Charest should dig in, and then call election

Quebec politics are always interesting, and sometimes detestable. The past few months have proven this again to be true. Quebec students are marching in the streets by the tens of thousands on a regular basis demanding that the government reverse its plans to hike tuition rates to a level that would keep them paying less than any other student in North America. There has been violence, tear gas, broken windows and the provincial education minister has just quit.

The man at whom the chaos is targeted is Quebec’s Premier Jean Charest. Polls prior to the the street demonstrations showed him to be the least popular premier in Canada. Current polls show that the longest student strike in the province’s history have swayed the sympathy of few Quebecers. Elsewhere, scandals have mounted for Charest, the latest and most serious being allegations of corruption within the multi-billion dollar construction industry that seems to innervate every level of Quebec’s political class.

Charest must call an election by 2013, and if he is to survive facing long odds — as he has done before — he must be mindful of timing.

Quebec faces a summer of discontent, and the premier must be seen to be putting the house in order, or at least refusing to hand over the keys to the street mob. Acquiescing to student demands would be foolish and would remove electoral ammunition from Charest’s already dwindled stock. Earlier, Charest offered the students a deal he knew they wouldn’t accept — if only to illustrate that reason was contemptible to them. Quebec summers generally see a panoply of strikes and demonstrations from the labour movement. and — it being an election year in the U.S. — copycat occupy protests will return to the parks and streets of Montreal. Pressure will mount, and so will the impatience of ordinary Quebecers against the faction of society Charest would profit to wedge against.

Charest’s main electoral competitors are the Parti Quebecois, who promise to expand state benevolence to those seeking handouts, and the upstart party of François Legault. Legault’s CAQ promises a handful of right-leaning solutions for a province whose people have complained about the corrupt entitlement class of politicians running the show in the capital in Quebec City. If Charest has any hope of victory, he must tack right and co-opt Legault, and represent a populist champion against those who take from society at the expense of those who make society.

Say what you will about the issues of state largesse, what makes education accessible, or Charest’s fitness to be re-elected. The Premier will be making these calculations as he considers his political future in the coming weeks.

There is no better time for Charest than this summer to call an election and frame himself as a leader who will emphatically say ‘no’ to the students, and ‘no’ to the growing entitlement-seeking labour movement. It will only get worse for Charest as pressure from inquiries into corruption mount. Quebecers may not like Charest very much, but given the draining aspects of Quebec’s economy that he’s up against, he should be eager to show that a bold ‘no’ mandate may be the least detestable option.

[cross-posted to Full Comment]

Liberal reboot

Yesterday, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff announced that his party will no longer support the Conservative government in the House of Commons, thereby ramping up speculation of what would seem to be an imminent election.

But for Mr. Ignatieff, an election is his least-preferred outcome and I’d argue that the latest rhetoric isn’t indicative of a future powerplay for the Liberal leader, but rather of move to reset the Liberal message.

Michael Ignatieff hasn’t had a particularly eventful summer. In fact, the highly respected Chantal Hebert has noted that the Liberal leader was this summer season’s political loser as the man found it difficult to connect with average everyday Canadians on the hamburger circuit — despite liberal helpings of Grey Poupon.

After backing down terribly from his ultimatum without conditions in the spring on the immediate changes to employment insurance, Mr. Ignatieff declared victory when a study group was unveiled to look into the issue. But as anyone who has observed Ottawa political cynically knows, a commitment to study, is rather a move to defer and to delay. The highly partisan panel included known agitators Pierre Poilievre and Marlene Jennings, and these MPs rounded out by Minister Diane Finley and Liberal MP Michael Savage seemed more like headliners for a summer cage-match to entertain reporters looking for a story rather than a sincere effort by either party to move in any direction on EI. In a move which must have been highly disappointing for Liberal supporters, within the last week Ignatieff telegraphed his move away from his EI casus belli via Ralph Goodale.

