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Senate Shuffle

2 Jun

When it comes to the Senate of Canada, no news is indeed good news.

If the Upper House is in the headlines, or leading broadcast newscasts, or the subject of spirited online discussions, chances are good that it is for reasons that don’t reflect well on the institution.

After Prime Minister Stephen Harper swore in his new cabinet last month at Rideau Hall, he spent a few minutes speaking to the media about the ministers he had just appointed.

His office waited until after Harper was done speaking, and safely out of earshot of reporters’ questions, before announcing via press release that the Prime Minister was also appointing three Conservatives to the Senate, all of them unsuccessful candidates in the election that had taken place only two weeks earlier.

In fact, two of the three new senators – Larry Smith and Fabian Manning – had only recently resigned from the Upper Chamber in order to run their failed campaigns for House of Commons seats.

Nice consolation prizes. And nice work if you can get it: The base salary for a Canadian senator is $132,000 a year until the age of 75. Smith, of course, famously referred to that as a “dramatic, catastrophic pay cut” from his previous salary as president of the Montreal Alouettes when he was appointed to the Senate for the first time in December. But Senate appointments have been plum rewards for party loyalists since the time of Confederation.

If the Conservatives thought they could bury the news by announcing it on the same day as the cabinet shuffle, they were mistaken. The Senate appointments knocked the cabinet news off the front pages.

Critics said the appointments smacked of cynicism and contempt for democracy from a Prime Minister who just won his first majority government.

Jack Layton, the new Official Opposition leader, called the move a “slap in the face” to voters.

“Canadians should be outraged that three individuals who were just defeated by the Canadian people in an election have now been appointed to the Senate,” he said.

The public advocacy group Democracy Watch went even further. It called for a police investigation into the appointments, arguing that if the new senators were promised reappointments if they lost their elections, that would have violated a law against inducing Parliamentarians to resign in exchange for reward.

In response, the new-old senators said their surprising reappointments also came as surprises to them.

The government’s explanation for the appointments seemed paradoxical to some. Marjory Lebreton, the government’s leader in the Senate, said the new appointees were necessary to bring the Conservative numbers back up to a solid majority in the Upper House – a majority that can now help pass reforms to the Senate to make it more democratic.

“They’ve all served in caucus, they all support Senate reform and they’ll make a great contribution to the Senate,” Lebreton told CTV News.

Missing from the explanation was a justification for why these particular appointees – and not others – were necessary to ensure such a majority.

But with majorities in both Houses of Parliament, will the government now move quickly to enact Senate reform?

Harper has always advocated some sort of reform, but he will not even entertain the idea of re-opening constitutional talks with the provinces in order to fundamentally change the way the Senate operates – to make it “equal, elected and effective,” in the language of the old Reform Party, in which Harper cut his political teeth.

Instead, his party will soon re-introduce legislation that it couldn’t pass when it had a minority government – legislation that will enable provinces to hold elections for senators that the Prime Minister will be expected to appoint, and that will impose term limits on the winning candidates. Opposition parties blocked such initiatives in the past, arguing they would create a half-baked Senate with uneven regional representation, a fuzzy democratic mandate, and an uncertain legislative role.

Provincial governments are also mostly opposed to this plan (maybe because elected senators could challenge their own monopoly as democratically-elected provincial representatives). Quebec’s government is threatening to take the matter to court if the federal government attempts unilateral reform. Other provincial leaders, including Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, are echoing the federal NDP’s call for the Senate to be abolished entirely.

To effectively enact its plan, the federal government will need the provinces’ co-operation.

If the Prime Minister really is trying to move toward a more democratic Senate, his recent actions on that file may have damaged the credibility of his cause.

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Prime Minister Ringo

5 Oct

When I checked out my Facebook news feed the other day, I knew Michael Ignatieff was in trouble.

No, I’m not Facebook friends with the Liberal leader, so I have no idea if he posted any sort of news – troubled or otherwise – in his status update.

But here’s what I saw after I logged onto my Facebook account:

An online video of Stephen Harper playing piano and singing the Beatles’ classic song “With a Little Help from my Friends” at the National Arts Centre, accompanied by internationally famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

I saw it more than once. It was posted multiple times in my news feed by multiple Facebook friends. My more partisan friends added more partisan comments. My less partisan friends added comments such as “Wow!”

