call suggests that we are likely to see ongoing weakness of the BQ, although the selection of Beaulieu might be able to keep a hard core of party support that could elect a few MPs to the House of Commons. But he also calculates that if the BQ falls to less than 20% of the vote in the next election in 2015 it could wind up with zero seats. I think over the longer term it is the federal NDP that will benefit from the decline in pro-independence sentiment in Quebec.

In the day to day back and forth of politics we often overlook or forget about the fundamentals.  We should not. The evolution of Quebec with respect to the independence debate is extremely important.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Some observations about the Ontario 2014 election

There had been a sufficient number of close polls during the election that the result, a Liberal majority, came as a greater surprise than perhaps it should have. In my final blog post I uncharacteristically did not offer a seat forecast. This reflected my own lack confidence in the outcome of an election where polls consistently suggested high levels of dissatisfaction with the state of the province and the incumbent government.

Nevertheless I did make a prediction in an email to my brother-in-law that turned out to be prescient.  I averaged the last Ekos and Forum Polls (ignoring the Ekos likely voter model), entered the data in my electoral model, and turned up a seat count of Liberal-59, PC-33 and NDP-15. When the actual vote shares are entered in my model the seat totals are identical to the actual results, albeit with 10 individual errors that offset to give the accurate total. More confidence in what I produced would have been the order of the day.

What determined the Outcome
The outcome actually was determined early. It is clear that Hudak made an enormous strategic miscalculation to promise to eliminate 100,000 public sector jobs - a fact unequivocally confirmed by PC candidates post-election who said the pledge came as a complete surprise to them. Paul Wells in commenting on the results offered this contrast to how Stephen Harper dealt with prospect of federal layoffs likely to come from his spending cuts.
Hudak ... decided his target audience was people who think eliminating public sector jobs is always excellent. Compare and contrast: During the 2011 federal election, I worked hard to get a succession of federal Conservatives — Jim Flaherty, John Baird — to give me any indication of the scale of public sector job cuts the Harper government had in mind. Baird pledged, with a straight face, to protect the National Capital Region’s bureaucrats from the kind of ravages the Chrétien-Martin Liberals had inflicted in the 1990s.
The outcome of this ideologically polarized election will no doubt reinforce the federal Tories' penchant for circumspection and secrecy. But they are likely feeling chills down their spine. This election made clear that voters rejected the Hudak PC program, which was identical in its essentials, if not how it was communicated, to the Harper Conservatives.

In mid-campaign economist Paul Boothe, a former senior federal finance official and Saskatchewan finance deputy offered the following summary of the three parties fiscal platforms (the whole thing is worth reading).
The Liberals and NDP propose to maintain Ontario’s already relatively low program spending at approximately the current level.  In contrast, the Conservatives propose to lower program spending substantially to finance a large corporate tax cut now and lower personal taxes once the budget is balanced. 
Overall voters preferred a Liberal program based on a relatively austere budget offering slightly slower deficit reduction, which nevertheless included a variety of progressive measures such as a wage increase for home care workers, and an income tax increase for those receiving higher incomes. The NDP offered a partially similar, if somewhat incoherent, program that appears to have been based on identifying popular bits and pieces from polls and focus groups. In terms of their major fiscal/economic positioning, they embraced the Liberal timetable on deficit reduction, implying that they would have required their own austerity program.

Numerically, what gave the Liberals a majority was the 7.4% gap between them and the second place PCs, up from a 0.8% advantage in 2011 that left the Liberals just short of a majority at the time. The NDP performed relatively well, particularly in southwestern Ontario where the economy has particularly suffered during the recession following the 2008 financial crisis. However, they did lose three seats in Toronto largely, I would argue, due to the relatively small 'c' conservative character of their platform and its accompanying campaign and rhetoric. An "exit poll" conducted by the Globe and Mail confirmed that the NDP had some appeal this time for PC voters:
Jarring though it may be with long-time followers of Ontario politics, the NDP seems in particular to have made headway with PC supporters. Twenty-eight per cent of respondents who voted for the Tories said their view of the NDP had become more favourable during the campaign, next to 20 per cent who said it had become less favourable. The NDP also split with the Liberals for second-choice support among PCs. 
Remember these are voters who embraced Hudak and his extreme program of austerity and tax-cutting who are saying this. The conservative nature of the NDP's pitch appears to have had political benefits in the southwest and costs in Toronto.