Yesterday’s move seeks to remove the onus from the Liberals to “make Parliament work” — as the saying goes. Instead, that onus now rests upon the shoulders of the NDP and Michael Ignatieff surely expects that they will find a way to support the government. Indeed, much of the experience of being an opposition leader in a minority parliament is figuring out who is left holding the bag.

Michael Ignatieff — despite his academic credentials and reputation as a deep thinker — has underwhelmed on the policy front since he became leader of his party a few short months ago. Canadians — short of those in the Lesser Evil book club — aren’t familiar with the man and what he stands for and have only had the benefit of introduction courtesy of the Conservative Party’s Just Visiting ad spots. In politics, it is easy to differentiate oneself… by differentiating. And for Mr. Ignatieff, that will mean by opposing this government he is not likely seeking election, but rather something to put into the window for one in the future.

Today, the NDP indicated that yes, they are willing to “make Parliament work” and they submitted their list of demands.  Predictably, the Conservatives responded with a firm “no” to a wholly incompatible agenda and threw the NDP lot back with that of the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois.

Were Ignatieff’s musings yesterday a gamechanger? Of course, that’s unclear at this point.  Pollster Nik Nanos stated that there are too many “moving parts” at this point to avoid an election.  But, if there is any lesson to be learned from Canadian politics in politics, there is no orthodoxy and a week — let alone a month — is a long time in politics.

If the Liberal objective is to reset their message, we await for the coming weeks with interest to see what the modern Liberal Party of Canada is all about.

No eventuality can be solely manipulated by Michael Ignatieff however, and the Conservatives will take this opportunity to craft their message as well.  As Michael Ignatieff is now perceived to be the instigator of a future election, the Conservatives have and will continue to cite Ignatieff’s arrogance (it’s all about him).  Further, if we do go to an election this fall it will be because all three opposition parties voted to defeat the government.  This will only serve to underline the Conservative message that minority parliaments are the cause of political instability and that a majority government is the only solution.  Conservatives will then ask Canadians to consider two options: a majority Conservative government versus a coalition of socialists, separatists and Ignatieffs.

The Seinfeldian media

The latest installment of the “will there or won’t there be an election?” drama of As the Hill Turns, the Canadian Press reports that Quebec Liberal candidates at an election readiness workshop had their election “mug shots” done — these are the official photos that Elections Canada and the media will use to report on the election (and while these are Quebec Liberals, I say “mug shots” for lack of a more descriptive term).

Will they or won’t they? — that is the question that has the media scrambling to fill their columns and air-time. Today, I was on Montreal drive-time talk radio and despite mentioning that party leaders themselves ratchet up election timing rhetoric to fundraise and to fill nominations, we still chatted about the prospects of a fall election.  I fear that I didn’t play my role and let the audience down when I explained that all of this election talk is just the empty thrill of a cheap drama.  I explained that prior to the summer break, Michael Ignatieff had just six additional nominations filled beyond his caucus compliment.  Further, despite healthier second quarter fundraising numbers — buoyed largely by Liberal leadership convention fees — the Liberals still have a steep hill to climb when it comes to fundraising.  Party leaders (or their proxies) amp up imminent election talk to create a sense of urgency that compels people to give and to act.

As for those Quebec Liberal candidate photos that were snapped — indicating that we just be going for it soon — it’s pretty standard fare, I’m sorry to say.

Though I fear this will fuel even more election speculation, the Conservative candidates — all of them — had their election mug shots snapped at the Conservative training convention early last month.

A summer of communion wafers, G8 photo-ops and inuktitut spelling gaffes has professional flacks looking for something else, and instead of hopping on an expensive jet to cover news where its happening, most of the bubble-locked Ottawa media are in a standard holding pattern and doing their best as bit players in a show about nothing called When is the next election?

Because perhaps when those glorious days come, they’ll have something more to talk about.

Mike Duffy hints at summer election? Or is the media election-biased?

