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.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

More on Forum Research

Since I published my previous post, 308 has written about the Forum poll and made the same critique better than I did.  Here is part of what he said:
When I plug Forum's regional numbers into my model (which means I am using the exact same data that Forum is using, with the same regional distribution), I get 45 seats for the PCs, 41 for the Liberals, and 21 for the New Democrats. It is very difficult to fathom how Forum can get the NDP at just 13 seats with 22% support - exactly where they were in 2011 - with the PCs up just two points over that election and the Liberals down almost five. In fact, I'd have to have the NDP at around 18% support before I'd project them to have 13 seats.
To put that into context, if Forum's vote and seat numbers were exactly what happened in an election, it would rank as my model's 11th worst performance over 13 elections.
I have seen some Twitter commentary to the effect that I did not discuss regional numbers but my experience using regional data tells me that it is not that robust.  It cannot account for Forum's odd results or the extreme seat differences between the two polls.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Turning poll results into estimated election outcomes

I devised a means of taking public opinion surveys and calculating what they would mean if they accurately reflected election outcomes in 1993.  I have therefore had the opportunity to compare what I projected about an election outcome and the actual results over the course of many elections.

I can say with certainty that this is more an art than a science although an algorithm is the basis for the calculation. The polls I used at first were scientific in that they were random samples based on telephone surveys (many polls today don't qualify as truly random). However, there is no guarantee that the electorate will follow mathematical rules when they actually vote. For example, the seat forecasts (including mine) all underestimated how well the CAQ would do in the recent Quebec election. I have had some very accurate results and some with significant errors. Along the way I have learned enough to know who is good at this and who is not.

A host of younger (I am now a senior citizen) bloggers and political scientists have got into this game. The best known in Canada is Eric Grenier of but there are many others including Bryan Breguet, Kyle Hutton of Blunt Objects, Canadian Election Watch, Dan Arnold of Calgary Grit, Barry Kay of the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (LISPOP for short) and Earl Washburn of Canadian Election Atlas. Overall, I would say the work of all of them is quite good.

Not so Forum research. Yes, they have had some good outcomes but others that are downright bizarre, including their current seat projection based on a poll that has the Ontario PCs ahead by five points in public opinion, but trailing the Liberals in expected seats.

I am not the first to notice there are problems with Forum's methods, but it is their polling methodology that typically is the focus of attention.

One good thing about Forum is that they typically put the results of their surveys on the internet. However, consider the following two poll results and seat projections from Forum:

Forum would have us believe that almost identical polls taken less than four months apart would produce two quite different outcomes for the Liberals and PCs even though their vote shares are identical. It simply isn't believable. A second and in my mind more serious issue is that even though the NDP in these polls has a vote share less than 1% different from its 2011 vote percentage in both cases, the seat projection suggests the NDP would lose 8 seats from its 2011 total. This would occur despite the fact that most of its competitive races are run against the Liberals, who are down significantly from their 36.5% vote share in 2011 in both Forum surveys. Again it isn't believable. Newspapers use Forum and that dominates secondary and social media coverage, but my recommendation would be to pay attention to the seat forecasts of 308 or LISPOP or any of the others before taking Forum seriously.

For what it is worth my own seat projection using Forum's latest numbers is PC 49 seats, Liberal 36 seats, NDP 22 seats (a majority is 54 seats). Almost never would a party trailing by five points finish ahead of its rival in an election. It is true that the Liberal vote is more efficient as Forum says, but there limits to vote efficiency.

TC thinks the campaign dynamics will be what matters in Ontario, how important the alleged scandals turn out to be, and how much fear Tim Hudak inspires in the centre and left. More on Ontario in the future.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The Supreme Court Senate decision: Was it a blow to Harper?

I have noted that many commentators have somehow managed to construe the federal government's loss on Senate reform in the Supreme Court as simply a crafty way for our clever prime minister to dispose of a long unwanted campaign promise. For example here is Campbell Clark in the Globe and Mail:
The Supreme Court said no to the Prime Minister’s Senate-reform plans, and his democratic-reform minister has backtracked, under fire, on his elections bill. All is proceeding according to plan for Stephen Harper.
More accurately, these two events on Friday were not body blows to the Prime Minister. They were tactical manoeuvres executed without suffering political damage.
I read various other commentaries in this vein. One honourable exception was Andrew Coyne who said the following, which TC thinks is dead on:
After the wreck of the Harper government’s Senate reform ambitions, it was patiently explained in various media that this was not the debacle it seemed. Yes, eight years of legislative effort had come to a crashing halt, and yes, the whole thing was eminently foreseeable, and yes, the government was made to look awfully foolish, but if you glanced at it sideways and squinted a little you could see this was actually the best thing for Stephen Harper, a neat way of getting him off the hook for a promise he couldn’t possibly deliver and probably wasn’t all that interested in anyway and certainly he can’t have been surprised and maybe he’s even secretly delighted and possibly this was what he intended all along.
When it comes to Senate reform the analysis that Harper was just not that interested in Senate reform does not withstand scrutiny of the issue's history. The modern movement for Senate reform dates to the Triple E movement that came out of Alberta in the mid-1980s. Its most prominent proponent, Bert Brown, was appointed to the Senate in 2007 by Stephen Harper after an Alberta Senate "election" held in 2004.

