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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.

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Political Barricades to Political Welcome Mats

11 Apr

I’ve recently written in this corner that the outcome of the upcoming federal election could come down to the choices of voters in a couple of dozen ridings with large ethnic minority populations.

The political parties have devoted a disproportionate amount of their leaders’ time – and of their campaigns’ resources – to wooing the so-called “ethnic vote”.

The Conservative Party in particular has spent a number of years trying to engage with immigrant and minority communities in an attempt to reverse the Liberal Party’s generations-long hold on their votes. Conservatives argue that their values most closely match those of members of those communities. Liberals disagree and accuse the Conservatives of pandering for votes.

In the end, the relative success of the parties in winning the support of such voters could very well be the critical factor that determines the shape of the next government.

If members of Canada’s political class today demonstrate common cause with minority communities, recruit minority candidates, and make strong public pitches for the support of minority voters, it’s important to note that this wasn’t always the case in this country.

It wasn’t too many years ago – in the lifetimes of many Canadians – that overt racism and anti-Semitism were not only part of the culture, but also a reality of political life.

An episode of a recent critically acclaimed documentary series by Ottawa journalist Holly Doan shines a spotlight on the discrimination faced by Canadian minority groups, particularly Jews, in the decade following the Second World War. Of particular note is the way that discrimination extended into the corridors of power.

Doan’s work, called “The Fifties”, is a sweeping nine-part series covering many different stories about a decade that transformed Canada. The series debuted last month on CPAC – the Cable Public Access Channel – and is now viewable in its entirety on the cpac.ca website. (Full disclosure: I produce a program for CPAC, although I was not involved in any way with the documentary in question).

In an episode of the series called “One Canada”, Doan introduces us to dubious characters such as Solon Low, the MP from Peace River Alberta, who led the Social Credit Party in the House of Commons from 1944 until 1958. Low believed that Jews were not only behind Communism, but also that they funded Adolf Hitler. One Social Credit MP of the era spoke of world dictatorship and “Zionist control of the press and radio” in a House of Commons debate. The party was charged with using Parliamentary mail to distribute anti-Semitic literature.

Although the Socreds were never a major force in national politics, the documentary shows how the attitudes of the era – a time when many properties and jobs were limited to white Christians – were reflected in the way governments operated.

A former journalist recalls how Jewish members of the Ontario legislature sat as independents because “parties didn’t want them.” On Parliament Hill, Jewish MPs had been elected to the House of Commons since 1871, but eight decades later, no Canadian Prime Minister had ever appointed a Jew into cabinet or to the Senate.

Liberal PM Louis St-Laurent finally made longtime Toronto MP David Croll the first Jewish senator in 1955. But the documentary makes clear that appointment only came about because St-Laurent – a man who publicly condemned bigotry – did not have the political courage to face down anti-Semites in his party and bring the talented and popular Croll into his cabinet. On top of a decade of experience as a backbench MP, Croll also had been a successful mayor in Windsor and a provincial cabinet minister. It was only his Jewish heritage that kept him out of federal cabinet.

Canada wouldn’t have its first Jewish cabinet minister until 1969, when Pierre Trudeau made Herb Gray a minister without portfolio. Interviewed in the documentary, Gray puts his accomplishment into historical perspective:

“I’m not saying there weren’t others like Dave Croll who were worthy of that, but it fell to me to have that distinction (as the first Jewish cabinet minister).”

The hero of the “One Canada” episode of “The Fifties” is John Diefenbaker, the longtime civil liberties advocate who became Prime Minister in 1957, and introduced the first Canadian Bill of Rights three years later. Historian Desmond Morton says Diefenbaker’s bill helped make “all those hatreds that this country had in its belly… unreal, meaningless, stupid, embarrassing.”

Only a few decades down the road, political barricades have turned into political welcome mats. It’s a history worth contemplating this election season.

This Election’s Battlegrounds

30 Mar

Earlier this month, with a possible election imminent, opposition MPs pounced on an embarrassing internal  memo that seemed to reveal the Conservative party’s strategy for winning over votes in “very ethnic” ridings.

With the election now on, that strategy seems very much be in play.

When it comes to wooing voters, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives don’t tend to pitch broad sweeping visions designed to win broad sweeping mandates.

Instead, they tend to reach out to select groups of Canadians in incremental ways.

In the three elections the Conservative Party has fought since its creation in 2003, it went from narrowly losing a minority in 2004, to narrowly winning a minority in 2006, to winning a slightly less narrow minority in 2008.

In its quest for a majority, the party’s strategy is to focus intently on handfuls of specific ridings and on handfuls of specific groups of voters who may put them over the top in those ridings. A targeted tax cut here, a symbolic recognition of a historic wrong there, and soon enough a narrow majority builds voter-by-voter, group-by-group, riding-by-riding.

