Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Justin Trudeau's Strategic Focus on the Conservatives

Toronto Star journalist Susan Delacourt has a generally good record at reading the intentions and thinking of the federal Liberal Party.  So one ought to take note of this report in the Saturday Star:
MONTREAL—Justin Trudeau is telling his party that it needs to woo disaffected Conservatives to the Liberal fold in the 2015 election, setting the stage for a large, red-blue battle when the next campaign rolls around.
Though he was speaking to a room filled with thousands of Liberals at their Montreal convention on Saturday, Trudeau aimed many of his words at an unexpected audience — Conservatives and their supporters.
“People in Ottawa talk about the ‘Conservative base’ as if it is some angry mob to be feared,” Trudeau said. “They’re wrong. As all of you know, the 5.8 million Canadians who voted Conservative aren’t your enemies. They’re your neighbours.”
Trudeau’s conciliatory words in the Conservatives’ direction were the strongest sign yet that the Liberals aren’t looking just on the left for votes in 2015, but on the centre-right as well, among people who are disillusioned with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government.
Apart from the obvious point that parties look to pick up support wherever they can, the emphasis of the Liberals in convention and Justin Trudeau in his speech (as quoted in Delacourt's report) was on wooing Tory votes.

The chart below clarifies where the Liberals have been losing ground. The Conservative line incorporates the Reform/Canadian Alliance vote, as that is where votes departing the Mulroney/Campbell PCs mostly went in 1993 and beyond.  For purposes of simplification, I have ignored the Greens and the BQ in the chart. However, it should be noted that Green vote strength, which only showed up in 2004, likely came mostly from the NDP and the Liberals.

Party vote shares - 1988 election to 2011 election

The Liberals are doing well in the polls.  However, even to win back Conservative seats in the Toronto suburbs (for example) one key for the Liberals would be to win over some NDP votes there.  In 2011 the NDP won about 18% of the votes in the 905 belt around Toronto.

My impression is that both the Liberal party strategists and the Ottawa media continue to underestimate the strength of the NDP. Canadian politics have many complexities and nuances that one ignores at one's peril.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Ontario by-elections and a spring election

I have seen a good deal of analysis/speculation arising out last week's by-elections about the current state of Ontario politics.  There were, however, only two among 107 seats up.  Better to take a broader look at the situation.  Below is a table that provides the absolute percentage shift in voting intentions between 2011 and the various by-election dates in each of the constituencies:

I would make the following observations:

  • There is considerable variability in how much preferences shifted when we take all the results into account. 
  • Overall, the Liberals have lost ground.
  • Overall the Conservatives have gained ground but, with one exception, not much. The exception was Etobicoke-Lakeshore won by Toronto Deputy Mayor and Councillor Doug Holiday. Apart from this one result, where it was the particular candidate that seemed to matter most, their gains are unimpressive.
  • The NDP has had four big wins: in Kitchener-Waterloo, London West, Windsor-Tecumseh and Niagara Falls. If there is a common thread it is that these ridings are all urban, mostly within southwestern Ontario cities. Their gains appear to have come mostly from the Liberals. The NDP results in the other constituencies suggest not much change.
Polls and the by-elections strongly suggest Liberal weakness, largely because of the McGuinty government's record rather than sins on the part of Kathleen Wynne.
I can do a calculation that projects individual riding numbers into province-wide results. My overall impression from these results, which are useful but need to be taken with a large grain of salt, is that for all of Hudak's fumbles it appears he is heading for victory albeit with a minority of the seats. One reason for that is that Liberal voters seem much more inclined to view the NDP as a preferred second choice, it would appear for mainly negative considerations about how the Conservatives are viewed, more than strong positive attraction to the NDP. Horwath and company are effectively playing the none-of-the-above role at the moment in Ontario politics, making few statements about policy themselves (even to the point of not commenting on the minimum wage). A post by-elections Ipsos online poll puts the PCs ahead. However, like other online polls it needs to be treated with caution.
I suspect that a key reason for Conservative weakness is Hudak's record of adopting highly conservative policies such as 'right-to- work'. I noted he blamed union 'elites' for his defeat in Niagara Falls, a constituency the Conservatives should have won if they were truly headed for a majority in the next election. Since the policy is explicitly aimed at weakening unions, how did Hudak expect them to react? Perhaps a little moderation and circumspection would have served him well here.
All this suggests that the campaign will matter a great deal.  I do think we will see a spring election. If the opposition parties did not force one they would be committing themselves to allowing the Liberals a full term. 
Kathleen Wynne must bear the weight of a Liberal decade in government and the accumulation of grievances that brings, as well as all the burdens that a stagnating economy has generated.
I suspect she will be a formidable campaigner. Overall I find her more much more impressive as an individual political talent then either Hudak or Horwath. The Liberals won't go down without a fight but the current political climate and circumstances are running strongly against the Liberals.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Can we have a non-partisan Senate?

