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Ontario: No Political Hat Trick

12 Oct

Back in the middle of the summer, when politics and elections were the furthest things from most people’s minds, Toronto mayor Rob Ford hosted a barbecue for 800 of his closest friends.

It was a special event honoring federal finance minister Jim Flaherty for his work helping Toronto-area candidates make historic breakthroughs during the federal election earlier this year.

Those federal breakthroughs came about six months after Ford’s own breakthrough victory in Toronto – a steak-and-potatoes conservative mayor winning power in what some perceive as a brie-and-white-wine liberal city.

The barbecue came to the attention of the media because of a surprise guest who showed up to address the gathering: Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In a video of the event shot by one of the barbecue guests and later posted online, Harper made partisan comments about Ontario politics:

“We started cleaning up the left wing mess federally in this area,” Harper said. “Rob’s doing it municipally. And now we’ve got to complete the hat trick and do it provincially as well.”

When Harper made those remarks in early August, it seemed likely that Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak had a good chance of completing that conservative hat trick. Only two months before the scheduled provincial election, his party sat comfortably atop public opinion polls, and the trend over many months had shown Progressive Conservative support growing as support for Premier Dalton McGuinty’s governing Liberals steadily fell.

In retrospect, Hudak was trying to swim against a couple of longstanding currents in Ontario politics. The first was the tendency of Ontarians to give party leaders some extended time on the opposition benches before they are willing to vote them into government. Hudak’s two immediate predecessors as PC leader – John Tory and Ernie Eves – learned that lesson the hard way, as did McGuinty himself when he was trounced by Mike Harris in his first election campaign as Liberal leader in 1999.

The second – even more unfailing – current was the tendency of Ontario voters to vote in different parties provincially than they do federally. In the 1970s, when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals held power in Ottawa, so did Bill Davis’s Tories at Queens Park. In the ‘80s, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative governments negotiated with Liberal and NDP governments in Ontario. In the ‘90s, Liberals under Jean Chretien owed successive majority victories to Ontario voters, who handed them near-sweeps of this province. At the same time, they were giving Mike Harris similar victories in provincial elections. Finally, the current Harper era in federal politics has coincided with the McGuinty era in Ontario.

When the video of Harper’s barbecue speech showed up online, his aides seemed to realize that it probably wasn’t helpful to the Hudak campaign, or to the conservative cause, for the Prime Minister to be seen making such a blatant partisan intervention into a provincial election campaign. A bit of an Internet cat-and-mouse game ensued, with Conservatives trying to remove every online appearance of the video as quickly as McGuinty supporters could get it reposted.

As I have written before on this blog, it helps to imagine this province as an Ontario-shaped target, with a lop-sided blue bull’s-eye in the middle, stretching across the rural southwestern, central and eastern parts of the province. That’s the conservative heartland – a couple-dozen ridings that right-leaning parties usually win easily in both provincial and federal elections.

Splotches of NDP orange dot the outer edge of the province-shaped target, where the most urban neighborhoods of our cities and the least-populated stretches of our northern regions lie. When New Democrats do well in Ontario – as they did in both elections this year – the perimeter of the province grows a deeper shade of orange.

Between the orange edge and the blue bull’s-eye is the red Liberal donut that expands or shrinks at the expense of the other colors, depending on the Grits’ success from election to election.

In May’s federal election, the Tories and the NDP both took big bites out of different sides of that donut – most notably in Toronto-area ridings. The result was the worst showing ever for the federal Liberal party.

In Ontario earlier this month, it was Toronto voters – and to a lesser extent those in Ottawa and a few other urban areas – who preserved the red donut enough to give the McGuinty Liberals a narrow minority victory.

It’s hard to know if Harper’s comments helped McGuinty win. But they certainly underlined the fact that in this province, political hat tricks are hard to come by.

Conservatives in the Candy Store

13 Apr

Whether or not it will ever again earn the title, a history of electoral success and longevity in power throughout the 20th Century gave the Liberal Party of Canada the nickname “Natural Governing Party”.

For most of the past hundred years or so, the Conservatives, in their various permutations, sat in the opposition benches like kids looking through the window of a candy store, drooling over the chocolate bars – or maybe… cabinet posts – on the other side.

On those rare occasions when conservatives did win power, they often did so in dramatic fashion, by forging coalitions of otherwise dissimilar voters and politicians united in populist anger against the perceived arrogance, elitism and corruption of the Liberal Party.