In the mainstream media, they’re at it again! Everyone seems to be asking about the next federal election. To describe elections as the Superbowls of politics would be accurate in significance but overstated in frequency; unfortunately for those of us that live and breathe one writ-drop at a time, there doesn’t seem to be another one so soon on the horizon.

The Prime Minister has stated as much. In a recent press conference, Stephen Harper made mention that party leaders should be focused on the economy rather than hitting the hustings.

So, what’s got the media in a tizzy today? Well, it’s a weekday so it must be any desperate thread of a future election. The “news” today is that Sen. Mike Duffy gave a speech to the Charlottetown Rotary Club where he “hinted” at an election. Let’s take a look at the headline from The Charlottetown Guardian that followed.

“Duffy’s speech hints at looming federal election”

After unexpectedly taking notice to what would otherwise be a hum-drum article from the Island, we find ourselves somewhat disappointed after scanning Duffy’s quotes looking for an explicit or even implicit election “hint”. The article seemingly apologizes at the end but provides an excuse for misleading us,

“He made no mention of an election during his speech on Monday, but used rhetoric reminiscent of an electioneering politician.”

A politician speaking about politics outside of an election?
Dog bites man.

The media, trying to find any reason for us to take notice? Desperate for increased readership and future windfall of ad dollars that come during an election?
Also par for the course.

But was Sen. Duffy’s speech even filled with rhetoric? Let’s take a closer look,

The speech is hardly filled with partisan rhetoric and does not mention Stephen Harper or an election once. The most political item is where Duffy says that he and Minister Gail Shea will fight for Islanders.

Will Professor Ignatieff make us go to summer school?

At the moment, the Prime Minister and Michael Ignatieff are meeting to discuss infrastructure funding, possible changes to EI eligibility and, as we’re quite sure, engaging in rational discourse.

Last week, the government released its second report on the status of the Economic Action Plan and Ignatieff told reporters that it was too serious to grade the government, yet he stated that it had “failed” yet Canadians “don’t want an election right now”. What is the state of our system? A student fails the course but gets a pass because the parents have already planned the summer vacation? And to torture the metaphor a little more, I ask, is Michael Ignatieff really advocating that while failing Conservatives, he allow Canadians qualify for a fully paid sabbatical after six weeks of work? The 45 day work year, set to be defended by Liberals on an election trail near you, surely will not cause a stampede of voters to the ballot box. This really cannot be Ignatieff’s plan.

So what is really going on here? Flashback one year to the hapless Stephane Dion going into the summer, the Prime Minister’s neutered foe who rubber-stamped every piece of legislation by heading up the abstaining opposition. There is chatter around town that Michael Ignatieff is following Dion in his indecisiveness, however, this may instead represent an element of political narcissism for professor Ignatieff. The shovels are in the ground, the money is leaving the federal treasury to build infrastructure projects all over this country and Michael Ignatieff tells everyone to wait; Iggy has an important decision to make. To threaten to plunge the country into its fourth election in five years (with a $1.2 Billion tab) just so the media doesn’t frame him as the second coming of Stephane shows that he wants to know that his opinion – whatever he finds it to be – is relevant. As for his pensive pondering, he spent enough time in university seminars musing about the prolix and banal, yet as he transitions from the theoretical to applied, Dr. Ignatieff is showing that he is finding it difficult to both suck and blow.

In his press conference yesterday, Ignatieff used soft words such as “replace confrontation with cooperation”, “we cannot allow ourselves to act irresponsibly”, “if the government needs to sit a little longer, so be it” , “the Liberal party accepts the need for deficit spending in tough times”, “we want to make parliament work for all Canadians”, “I just want to give a sign to the Prime Minister that I’m a reasonable person. If he has employment proposals that he wants to bring forward, he needs a little more time, let’s not let the arbitrary deadline of Friday the be the all and end all. Let’s keep this serene and calm and business-like” Do these sound like bellicose words? So, why the drama Dr. Ignatieff?