This would be the long-term outcome of Justin Trudeau's recent proposal should it succeed in gaining wide acceptance and be fully implemented. The heat from the Senate scandal, which has now resulted in charges against one former Liberal senator, clearly played a part in prompting the Liberals to abandon many decades of partisan appointments to the Senate. It represents potentially radical change.

In its early years, the Senate was a relatively well-accepted part of Parliament and would from time to time reject bills from the House of Commons or amend them. Following the death of Sir John A. Macdonald in 1891 two among the four prime ministers who served until the 1896 election were senators. Overall, throughout its history the appointed Senate has deferred to the elected House of Commons.

Nominally  the Senate is the chamber of sober second thought. One justification often cited for the Senate has been its role in reviewing House of Commons bills and correcting flawed legislative drafting. However, the Senate’s role in the legislative review process has been limited in part because it has often been controlled by the same political party that controls the House of Commons.  The Senate rarely challenges the government on substantive matters, especially if the same party controls both.

History of recent partisanship

Partisan conflict did ratchet up after 1984 when the Mulroney government with its overwhelming elected majority came into conflict with a Liberal-controlled Senate. I happened to be an eyewitness to the beginning of this era and observed it unfolding. I produced a documentary on the episode in the context of efforts back then to get Senate reform for the CBC program The Journal. The documentary is currently available online at the CBC Digital Archives.

The program came about in part because of then-emerging efforts to get Senate reform. In January 1985 the Liberal Senate delayed a government borrowing bill on the technically appropriate grounds that the government's spending estimates ought to have been revealed before the government asked Parliament for the authority to finance this spending. This might seem a minor technical matter. However, it drew partisan fire from the PC government, especially Brian Mulroney and strong criticism in the press, humiliating the Senators. The reaction seemed overheated given that it was a brief delay (about five weeks) for what amounted to technical reasons.
Prime Minister Mulroney convened a first ministers meeting in April and later introduced a constitutional amendment (never enacted) that would limit the Senate's powers to short delays of government bills. 
Allan MacEachen is on the left
between Pierre Trudeau and John
Munro with Jean Chrétien back right 
The Liberals in the Senate were led by the experienced and wily Allan MacEachen, an a former Trudeau cabinet minister and house leader. I sensed when we interviewed him a few months after the borrowing bill controversy that he was still seething from the opprobrium directed at him during that episode.
So I was not at all surprised when MacEachen's Liberal Senate began to give the Mulroney government a hard time. The following year the Senate Liberals delayed contentious legislation including the Patent Act (to which they only consented to after the lapse of a year and at the urging of Liberal Leader John Turner), a copyright bill, and most significant of all, the legislation that would implement the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. The latter was delayed until after the 1988 election could be held. With the government re-elected the Senate proceeded to enact the bill.
Brian Mulroney used special
constitutional clause to appoint
eight Senators to gain Senate
But conflict between the two chambers continued. The Liberal Senate delayed changes to unemployment insurance and appeared to be headed to doing the same thing with the GST when, in the autumn of 1990, Brian Mulroney invoked s. 26 of the Constitution Act, 1867 appointing eight additional senators giving him a Senate majority. Despite efforts at filibuster by the Liberals, the Tories gained control of the chamber and were then able to get their legislation passed expeditiously.
Not surprisingly, conflict was renewed when the Chrétien Liberal government elected in 1993 confronted a PC Senate majority. The Tory Senate gave the government a hard time in particular over its cancellation of the previous government's initiative to privatize Toronto`s Pearson airport (not a popular cause but the PC party had been eclipsed when reduced to two seats in the 1993 election).