The Polls 
A polling experiment conducted by the Toronto Star during this campaign explains well the polling issues generated by the campaign (I think the print and broadcast media have overstated the degree of polling inaccuracy). The most striking aspect of the campaign polls was the wide variation in reported support for the NDP.  The experiment found that IVR (Interactive Voice Response, essentially a talking computer that makes phone calls) tends to understate NDP support while online polls overstate it. This is certainly consistent with the results of the polls released during the campaign.

I measured polling accuracy in two ways: I compared the election vote shares to the reported poll shares for the three major parties only and then a second calculation that includes the Greens and Other. I convert the errors to absolute values and sum them.The justification for doing two calculations is that it is the strongest parties that determine outcomes in a first past the post system. The errors on Greens and Other are interesting from a polling perspective but matter little in determining seat outcomes.

I have ignored the likely voter reports, which were estimates that were not as accurate as the basic eligible voter polls. I think it likely that if someone is willing and patient enough to answer a poll on politics, it is likely that individual is a voter and no further effort should be necessary. The performance is worth noting. (Note negative values indicate the poll underestimated the actual vote, positive that the performance was over-estimated.)

The online pollsters Angus Reid and Abacus performed well as did IVR pollster Ekos and phone pollster Oraclepoll.  Phone pollster Nanos had a poll that concluded on May 26 that could be deemed the most accurate, but it finished up two and a half weeks before voting day so I have excluded it here. Ekos was closest on the Liberals and PCs and Oraclepoll closest on the NDP.  All pollsters had at least one error outside their reported margin of error and most had two.

The polls despite the errors did perform better than the impressions left by the media (and I certainly agree with Paul Adams' assessment of the value of the polls during elections). The media convinced themselves that a Liberal majority was impossible. While most of the predictions ahead of time were for a minority the major prognosticators had the Liberals in the high 40s or above. At those levels just a slight shift in the polls is all that is necessary to produce a majority.

TV Debates
Part of the explanation for all the surprise was that Kathleen Wynne was perceived to have lost the TV debates. Most commentary I think misses the point about a TV debate. It can affect public assessment of the capacity of the participants. This matters more in the U.S. where voters are asked to make a direct choice between individuals. In Canada, however, debates are mainly about issues. Where they can matter is raising the importance or salience of a given issue. In this case the key moments were about the gas plants scandal, which already had a very high profile and no new information about it came out. As a vote consideration it had already been largely factored into how voters felt about what mattered, which turned out to be not gas plants, but rather the Hudak plan for governance. The Liberals had the most money for this campaign, and no doubt bombarded the airways in the final week with ads like this one, effectively overcoming what they might have lost during the debate.

As a more general observation I would say that while scandals matter to newspapers and the electronic media for sales, they matter a great deal less to the public when it comes to casting a vote. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is a cynicism that reflects a generalized "they all do it" belief. But the other is that most scandals simply don't matter in material ways to the average voter. Thus we have had two Liberal governments in Quebec and Ontario recently re-elected in spite of the various scandals laid at their door, and one in BC a year ago.

Strategic or Tactical Voting
There are two questions one can pose about tactical voting. First, did it occur, and, if so, did it matter. The point of those who engaged in this kind of voting was to defeat Hudak. At a macro level it is clear that strategic/ tactical voting did not matter simply because the PCs were so decisively beaten. When you finish seven points behind your opponent you are always going to lose.

