Tory stumbles and NDP strength spell trouble for Liberals

A federal minister paying top dollar for a glass of nutritious orange juice at a luxe hotel she moved to so she could smoke is not only great irony. It may have briefly been the most hazardous episode yet to the political health of the Conservatives.

The London smoking spree was so hard to defend the Tories tossed the “brazen it out” playbook with haste. Now of course, the story will exit the news, and likely pass from memory. But sloppy accounting, Muskoka patronage, and holiday helicopter rides blur the image of a government you thought was different. As determined as Stephen Harper is to avoid it, his government is accumulating scar tissue from self-inflicted wounds. He knows from his own happy experience that too many of these stories and voters start to shift their gaze, and look for an alternative. Maybe even consider choices one never thought they would.

The Prime Minister is shoulder-to-the-wheel on some big policy changes, as Saturday's analysis by John Ibbitson chronicled. He faces plenty of resistance on the substance. For some he is too timid, for others his direction is a disaster. But hardly anyone sees him as a man just lazing about, or living high on the public’s dime. He's got enough reason to be awake at night, without having to worry about ministers making the kind of decisions that Bev Oda did. The Tories only good moments with the Oda story came when it was obscured by even more outrageous sounding spending by the head of the Old Port of Montreal.

As beset all governments, there’ve been a string of problems over the years Harper has been in office, but generally with little effect. This was because people wanted to give the new government a chance to prove itself, because the Liberal brand still made many see red – and because Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff were unconvincing understudies.

The selection of Tom Mulcair has reset the clock. His lead in Quebec is huge, and plausibly durable. He’s a known entity, leading a party that many Quebeckers think shares their social values and economic orientation. He’s like the Bloc Québécois without separatism, something lots of Quebeckers have been yearning for.

If his numbers hold in Quebec, the problem faced by the Liberal Party goes from bad to dire. And not only because of the seats they would otherwise hope to win in Quebec.

The bigger challenge will be to find a place for themselves in the conversation that happens in the rest of the country. Some die-hard Liberal partisans believe the vast majority of Canadians would never consider voting NDP. This is, to put it kindly, irrational exuberance.

If people get fed up with incumbents, they do things you wouldn’t expect to make a change happen. Moreover, the conservatively-dressed, cabinet-experienced, lectern-using Mulcair is wearing a big “I’m a centrist” badge everywhere he goes. He’s campaigning like a man who knows his base has nowhere else to go – and that most of the new votes available have to come from the Liberal Party. Sort of like Stephen Harper does.

For several elections, scaring progressive voters into line has been a pretty key part of Liberal Party strategy. In so doing, the party drifted away from the centre and saw blue Liberals drift to a less threatening Harper. Now an NDP with more money, more seats, a bigger share of voice, and higher standing in the polls threatens to beat the Grits at their own game. More voters are now looking about, which has upped the stakes: The choices the Liberals make over the next few months may alter the course of Canadian politics, for decades to come.

Environmental-review debate tests both Tory and NDP mettle

This post originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on April 26, 2012

The announcement by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver of an overhaul of environmental assessment rules kicks off one of the more critical debates that will be held during the life of this Parliament.

The political stakes are high because the debate could crystallize perceptions about both the Conservatives and the NDP for years to come. Where Canadians end up on this initiative will likely come down to two questions:

1. Whose motives will be more trusted: the Conservatives’ or their critics?

2. Will people feel confident the details of the policy are sound?

Here’s my take on the motive question. If Canadians conclude this package of reforms is about a government hell bent on economic expansion or smaller government, instead of smarter, more efficient protection of the environment, many will be wary.

So far, voters seem prepared to accept that some change is probably worthwhile. But at every turn, the public will be attentive to motive. When ministers talk about how long it takes to decide things, or the massive number of interventions that can be heard, this reinforces that the point of the exercise is good governance. However, spending millions to audit environmental NGOs may make voters wonder if the Conservatives are trying to stifle legitimate debate, or fear that their ideas won’t hold up under scrutiny.

If the motive question is a risk for the government, there’s risk for its opponents too. Should those who decry the proposals come off as disinterested in the economy, or indifferent to legitimate reform, they will find most Canadians drifting away and tuning them out.

