The Conservatives are running out of time to expand their tent

Conservatives were given their first chance in a decade to reach out to people who hadn’t considered them before. So far, they haven’t done that.

In a couple of weeks, we’ll reach the end of the tent-growing phase of the Conservative Party leadership race. When Stephen Harper quit the leadership over a year ago, the Conservatives were given their first real chance in a decade to inspire their thinking, broaden their membership base, reach out to people who hadn’t considered them before, develop a fresh and appealing pitch.

So far, anyway, the party hasn’t exactly made the most out of the opportunity.

Conservatives want you to trust them with your money. But this is a Party which is struggling with math. To start with, however the Party set the rules for entering the race, they’ve got to fix it for next time. Fourteen people are running, at least six of whom ideally would have given the race a pass. Their contribution is to make a race so crowded it rarely gets interesting.

On a range of policy issues, the Conservatives seem determined to re-create the same coalition of voters that supported them in 2015, when they were handed their hat. Stephen Harper’s party bet heavily against compassion for refugees and tolerance towards Muslim immigrants. Most observers in the Party acknowledged that the low point of the campaign was when Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander stood at a podium to announce that Canada needed a special measure—a toll free snitch line—to report the barbarism of your next door Muslim.

That didn’t work very well. But both those former Ministers are running and hanging out with the Ezra Levant crowd which never wants to talk about anything else. Too often the only news about this race was the fight over who cares enough to keep Canada ‘Canadian’, if you know what we mean.

It’s not like there are no voters who share these feelings—but the number is somewhere between 15 per cent and 25 per cent, depending on whether you measure racial intolerance or a desire to curtail immigration.

When it comes to climate change, 13 of the 14 candidates oppose pricing carbon to help shift energy use towards renewable and cleaner energy. It’s one thing to not like carbon pricing, but to have no other climate solutions to offer? A definite tent-shrinker. Only 16 per cent of Canadians say they are “ardent environmentalists,” which helps explain why the Green Party and the NDP hit limits. But only 12 percent say they care little about the environment. Having at least something to say about climate change is table stakes for the other 88 percent.

As my smart, (younger) colleague David Coletto has been documenting carefully over the last few years, by the time the next election rolls around, baby boomers will no longer be the largest cohort of voters—millennials will.

You don’t have to be elbows deep in polling data to know intuitively what we see in our studies—that most young people are progressive and open-minded, global in outlook, interested in new ideas, compassionate about the refugees, concerned about climate change, and inspired by technology and innovation.

Kevin O’Leary’s is tone deaf to these voters. His pitch in a nutshell: nothing in life matters but money. Younger voters want smart, creative thinking about how to shape an evolving Canadian economy in a constantly disrupted world. They want a society that’s welcoming and open, not suspicious, anxious and closed.

Maxime Bernier might win this race. If he does, will it be because so many conservatives share his enthusiasm for the radical policy changes he’s proposing? Probably not.

More likely it will suggest that Conservative members were wise enough to reject the obnoxious campaigns of O’Leary, Leitch, Blaney and Trost—but couldn’t get their heads around appealing to voters open to conservative ideas on some issues, but progressive on others, and interested in a plan that feels tuned for the next decade and beyond.

With just a couple of weeks before the tent is closed, it’s unlikely that the shape and tone of this race will change much. But for those of us who believe Canada needs a competitive, viable centre-right alternative, we can hope.

Is Kevin O’Leary the Winner Conservatives Are Looking For?

By Bruce Anderson & David Coletto

Last week, we surveyed several thousand Canadians and asked them questions about some of the prominent names in the Conservative leadership race (O’Leary, Bernier, Raitt, Leitch, and Scheer).  We also explored for perceptions of some of the names that come up most often in discussions about the NDP leadership.

Here’s what we found:


‌• Among the Conservative candidates we tested, O’Leary has the largest number of positive impressions at 18%, ahead of Bernier (12%), Raitt (10%) Leitch (6%) and Scheer (5%).

‌• However, O’Leary also has, by a wide margin, the highest negatives at 41%. Leitch has the second highest negatives (21%), followed by Bernier (14%), Raitt (10%) and Scheer (5%)

‌• Perhaps the most important thing in this wave of data is the shift in views of O’Leary. Since our survey in December, his negatives jumped by a remarkable 19 points. Leitch’s negatives rose by 4 points during the same period. The other three saw their negatives drop a bit or hold steady.

Among Conservative voters, here’s what the numbers show:

‌• O’Leary’s positives rose by 5 points but his negatives rose by 12. Today 40% of Conservatives like him and 26% don’t.

‌• Leitch trails Bernier and Raitt in terms of positive opinions, although her positives rose by 4 points since December. Her negatives also rose by 4 points.  Today 14% of Conservative voters have a positive view of her, and 19% have a negative view.