Was there identifiable strategic/tactical voting? I have not crunched the numbers for all the ridings but took a close look at several that changed hands using both the raw numbers and my projections to see how well parties performed in an individual constituency compared to the overall trend.  I examined Burlington, Cambridge, Durham, Halton, Newmarket-Aurora, which all switched from the PCs to the Liberals and Oshawa, which went NDP. Tactical voting appears to have added to the winner's margin in all cases except Durham but all would have been won on the overall trend regardless. Nominally it appears that it may have been decisive in Oshawa, but the numbers are close enough in the calculation that one can't be sure. Assessing this kind of voting behaviour is a difficult exercise in my view (we cannot read voters' minds after all) and simple calculations should be viewed with caution.

Looking Ahead
I doubt that either tactical voting or scandals will be decisive in the 2015 federal election. I would add that whether or not Stephen Harper wins next year will likely have little to do with the scandals such as the Senate expenses affair (for which he is properly being blamed). It will more likely be issues that matter - especially the role of government. The more the federal opposition parties can identify damage done to public services and jobs by Stephen Harper, and there has been plenty, for example, the damage to the federal government's core public administration I wrote about in February, the stronger will be their case for replacing Harper in 2015. Mike Duffy is likely to be a footnote when we look back on the 2015 federal election.

Ontario's greatest challenge is restarting its slow-growing economy (not repairing its finances as is commonly assumed). Average growth has been very slow over the past decade because of the financial crisis and subsequent economic downturn. Ontario has been 10th out of 10 in Canada because it is not resource rich,  and manufacturing has suffered because of the downturn and the overvalued Canadian dollar.
Slow economic growth in Canada's industrial and financial heartland should be seen primarily as a federal government failure. However, if the Bank of Canada encourages a lower Canadian dollar (we'll see), and the American economy continues to gain strength albeit slowly, the fiscal challenges facing the Wynne regime will be diminished. It was the "Roaring Nineties" in the United States, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz dubbed them, that allowed the federal Liberals to balance their budget quickly while economic growth continued. And average voters care more about jobs than balance sheets.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Ontario Election: Final Assessment

Ontario's 2014 provincial election is tomorrow and has been characterized by an unusually high degree of negativity. After 11 years and various scandals there are considerable negatives attached to the incumbent Wynne government. However, the opposition PCs have behaved in some respects as if they don't want to win. Their promise to cut 100,000 jobs was a major blunder and making an elementary error in arithmetic is unforgivable as well as a perfect way to demonstrate the party's unfitness to govern. I have the impression (as do others such as Lispop's Barry Kay) that a more careful, moderate campaign might have had Mr. Hudak's party sailing into office. Instead he appears to have maximized the small 'c' conservative character of his platform. NDP leader Andrea Horwath could not articulate a clear rationale for opposing Kathleen Wynne's budget and has suffered an unprecedented degree of internal party dissent (for an opposition party), particularly in Toronto. It is rare for an opposition party to do such a poor job of appealing to its own base.

The closing polls so far appear to be headed slightly in the direction of the Liberals. However, that doesn't mean they are headed for a majority.  The following blogs plus the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy all provide estimates of how many seats each party is expected to win in the election for the 107 members of the Ontario legislature. Note: this is probably not their final estimate.

All these sites in my view are quite capable and know the art of forecasting seats well.

Strategic / Tactical Voting

Strategic voting has emerged in Canadian politics in the past 15 years. It is a consequence of the federal and provincial Conservative and Progressive Conservative parties moving to the right opening up a large ideological gap between them and the NDP and Liberals on the Centre-Left. I think it more precise to use the British term 'tactical voting' as it is simply a decision by individual voters to opt for a second choice to prevent a third party from winning. In Canada this typically means NDP voters casting a ballot for the Liberals to block Conservatives (as a consequence partisan New Democrats hate it).

It first bloomed in a major way in the 1999 Ontario provincial election where it succeeded in contributing to several Liberal victories and one NDP win. In this election the Wynne Liberal strategy has as a key element a pitch to NDP voters to prevent a Hudak victory. The last Forum research poll estimated that 37% of 2011 NDP voters have moved to the Liberals this time, indicating that it is likely to be partially successful. There are groups online such as http://www.one-big-campaign.blogspot.ca/ that advocate tactical voting although it is doubtful that many voters will even become aware of the existence of this or other such groups let alone be influenced by them. Nonetheless many will cast a tactical ballot.