In fact, Conservatives – well, Progressive Conservatives, actually – won the two biggest electoral victories in Canadian history this way. John Diefenbaker’s 1958 victory and Brian Mulroney’s 1984 win remain the only historical instances of a party winning more than 200 seats in the House of Commons.

In both those examples, the party governed for a few years before the unlikely coalitions that brought it to power collapsed spectacularly, handing that power back to the Natural Governing Liberal Party for many more years.

Mulroney’s coalition of western populists, Quebec nationalists and Ontario fiscal conservatives collapsed so thoroughly in 1993 that the party itself split into three separate entities, its western supporters migrating to the Reform Party and its Quebec contingent following Lucien Bouchard into the Bloc Québécois, leaving a rump caucus of two Progressive Conservative MPs in the House of Commons.

When Stephen Harper came back into politics a few years ago, after some time as a lobbyist, he had a few long-term goals for the conservative movement in this country:

1) Reunite conservatives into a single party.

2) Win power.

3) Turn the Conservatives into the “Natural Governing Party” and the Liberals into the jealous kids with their noses up against the candy store window.

He accomplished the first two goals, the record will show. The third one, though, is still a work in progress.

For a while, Harper seemed to be doing well on the reverse-the-historical-trend front. The discipline of power – and the discipline meted out by the Prime Minister’s Office – seemed to be keeping Conservative MPs in check, the more controversial views of some of their members kept far from public earshot. In winning and keeping power, the Harper Conservatives made headway with traditionally Liberal ethnic groups, with Quebec nationalists, and with voters in many formerly solid Liberal Ontario ridings.

And even though Harper has now failed in three attempts to win a majority government, his party has increased its vote share in each of the past three federal elections, and has faced a Liberal opposition that has looked nothing like a Natural Governing Party for several years.

But is the Tory tide beginning to turn?

The Liberal Party, under new leadership since its ill-fated attempt to form a coalition government with the NDP late last year, are up in the polls and looking more disciplined and united than they have in years.

On the other hand, Conservative Party fault lines – which may have always been there, but hidden from public scrutiny – have become more and more apparent in recent weeks:

* The party’s social conservative wing, which Stephen Harper has tried to keep far from view, showed itself to still be a force when a couple of MPs – including the science minister – made public statements questioning evolution.

* The fault line between conservative principles and crass politics was exposed a bit more fully recently when Ian Brodie, Harper’s former chief of staff, made some candidm public statements about how the party formulated election policies like the GST cut.

* Rare leaks from the Conservative caucus revealed a party split on the PC / Reform line over the legacy and treatment of former Prime Minister Mulroney.

* The global economic crisis has exposed another fault line, as the Conservative Party swallowed its fiscal philosophies in order to stimulate its way into multi-year deficits.

* Harper made great headway in Quebec, which enabled him to take power, but the cultural fault line there may now be too big for the Tories to breach.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that the Canadian conservative movement was bitterly divided only a few short years ago. Harper’s historical legacy may well be tied to how successfully he manages to keep the party united – and on the better side of the candy store window – over the next while.

The Curse of the Democratic President (on Canadian Conservatives)

4 Nov

All around the United States… all around the world… millions of people await the results of tonight’s historic American election. The anxiety and anticipation levels are palpably apparent even here in Ottawa, where people are talking about little else.

As in every other national capital, officials in Ottawa have been gauging the implications of the anticipated election results in the U.S. and preparing their government for future relations with the new American administration.

The anxiety level may be especially high in the office of Stephen Harper, the newly re-elected Prime Minister of Canada. For this country, no other international relationship comes close to approaching in importance the one Canada has with its southern neighbor.

If polls are accurate, the PMO will have to adjust to the new international priorities of a Barack Obama administration, which are certain to be markedly different from those of George W. Bush on such important files as Afghanistan, the environment, trade, and border security.

Harper may also have to do some damage control with Obama over the so-called NAFTA-gate incident from earlier this year, when a Canadian diplomatic leak made Obama look as if he was being hypocritical on re-opening NAFTA and may have contributed to his loss to Hillary Clinton in the Ohio Democratic primary.

Finally, Harper – a keen student of Canadian political history – may be anxious about an interesting phenomenon that has affected a number of his Conservative predecessors. Call it the Curse of the Democratic President.

Conservative Prime Ministers don’t come to power all too often in Canada, but on three separate occasions, dating back to the Great Depression, the inauguration of a Democratic President in the U.S. has served as a harbinger of a Conservative defeat, leading to an extended spell on the opposition benches.

