Thursday, May 26, 2005

More Belinda or How Not to Become PM

A correspondent writes that he has learned that, at a campaign school conducted by the Conservatives a few weeks ago, Belinda was cast in the role of interview subject as part of campaign media training. After the interview was over the trainer told the audience that this was exactly how NOT to respond to questions in an interview - in a none too subtle manner. M. Stronach was humiliated and furious. There is a suggestion this may have been deliberate on the part of Harper - possibly punishment for speculation on her part that she would like to see the budget adopted. Um, and we know what happened next.

The whole episode is bad enough, but if this story is ever confirmed in the media, it means much more trouble for Harper. Think of how most women would respond to a story about any woman in politics being singled out for deliberate humiliation.

Coming on top of today's Globe story about efforts by Canada's Christian right to grab Tory nominations, one could imagine Liberal strategists wringing their hands at not having an opportunity to confront Mr. Harper at the polls.

Sunday, May 22, 2005


I would remiss if I let this one pass. I will make two points:

1. The affair is symptomatic of what is perhaps the Conservatives’ biggest problem: the widely accepted belief that the merger of the two parties was an Alliance/Reform takeover that alienated a huge number of centrist, Red Tory, socially progressive-fiscally conservative (call them what you will) traditional Progressive Conservatives despite the support of some like Bill Davis and Hugh Segal traditionally associated with the Red Tories. However, many in this group perceived the merger as a hostile takeover by Reform, and both key individuals and en masse they defected to Paul Martin Liberals. Ms. Stronach’s defection is merely the latest chapter in a crossing the floor story that featured earlier moves by Scott Brison and Keith Martin.

It can be seen statistically by examining a specific example: the combined Alliance-PC vote in Ontario in 2000 was 38% but the merged Conservative Party could only obtain 31.5% in 2004 – an election in which Liberal support in Ontario actually dropped by 6.8%.

Mr. Harper made a number of key strategic errors in the lead-up to the loss of the confidence vote but his role in the loss of Belinda Stronach was the greatest. It is an enormous symbolic blow that undermines completely the efforts the Conservatives have been making to moderate their image.

2. Stronach is now a Liberal and a cabinet minister with a significant portfolio. She has puzzled me right from the moment she entered politics to run for the Conservative leadership. She did not appear to have natural political abilities. With her millions she had some of the best advice money can buy, but it is far from clear whether, apart from her vote on May 19, she will be an asset to the Liberals. See, for example, this commentary by veteran Hill watcher Doug Fisher, a one time CCF-NDP MP, although now a political columnist for the Sun news papers who leans strongly to the right. He comments, in comparing her to other women:

"... she isn't cut out for the game of politics. She's just not a "natural" -- unlike women such as the late Judy LaMarsh, or Deborah Grey and Sheila Copps. More than a year of generous exposure by the news media demonstrate that she is barely an adequate speaker, let alone a good one. She cannot think on her feet and has a relentless devotion to cliches and chamber of commerce platitudes."

Sunday, May 15, 2005

B.C. Election Wind-up

The polls, with the exception of the ones by Robbins SCE Research, have generally given the Liberals a significant lead. My seat estimates (based on the other polls) range between 25 to 28 seats for the NDP, 51 to 54 for the Liberals. There is not all that much difference between the high and low end. Thus, the Strategic Counsel poll lead of 13% is a 54-25 seat split whereas the Mustel 5% lead is a 51-28 division, although there are two additional seats in this latter scenario where the Liberal margin is razor thin and they could therefore easily tilt to the NDP.

The close ridings, which could swing either way according to my calculations, are:

Burnaby Willingdon
Burquitlam (but only if the spread is five points or less)
Cariboo South (same qualifier)
Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows
North Island

The Liberals had a slightly more efficient vote distribution in 2001 (unlike 1996) so a tie in the popular vote or even being behind by 1% would still yield them a victory based on this pattern. However, the 2001 election may be a misleading benchmark given the extreme outcome. It is probable that 1996 would be more indicative.