The size of the NDP vote will have a critical impact on the overall shape of the election and here is where polls disagree. Support for the NDP has been reported at various levels between 30% and 17% and overall there has been a significant difference between online and phone polls (including IVR) in both early and late campaign polls - an average of five or six points.

My observation is that online polls have overstated NDP support in the past. Regardless, the real level of support matters. As an illustration, if we assume that the most recent Ekos likely voter model numbers (L - 41.1, PC - 33.2, NDP - 17.1) are accurate it would easily produce a Liberal majority. (While Ekos' likely voter model adds to Liberal support, others such as Angus Reid do the opposite boosting the PCs at the expense of the Liberals.) The key is that the 17.1% for the NDP would represent a large drop from their 22.7% in 2011 and the direct loss of seats to the Liberals. It is third parties who create minority legislatures if the race between the two leading parties is close. The chances of a majority for either party rises in direct relation to the increasing or declining strength of the third party.

Based on the 2011 election we can say the Liberal vote is the most efficient.  That voting pattern, if something like it prevails again, would permit the Liberals to be as much as two points behind the PCs but still be ahead in seats. The Ekos likely voter model seems improbable to me. It is my impression that likely voters models should boost the Conservative share. We will soon see. Overall the polling points to the Liberals having the most seats.

A Final Word on Polls
No one pollster is the most accurate in each election.  I have been tracking this for some time.  The most accurate pollster in the 1999 Ontario election was Ekos.  In 2003 and 2007 it was Harris-Decima (known simply as Decima in 2003) while in 2011 it was Forum Research with Abacus close behind. In reviewing these old spreadsheets I made one amusing discovery: in 2003 the Lick's Hamburger Poll was slightly closer to the election result than one of the commercial polling firms.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ontario election: conflicting polls, Hudak's math & Horwath's bad day

The Ontario election continues to confound observers. Long-serving governments should typically find it harder each time they go to the polls to get re-elected. Scandal-plagued Liberal governments led for the first time by women who served in the cabinet of their discredited predecessors before becoming premier would, one would think, be doomed: just ask Christie Clark. Oh wait.

Politics is a tricky and complicated game. Just when you think you have it figured out something wholly unexpected arises. So it is in Ontario 2014. With conflicting polling messages and results, the way forward this time seems especially opaque.

Here is a table comparing polling done since May 6 online with polls conducted using telephone IVR (interactive voice response, essentially a talking computer).

Translated into seats it is the difference between a potential Liberal majority and a PC minority. And there is still a long way to go.

Hudak's Math
Jim Stanford, economist with the union Unifor, as well as the Liberal Finance Minister Charles Sousa, have been crunching the numbers on Tim Hudak's 'million jobs' plan and have found that the math does not add up. Put simply, Hudak's arithmetic says 2 + 2 = 100.

Stanford's post on the Progressive Economics blog is worth quoting extensively:
When Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak kicked off the current election campaign with a plan to “create a million new jobs” in Ontario, he tried to dress up the platform launch with a certain scientific respectability.  The party released a “technical backgrounder” showing the precise composition of the million new jobs, along with two commissioned consultants’ reports that were said to justify the estimates contained in the plan.
Stanford goes on to note that the PCs did not post these online, but some reporters did, allowing him to do some forensic analysis.  He goes on to say:
There are many important economic and methodological issues with the policies proposed by the PCs, and the way they have used the consultant reports to try to justify their numbers.
These problems deserve a lot of further study, including:
  • The apparent double-counting of fiscal savings (like the wage freeze on public servants).
  • The failure to account for any employment downside from major public sector spending cuts.
  • The failure to include the 100,000 direct public sector jobs that the PCs pledge to eliminate.
  • The lack of any empirical support for the plan’s estimates of job gains from apprenticeship training or GTA transit initiatives.
  • How they measure “regulatory reduction” and its impact on employment. ...
Ontarians can and should have a serious policy debate over whether Hudak’s proposals would have any stimulative effect on employment at all (let alone creating a million new positions).
However, those substantive policy debates may be swamped by an enormous arithmetic mistake which can be deduced by comparing the numbers in the PC technical backgrounder, with the supposedly supporting evidence contained in the two consultant’s reports.  Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa has critiqued this error.  Here are the details as I read them.  In essence, the two consultants generated estimates of the number of cumulative jobs that would be created from the simulated policies over several years.  But the PCs have assumed that those jobs would be created in each year of the 8-year plan.  They have thus exaggerated the number of jobs by several times (as many as eight-fold).
Does this remarkable display of ineptitude deserve to be rewarded with the keys to Queen's Park?