He supported the Conservative budget earlier this year, he voted for the Conservative changes to EI. The Conservative government is spending billions of dollars in an effort to stimulate the economy. Why is this about him?

Michael Ignatieff knows that Canadians want him to allow Parliament to work, but he pauses to let us all know that it will only do so after he’s scowled at our exams.

Spotted yesterday in Toronto

at the Filipino-Canadian community picnic at Earl Bales Park in Toronto. The event was titled “Celebration of 111th Anniversary of the Founding of Republic of Philippines and Birth of National Hero Dr. Jose Rizal”.

This was sent to me from a reader. It doesn’t really add anything new to the story, except to say that the Filipino community is still mad at Dhalla.

Dhalla-gate… Raitt-gate… EI reform? Is this really going to be what we’re talking about in a summer election? Let’s do everyone a favour and increase voter turnout by putting some more interesting topics up for debate.

Liberals: election now, before the economy gets better

In politics, one is usually driven to action to prevent a problem from developing, or to act to make something better when it is going in the wrong direction.

On the website of Michael Ignatieff’s war room chief Warren Kinsella, we learn why the Liberals are itching for an election now:

[In] politics, as in war, you attack when your opponent is weak, not strong. … Right now – due to the recession, due to a stumblebum Tory team, due to their leader who nobody likes – we know the other side is really, really weak. In a few months – due to a economy rebounding, mainly – they could be strong. Go with what you know is the reality, not what you hope may be the reality.

Of course, this logic is sound; if your enemy is weak, attack your enemy. This is strategy 101 and Iggy’s guy is among the best in the professional political class. However, it is difficult for Michael Ignatieff to say that he wants parliament to work when Liberal strategy reveals itself as ambition at the expense of jobs and the economy. If the economy is on track to rebound, why endanger this by throwing the helmsman overboard with an election? Prime Minister Stephen Harper released his second report on the Economic Action Plan to see Canada through this difficult economic period. Conservatives have revealed that 80% of planned stimulus is already out of the gate and those shovels are in the ground. It was also revealed that increased EI payments accounted for a large chunk of the deficit.

It will be difficult for the Liberals to go to an election on the economy for the following reasons.

  1. their chief election strategist explains that the economy will get better under the Conservatives and that the reason why Canadians should go to an election is because the Liberals don’t want the Tories to get the credit.
  2. they’ve complained that the stimulus money isn’t flowing when in fact it is.
  3. they’ve complained about the size of deficit when their only major plan for the economy is to increase EI eligibility (ballooning the deficit)
  4. Michael Ignatieff has written 17 books but at most a few scant paragraphs on economic theory while Stephen Harper has a graduate degree in economics.
  5. Ignatieff’s friends in the White House are racking up substantially larger deficits per capita and are doing nothing to stop an allied congress from destroying the Canadian economy with its “Buy American” protectionism.
  6. The Liberals have not produced any substantial pushback outside of Parliament save a boring two minute Youtube lecture on the politics of nice from Dr. Ignatieff. And on the economy? Grit girl Youtube ads? Torytube it ain’t, Warren.
  7. The Liberals don’t have a strong record themselves of balancing their own books. In substantial debt themselves under Dion and still posting underwhelming fundraising numbers under Ignatieff, how can the Liberals manage our pocketbooks when they cannot manage theirs?
  8. Conservative scandals highlighted by the opposition have not been on the economy. Raitt-gate will not turn the average voter. The scandal regarding Raitt’s unfortunate private remarks about cancer may indeed represent a “sexy” opportunity for career advancement for Dr. Ignatieff, however, he’ll find that the average Canadian voter doesn’t find this inside the Queensway stuff all too sexy or even relevant to them. Isotope supply is relevant, but a tape recording is not.
  9. If Michael Ignatieff wants to run an election on EI, he should wait a few years in order to pay as much into the system as the average Canadian voter. Forgive the talking point, but the man was outside of Canada for 34 years.
  10. During an election, Liberals will without fail propose social spending to fix the economy. This puts them on the ugly side of the wedge that is the $50 billion deficit.