The Greens might elect Adrianne Carr but it would be in defiance of my math, which calculates the NDP as the winner in this riding. Sometimes local electorates think a party leader should be entitled to a seat in the legislature, so I would not be completely surprised if that were to happen. The Green vote in B.C. seems to be particularly inefficiently distributed compared to the other two parties. Their interest in an alternative electoral system makes a great deal of sense from this perspective.

It does appear that Carole James got the better of Campbell in the debate but Liberal ads reminiscing about Glen Clark have reversed the situation. Nonetheless, James appears to be doing well as leader, and seems likely to emerge with the kind of real authority and command of the party not expected when she assumed the role.

Ipsos-Reid polled on the referendum question on electoral reform and found a lead for the ‘YES’ side of 55%-45% among decided voters. I think this means that the referendum, needing 60% with majority support in 48 ridings, will likely fail. Undecided voters, not knowing or understanding what the STV means, are likely to react to proposals for drastic change cautiously, and thus break disproportionately for the ‘NO’ side.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Where we can find real corruption

I always get quite irritated listening to Stephen Harper labelling the Martin government as corrupt (it sounds very strategic, like the product of a focus group).

It is not just that I don't personally think Martin and company are corrupt and that the evidence from Gomery suggests that the circle of the ethically-challenged was quite circumscribed. What is quite galling is that there is real and systematic corruption about, but one has to look south of the border to find it, among Harper's ideological soulmates in Washington.

There is much written about this. One of the latest is this article in the New Republic by Jon Chait (subscription required), Patronage Bush Style, Wages of Sin. Here is an excerpt about what he labels as fundamentally corrupt big government conservatism:

Begin with the Medicare bill, Bush's largest social spending initiative by far. It's true that Bush probably embraced the notion of adding prescription-drug coverage because opposition had grown untenable. But the distinctive characteristic of Bush's bill is its staggering array of handouts to private interests. The goodies included a $71 billion subsidy for corporate health care plans, $46 billion for Medicare HMOs, $25 billion for hospital chains, and more than $100 billion for pharmaceutical companies, not including a lucrative provision forbidding the federal government from negotiating lower drug prices. Just about all of Bush's big-government conservative agenda works the same way. Whereas Clinton signed a law phasing out federal crop payments, Bush lavished $180 billion in subsidies for agribusiness. ...

Bush's expansion of government is not limited to higher spending. At various points, he has imposed protective trade barriers on imports of textiles, steel, lumber, shrimp, and other goods. And he has been particularly shameless in creating narrowly targeted tax breaks of the sort that increase, rather than diminish, Washington's role in the economy. Last fall, Bush signed a little-noticed corporate tax bill that, rather than cut rates across the board, showered benefits on bow-and-arrow manufacturers, foreign dog-race gamblers, ceiling-fan importers, and other dubious beneficiaries whose only claim to preferential treatment lay in their ability to lobby for it.

Benefits for "bow and arrow manufacturers" and "foreign dog-race gamblers"? Forbidding government from negotiating lower drug prices? And we think corruption resides in Ottawa?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Which poll should one believe?

There were two polls out today - one from Strategic Counsel for Globe/CTV and one from Decima Research - with contradictory findings. Strategic Counsel had the Conservatives ahead with 30% with the Liberals at 27% and the NDP 20% while Decima had a Liberal lead of 37% to 28% for the Conservatives and 18% for the NDP.

What to believe about this? I would say we can take our guidance from the real behaviour of the parties. The Conservatives and Bloc can't wait to get an election underway, while the Liberals continously seek ways to avoid it. Says something doesn't it.

The NDP is playing an above the partisan brawl role that may be slowly building up some real benefits for them that would come to a fruition in an election. Commenting in the Globe on his firm's poll, Allan Gregg said "While it's far from a groundswell of Layton-mania, there's some fairly good news in here..."

My own impression of Layton's performance in the House (and more generally in all his public appearances) has been improving in the past two months. I hear he has some new communications advisors. Whatever the reason, he is coming across as a more serious and credible leader than he appeared earlier in the parliamentary session when he tended to be too hyperbolic and partisan.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The George Bush Philosopy of Government

I can't recommend highly enough this article "Interest-Group Conservatism: George Bush's Philosophy of Government" by Jacob Weisberg in Slate, which was passed on to me. He compares the gilded age governance of the Bushites with the "interest-group liberalism" so eloquently critiqued by political scientist Theodore Lowi in the The End of Liberalism. A fascinating commentary and apt comparison.