Fast forward another decade and there was another reversal of roles. In 2007 the Liberal controlled Senate refused to enact Stephen Harper's original senate reform legislation (it had been initiated by the government in the Senate) unless the PM referred the issue to the Supreme Court (See here and here). So the partisan conflict that started in the eighties continued apace into the 21st century. Both Liberals and Conservatives bear a share of the responsibility for the evolution of the Senate into a more partisan institution.
The role of public opinion
We now live in a world where opinion polls and social media permit an opposition-controlled Senate to gauge public opinion and strike when opportunity presents itself. The Senate does not have the political legitimacy that comes from election. However, if an opposition controlled Senate plays its hand shrewdly by taking popular stands (or even unpopular ones if they are on issues below the public`s radar) it can ignore its institutional lack of moral authority. The political convention that says that the elected House of Commons should take precedence over the appointed Senate has been weakened by the last few decades of growing partisanship and a heightened ideological divide.

Federalism and the Senate

It is worth remembering that conceptions of federalism were in their infancy in 1867. The only other federal regime was in the United States and its system had resulted in a civil war that had just ended. Most of the attention and focus in Confederation was on the national government. That helps explain the importance assigned to regional representation within parliament. No one could foresee the development of the strong provincial governments delivering a myriad of services that we have now. However, it is precisely the effective evolution of the 1867 division of powers that makes the Senate unnecessary today. As it is there exists considerable regional influence and representation within national party caucuses within the House of Commons. The Senate, given the difficulty of abolition, is nevertheless likely to remain with us.

Justin Trudeau's proposal

Overall, Justin Trudeau's proposal has positive potential, especially given the descent of the Senate's reputation and its recent history. If the NDP were to form a majority government in the next election one might imagine clashes with the Senate growing in intensity, particularly given the NDP's pledge to abolish the institution. Although one won`t likely hear it from the NDP, from its own perspective, Justin Trudeau's proposal makes sense, particularly if an NDP government found itself obligated to appoint Senators (a possibility).

However, there are a the number of steps needed to flesh out his proposal. One of the first things Trudeau should do is to restate in strong terms the convention that the Senate must not defy the expressed will of the House of Commons on matters of principle. Sober second thought should apply to drafting errors, or flaws that might, for example, produce unintended consequences, not to legislative initiatives that clearly reflect the express wishes of the government of the day, whether it means proceeding with the GST or killing Pearson airport privatization. The Senate can continue to do useful policy work in its committees.

Although the convention of deference has been mostly sufficient throughout the course of Canadian history, it would make sense to go further and adopt a formal constitutional amendment to limit the Senate's authority. The Constitution Act, 1982 in s. 47 limited the power of the Senate to veto most constitutional amendments. It can only delay them 180 days (not including days when Parliament is prorogued or dissolved). Why not apply that provision to ordinary laws or make it one year and thus similar to the authority of the House of Lords in the U.K? This would require, however, a 7/50 amendment, a difficult thing to achieve.

The Senate has been traditionally organized along party lines for its day to day functioning including appointing the membership of committees, so there is the need for more development of the policies and practices that would be required to make a non-partisan Senate functional. Even if there is non-partisan appointment there are still likely to be groupings of Senators that will arise naturally reflecting common outlooks and interests.

One truly foolish thing Trudeau did was not to consult his party's current Senators for their thoughts on the proposal. No doubt they could have warned of some of the issues that are emerging in commentary now.  There have also been reports that Justin is not happy with the behaviour of Liberal senators after the announcement, another cost of not consulting. The only real benefit was that the announcement was not leaked and thus took everyone by surprise. This column by Robin Sears captures what Trudeau might have done instead without it costing him any of the political benefit he appears to have gained. 
It would also have made sense to await the Supreme Court ruling on Senate reform issues, expected later this year. It might yet include some surprises that the Liberals will need to take into account. The Supreme Court could in its ruling go beyond the literal questions that are before them (think, for example, of the wide scope of the Secession reference ruling).