July election on EI? Possible but quite improbable

Is there election fever in Ottawa? This seems to be the question on Parliament Hill whenever we move through the months of May and June in a minority parliament. Of course, the most fevered example was during the late months of spring in 2005 when Stephen Harper’s newly minted Conservative Party tried an assortment of creative parliamentary procedures to take down the Paul Martin government only to be upset by former Conservative leadership candidate Belinda Stronach when she crossed the floor to sit in cabinet.

But in June of 2009, months after an attempt by opposition parties to form a coalition government without vetting of the idea before the Canadian electorate and just months and a few weeks after that electorate returned Stephen Harper to power to deal with the global economic crisis, will we have yet another election?

From the MPs that I’ve spoken to, many believe that it is a real possibility with Michael Ignatieff tabling a confidence motion on Employment Insurance which will paint the NDP into a corner forcing them to support a vote of non-confidence in the government. For Jack Layton, leader of that fourth party in the House, his votes are critical to this government’s survival. Though Mr. Layton’s party is not poised to make any serious gains in an election held in the short-term any failure to deliver – in the context of an embarrassing collapse of the coalition game – will have the party grassroots looking to replace its leader. The next election will be Mr. Layton’s last if he does not perform. Mr. Layton needs more time to explain why he’s still fighting and build a real election plan. NDP executive director Brad Lavigne was in Washington last week meeting with senior Democrats to get a fix on both strategy and tactics. As for NDP confidence, they could easily save face if a number of their MPs had the flu on the day of Ignatieff’s confidence motion.

As for the leader of the Liberal Party, Mr. Ignatieff has an important objective; the man who ran second place to Stephane Dion in a leadership race doesn’t want to go into the summer looking like his leadership predecessor. You’ll recall that when Mr. Dion was leader of the party, his MPs were shamed and embarrassed as Stephen Harper rammed his legislation through while the Liberals feably sat on their hands. While Mr. Ignatieff doesn’t face a caucus revolt over inaction, he does want to appear as though he’s given the Conservatives a rough ride and his party will claim it as a victory as they go into the summer with their heads held relatively high. Strategically, going to an election in July wouldn’t be ideal for Mr. Ignatieff as a $5-6 million Conservative pre-writ ad buy defining the Liberal leader would be much more effective if the Conservative messaging is fresh in the minds of Canadians. On the other hand, despite a $50 Billion projected deficit posted by the Conservatives recently, the Canadian economy is starting to show signs of recovery. If Michael Ignatieff wants to defeat Stephen Harper in an election which which will certainly be defined upon the Conservatives’ traditionally perceived strength (taxes/economy), his advisers are likely telling him that this may be his best chance. Yet Michael Ignatieff’s only visible policy proposal on this has been EI reform.

As for the Prime Minister, he will only precipitate an election if he believes that he can orchestrate a majority win. Many observers now agree that the dissolution of parliament previous to the last election was a defensive measure by the Prime Minister as he read the global economic indicators and found himself staring into an abyss about to rattle Canadians. If we are to have an election, it will be because the Prime Minister would have allowed it; either allowed himself to fall on a Liberal confidence motion, confident on the framing on an election on EI, or because he will orchestrate a political crisis which will upend the polls. For example, polling is moot if the Prime Minister were to frame an election on cutting public subsidy for political parties with the $50 billion deficit to back him up as to why. “If an election were to be held today” is a pointless question when elections are framed, campaigns are waged and events occur to shape electoral intent during a 36 day writ campaign.