‌• Lisa Raitt has the best ratio of positive to negative opinions, with 3 positive views for every negative one.

‌• Andrew Scheer struggles with the lowest profile of the candidates we tested in this round of surveying. Two-thirds of Canadians and even two-thirds of Conservative voters don’t know who he is, and most of those who do say their view of him is “neutral’.


‌• The names we tested were Jagmeet Singh, Peter Julian, Nathan Cullen, Guy Caron, and Charlie Angus.

‌• The majority of those surveyed did not have an opinion of any of these individuals. Two-thirds of NDP voters said they didn’t have a view.

‌• Jagmeet Singh has slightly higher positives (10%) and negatives (9%) compared to the other names tested. The differences among the others tested were all within the margin of error of the survey.

‌• Among NDP voters, the range of positive opinion is 4% for Peter Julian and 11% for Jagmeet Singh. The range of negatives is even narrower, between 3% and 6%.


According to Bruce Anderson:

“The Conservative race is heading into a critical period of reflection for party members.

While Kevin O’Leary clearly offers the advantage of a high-profile, with only 18% positive opinion (Rona Ambrose is at 23%) and a striking 41% negative opinion among the public, if Conservative Party members were they to choose him they would be betting that he would become a lot better at making a case for himself as a future Prime Minister.

Along the same lines, it may be the case that Kellie Leitch has found resonance with a subset of Conservative voters, but she is gaining no ground among Canadians in general – losing it in fact.  Among Conservative voters, she’s hardly surging in popularity, per our numbers.

Given the way that Conservatives will choose leaders, it’s impossible to say how reflective Conservative voters are of those party members who will ultimately cast a ballot.  But if those who cast a ballot are listening to their friends and neighbors, what they are hearing about Leitch and O’Leary may give them pause about supporting those two high-profile candidates.

In our next survey on this subject, we will explore for second choice support, which may become the most important way to evaluate this race in its final couple of months.

For the NDP, the numbers show that the race is wide open – none of the names we tested have a deep well of positive feelings to draw upon, but neither do they start with any notable level of resistance.”

According to David Coletto:

“As the Conservative leadership race enters the final month to sign up new members, Kevin O’Leary is clearly the most well known of the major candidates.  His formal entry into the race has not endeared him to Canadians.  In fact, negative impressions of Mr. O’Leary have almost doubled with the general public and among those who voted Conservative in the last federal election.  While the other candidates remain largely unknown to most Canadians, Mr. O’Leary is known and most of those who know of him have a negative impression of him.

For the NDP, the party’s leadership race is only now beginning with the entry of BC MP Peter Julian.  Our data finds that none of the possible leadership candidates have much profile, even among those who voted NDP.  We will continue to track these numbers as the election gears up.”

This release originally appeared on Abacus Data's website on February 21st, 2017

Trump may create jobs, just not in America

Rather than make America seem more appealing to employers, Trump could nudge companies to consider expanding somewhere other than America

A late Canadian politician shared some wisdom with me about politics, on a golf course years ago. A decent, intelligent—occasionally a bit coarse fellow (eg. after hitting a good drive, proudly announced “Got both cheeks into that one”)—he was astute about how people interpret politicians.

He said it was useful for voters to know who your allies were—but just as useful for them to know who you truly didn’t see eye to eye with. That voters have a clearer picture of who you are by seeing the edges and lines you choose to draw.

Watching President Donald Trump in his first month in office brought this memory back. If most newly elected presidents make a point of defining their allies and opponents crisply, Trump is on a different path. He’s leaving the impression that he has a small list of friends, and a broad and lengthening list of foes. Perhaps this isn’t keeping him up at night.

But one aspect of how he defines himself carries more political risk than any other. Trump has bet everything on the idea that he can get companies to create more jobs in America. Yes, he’s talked about fighting crime and making better procurement deals and replacing Obamacare, but most voters will focus on one promise: a massive upswing in U.S. job creation.

America’s economy is the strongest in the world in no small measure because American entrepreneurialism is deeply intertwined with the rest of the world. America’s companies serve customers everywhere. Sell products to everyone. Own companies in every corner of the world. They buy materials and services from wherever makes sense, constantly looking to make their value chains efficient and their companies profitable.

American capital scours the world looking for ideas that will reward American investors. America’s industrial revolution created generations of great wealth, and the technological revolution has repeated this success.

When Donald Trump talks about lowering corporate taxes, he knows that many corporations will take a fresh look at building capacity and hiring workers in the U.S., based only on a lower tax rate.

But the rest of what Trump is doing or saying might give pause to a lot of other major employers.

Rather than make America seem more appealing, he may be misunderstanding what makes many companies tick. He might actually be nudging them to consider building somewhere other than in Trump’s America.

For example, in Silicon Valley, the driving force of America’s economic growth in recent years, many are understandably troubled by the comments of his chief strategy advisor, Steven Bannon, who has complained that too many tech CEOs were immigrants from Asia.