It wasn’t only my friends who were watching and posting the video. A day after the Prime Minister did his best Ringo impression in a surprise appearance at an NAC gala chaired by his wife, the video was the number-one most watched YouTube video in Canada.

Two other video versions of the same performance were in the Top Ten.

Although Tory bloggers began spreading it around the Web, the video’s non-partisan appeal helped it go viral.

And over a couple of days, the virus spread from the Internet to the weekend news programs and to the front pages of the daily newspapers, with photos of the PM’s performance alongside largely favourable reviews.

In the last federal election, a Conservative ad agency put Harper in a fuzzy sweater vest, sat him in a comfy old armchair, bathed him in a soft, warm light and shot a series of campaign ads of him talking softly about his values as a piano tinkled in the background and strings soared.

The ads didn’t really do their job – which was to soften up Harper’s mean-guy image and help win him a majority government – and they were largely abandoned by campaign’s end. Stephen Harper just doesn’t credibly feel like a sweater vest kind o’ guy.

But a relaxed and surprisingly talented PM singing a Beatles’ tune on stage at a music gala? Well, that’s a different story – and fodder for the kind of political advertising that money can’t buy.

On the Maclean’s magazine website, Scott Feschuk joked that in the wake of Harper’s tuneful triumph, “…Jack Layton is tuning his guitar, Elizabeth May is figuring out how to deliver her speeches via karaoke and Michael Ignatieff is… I don’t know, what would Michael Ignatieff play? The lute? The equiviconium? The underwhelm-o-spiel? I fear a four-hour one-man play may be the price we pay for Harper’s Beatles cover. Ladies and gentlemen, Michael Ignatieff is Michael Ignatieff in Michael Ignatieff.”

How do you compete with a singing, piano-playing, crowd-pleasing Prime Minister? That’s what the Liberal leader must have been thinking when the story broke.

In the coverage of the Singing PM, it did not go unremarked that on the very weekend that Harper jammed with Yo-Yo, Ignatieff was at a Liberal Party meeting in Quebec City, trying to get out of a political jam created by Liberal MP Denis Coderre.

Coderre had recently resigned as Ignatieff’s “Quebec Lieutenant” in a very publicly damaging way, blasting the advisers around the Liberal leader who had influenced Ignatieff to reverse a riding candidate decision of Coderre’s.

The details of the spat are less important than the fact that Coderre had been so public about it, opening the door for further sniping – anonymous and otherwise – from Liberals on both sides of what seemed to be an increasingly divided party.

Ever since Ignatieff emerged from a relatively quiet summer to announce that Liberals no longer planned to support the Conservative minority government, his party has been plagued with negative headlines and poll numbers that put it in the territory it was in when Stéphane Dion led it to one of the worst election defeats in its history.

Indeed, Tories are now musing about achieving the majority government that eluded them in the sweater vest era. The only thing keeping us from finding out whether that is possible is that the NDP is now supporting the government to keep the minority parliament going.

The NDP reversal may have saved Ignatieff’s bacon. The Liberal leader’s decision to try to provoke an election is looking increasingly suicidal.

It’s one thing to run against Sweater Vest Guy. It’s an entirely different matter to run against the Fifth Beatle.

Sir John A’s online antics

2 Oct

Sir John A. MacDonald, the father of this country – along with his ally Sir Georges-Étienne Cartier – forged the great confederation that united French and British North America and brought Canada into being in 1867.

He became its first Prime Minister, serving in that position for 19 years, winning six majority governments, and becoming the dominant figure of Canadian politics in the early decades of the young country’s existence. He earned his place in history as a nation-builder, through accomplishments such as opening up the West and the North, spearheading the creation of a coast-to-coast railway, and founding the Mounties.

Tragically, his great achievements were overshadowed by an incident that took place after he had a bit too much to drink one night, when he wrote and published some nasty comments about a political rival on his personal blog.

Efforts by his party to erase the blog entry proved fruitless, as Google had cached his slanderous words, ensuring they would live online forever. Sir John A.’s reputation took a harsh blow.

And then when Internet video surfaced of the Prime Minister driving his horse and buggy under the influence of single-malt scotch, his political career was as good as done.

Okay. Maybe history unfolded a little differently. But you never know. If the frequently drunk MacDonald hadn’t died more than a century before politicians started keeping blogs, and posting videos to YouTube, things just might have happened as I described.