Horwath's Bad Day
In an online column written for the Globe and Mail on Friday May 23, longtime party stalwart Gerald Caplan strongly criticized the NDP campaign asking plaintively: Do progressives even have a place in the Ontario NDP? It slammed the Horwath campaign saying, among other things:
Your election campaign has frankly been a mess. No coherent theme, no memorable policies, nothing to deal with the great concerns of New Democrats everywhere: increasing inequality, the precarious lives of so many working people, reduced public services, global warming. I’m afraid you offer little sense that you understand Ontario’s needs and that if elected you have any serious plan to meet them.
Later the same day a letter to Horwath signed by 34 unhappy New Democrats was obtained by the CBC, which stated: "We were angry when you voted against the most progressive budget in recent Ontario history. Given your mistrust of the Liberals it still would have been better to insist they carry out their promises rather than just bringing them down. But in your campaign it seems you don't agree with the proposals in the budget From what we can see you are running to the right of the Liberals in an attempt to win Conservative votes."

The list included some with high profile New Democrats such as Michelle Landsberg, former Toronto Star columnist and wife of former NDP leader Stephen Lewis. Perhaps less appreciated today is that Gerald Caplan at one time worked very closely with Stephen Lewis. This suggests to me that although he is unlikely to say anything publicly, these actions have the tacit support of Stephen Lewis, a party icon credited with the first big electoral breakthrough in 1975, and the person who delivered a strong eulogy at the Jack Layton funeral.

It is hard to see how this won't eventually be very damaging to the NDP, which has been struggling against strategic voting on the centre-left, a phenomenon that first strongly established itself in Ontario in the 1999 provincial election. The formerly red Tory Ontario Progressive Conservative Party moved strongly to the right in 1995, and the ideological gap between the Conservatives on the one hand, and the Liberals (even of the Dalton McGuinty blue Grit variety) and the NDP, on the other, has been wide ever since.

This makes the effort by the NDP to make a rightward tilt over the past couple of years surprising, as if they could ignore with impunity the temptation on the part of their supporters to vote Liberal. When the Wynne government announced an increase in the minimum wage, quite amazingly the leader of the NDP did not instantly welcome it. Instead she mulled it over for a couple of days then announced support for a higher wage (an obvious outflanking movement), but insisted it should be accompanied by a tax cut for small business.

She has also made some symbolic gestures. For example, Horwath attacked Kathleen Wynne for refusing to meet with Rob Ford (this was after Council had stripped him of his powers) perhaps hoping to tap into some of the support of Ford had. This was an example of truly terrible political judgment. It opened her up to charges of inconsistency and hypocrisy, made effectively in this post by Liberal blogger Jeff Jedras, not to mention that fellow New Democrat Olivia Chow was shortly to announce a race against Ford. It was too small a gesture to have any political benefit. It only had costs. In a word it was stupid.

A strong rebuttal to the unhappy New Democrats was posted by Alice Funke of Pundits Guide that gives some insight into the thinking behind Horwath's strategy. She argues that traditional NDP politics had failed in earlier years leading Jack Layton and Horwath to "more prairie formulations". She says of Horwath:
She has made a bold calculation that the strong desire for regime change in the province, coupled with a fear of the extreme programme of the Hudak PCs, creates a unique opening for a modern social democratic offer that balances fiscal responsibility with progressive working class populism; one that actually stands a chance of stopping a Hudak majority, in the very regions the provincial Liberals are now weakest.
There a couple flaws embedded in all this. Horwath's approach was first conceived as a strategy against the blue Grit McGuinty. It has taken no account whatsoever of the shift within the Liberals from centre-right to centre-left with the leadership change. All Horwath has been able to offer is that the Liberals are corrupt or that they make promises that can't be believed, neither of which directly addresses the ideological issues raised.