The most recent example came in 1993, when Bill Clinton was sworn in as U.S. President at the tail end of Brian Mulroney’s reign as PM, in the midst of an economic downturn. Within ten months of Clinton’s inauguration, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals had taken power north of the border, and wound up keeping it until Harper became PM in 2006.

When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated President in January, 1961, his prime ministerial counterpart John Diefenbaker was leading the largest majority government in Canadian history up until that point. A year and a half later, Diefenbaker – who never got along with Kennedy all too well – squeaked back into power with a minority. But in April 1963, the Liberals began a string of election victories that would keep them in office for the next 16 years.

The curse began during the prime ministership of R.B. Bennett, who had the misfortune of governing during the Great Depression. He had been in office for 2.5 years when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn into office in March, 1933. Bennett tried to follow Roosevelt’s lead by introducing a Canadian New Deal, but it couldn’t save his political career. The Liberals took power a year and a half after Roosevelt became President, and stayed in office for more than 21 years, well into the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

A Democratic President taking office during an international economic downturn? It’s enough to keep a Canadian Conservative Prime Minister up at night…

Programming Note: Minority Politics 2008

14 Jan

Two years ago this month, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a federal election with the narrowest minority government in Canadian history.

In that vote, the party took 124 out of 308 ridings, or 40.3 per cent of all ridings up for grab. Never before had a Canadian political party won power with such a small percentage of seats in the House of Commons.

In fact, the Official Opposition Liberals won only 21 fewer seats in the same election (with retirements, defections and by-election results, that gap has now grown to 30 seats).

Whatever you think of the Conservatives’ governing abilities, it is hard to deny their government’s surprising stability and longevity.

Compare it to Paul Martin’s minority reign, which immediately preceded Harper’s. That one lasted a year and a half by the skin of its teeth, lurching from one existential crisis to another.

Although the Conservatives have faced no shortage of threats to bring down their government, opposition barks have so far proven worse than their bites.

Why? Probably because public opinion polls offer very little motivation for any party – including the Conservatives – to risk going to the voters anytime soon.

It seems unlikely that the current Parliament will last until Oct. 19, 2009, now enshrined in law as Canada’s first fixed election date. But… two years back, no one thought it likely that the current Parliament would last as long as it has.

I am producing a televised discussion airing tonight (and available online sometime this week), which will look at the lay of the land in federal politics and try to spot some potential minefields for the government and opposition parties as the year goes forward.

Will an election be triggered by an economic downturn? By the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, soon coming to a public inquiry near you? By the Afghanistan mission? By something else?

Or not at all?

Don’t ask me. I’m just a TV producer.

The PM meets (and greets) the Press

21 Dec

For a Prime Minister with a reputation for disliking – and avoiding – the Ottawa press gallery, Stephen Harper has spent a good chunk of time this past week with its members.

He’s done a whole whack o’ traditional year-end interviews with journalists, answering questions about Afghanistan, the economy, isotopes, etc.

He told a number of interviewers he’s not sure if a public inquiry into the Mulroney-Schreiber affair will go forward in the New Year. It all depends on the recommendation of independent advisor David Johnston

Despite his chilly relationship with the press corps, Harper has made a couple of … sociable… gestures toward Ottawa hacks that were never made by his Liberal predecessors.

Almost every June, the Prime Minister – whoever he happens to be – throws a garden party outside his home at 24 Sussex Drive for Parliament Hill journos. Maybe because he’s the first Prime Minister in a couple of decades with young children, Harper was the first resident of 24 Sussex in recent memory to also invite journalists’ families to this event.

He’s also taken the rare step of inviting Press Gallery members as a group inside the residence for a Christmas reception. He did this for the first time last year. When he was told it was the first time many journalists had seen the interior of 24 Sussex Drive, he said:

“If I knew you guys were never invited inside before, I never would have invited you myself.”

But… he was just kidding, it seems. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister welcomed journalists for his second annual Christmas reception, held in the two large rooms on the main floor of the official residence (Mounties guarded the stairs leading up to the Harper family’s living quarters).

In a more casual chat than those that would follow later in the week, Harper talked with a gaggle of press gallery types about the Mulroney-Schreiber affair. He said all you had to do was look at Schreiber to know he was a “bad guy”.

He had nicer things to say about Mulroney, telling a story about the event during the last election campaign when Harper made his now-famous promise to cut the GST by two percentage points to five per cent.

After the event, Harper got back on his campaign bus, sitting next to Senator Marjorie LeBreton, one of Mulroney’s closest confidants. Sure enough, her cellphone rang and it was Mulroney asking to speak to Harper.