The Slippery Slope

Now that the Liberals have lost a vote in the House of Commons calling on them to resign, we appear to be on a slippery slope sliding into an election. And it is possible the government is not completely unhappy at the prospect.

There have been three polls in the last week by Pollara, SES and Ipsos-Reid. The first of these would produce a weak Conservative minority government. The latter two both would produce Liberal minorities. In the case of SES we would see a stronger Liberal minority than 2004. In the SES poll and the Ipsos-Reid poll, the Liberals had leads of 44-31 and 44-33 respectively in Ontario very close to the 2004 results in the province. The Ontario numbers could making Mr. Martin’s election planners bullish.

However, because of the B.C. election there is a possibility that the spillover is artificially boosting federal Liberal support, and the underlying trend is much less favourable to the Liberals than appears to be the case.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

B.C. Election – A Week to Go

News reports from the west coast indicate that Gordon Campbell has gone on the attack against the NDP, even invoking the name of the much despised Glen Clark. Earlier in the week a quickie Ipsos-Reid poll and media commentary generally gave the edge in the TV debate to Carole James. This strongly suggests a tightening race. In fact a new poll from Robbins SCE Research both reports James as the debate winner by a decisive margin, and actually places the NDP ahead of the Liberals 40-39. Two earlier polls by this firm reported higher levels of support for the NDP than those taken by their competitors.

Although Robbins reports that just one third of respondents watched the debate, commentary on their web site explains Carole James’ debate win as follows:

Insight- Pundits and talk show hosts were so busy ‘spinning’ for Gordon Campbell that they failed to see the ‘knock-out’ punch in the Great election debate. It came about when Carole James asked Premier Campbell to explain his actions and promises (which he will keep and which he won’t) to the television viewers. This revealed Ms. James ‘charisma’ and populist connection with people and exposed Gordon Campbell’s lack of ‘political humanity’. Mr. Campbell’s shortcoming has always been his inability to connect with the average voter and Ms. James exploited this very well knocking the Premier ‘out cold on his feet’.

The University of British Columbia’s election stock market, which I think should be interpreted as simply reflecting the expectations of its 82 market participants, has reacted since the debate by showing a tightening race. By the way I don’t accept the claims that the operators of these markets make that they are better at anticipating elections than the polls. For one thing it is quite clear that polls fundamentally affect the outcomes that one sees in these markets. But the measured expectations of a group of observers with a stake in the outcome are worthy of our attention in following these events.

The Liberals should not have been in any danger of losing this election but one of the uncertainties I noted at the outset was that for many voters Carole James was a blank slate. It looks like she has made a relatively dull and uneventful election campaign much more interesting and the outcome less clear.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Nomination Blog

There is a great new blog for all us junkies on the impending 2005 election. It is called Nomination Watch. It is just what it says: the blog tracks all the local nominations of the various parties in the run up to this year's election.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

The power of changing the subject

The past week has seen the political impact of changing the subject. The media and public focus on Martin’s speech to the nation, and the subsequent Liberal/NDP deal on the budget have reversed the Liberals’ decline in the polls.

I posted on April 19 on my forecast election outcome based on the early April polls released in the wake of the Jean Brault testimony at the Gomery inquiry. Based on the polls of this past week an updated forecast still finds the Conservatives in front, but the Liberals have gained significantly. In terms of seat totals, the Liberal gains have been largely at the expense of the NDP. The ideological proximity of the two parties, so manifest in the budget deal, means that Liberal strength translates, relatively speaking, into NDP weakness and vice versa. Here are the totals for the most recent week’s poll numbers:

Conservatives – 117
Liberals – 97
NDP – 28
BQ – 65
Other – 1

The Liberals are clearly still weak enough to justify the Conservatives’ declared determination to bring the government down. Whether it will happen is going to remain in doubt until the last vote is counted on the floor of the House of Commons, apparently some time in the third week of May.