It will also require some self-discipline on the part of Trudeau, should he become Prime Minister. It is no accident that both Liberal and Conservative administrations at the federal level, and NDP governments provincially, have sought to reward party members with public appointments. Discretionary appointments, generally labelled by the pejorative term patronage, do have some role to play in making a system based on political parties functional.

Although patronage appointment ought not be the route to becoming a legislator, in practice prime ministers have long prized Senate appointments as "the ultimate gift", as former Sun columnist Doug Fisher put it in our documentary.


I am reminded of the lines in this excerpt from the script that closed the film, written and voiced on camera by Keith Morrison (an exceptionally talented journalist and writer):
Last month the Justice Minister said he could see no useful purpose for the Senate at all, to which Brian Mulroney responded, "That's because Crosbie isn't Prime Minister." Anybody familiar with the long and futile history of Senate reform will get a sense of déja vu about the remark. Senate reform has failed largely because of the convenience of the status quo and especially for the prime minister.... 
All this was back in 1985.  It should surprise no one if the question of senate reform/abolition remains with us for some time to come.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

One example of the cost of Harper government austerity

When I saw the headlines and TV news stories about the veteran's groups angered by the closing of offices that delivered services to them I was reminded of an incident that happened to me.  It was revealing in that it does appear that the most basic of government services are being undermined by an administrative apparatus that is clearly overwhelmed.  Here is my story, the essentials of which I communicated a couple of months ago in a letter to my local MP, Andrew Cash.

Andrew Cash
NDP MP for Davenport
I noted in the news a number of weeks ago the report of the Auditor General that included a chapter critical of the government’s record in delivering online services.
This reminded me of my personal experience with a problem I had related to my Canada Pension Plan. 
I completed my initial application for CPP in person and without difficulty or delay. However, I made an error in the application. I transposed two numbers in my bank account.  The result was I did not receive the CPP payment when anticipated. 
To correct the problem, I went online but it was impossible to access the necessary information or make changes (reflecting the comments of the Auditor-General’s report).  I then phoned Service Canada but found it impossible to get through when I called. In fact, my calls were all terminated automatically by the Service Canada answering device. After several futile attempts at calling and getting tossed off the line, I decided to go to Service Canada office and arrived the next morning prior to the start of business.

I was able to see an agent fairly quickly and I must say she showed some skill and perseverance in assisting me.  However, the first thing she did was phone the same long distance number I had the previous afternoon. She said that staff had been directed to do so.  She managed to get through once (this was about 8:45 in the morning) but part way through the conversation (about 8:50 now) the phone call terminated for some reason that was unclear.  She then tried to phone back but wound up getting automatically terminated in a manner similar to my calls from home the previous day.  At that point she called another number that bypassed the public line, which she described as an "emergency" number.  She did get through and my problem was eventually resolved. 
It appears from my experience (this was in late July or early August) that the call centre was completely, hopelessly understaffed.  
I am well educated and persistent. I thought the agent who assisted me last summer was professional and helpful. It is the system that is antiquated and mismanaged. It must be incredibly frustrating to the thousands of seniors with less education and fewer resources to deal with the dysfunctional apparatus this government has created.  It ought to have been possible to make the changes I sought online. Failing that, there should have been staff available to answer the phone. Currently the Government of Canada is unable to deliver these essential public services economically and efficiently.  This is a fundamental failure on their part and a consequence of excessive austerity deeply harming public services.

In Mr. Flaherty's budget speech this week he claimed the following about balancing the budget:
We did not do this on the backs of ordinary Canadians or Canadians in need, or at the expense of our provinces and territories.
We did not cut the programs Canadians rely on.
We did not cut transfers to our provinces and territories—money they use for things like education and health care.
Rather, we did this by getting our own fiscal house in order.
And, Mr. Speaker, that is exactly how our Government will continue.
Our Government has reduced direct program spending for the third year in a row in 2012–13.
That is something no other government has done in decades.
Our Government continues to eliminate waste that will cut the cost of government without cutting programs Canadians depend on.
I would say that my experience (and that of the veterans and countless others) makes it clear that these assertions are false. Their austerity has imposed significant costs on "the backs of ordinary Canadians".

The Harper government seems determined to turn Canada into a failed state.