Beyond the tech sector, many of the greatest companies in the world have built their success by attracting top-quality people, creating workplaces that embrace diversity, gender equity, indifference to sexual orientation, faith, and family makeup.

They attract the best talent from around the world and put people wherever they need to be to propel better returns. American pharmaceutical companies, financial services companies, consulting giants, engineering behemoths, food and beverage leaders—these companies thrive on mobility, flexibility and a global vision. Confused travel restrictions and border interrogations won’t help them grow, or grow jobs in America.

In the last several weeks, more than 200 major companies, from Walmart to Xerox to Levi Strauss, have banded together to fight the idea of a border adjustment tax. These companies say the 42 million people who work for them would find their jobs threatened, and consumers would see their cost of living rise.

Many of the world’s leading companies have pledged to achieve and invest in environmental goals, including emissions reduction. As Trump guts environmental regulations—if he creates a built-in advantage for browner over greener companies—will these companies reverse their commitments to make a buck in the U.S., or look elsewhere to find places where they can count on public policy that supports a transition to cleaner energy use, greener process improvements, and clean technology innovation?

Trump has been ordering deep cuts in regulations. It’s hard not to imagine that Congress and a future president might, before long, rebuild what he undoes. Large, complex enterprises see stable regulations as essential to business success by reducing consumer friction and litigation risks. They want compliance costs to be steady and predictable.

By promising to rip up long-established trade links, disrupt global movements of people, ruminate about conflict with China and Iran and offer tepid commitment to NATO and European allies, Trump may be on a collision course with the world’s biggest companies and best job creators. American companies might not all like where this is going, and imagine how French, German, Chinese, and British companies might feel about putting new investments in an America with restrictive, chaotic policies.

Trump is marketing America as a place built for enterprises content to focus only on the American domestic market. Make it here, sell it here. The rest of the world? That’s up to the rest of the world.

By any objective measure, that leaves a smallish list of potential allies—at least compared to the long list of companies that thrive by doing business with the rest of the world, that care about the environment, minority protection, women’s and LGBTQ rights and recruiting the best talent in the world.

If President Trump shapes American policy to support companies that prefer to think small and turn back the clock, how many might look elsewhere to grow, and consider where else in the world they might find it more attractive to locate?

This article originally appeared in Maclean's Magazine on March 6th, 2017. 

Trudeau’s reaching out has political risks no matter how well-intended

Remember when former prime minister Pierre Trudeau warned voters that if Joe Clark were elected he would end up being like a “kind of a head waiter – taking orders from the premiers”?

You probably don’t – after all it was more than 35 years ago.

But it was emblematic of a view that has mostly persisted ever since: that any PM who tries to establish a co-operative working relationship with provincial premiers will end up suffering the death of 10 cuts. Better to avoid situations where different stakeholders might gang up and demand more than Ottawa can afford, and blame Ottawa for all the problems everywhere. Stephen Harper avoided First Ministers’ conferences like the plague. So firm was the conventional wisdom that few observers felt they could really blame him.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has had a whirlwind of meetings, with Canada’s big-city mayors, with indigenous leaders, provincial premiers and many other stakeholders, all with needs, hopes and wish lists.

Much commentary surrounding these meetings emphasized how this will eventually end badly for the Prime Minister. That he will eventually find what others did – those who might look like friends became visceral critics as their wish lists go unfulfilled.

There’s a fair chance this will happen. But it’s not the only way this could turn out.

Since the “it will end in tears” version has been well argued by others, let me describe the alternative scenario.

Some politicians do better when they invest in building relationships. They recognize that disappointments are inevitable, and disagreements will occur, but that having to disappoint someone who likes and trusts you is going to go better than if there’s no relationship there to begin with.

In many ways, this is how Mr. Trudeau approached Canadian voters. I’m sure he knows he’s going to break promises, miss some goals, make some unhappy, leave some in the lurch. He’s likely counting on the disappointed believing his heart was in the right place, his intentions were good and if he could do more, he would.

Polling data about the new Prime Minister reveal that this has been a core strength for some time – many believe Mr. Trudeau will try his best, and make choices that he thinks are best for the country. In my experience, Canadians, including premiers, mayors and leaders of business, labour, indigenous and environmental groups, all know that the job of running this country is complex and requires compromises and tradeoffs. Few, if any, will be surprised if some of what they hoped for and even expected might not be possible.

Canadians know that globalization means more opportunities, but less control over our fortunes and choices. Mr. Trudeau didn’t make China’s economy slow, or Americans frack for oil, or the Saudis continue to push oil into an oversupplied market resulting in crashing prices, any more than that Mr. Harper had the opposite effect.

The 70 per cent of voters who inhabit the centre of the political spectrum (the political target audience for the federal Liberals) not only accept that changing global conditions might change the policy mix of the federal government – they’d prefer it that way.