Many pundits have referred to Senate reform as a commitment that came from the Reform Party. What is less well known is that the person Preston Manning entrusted with putting together the first Reform election platform in 1988 was none other than Stephen Harper. He made sure that Senate reform was a Reform platform priority. The famously controlling Mr. Harper also ensured that the promise made its way into the 2006 Conservative Party election platform.

And while the Harper government took its time to act on many issues they proceeded quickly on Senate reform, introducing Bill S-4, which would have limited the terms of Senators to eight years, on May 30, 2006, less than four months after taking office.

Harper demonstrated the personal importance he attached to Senate reform when he appeared before the Senate Special Committee on Senate Reform on September 7, 2006. He started off saying the following:
Good afternoon everyone. First, I want to thank the honourable senators, for this opportunity to speak today on the issue of Senate reform. I understand that, as you just said, this is the first time that a sitting Prime Minister has appeared before a Senate committee. This underlines my interest in Senate reform. As we have little time and our subject matter is important, I will stick to the essentials.
As everyone in this room knows, it has become a right of passage for aspiring leaders and prime ministers to promise Senate reform on their way to the top. The promises are usually made in Western Canada. These statements of intent are usually warmly received by party activists, editorial writers and ordinary people but, once elected, Senate reform quickly falls to the bottom of the government's agenda, nothing ever gets done and the status quo goes on....
Honourable senators, years of delay on Senate reform must come to an end, and it will. The Senate must change and we intend to make it happen. The government is not looking for another report — it is seeking action that responds to the commitments we made to Canadians during the recent federal election.
As you all know, we made a commitment during last election campaign that, if we were elected, we would proceed with a Senate reform. I came here today to reiterate personally my commitment to reform this institution.
Harper described his approach as 'step-by-step' but later made it clear he hoped it would lead to comprehensive constitutional reform:
I can just say that my frank hope is that that process would force the provinces and others to, at some point in the future, seriously address other questions of Senate reform. There are questions such as the distribution of seats and the powers that we are all clear must be addressed through a general amending formula, constitutional amendment. I welcome the day when there is a public appetite for that discussion because I think the country needs it at some point.
These are not the words of someone paying lip service to Senate reform. They are the words of a true believer. However, this all came early in the government's hopeful, idealistic phase.

He hoped that he could get legislation on limits on Senate terms and "consultative" elections through Parliament quickly. He then hoped that he could repeat the American experience where individual states beginning with Oregon held direct elections to select their senators. The original U.S. Constitution required state legislatures to elect Senators. The state initiatives eventually led to the 17th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which requires all states to elect their senators.

So how did it unravel? While no doubt Harper kept his hopes alive for awhile, it was really the actions of Liberal Senator Serge Joyal that undermined the step-by-step strategy. Joyal was chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. He managed to get Bill S-4 before his committee in the spring of 2007. This allowed him to hold hearings where various experts cast doubt on the legislation's constitutionality. In the end he persuaded the Liberal Senate majority to suspend consideration of the bill until it had been referred to the Supreme Court for an opinion on its constitutionality. This was likely when Harper learned that the road ahead would be more difficult then he initially thought. He persisted but he would not get that Senate majority until the end of 2010.

Less than two years later Quebec would be on its way (after many threats and much delay) to initiating its own Senate reference. Harper held off a federal reference until it was clear that the issue was going to make it to the Supreme Court regardless of his wishes.

No doubt it was somewhere between 2008 and 2012 he figured out that he was likely to fail to accomplish a reform he had had his heart set on since the eighties. Only then did he begin to distance himself from the project by slowing down the legislative pace of his reforms. However, his early devotion to the cause as Prime Minister is clear and on the public record, including being the first PM since 1867 to appear before a Senate committee. I saw none of this in the media coverage. There are times when the inside the Queensway pundit class seems guilty of gross negligence in not telling us the full context of key political developments. This is one of those occasions.

Historical Irony
The modern push for Senate reform started in Alberta in the 1980s (as a response to Pierre Trudeau's National Energy Plan) and with the judgment from the Supreme Court on April 25th it has effectively been brought to an end.

There is an irony here because just before the push for Senate reform got off the ground in 1983, Canada adopted a new constitutional amending formula as part of the Constitution Act, 1982. That amending formula originated in Alberta.

When the logjam was broken at the constitutional negotiations in Ottawa in 1981 the bargain effectively was Trudeau's Charter of Rights in exchange for the Alberta amending formula supported by the provincial coalition that was resisting Trudeau's initiative (Quebec was part of that coalition but its support was contingent on getting opting out with compensation, something dropped in the final negotiations). The English-speaking provinces that first pushed it forward including Alberta had as a principal concern that Quebec not have a veto in the amending formula. Alberta got what they wanted. Quebec does not have a special veto in the amending formula. However, the history of failed constitutional amendments post-1982 (the Aboriginal round, Meech, Charlottetown and now unilateral Senate reform) illustrates that one should be careful what one wishes for.

For Alberta during the 1980-81 constitutional negotiations nothing was more important than getting its preferred amending formula.  It is that formula in the context of our current politics that killed our Albertan Prime Minister's effort to alter the Canadian Senate's constitutional architecture.