Where it could conceivably be effective is in parts of the province that have completely discounted the Liberals. Maybe the NDP can replicate some of their success in the by-elections held after 2011 in urban ridings in southwestern Ontario, a region hard hit by the economic downturn. However, if there is some residual Liberal strength even here, it is unlikely to work. In addition there is no broad perception that the NDP can win province-wide, a condition that would be necessary to the success of the Horwath strategy.

On the prairies themselves the NDP don't have to worry about Liberals, left-leaning or otherwise. Liberal parties there have been weak for several decades. Using "prairie formulations" in a province where the political context is completely different doesn't make much sense.

In this respect I do think Funke's reference here to Layton is simply wrong. The key to NDP success in 2011 was in Quebec, where Layton's appeal could not be characterized as rooted in prairie NDP politics, along with the incompetence of Michael Ignatieff. The 2011 NDP experience has no applicability to Ontario 2014.

Of course, any strategy requires NDP supporters to remain loyal. Could Horwath have done something to keep the dissenters loyal? The unhappiness with the Horwath approach was widely discussed within party circles prior to the election. Perhaps the NDP planners needed somehow to take it into account, and could at least have done something to prevent a public outburst.

One can easily perceive strikes against all three parties: Hudak's hopeless math and ideological blinkers, the now almost 11-year Liberal record that includes the scandals and an economic downturn, and the NDP's tactical, strategic and policy blunders. The confused polling picture should surprise no one.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Hudak and Walkerton

Premier Kathleen Wynne visited Walkerton, Ontario today, scene of a horrific water pollution scandal in 2000 that implicated the Mike Harris government of which Mr. Hudak was a part. She said the "cutbacks of the 1990s contributed to this tragedy. There was a failure of oversight, a failure of enforcement. "
Mr. Hudak took umbrage at her comments saying, "I think it’s rather sad to see a Premier of Ontario politicizing that... I expected better from Kathleen Wynne. I’m very disappointed … all I’ve seen from her in these 10 days or so is pointing her finger at somebody else."

So what did the Commission of Inquiry into the Walkerton affair have to say about the responsibility of the Harris government for Walkerton.

Here is an excerpt from a summary of the report:
The provincial government’s budget reductions led to the discontinua­tion of government laboratory testing services for municipalities in 1996. In implementing this decision, the government should have enacted a regulation mandating that testing laboratories immediately and directly notify both the MOE (Ministry of the Environment) and the Medical Officer of Health of adverse results. Had the government done this, the boil water advisory would have been issued by May 19 at the latest, thereby preventing hundreds of illnesses.
  • The provincial government’s budget reductions made it less likely that the MOE would have identified both the need for continuous monitors at Well 5 and the improper operating practices of the Walkerton PUC (Public Utilities Commission). 
Now a PC leader who was elected as a Harris PC backbencher in 1995, and later served in cabinet has proposed a new round of deep spending cuts. Hudak says his plan involves no cuts to water inspectors, but as the Walkerton report makes clear compromising water quality is part of his party's past while in government, because of privatization and an inadequate recognition of its consequences.

It is not as if warnings weren't issued to the government from opposition benches about threats to water quality from the Harris government policies.  Here is NDP member Marilyn Churley, speaking on May 26, 1997 in debate on the WATER AND SEWAGE SERVICES IMPROVEMENT ACT, 1997, which was introduced even after the government had effectively privatized water testing in 1996. (bolding is mine):
This is not about trust. This is about municipalities having the money, the expertise, the inspectors, the ability to carry out this job. Many of them don't have that. With the downloading ... and the general cuts and more to come, many of the poorer municipalities are not going to have this option to take proper care with their sewage systems. It's very worrisome. People should be concerned about that. We're talking about environmental protection and, literally, human health; it is not just one of those airy-fairy, tree-hugger environmental issues that some of us get accused of from time to time. I know I myself from time to time have been accused of being one of those.
This is very serious. We're talking about the water we drink and the water we use on a daily basis. If we can't be guaranteed that water is safe, then we're really in trouble. We know this bill is going to create tremendous problems for municipalities to make sure the health of their communities is maintained.
Hard to take Hudak's protestations of absolute wounded innocence seriously. Is he certain there will be no adverse consequences to public health and welfare from cutting 100,000 jobs?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Ontario election: time for a change/ can Hudak win?