To believe otherwise is to imagine that last October’s election outcome was the product of millions of people making individual calculations about the value of specific policies, when the evidence is that the choice is a blend of emotional factors, such as trust and confidence together with a smattering of recall about specific platform promises.

Now, it’s possible that Mr. Trudeau will find himself so enjoying making friends that he will make unwise choices that eventually bring his government down. One of the most tempting addictions in political life is the idea that you can accumulate endless amounts of political capital by saying “yes.” Equally, every “no” can feel as though you are spending political capital and increasing the risk of eventual electoral failure. In truth, it can work exactly the other way: If voters sense a Prime Minister unwilling to make a hard choice, they’ll look to replace him or her before long.

The case has been made by others that Mr. Trudeau so loves drinking from the popularity fire hose, that he will promise and spend with abandon to keep the party going. My own guess is that there’s something else at work in the Prime Minister’s willingness to meet and talk with so many potential adversaries. In the tradition of politicians such as former U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, it seems to me that Mr. Trudeau is banking on an all-out effort to build relationships, to give and take, to persuade but also listen to persuasive arguments. He’s hoping that good relationships will help carry him safely through the rough waters that eventually lie ahead.

If skeptics of his approach are betting this PM doesn’t know what he’s doing, then it’s fair to say that this has been a losing bet so far.

This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on February 17th, 2016

We’re not used to a prime minister who tells us how he feels

So did 2015 have a political subtext that had nothing to do with the economy, with taxes, with “is he ready or not?” As the new year starts, are we looking at a new standard for politicians sharing their inner feelings?

They say politics is show business for ugly people. Mostly, the point here is not that people in politics are hard to look at, but that they put on an act.

Advice given to politicians for decades has underscored that idea: Give voters a polished, tweaked, buffed version of yourself. Craft your thoughts, conceal unpopular ideas, choose your words carefully, pick the right venue, get the right shot, create the perfect reaction.

Eventually, this created a restlessness for “authenticity.” The only surprise is how long it took. And now we know if a politician likes hockey, Coke, chips, chinchillas, Star Wars, or the Beatles.

A lot of this has had a “Stars! They’re just like us!” style. Packaged authenticity burgers.

But things seem different since October 19th.

On any given day, this prime minister will let you know how he’s “feeling.” We’re not really used to this. So far, voters are taking it well enough – but is that because it’s novel, or because it’s nourishing?

The other day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described his own feelings about the history of Indigenous people in Canada. “… I can only feel guilty … very aware of the contrast between my schooling and the experiences some others went through…” “I give you my word that we will renew and respect that relationship.” Deeply personal sentiments.

As with his “Stephen Harper says I’m not ready” election ad, Trudeau tends to ignore the rulebook about how much to share (which is really a rulebook about how little to share).

When challenged, the PM said his cabinet would have equal numbers of men and women “because it’s 2015.” He was describing a feeling. He made no effort to elaborate, letting people relate to the feeling (or not) rather than a detailed argument about policy leadership.

Trudeau’s critics cast his feelings as a gooey, weak substitute for leadership. They say that gullible voters are being conned into feeling good about a guy with a big heart and a small resume, while ignoring brainier, conventional politicians to the left and the right.

This is self-satisfying, but risky political analysis.

They’d be better off taking note of how politicians who ignore conventional packaging are doing these days. Donald Trump is spending no money and leading a large pack of experienced, polished political presenters. Bernie Sanders has no chance of becoming president, but his raw “I’m mad as hell” campaign gets more than its share of attention.

When Trudeau met arriving Syrian refugees, some opponents sniffed about another contrived photo op. But voters connect the feelings they had when they saw Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body and the sight of their prime minister putting a winter coat on an arriving little girl.

We’ve been accustomed to photos used by Stephen Harper, sleeves rolled up in his Centre Block office, working late into the evening, relishing the work. These convey a sense of what makes the man tick. In contrast, the Harper image that most surprised voters in the last 10 years was probably when he hugged his opponents in the House of Commons the day after the Hill shooting.

On the one hand, good for Mr. Harper to let people know about his laudable, fierce work ethic. On the other, many of his packaged images, along with his speeches, tended to define Conservative politics with a world view that was basically “the world is a lousy place, and then you die.”

Reactions to Trudeau in part, anyway, reflect the fact that most Canadians wake up feeling optimistic. During good economic times and bad. That’s not about being naïve, it’s about being hopeful.

Partisans may feel tempted to ridicule Trudeau’s “sunny ways” mantra and his inclination to talk about how he feels. But they should observe more carefully the world outside politics. Books about how to be in touch with our feelings, and to think positively, make bestseller lists every year. When was the last one you saw that promoted the opposite?

This article originally appeared in the Globe & Mail on January 1st, 2015