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Election drumbeats and flag waves

24 Jan

This past weekend, inside an Ottawa convention centre, the Prime Minister of Canada stood in front of the biggest Canadian flag this side of Canada Day, at a podium bearing a placard with a single word in large white letters:

“Canada”.

To a crowd of hundreds of supporters waving smaller Canadian flags, there to celebrate the fifth anniversary of his government’s first election victory, Stephen Harper spoke of the people “who are the foundations of Canada”:

“The truck driver. The bank teller. The pensioner. The salesperson. The farmer, the fisherman. The entrepreneur, the autoworker. The tradesperson and the soldier… Whoever has the honor to lead them must care about them and must love Canada as much as they do.”

No mention of Canada-loving college professors or patriotic performance artists. But never mind…

The same weekend as Harper was giving his anniversary speech, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was wrapping up an 11-day tour of 20 ridings across Canada that his party thinks it can win from other parties.

“Canadians are entitled to ask, ‘are you better off than you were five years ago,’ “ Ignatieff said at the outset of his tour. “Is the economy stronger and is Canada more respected in the world? And I think the answers to all of those questions is no.”

NDP leader Jack Layton was on a cross-country tour of his own.

“If an election comes, New Democrats will be ready to go,” Layton said in Vancouver. “But until then, we’re asking Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff to work with us to get some results for Canadians right now.”

To underline the election-readiness half of that double-barreled message, the NDP offered reporters a “sneak peak at their new cutting-edge election headquarters” in Ottawa. A few days earlier, a reporter obtained and published an internal NDP memo declaring the party “prepared to wage an aggressive federal election campaign at any time”.

Meanwhile, the Conservative and Liberal parties released campaign-style attack ads.

The two Liberal ads were both aimed at the Prime Minister, painting him as more interested in fighter jets and corporate tax cuts than in the concerns of ordinary Canadians, and asking “Is this your Canada? Or Harper’s?”

The Conservatives had several different ads attacking each of the other major party leaders, although Ignatieff was targeted more than others.

“Ignatieff. He didn’t come back for you,” declared the Conservative ads, which described the Leader of the Official Opposition as a tax-and-spend liberal with a dubious commitment to his home country, similar to earlier attack ads that claimed Ignatieff was “just visiting” Canada after many years abroad.

So… are you ready for an election campaign? Or maybe you kinda feel we’re already into one.

Or maybe you’d rather not even think about it even a little bit. If that’s the case, you’re probably in the majority.

And maybe you won’t really have to think about it at all. Because it all could be a bluff.

In a minority Parliament, parties are always in election mode, ready to hit the campaign trail at any moment. And we’ve now had minority Parliaments in this country for more than 6.5 straight years. That’s a Canadian record, if you’re keeping score.

Over that time we’ve had a number of near-elections. Remember Belinda Stronach crossing the floor to help save Paul Martin’s minority government? Remember Stéphane Dion repeating over and over again how he had the power to pull the plug on Harper’s government… until finally Harper decided to pull it himself? Remember when Ignatieff announced, “Mr. Harper, your time is up?”

Ignatieff’s announcement came more than 17 months ago. No, there hasn’t been an election since then.

If there is an election this year, it likely will be triggered by a defeat of the federal budget sometime before the end of March. Any later than that and a federal election will come up against a number of already scheduled provincial elections, including Ontario’s.

Of course, all it will take to avoid an election will be a single opposition party deciding it is in its interest to prop up the government for another while longer.

But if this latest not-quite-an-election period is any indication, we already have a sense of how the next real campaign will unfold:

It will get personal. There will be flag waving. And if poll numbers (which have remained relatively consistent in the five years since Harper’s first election victory) don’t move much during the campaign, then we’re looking at many more record months of minority Parliament.

A Different Kind of Minority?

10 May

I have no particular expertise when it comes to British elections, and whatever I do know about the subject is forever colored by a 40-year-old episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Python’s “Election Night Special” sketch parodied a frantic BBC broadcast, cutting between anchors as they spouted nonsense about voting results. The “broadcast” would sporadically jump to live news reports from individual constituencies, where Silly Party candidates seemed to be scoring upset victories over their Sensible Party counterparts. In the sketch, competing local candidates stood together on stage, wearing large round multicolored ribbons on their lapels, as someone announced the voting results.

I used to think the ribbon-wearing and the standing-together-as-results-are-announced were Monty Python visual jokes, but when I watched my first actual live UK election night special on BBC Canada the other night, I realized they really do it that way. For instance, when incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke on election night from his Scottish constituency, all the other local candidates he had just defeated stood behind him. They included one guy with shades and a moustache who held his fist in the air the entire time Brown was speaking. Maybe he was from the Silly Party.

And yes, all of the candidates – Brown included – wore large multicolored election-night ribbons on their lapels.

I’m not sure why we don’t do that in Canada, given we inherited most of our democratic traditions from the UK’s “mother of all Parliaments”. Instead, Canadian candidates hide out in their own headquarters on election night, voting results get announced centrally via Elections Canada, and politicians’ lapels remain giant-ribbon-corsage-free.

Of course in this month’s vote, the Brits may have inherited a more recent political tradition from our side of the Atlantic: The Hung Parliament, as they call it, in which no party wins a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

We’ve had three straight federal elections with that result. In the UK, though, the recent national vote was their first one since 1974 in which no clear majority winner emerged.

As I write, several days after that vote, it’s still not clear who will be the next UK Prime Minister (although it won’t be Brown, who announced he would be stepping down as Labour Party leader. His party, which finished in second place to the Conservatives, could still maintain power by cobbling together an Israeli-like coalition of smaller parties).

The most likely scenario is a government led by Conservative leader David Cameron, supported by the third-place Liberal Democrats either in a formal coalition, or in some sort of a Parliamentary arrangement in which the Lib-Dems agree not to defeat the government for a certain period of time in exchange for some policy concessions.

Of course, we’ve had almost six straight years of minority parliaments in Canada without either of these types of arrangements. First Paul Martin, then Stephen Harper, maintained office by hook or by crook, surviving confidence votes through temporary ad hoc alliances with one party or another, through hardball political moves such as wooing over floor-crossing MPs and threatening or calling unwanted snap elections, and when all else failed, by using the extraordinary tactic of proroguing Parliament itself. Although these tactics have prolonged the lifetime of governments, they have been arguably unhealthy for our Parliamentary democracy.

In fact, the ongoing Canadian experience with minority politics prompted some British experts to describe Canada as a good example of what NOT to do when your country is faced with a hung Parliament. A British academic report called “Making Minority Government Work”, released last year by the School of Public Policy at the University College London, devoted an entire chapter to what it called “Canada’s Dysfunctional Minority Parliament”, and concluded that “for minority government to work in Canada there needs to be a dramatic shift in political culture which emphasizes cooperation and accommodation rather than conflict and partisanship”

Because minority parliaments in Canada, as in Britain, have been few and far between, political leaders have tended to see them as temporary aberrations. Maybe that’s why co-operation is so fleeting between parties. But the current minority era in this country has had staying power. Polls suggest it may continue indefinitely.

For the sake of our political culture, it may be high time for the silly and sensible parties in this country to take a lesson from the Brits and try harder to foster more accommodation and less cutthroat partisanship.

Also, I’m definitely in favor of giant round lapel ribbons.

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.

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 )

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.