Archive | Jim Flaherty RSS feed for this section

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.

Advertisements

Questioning Question Period

27 Sep

Shortly before Members of Parliament gathered up their briefcases and returned to work late last month after an extended summer vacation, they were greeted with a sobering performance review from their employers.

That’s us, of course: The Canadian People.

Five days before Parliament opened, a non-partisan think-tank called the Public Policy Forum released poll findings showing that Canadians think their MPs stink.

I’m paraphrasing a bit here. Poll respondents didn’t quite say that MPs stink.  But a majority of them felt federal politicians are falling far short in the performance of one of the most prominent part of their jobs:

Question Period.

Question Period, of course, is only a very small part of what MPs do. It’s a 45-minute-long exercise that takes place on days the House of Commons is sitting. The rest of those days are devoted to less publicized, more sober, and often productive activities such as legislative debates and committee meetings.

But Question Period is what many Canadians think about when they think about what MPs do on Parliament Hill. It’s the House of Commons activity that gets shown most frequently on the nightly news because it’s the time when the political story of the day plays out most dramatically and most publicly.

And the more they think about Question Period, the more Canadians think that it stinks.

Two-thirds of the respondents to the Public Policy Forum’s poll agreed that “Question Period is just a forum for politicians to grandstand for the media and try to score cheap, short-term political points”.

The poll also found a majority (56 per cent) of Canadians “think less of our system of government when (they) see scenes from Question Period”, and that two-thirds believe “Question Period needs to be reformed and improved”.

Ironically enough, Question Period itself was introduced many decades ago as a reform and improvement of Parliament, said Public Policy Forum President David Mitchell. It was created to give the opportunity for regular backbench members of Parliament to ask pertinent questions of cabinet ministers.

According to Mitchell, the decline of Question Period began when cameras were introduced in the House of Commons in the late 1970s, and MPs started to use a time intended for serious questions to instead… well… “grandstand for the media and try to score cheap, short-term political points.”

Nowadays, it has become more of a forum for red-faced, finger-pointing, name-calling theatrics than a chance for elected representatives to get civilized answers from the government about the pressing issues of the day.

Teachers are embarrassed to bring their students on field trips to Parliament to witness behavior that would net their students detentions or suspensions if emulated back in class.

It’s important to note that some observers say the source of the problem is not cameras in the House, but rather too FEW cameras there, and that a lot of the heckling and bad behavior that turns off Canadians might be reduced if its perpetrators could be better identified and publicly shamed.

Clearly, the problem is compounded by the fact that we have been in a minority parliament situation in Canada for more than six years and counting. To some extent, the growing nastiness of Question Period reflects the general nastiness of federal politics in an extended period of uncertainty and heightened partisanship.

In concert with its poll release, the Public Policy Forum held a one-day conference to discuss ideas for reforming Question Period. Conference participants included MPs from different parties, perhaps recognizing that the status quo is becoming increasingly unpalatable to Canadians, and is hurting all of their reputations.

They came up with a list of ten very practical recommendations, including giving the Speaker of the House more authority, and allocating more time for MPs to ask more substantive questions and receive more substantive answers.

The recommendations jibed with those of Conservative MP Michael Chong, whose private member’s motion to reform Question Period may soon come to a vote.

But hopes for an immediate change in the tone of federal politics and an increase in goodwill and civility in Parliament were quickly dashed when MPs finally did come back to work.

The finger-pointing and name-calling began again right where they left off last spring, and spilled out beyond the confines of the House of Commons into a heavily partisan speech by the Finance Minister to an audience expecting sober economic analysis.

If politicians do not find the will to change that tone, they’ll continue to debase their profession and alienate their employers.

That’s us.

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.