A recent Ipsos poll reported that 72% of Ontarians think it is time for a change? The results of this online survey were duly reflected in blogs and the Twittersphere.

There can be little doubt that the finding is important, but it is not conclusive. Time for a change sentiment can become the dominant consideration in determining vote outcomes, but other matters are potentially equally or more important. We need look no further back than the 2013 B.C. election, when this Angus Reid online poll (conducted a few weeks before voting day) found 59% of British Columbians thought it was time for a change. It also reported that the NDP was leading with 45% compared to the BC Liberals' 31%.

The polls going into the Ontario campaign were mixed, some showing the Liberals ahead, others the Conservatives. I am inclined to agree with Bryan Breguet's assessment that on a net basis the PCs started out the campaign ahead. But campaigns matter.

Enter Tim Hudak to illustrate the point. He started off with a plan to create a million jobs, all hypothetical and to come in the future largely from the private sector. He then completely stepped on his message a day later by saying that he would destroy 100,000 current real jobs in Ontario's broader public sector.

After 2007 job destruction happened everywhere in the western world and unemployment soared, including in Ontario, which is highly dependent on the performance of other economies primarily the United States. To respond to the economic crisis the U.S. adopted fiscal and monetary stimulus while the EU mainly encouraged austerity (similar in principle to Hudak). At the beginning of the crisis the unemployment rates in the two regions were similar. As this chart from Eurostat illustrates, the U.S. has performed far better on the jobs front than the EU. The blue and yellow lines are the EU 28 (all EU members) and the EU 17 (countries in the Eurozone), the line further down is the U.S., while Japan, which is currently the most stimulative of them all, is at the bottom.

What has commanded more attention than Hudak's million jobs promise is his pledge to destroy jobs. A new Forum poll reports that 63% of the poll respondents don't believe the million jobs proposal - a hazard that any promise that appears to be too pie-in-the-sky risks. At the same time 62% disapprove of the 100,000 job cuts while just 26% like the idea. Even if Hudak wins his rhetoric was an error - he could have talked about finding waste and inefficiency, not flinching from making tough decisions, etc. Perhaps Hudak's plan will be the ballot question on June 12, not time for a change.

NDP Tilt to the Right
The NDP has been trying to woo voters on the right for some time (although its profile on this has been fairly low), and today announced a plan for a new Minister of Savings and Accountability who would be tasked with finding $600 million in savings. For a party with a reputation for supporting big government, and not a good reputation for fiscal management, proposing to cut government by creating a new ministry simply seems ironic.

It is probably at odds with the views of most New Democrats. When earlier this year a poll from Ekos research (see p. 10) asked with respect to federal politics if respondents preferred "Investing in social areas such as health, education or jobs", "Keeping taxes as low as possible" or "Keeping the deficit as low as possible", New Democrats were far and away the most likely to favour "Investing in social areas...", much more so than other parties' supporters and more than the national average. The same survey found NDP supporters as least likely to view cuts to public services as "necessary to reduce government waste" (p. 16) as opposed to seeing federal cuts as having "taken us to the point where the overall health of Canadian society is being seriously damaged".

I am sure in the NDP planners' minds the announcement today about a Minister of Savings and Accountability is not inconsistent with support for spending on health and education, but I don't think their most active supporters will see it this way. It appears more 'Hudak/Harris/Ford keeping taxes and the deficit low', rather than making room for social spending. It is as the latter that the NDP planners likely prefer it be seen.

In TC's view the most likely impact of the new announcement will be to drive NDP votes to the Wynne Liberals.