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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.

Memories of Martin

28 Feb

The late novelist John Updike once wrote a novel called “Memories of the Ford Administration”, about a historian who – asked to write a paper on the former president – finds it hard to separate his memories of the brief period Ford spent in office from those of his own personal life during that time.

A Canadian version of the Updike novel might be called “Memories of the Martin Administration”. Paul Martin, of course, was Prime Minister for about the same amount of time as Gerald Ford was president.

So what do you remember about Dec. 2003 to Feb. 2006?

It may be hard to remember, but there was a time when it seemed almost inconceivable that Martin would not be in office for many more years than that. A book by political journalist Susan Delacourt on his rise to the highest seat in government was titled “Juggernaut”. Coming to power with a divided opposition and sky-high popularity, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for Martin to think he would have all the time he needed to build a legacy.

Instead, for reasons ranging from the sponsorship scandal to a suddenly-not-so-divided opposition to what Martin himself now describes as an agenda that may have been “too large for the political circumstances in which I found myself”, Martin’s time in office was cut short.  His political legacy lies less in his accomplishments as Prime Minister and more in the actions he took during his long tenure as the Minister of Finance in the government of his longtime rival, Jean Chrétien.

The 21st Prime Minister – and 34th Finance Minister – of Canada has a new autobiography out, titled “Hell or High Water: My Life In and Out of Politics”. I recently produced an interview with him about his life, his areer and his current projects. You can view it here.

Political Pilgrims

16 Jan

A Toronto friend of mine began putting together her travel plans back in November. Good thing she did. Tickets and hotel rooms are at a premium. If she hadn’t booked early, she may have missed out completely on the chance to take the trip…

Journalist colleagues from across the country have lobbied their bosses for weeks to send them on the same trek for work…

Over a late December dinner in New York City, some American pals said how much they’d love to make the journey and mused about putting together travel plans of their own. They had less than a month to pull it off, so I’m not sure if their plans came together…

Just a few days ago, a Facebook friend in California reported that he bought a last-minute plane ticket on a whim and was traveling across the continent for the big event. Hope he’s able to find a last-minute place to stay…

It’s not often that so many people are inspired to drop everything in their lives and travel great distances just to witness a political event.

Then again, it’s not often the Canadian federal government delivers a budget in January.

So… no surprise to find so many out-of-towners of my acquaintance planning trips to the nation’s capital to hear the finance minister’s big speech and to luxuriate in the nasal-passage-freezing chill of mid-winter Ottawa.

Okay, you’re right. You caught me.

Just kidding about the Ottawa stuff.

But all of the above anecdotes are true. Instead of Ottawa, my friends’ dream trips involve January pilgrimages to another nation’s capital – Washington, DC – to witness next Tuesday’s inauguration of the first-ever African-American president.

Barack Obama’s inaugural address will likely be discussed more among future historians – and for much longer – than will finance minister Jim Flaherty’s upcoming budget speech.

But the two events are related in many ways.

For one thing, with Obama coming to power, Stephen Harper finds himself in an odd historical position for a Canadian Prime Minister: The American head of government is more popular among Canadians than is he.

Jean Chrétien never had that problem with George W. Bush. Neither did Harper himself.

Although Obama faces an unfathomably difficult financial crisis and plans to put his country into an unfathomably big deficit to deal with it, he also has a great surplus of political capital to spend.

Harper and Flaherty frittered away a big store of their own political capital during last fall’s Parliamentary drama, with their ham-handed attempt to use a fiscal update in recessionary times as a blunt political instrument with which to beat down their opponents.

When opposition parties formed a coalition to try to take power, Harper’s humbling trip to the Governor-General to seek a Parliamentary prorogation was the only thing that kept him in his job into this new year.

The upcoming earlier-than-usual budget will be another attempt to save the government.

Not to mention the country’s economy.

The Canadian Prime Minister is probably hoping that some of Barack’s Magic will rub off on him when Obama makes his first foreign trip as U.S. President to Ottawa, where he’s expected to address Parliament.

The Harper government’s press release announcing the as-yet-unscheduled visit seemed positively giddy, especially in comparison to the Prime Minister’s previous reluctance to appear too close to George W. Bush.

When Bush visited Ottawa several years back, the downtown streets were clogged with angry protesters. If public polling is any predictor, Obama’s visit will more likely clog this city’s streets with star-struck well-wishers.

While the new U.S. president may provoke some political excitement among Canadians, it is his economic plan that will have a more lasting effect.

Indeed, economists say that the success or failure of Obama’s policies may have a bigger effect on Canada’s economy than will Flaherty’s upcoming budget.

Will Obama follow through with campaign promises to re-open the NAFTA accord? How will his environmental policies affect Alberta’s energy industry? Will he loosen Bush-era border controls to allow Canadian goods to flow more easily into the United States?

Most importantly, will his domestic plan succeed in reversing the economic slide of Canada’s biggest trading partner?

If it doesn’t, the best-laid plans of our own government will do little to shield us from sharing the Americans’ pain.