“I just want you to know,” the former PM with the slick baritone told the future PM (who does a mean impression of that baritone), “not only did I introduce the GST back when I was in power, but I also made sure to introduce it at seven per cent just so you could promise to cut it many years later.”

An amusing anecdote from the Prime Minister about a guy who isn’t giving him a lot to laugh about these days.

Programming Note: Konfused about Karlheinz?

7 Dec

There is, of course, one big saga gripping Ottawa these days: The ongoing testimony at the House of Commons Ethics Committee, starring Karlheinz Schreiber and soon to feature the 18th Prime Minister of Canada on the witness stand.

If you are trying to follow all the ups and downs of this byzantine tale, and are in need of either a handy primer on the backstory or some trenchant analysis of its meaning, you could do worse than have a look at or listen to a television program I produced on the matter this week.

It is available as an audio or video podcast here. Download it or watch it online and you may be as savvy as Fifth Estate producer Harvey Cashore, who has covered and uncovered this story longer and better than almost every other journalist in the country. He is on the show, along with three other savvy guests.

More info here.

Battle of the Network Prime Ministers

30 Nov

In the Globe and Mail the other day, columnist John Doyle analyzed the popularity – rare for a Canadian-made TV show – of the Rick Mercer Report. He wrote:

The reality of the culture is that Canadians absorb Canadian news on TV and in Canadian newspapers, follow Canadian sports, read Canadian authors and listen to Canadian pop music. They don’t watch a lot of Canadian TV. The dynamic is different. So Mercer has taken the elements of what Canadians connect with in the culture – Canadian news, sports, music etc. – and packaged and poured them into what Canadians are less enamoured with – Canadian-made TV.

True enough. With few exceptions – Rick Mercer being one – when Canucks turn on their TVs for entertainment, they tend to tune in to American programs.

But… Hollywood television writers have gone on strike this fall, shutting down production on all manner of TV programs, from late-night comedy shows to sitcoms to weekly dramas. As the strike has dragged on, the American networks have relied ever more heavily on reality TV programming.

In Canada, some of the substitutes for all the absent American comedy and drama have been our own homegrown reality shows, produced by Canadians for Canadians.

Yesterday brought the afternoon debut of one new reality show: the Karlheinz Kerfuffle, which got high ratings… on every television set within a ten-block radius of Parliament Hill, at least. Although it didn’t garner great critical reviews, there was good news today for the program: A threatened cancellation / extradition did not transpire. It will be back on the air next week.

Then there’s the long-running, ongoing Canadian reality show: Battle of the Prime Ministers.

Or is that actually not a reality show, but instead… reality?

Whatever. It has been more entertaining, even, than professional wrestling.

A blow-by-blow recap:

• In the pilot episode, Brian Mulroney comes out with his long-awaited and… long… memoirs, which include poison-pen attacks on old nemeses Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien. Mulroney writes that the late Trudeau’s youthful opposition to sending troops overseas to fight the Nazis negated any moral authority he ever may have had as Prime Minister.

• Then, Chrétien comes out with his own… not-so-long…. memoirs, which include his own poison-pen attack, this one on his successor Paul Martin, who – he writes – surrounded himself with “self-serving goons”.

• In an unexpected early-season plot twist, Chrétien is hospitalized and undergoes emergency heart surgery on the eve of his promotional book tour. But the wound his book has reopened in the Liberal Party remains untreated.

• An unscheduled cameo appearance from the current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, announcing an inquiry into Mulroney’s dealings with controversial businessman Karlheinz Schreiber and a ban on members of his government from having any dealings with the former PM, their fellow party member.

• The triumphant late-season return of Chrétien to the show, continuing his attacks on Paul Martin and on Mulroney.

• Joe Clark wades in… no, hold on a second… Joe Clark hasn’t appeared yet this season. But in an earlier season, he attacked Stephen Harper as a “dangerous leader” and refused to join his fellow Progressive Conservatives in the then-new Conservative party.

All this may demonstrate that in the minds of some Canadian Prime Ministers, legacy building is a competitive, zero-sum game. This stands in marked contrast to politics south of our border.

Why? I had some thoughts on that matter in  this earlier blog post.

The general rule seems to be that backbiting and partisan squabbling continue well into retirement for our former Prime Ministers.

It’s no great reflection on the political culture of this country. But at least it gives us something to watch until they can settle that darn Hollywood writers’ strike.