An election based upon EI is a ruse. It’s a ruse because it splits voters into two politically inequitable camps: the employed and the unemployed – the latter won’t deliver a win for Ignatieff. It’s a ruse because most Canadian voters have paid more into EI than Michael Ignatieff as the Liberal leader filed his tax returns to British exchequers and American secretaries of the treasury for thirty four years. It’s a ruse, because the man who came second to Stephane Dion is only trying to appear that he has already bested him now after just a couple months as Liberal leader. An Liberal triggered election on EI is a ruse because the Conservatives occupy an entire side of the debate, the other parties will be fighting each other to stake out their position on the issue. Finally, the Liberals need to rebuild their party. They are still only raising money at par with the NDP and of their nominations, I’ve heard that they still have about 200 spots to fill.

An election in July? A dreadful prospect for any opposition party and not ideal for the PM unless the man best positioned to set the stage can line up a major win.

Democratic deficit grows for Liberals in Ottawa

Today I received a tip from a couple of sources that describe discord among Liberal EDA board members in Ottawa West Nepean and their leader as the board is complaining that former Ottawa mayor Bob Chiarelli has asked Liberal leader Stephane Dion to forego the nomination process and appoint him as the candidate in that riding to face-off against Conservative Environment Minister John Baird.  This is obviously undemocratic as former Martin Defense Minister David Pratt is known to want the candidacy.

Pratt would make only the second Liberal to make his intentions officially known.  Ottawa University professor Nour El-Khadri also has made it known that he seeks to contest a nomination, however, Chiarelli is trying to enter in through the backdoor, according to sources.

Pratt and El-Khadri aren’t late comers to the work required to win the nomination either.  El-Khadri is believed to have sold about 500 memberships in the riding as far back as April 2007.  A source on Pratt’s team said “selling memberships and fighting a fair contest will not be a problem for…people like David”

Sources on the OWN Liberal executive say that an emergency meeting has been called for September 2nd.  Each of the three men will have to make a case before a special nominating committee as to why they believe they are the best candidate to take on Baird.  The recommendation will then be made to Stephane Dion who has the power to appoint the candidate directly.  This “beauty contest” approach (as one board member put it) is in direct contravention of the OWN Liberal Party constitution and will cause a great deal of grief with supporters of El-Kadri and Pratt.  As the same board member put it, “the fix is in” for Chiarelli.

John Baird fought his own nomination for the Conservative Party candidacy and one may speculate that expediency is being pushed for given an accelerated timetable for an election call that many expect this week.  However, it is unknown why a former Ottawa mayor without experience in the federal government would be favoured over a former Defence Minister.  Pratt fought under Martin’s banner of “fighting the democratic deficit”.  We’ll see if he’s still up for the job against Stephane Dion and Bob Chiarelli.

How might this government fall?

Stephane Dion won’t return Stephen Harper’s phone calls. The Prime Minister wants to get Dion on the line so the perception can be built that the PM is doing everything he can to make the fall session of Parliament work. Mr. Dion is avoiding the PM’s calls in order to appear to be in the position of power regarding this latest showdown, but of course, Dion risks playing in the narrative that he’s not allowing Parliament to work.

It seems that the Prime Minister wants to go to an election this fall. He doesn’t need to worry about the fixed election date legislation if he wants to do so.

A simple confidence motion by the Conservatives would do the trick:

“This House resolves that a carbon tax would destroy this country and that Canadians do not trust politicians when it comes schemes of tax shifting. This House has confidence in this government to [lower the income tax/introduce tax splitting/decrease the GST to 3%/cut corporate tax] (pick one or two) because such conservative measure(s) are the best way forward for Canadians”

NDP and Bloc would vote against. If Dion abstains, his Green Shift loses any authority and months of campaigning is gone. It would be argued further that Dion would want to go to an election on the issue of his carbon tax so abstaining from this vote would be the end of him as leader of the Liberal Party. If Mr. Dion votes against, we go to an election with Dion defending a carbon tax and the Conservatives proposing tax cuts. The election is then defined on tax policy rather than the environment.