So if you find yourself down in Washington for the new president’s swearing in, or waving a welcome banner at the Ottawa airport when he lands here, let him know we’re counting on him.

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…

Stéphane Dion, Joe Clark and John Tory

1 Nov

On the evening of Dec. 2, 2006, in a wide corridor of Montreal’s Palais des congrès, I bumped into a political lobbyist of my acquaintance.

Both of us were trudging slowly through the middle of a large, loud and excited crowd of people, everyone leaving the main hall of the convention centre and heading out the doors toward the charms of downtown Montreal Saturday night.

Not too much earlier, inside the main hall, Stéphane Dion stood on a confetti-laden stage, flanked by Jean Chrétien, John Turner, and Paul Martin, three former residents of 24 Sussex Drive.

As the music blared and Dion waved to the thousands of convention delegates who had just elected him as the newest – and perhaps unlikeliest – leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, he had every reason to believe he would one day also live in the same house, and hold the same title of Prime Minister, as had the men surrounding him.

After all, of the ten Liberals who preceded Dion as leader, only one – Edward Blake – had failed to become Prime Minister of Canada. And Blake’s leadership of the party came to an end in 1887.

Dion had just won a job that had provided a surefire ticket to the Prime Minister’s Office for almost twelve decades straight.

The delegates seemed as united as could be expected after a dramatic, emotion-laden convention that saw Dion go from fourth to first place over two days and four ballots.

He had come into the convention with the estimated support of about 15 per cent of the delegates, well behind front-runner Michael Ignatieff’s 28 per cent.

But on the final ballot, with only Dion and Ignatieff left standing, he beat the former front-runner 55 to 45 per cent.

He was a compromise candidate, sure, coming up the middle of a bitter, divisive rivalry between Ignatieff and Bob Rae. But as they streamed out of the convention hall, most delegates seemed happy with the choice, many of them won over by Dion’s fresh message of change, integrity and environmentalism. Some felt they had dodged a bullet by picking the best candidate to unite the party behind a new kind of politics and a new, greener vision of Liberalism.

My hard-bitten acquaintance in the crowded hallway wasn’t buying any of it. He had come to the convention as a Rae supporter, and was departing it shaking his head, unmoved by the victory of the bookish Dion.

“The Liberals,” he said to me moments after I offered my greetings, “just had their Joe Clark moment.”

Almost two years later, the comparison has proven apt. Dion, like Clark three decades earlier when he won the Progressive Conservative leadership, had few allies in his party, won the leadership by default when more charismatic and prominent rivals failed to earn enough delegate trust, and promptly developed a reputation as an honorable-but-bumbling leader with big ideas but few political smarts to implement them.

After leading his party in last month’s federal election to one of the worst electoral defeats in its history, and then reluctantly announcing he was stepping down from the leadership, Dion has joined Edward Blake as the answer to a newly rephrased political trivia question:

Who were the only two Liberal leaders who failed to become Prime Minister?

In his electoral campaign, Dion resembled not so much Joe Clark but more John Tory, the Ontario PC leader who crashed and burned in last year’s provincial election campaign.

Both Dion and Tory ran big policy ideas up the flagpole for voters – Tory’s was public funding for non-Catholic faith-based schools and Dion’s was the so-called Green Shift, which promised income tax cuts to balance out a new carbon tax that would help fight climate change – but neither leader bothered to check beforehand if members of his own party were saluting.

After Tory lost the election last year, here’s what I wrote about his campaign here:

Conviction does matter, of course. And yes, principles and policies also matter. But in the absence of politics – the process by which those-who-would-lead persuade those-who-would-be-led to follow them down any particular path – conviction and policies can be as hollow as… well… as hollow as John Tory’s campaign turned out to be.

The description fits Dion’s campaign, too.

Sadly for Dion, he will not get a second chance. The political promise that won the hearts of Liberal delegates on Dec. 2, 2006 got trumped by a deficit of political skills perceived that day by at least one clear-eyed observer in the crowd.

Dion: New Day Dawns?

16 Apr

It’s not easy being the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

By definition, it’s not a job anyone really seeks out, or hopes to hold onto for very long.

Except for the leaders of the Bloc Québécois (which formed the official opposition for a few years back in the ‘90s), every single person who has ever held the position – since 1867 – has coveted the job of the guy who sits two swords’ lengths across the House of Commons.

Unfortunately, when you are the leader of the official opposition, it’s hard to maintain any kind of prime ministerial bearing. The job description involves quite a lot of… opposing. You are required to stand in public daily to complain about, criticize, berate and even hector the government of the day.

It doesn’t leave much opportunity to work on burnishing a statesmanlike image.

Of course, almost everyone who has become the Prime Minister of Canada served for a time as the leader of the official opposition. But some opposition leaders have a much tougher time than others.

It’s very challenging, for instance, when an opposition leader takes the helm of a party that is used to being in power, but has been divided for years by internal power struggles.

Maybe you can think of a recent example.