In the opening salvos of this debate, the Conservatives and the NDP both made a pitch for the middle ground. Minister Oliver emphasized the importance of robust regulation, regardless of whether implemented by federal or provincial officials. His tone and message will help disarm the suggestion he wants a race to the bottom in terms of environmental protection.

For her part Megan Leslie, the NDP environment critic, was quick to acknowledge that there are areas where regulation can be improved. She made clear that the Thomas Mulcair-led NDP refuses to be typecast as the party that never met a regulation it didn’t like. If the NDP truly aspire to win an election (and a lot more seats outside of Quebec), taking a hard line against a wide array of major energy and resources projects would be politically disastrous.

If, as the debate unfolds, the Conservative motives are largely trusted, they will still need to ensure the policy features look sound. There have been several instances where a policy direction passed muster with the public, only to become undone by the details. Most want a well-equipped military, but not the procurement mess of the F-35. Everyone’s against child pornography, but few liked the privacy features in Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’s bill. The details of the environmental package will matter.

All in all, as these things go, this has been a pretty good start to a pretty important debate. While the passage of the legislation may not be in question, the debate is a test of whether there will be a healthy political competition between these two parties. Both the Tories and New Democrats will be weakened if they appear ideologically driven, and strengthened if they concentrate on sensible, pragmatic solutions.

There’s a happy chance of something constructive taking place: an important piece of legislation getting a full and thoughtful debate on its merits.

Why are Conservatives making unpopular choices for older voters?

This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail on February 7th, 2014.

For many Conservative MPs, the support of older Canadians is an essential building block in their effort to win re-election. Happily, for them, the Conservative agenda has usually been chock full of policies designed to shore up that constituency.

 

At the risk of generalizing a bit, older voters usually react well to public safety, law and order agendas, and appreciate a stable economy where a fixed-income standard of living isn’t threatened by higher taxes or rampant inflation.

The Harper government has also been at pains to remind people of Canada’s proud history, including the role of our armed forces and military veterans. No doubt these efforts have particular resonance with Canadians of a certain age.

For the Tories, how important is this group of voters?

Elections Canada estimates that 3 out of 4 eligible voters in the 65-74 age group cast ballots in 2011. More than half of those under 25 didn’t.

An analysis by Éric Grenier for The Globe in 2010 suggested that if only younger voters voted, the Conservative Party would be “virtually wiped out east of Manitoba.”

Naturally, this scenario is exaggerated to make a point. But if the next election turns out to be a close fought battle, the point is relevant: Conservative candidates need to be able to count on broad support and high turnout from older Canadians.

That’s why some recent choices made by the Conservatives might raise eyebrows among students of political math, and possibly among Tory MPs too.

One of those choices was the decision to phase out home mail delivery. No doubt there’s an argument to be made about changes in mail use requiring a rethink about home delivery. But as cutting off home delivery will cause the most inconvenience for older voters, one can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t an alternative or two that could have been examined.

Certainly, hearing the head of Canada Post muse about how walking to get their mail would be good for the health of Canada’s seniors had to cause dismay in Conservative party ranks. Canadians experiencing a harsh winter need only look outside to imagine how this sounded to those older citizens who face mobility problems to begin with.

More striking still has been the sight of the government getting drawn into a battle with veterans. Over a tiny amount of money.

The race to balance the budget is feverish, but if I’m a Conservative backbencher or prospective candidate, I’ve got to be thinking there are plenty of better choices than closing down a handful of veterans’ services offices.

I suppose it’s arguable that if these offices truly aren’t needed, closing them is courageous, putting good policy over crass popularity. But why is this a hill worth fighting on? Not making this choice would have virtually no impact on the fiscal picture, and who exactly would blame the government for “over-servicing” veterans a bit?

The substance of the decision was at least more understandable than the style with which it was handled – or mishandled. Minister Julian Fantino took an odd policy choice and turned it into a political nightmare. Will Rogers said, “you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” But in politics there’s a Fantino corollary: it seems he can have unlimited chances to make a lousy impression.

As the news cycle shifts, few will be talking about these specific decisions for long. But if you could take a private vote among Conservative MP’s and candidates, I doubt there are many who look forward to answering questions about these policy choices come the next election, when they are campaigning for vital support among Canada’s older voters.

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacaus Data, a regular member of CBC The National’s “At Issue” panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.