Or so the thinking goes.

That’s where the “very ethnic” ridings come into play. For the Conservatives, traditionally Liberal ridings with significant populations of ethnic minority groups are seen as ripe for the picking. The party made some promising gains in many of those ridings in 2008, and is hoping to make a number of breakthroughs this time around.

The internal memo that fell into the hands of the Conservative Party’s opponents revealed the party had identified a number of ridings across the country with substantial populations of voters from particular ethnic groups. Conservatives were formulating a plan to win these ridings.

As embarrassed as Conservatives may have been by the revelation of the memo, the ethnic strategy has been much in evidence since the campaign began.

In the first five days of his campaign tour, Harper chose to visit Brampton, outside of Toronto, twice. He also made a stop in Burnaby, B.C. Both of those areas have large communities of new Canadians.

In his speeches at these stops, Harper has not been subtle about the “very ethnic” pitch, tying his audience’s immigrant status into his other major campaign message: That his opponents are plotting a coalition:

“People like you,” he said in Burnaby,  “people who have come to this country from all over the world, all the different origins in the world, they’ve all come here because they believe in Canada. And they don’t want Members of Parliament who are going to sign on to Mr. Ignatieff’s reckless idea that he can lose an election and then run Canada backed by the NDP and the Bloc Québécois.”

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff told a multicultural audience of supporters that his opponent had crossed a line.

“(Harper) said ‘You people, you people who come from other lands.’ ” Ignatieff said.  “The last time I heard somebody talk about the ethnic vote, it was out of the mouth of Jacques Parizeau… I don’t want to be the prime minister of you people, I want to be the prime minister of the Canadian people.”

Among the ten “very ethnic” ridings mentioned in the Conservative memo is one riding – Mount Royal, in Montreal – with a large Jewish population. In 2008, Conservative candidate Peter Kent took the Toronto-area riding of Thornhill, the only riding in Canada with a similarly large population of Jewish voters (about 35 per cent of the riding).

Could the Conservative Party win over enough Jewish voters to take Mount Royal riding this time around?

It would be a notable victory, because Mount Royal has voted Liberal since the 1930s, long before it had a significant Jewish population. It was the riding of former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. This is in contrast to Thornhill, which is a very suburban, more small-c conservative swing riding.

Although Harper’s policies and public statements on Israel may have won over some portion of the Jewish community, is it a big enough portion to make a difference in ridings like Mount Royal? When it comes to a final decision at the ballot box, voters tend to focus on domestic issues and leadership, so it’s not even certain if the Canadian government’s relationship with Israel will be a factor in the final vote.

But with the Conservatives only a few “ethnic” ridings away from a majority, expect the furious wooing to continue until election day.

The Jewish Vote

23 Nov

Will the next federal election turn on a nasty dispute over which political party is more anti-Semitic than the other?

Probably not. But given the controversy that unfolded recently in the House of Commons, it may not be for lack of trying.

Caught up in the dispute was Irwin Cotler, the former Liberal Minister of Justice and MP for Mount Royal riding in west-end Montreal.

Full disclosure: I spent most of my formative years living in that riding. I’ve known Cotler, who is a friend of my uncle’s, since I was a young child.

It has one of the largest Jewish populations of any riding in Canada. Mount Royal riding also has been represented by a Jewish MP in the House of Commons for more than a quarter-century. Before Cotler, the late Sheila Finestone held the seat for many years.

Not only is it one of the more Jewish-flavored ridings in the country, it is also one of the safest Liberal seats around. It has been almost 75 years since Mount Royal elected a non-Liberal MP. When I was growing up, our local MP was none other than Pierre Trudeau.

A mailbox, the joke goes, could win the riding thanks to its red color. A bad election for Mount Royal Liberals is when their candidate wins less than 65 per cent of the vote.

By that measure, last year’s federal election was not a good one for Irwin Cotler. He was reelected easily, with 55.6 per cent of the vote. But his Conservative rival won 27.3 per cent, an almost ten per cent improvement from that party’s showing in the previous election.

By comparison, when Cotler first ran for Parliament in a 1999 by-election, he won more than 90 per cent of all votes cast.

It was a similar story elsewhere in the country in the handful of Liberal ridings with substantial Jewish populations. In Toronto, the Liberals easily won ridings such as Eglinton-Lawrence and York Centre, but with pluralities instead of their frequent outright majorities.

As well, in the 2008 election, the Conservatives took suburban Thornhill, the riding with the largest percentage of Jewish voters in Ontario, although Thornhill does have a history as a swing riding, rather than as a safe Liberal seat.

All of this may explain the recent Commons kerfuffle over anti-Semitism. In a minority Parliament, parties look for any edge they can find to win the few seats that may put them over the top next time around.

For Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, hungry for a majority after twice falling just short, traditionally Liberal seats with sizable populations of ethnic minorities seem to hold the most promise. They are the kinds of ridings in which the Conservative Party made notable headway last year, and hopes to do even better when another election is called.

That helps to explain why households in Mount Royal and other ridings with large Jewish populations recently received taxpayer-funded Conservative party flyers that contrasted Conservative and Liberal actions on issues thought to be of interest to Jewish voters: anti-Semitism; Fighting terrorism; Support for Israel.

“(Conservatives) led the world in refusing participation in Durban II hate-fest against Israel,” one of the flyer’s bullet points read, referring to the controversial UN Conference on Racism. “(Liberals) willingly participated in overtly anti-Semitic Durban I.”

Not so fast, replied Cotler and other Liberal MPs from ridings targeted by the Conservative campaign. In the House of Commons, Cotler demanded an apology, pointing out that he had been an outspoken critic of Durban I, which he attended in 2001:

“Not only did the Canadian delegation and I myself speak unequivocally in condemnation of Durban but… Israel, at the time, publicly commended Canada for its participation and the nature of its participation in the Durban I conference.”

It is quite a stretch to paint an MP like Irwin Cotler – whose bona fides as a human rights activist and a supporter of Jewish causes are impeccable – with even the hint of an anti-Semitic brush.

Conservatives were careful not to criticize Cotler directly, but also offered no apologies for the flyers. Instead, they pointed to controversial statements made in the past by other Liberal MPs, including leader Michael Ignatieff.

Will these hardball tactics work? Tories risk a backlash if Jewish voters feel manipulated or turned off by playing politics with accusations of anti-Semitism.

But the party seems confident that the Jewish vote is ripe for the picking.

Programming Note: Quebec Scene

9 Apr

Just over a year ago, Jean Charest’s Quebec Liberals limped out of a provincial election with a narrow minority government, the first in that province since the 19th century.

In the same vote, the Parti Québécois became the third party in Quebec’s National Assembly, and the ADQ party, led by Mario Dumont, won more seats than ever before – almost winning the election – to become Quebec’s Official Opposition.

And for a little while at least, it looked as if Charest’s minority government wouldn’t last too long. By September of last year, they had dropped to 24 per cent in the polls, third place behind the ADQ and the PQ.

Late last month, though, the front-page headline in Montreal’s La Presse read ‘”Charest Revit” – literally, “Charest Lives Again” – as that newspaper’s latest polling had the Quebec Liberal Party back on top of the heap at 34 per cent voting intention, as compared to the PQ’s 30 per cent and the ADQ’s 22 per cent.

Even more encouraging for the Quebec Premier, the poll showed that 61 per cent of Quebec residents were satisfied with his government, the highest level of satisfaction for any government in the province in two decades, and almost double its rating of six months ago.

Quebec has a history of producing popular, charismatic politicians – think Trudeau, Lévesque and Bouchard. But Charest has seldom been thought of in that league. His more remote personality, his previous career in federal politics (he came within 187 votes of becoming Prime Minister of Canada in the 1993 Progressive Conservative Convention, losing to Kim Campbell), and … yes… the fact that his mother was an anglophone, all contributed to the wariness with which francophone Quebec voters approached Charest since his entry into provincial politics one decade ago this month.

So what accounts for his party’s amazing political turnaround in such a short period of time? Some of it certainly stems from the failure of Mario Dumont to appear as a Premier-in-waiting over the past year. And the PQ has been going through its own leadership issues, replacing André Boisclair with Pauline Marois.

Some commentators suggest that Charest has taken some posthumous lessons from one of his predecessors – Robert Bourassa – and become “…a button-down premier who appeals to Quebec’s sense of order, if not its heartstrings…

The Premier’s recent success comes at a time when politics in Quebec seems to be changing. Most dramatically, the PQ recently abandoned its longstanding policy of promising a referendum on sovereignty as soon as possible after an election victory. And on the federal scene, the Bloc Québécois’ decline in popularity and the Conservatives’ growing credibility among Quebec voters had prominent Quebec journalist Chantal Hébert writing about a “full-fledged federalist revival” in the province.

What does that mean for the rest of Canada? Well, according to Hébert, it certainly doesn’t mean the Question of Quebec will cease to be central to politics in this country.

Here’s what she told an audience in New Brunswick last fall, in a speech that was recently broadcast on CBC Radio:

Keeping Quebec in the federation has been the dominating challenge of the second half of the 20th century in Canadian politics. But I would predict that living productively with a Quebec that’s not going anywhere may be one of the more transforming experiences of the first decades of the 21st century. And you may find it sometimes just as hard.

For more on recent developments in Quebec politics, please tune into a televised panel discussion I am producing that will air tonight and be available online later this week.

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 )

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.