That challenge is compounded if… say… that leader happens to be from Quebec and is viewed with suspicion… contempt even… by a big chunk of party members from his own native province. If those Quebec party members think you have a tin ear for the concerns of the province, it won’t be long before they try to dump you as party leader.

And the task of holding on to the job of leader becomes especially difficult when someone wins the title following a closely fought, often bitter, leadership race.

In such a case, the runner-up’s supporters may not accept their favored candidate’s loss, may continue for months afterward to undermine the party leader behind his back, may ceaselessly complain to the press about the leader’s unsuitability for the job, and may plot to overthrow and replace him, even on the eve of a possible federal election.

I am not just giving a theoretical example here, of course. In fact, I am talking about the experience of a specific federal leader of the official opposition.

Jean Chrétien.

Sorry… did you think I was talking about someone else?

For all the reasons listed above, Chrétien’s three years as Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, beginning in 1990, frequently flirted with disaster and total Liberal Party meltdown. He bumbled through one crisis after another and, as time went on, many Liberals began to publicly complain about his abilities, called him “Yesterday’s Man”, and – of course – continued to try to replace him with Paul Martin.

Chrétien’s inept tenure as official opposition leader is not as well remembered as it might have been had he not gone on to win three consecutive majority governments.

But of course, a more recent example of a troubled, beleaguered opposition leader does easily spring to mind. You know who I mean:

• A politician whose victory as leader was seen by some party members as a sad compromise, when more charismatic and popular candidates either refused to run, or stumbled during the leadership race.

• A leader whose party languished in the polls following his victory, and proceeded to do quite poorly in a number of subsequent by-elections.

• An opposition leader whose political obituary was drafted by pundits mere weeks into the job.

Of course I am describing…

… Stephen Harper.

Sorry again? You thought it was someone else?

Well, Harper actually served as leader of the official opposition twice, for two different parties: The Canadian Alliance and the Conservative Party of Canada. And in neither case did he fail to disappoint.

In fact, he even blew a general election that was his to win, in 2004, due in large part to some bumbling mistakes and misspeaks on the campaign trail.

Two years later, he was the Prime Minister of Canada.

My not-unsubtle point:

When you hear commentary or read articles about the current Leader of the Opposition, Stéphane Dion, that describe his tenure as a disaster and predict his coming political doom, take them with a grain of historical salt.

Even the most hopeless of opposition leaders can go on to win elections and skillfully hold on to power.

Take, for instance, Stockwell Day.

Wait… that’s a bad example…

Heroin for Political Junkies

6 Feb

For raw political spectacle, nothing beats a good old-fashioned brokered leadership convention. Here in Canada, it is the traditional way our political parties have selected their leaders.

Delegates come from across the country to a hockey arena or convention centre in a major city and, over a couple of days of speechifying and balloting and convincing and cajoling and backrooming, they figure out who will be the next leader of their party. Often enough, the final result is unpredictable and the process to achieve that result is drama-laden.

In 24 hours and four ballots, Stéphane Dion climbed from fourth place to first and became the unexpected leader of the Liberal Party at their last convention 14 months back (a convention I attended as a journalist and blogger.) In 1976, Joe Clark rode a similar path to victory as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. And then there was the famous written agreement that ended the very last convention of the PC Party in 2003 and made Peter MacKay the very last leader of that party – a job he held onto long enough to break the agreement and dissolve the party.

A dramatic brokered political convention picked Canada’s longest-serving post-War Prime Minister. Another one picked Canada’s first-ever female Prime Minister. And another one set off the feud that would dominate Liberal Party politics for 15 years.

Whether these conventions pick the best leader, or are sufficiently democratic, are open questions… and beside the point, which is – again – that they are like heroin for political junkies.

In recent years, some political parties have opted for different methods of picking leaders. The current governing party, for instance, used a byzantine system of point allocations and preferential ballots to elect Stephen Harper as leader in 2004. He won on the first ballot, the results of which were announced at a glorified press conference.

Yawn.

American politics play out on a bigger stage than those of Canada. The leadership conventions of the two major U.S. parties are big, glitzy, expensive affairs, with massive media coverage. But in modern times, they are also scripted events with predetermined outcomes. Adlai Stevenson won the last brokered convention in the U.S. more than half a century ago.

The convention results are predetermined because it usually doesn’t take too long into the winter primary season for the major party front-runners to be sorted out and guaranteed first-ballot victories months before the summer conventions begin.

This year, of course, offers the best chance in a long time for a brokered convention on the Democratic side. Or at least a more interesting one.

Most likely, the Democratic Party nominee will get sorted out before it comes to that, but in a way the drawn-out, uncertain, exciting primary season itself has served as an extended brokered convention, offering thrill-a-minute jolts to political junkies – no jolt bigger than last night‘s Extra Super Duper Tuesday fight-to-a-draw.

Warning: If you are a Canadian political junkie, standing too close to the U.S. border may give you a contact high.

(Programming Note: I am co-producing an hour long televised discussion on Super Tuesday and the American Presidential race, which will air tonight and be available for online viewing here within a day or two )