Indeed, during this fall’s federal election campaign, a whole slew of potential nation-builders have seen their political careers die premature deaths because of some non-erasable things they had posted to the Internet before they became candidates.

A couple of NDP candidates in B.C. stepped down after old video surfaced showing them using illegal drugs. One of those candidates had videotaped himself driving under the influence of hallucinogenics. In the era of YouTube, it was not hard for other parties to track down and distribute that video.

A Conservative candidate in Toronto gave up his nomination after some old blog writings were discovered in which – among other controversial statements – he criticized the passengers of a Greyhound bus in Manitoba for fleeing in terror from a grisly murder in which a fellow passenger was decapitated.

“This is where socialism has gotten us folks, a castrated effeminate population,” the blog entry read. The candidate had tried to erase the evidence before the campaign, but what happens on the Internet stays on the Internet… for opponents to exploit.

Liberal leader Stéphane Dion fired one of his party’s Manitoba candidates after some old articles of hers surfaced on the Internet. In the articles, she entertained 9-11 conspiracy theories, including a claim that Israeli businesses had inside information about the pending attack on the World Trade Center.

Finally, Green Party leader Elizabeth May mishandled a controversy that arose when bloggers got hold of – and posted – audio from an old TV appearance of May’s where she seemed to be saying she thought Canadians were “stupid” (Full disclosure: the appearance was on the show for which I work).

In fact, May was not saying that at all. Her only fault was not speaking clearly enough. But instead of clarifying her remarks, the Green Party threatened to sue one of the bloggers who had posted the comment, showing that the party didn’t quite grasp how the Internet worked.

This new political era probably began in 2006 with the infamous “macaca moment”, when Republican senator George Allen, running for re-election in Virginia, hurled a racially-charged epithet at a Democratic party worker who was videotaping him at a campaign rally.

Those were the early days of YouTube (was that only two years ago?). When he made the comment, Allen probably had no idea how quickly it would be disseminated all over the world. The incident derailed his campaign and probably lost him the election.

Since then, politics has exploded on the web and in the blogosphere. But it’s a different kind of politics than what you see on … say… the leaders’ tours. More wild and more dangerous.

The lesson for aspiring politicians? If you ever plan to run for office, be very careful of what you blog, upload, or otherwise post. As comedian Rick Mercer wrote:

“In the past, politicians had to survive a party background check that most Canadians could pull off. Now the question will be, “Can you survive a detailed Google search?” Who among us could do that?”

Not me. Not you. Not Sir John A. MacDonald either.

Politics in the Age of YouTube

31 Jan

A couple of minutes with a makeup artist could have changed the course of history.

But back in September 1960, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon – pale and underweight from an extended hospital stay – probably didn’t recognize the emergent power of the new medium of television.

Nixon resisted the advice of aides and refused to even powder his nose before participating in the first-ever televised presidential debate between himself and Democrat John F. Kennedy, who was – famously – well-rested and tanned after a campaign swing through California.

The result? Polls showed that those who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won the debate, but the 70 million Americans who watched on television overwhelmingly picked the man with the tan as the winner.

Did the debate (and there were three others before the campaign was through) contribute to Kennedy’s election win? Hard to say. But more than half of all voters in the subsequent election said the televised debates influenced their vote. And it would be another 16 years before presidential candidates would agree to meet again on TV.

The 1964 presidential election brought another milestone in the history of politics on television. The “Daisy Girl” ad, which aired only once, is widely considered to be both the first-ever example of a political attack ad on TV and also an example of one its most effective uses. With it, the Democrats successfully tarred Republican candidate Barry Goldwater as an extremist who would lead the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Four decades later, another generation of politicians, voters and media is coming to terms with the emergent power of another new medium: YouTube, and similar so-called Web 2.0 new-generation web services.

Some politicians are eschewing more traditional media and launching campaigns on the web. Some are trying to use it to bypass traditional media entirely. Others are unwittingly having their careers destroyed on it. And websurfers can use it to get access to places where traditional media cannot go.

At least one thing seems certain to survive the transition from one media to another: Attack ads. But use them at your peril: YouTube offers a cheap and quick way for your opponents to reply in turn.

Here’s a podcast of a discussion I produced about how websites like YouTube are changing the way that politics is practiced, covered and followed. Who gets to be the 21st century’s man with the tan?